As I wrote in my XCOM 2 review, successors to classic titles have to not only stand on their own merits as a game but also match up to the nostalgia the original game has accumulated. Wargaming, who you might know for World of Warships, Tanks, and others, has partnered up with developer NGD Labs to produce a Master of Orion. After playing through a few complete games, I can say with certainty that even in this incredibly early state it passes both tests with flying colours.
The original Master of Orion is a fantastic piece of tight, simple design enhanced with a variety of nice touches. It would not have been half as memorable without the distinctive cast of alien ambassadors, and different portraits for the various key figures of whichever alien race you played as.
As good as the original was, the stand-out entry in the series so far has been Master of Orion 2 : Battle at Antares. This game has become a classic of the genre, often imitated and used as the blueprint for many space 4X games since its 1996 release. If you’ve shuffled populations of species with different abilities around, or toyed with hero characters that attach to planets or fleets, chances are that game owed something to MoO 2.
Games like StarDrive 2 are even more derivative of MoO 2, but there hasn’t been a direct Master of Orion sequel for thirteen years (plenty of fans would argue that the third game doesn’t count, and that the figure is actually twenty years). So how does this new contender hold up?
Familiar, yet New
The new Master of Orion is in a very early state. From the bright blue ‘Early Access’ sign when you buy it, and the yellow alert in a corner of the main menu, to an entire category of techs and buildings that say ‘NOT IMPLEMENTED YET’, players are reminded of this fact at every turn.
And yet, I found myself quickly forgetting that the game was a work in progress. I was engrossed in directing my space empire, and even with the limited feature set found it just as enjoyable as the original two games.
While Master of Orion strongly takes after Battle at Antares in its design choices, there are places where it has been streamlined. Leaders and the need to manage a freighter fleet to feed your less-fertile planets are out. The galaxy map now works on a series of nodes instead of travel being completely freeform. Far from this being a case of dumbing down the gameplay, the addition of chokepoints makes it possible to proactively defend your space instead of having to react with your main fleet whenever something starts moving towards you.
The changes to the starmap also extend the game’s exploration phase. Besides mapping out warp lanes, your scouts (or military ships, though those don’t come with an auto-explore mode) discover worlds one at a time. Slowing down the pace of first contact gives the player a bit more time to build up before being forced onto a war footing, and there’s the potential for a bit more excitement when you discover a new, perfect colony world.
Combat has received the same treatment as well. It’s easy to trace the evolutions of design connecting the way each entry in the series has depicted space warfare, and anyone remotely familiar with the series should be able to pick it up quickly. While there isn’t much room for tactics to play a decisive part in any victory, this has been true throughout the series; the focus has always been more on designing your ships and fielding the latest toys, and this latest incarnation of Master of Orion is no different in that regard.
A Stellar Cast
Wargaming’s commitment to putting a new spin on old themes, making them feel familiar and new at the same time, extends beyond just the core gameplay elements.
It would be easy to go on about the ways the latest versions of our favourite alien races capture the essence of the originals while still looking like a game made in 2016, but the real thing that caught my attention was the sound.
No, really! The little bites of music accompanying events such as colonising a world or unlocking a new technology manage to scratch that nostalgia itch, but in a first for the series, there is voice acting.
More impressively, the developers have signed on a great lineup of voice actors, many of whom have beloved roles in other sci-fi series.
My only real complaints here are that Michael Dorn’s narration is wasted on the so-far insignificant exploration events, and that playing as the Human Empire locks me out of hearing John de Lancie’s dulcet tones.
The various advisors are less impressive to listen to than their respective emperors, but this is to be expected. In absence of having differently attired members of your species present new discoveries from research, espionage, or conquest, each adjutant does a reasonable job at setting a different feel for each faction.
Each species also comes with its own set of ships, which feel appropriately diverse even if you are unlikely to see more than the ship size icons while in battle. Amusingly, players who link their Wargaming accounts to the game can turn on a pixel ships mode, which turns spacecraft on the battlefield into voxels with an old-school feel. It’s just a shame the effect doesn’t extend to the rest of the game.
Listening to the Community
That being said, that voxel effect just might be more widespread by the time the game comes out. Developer NGD Studios has been pretty decent at responding to community feedback and highlighting a number of different community works. The Steam news page for the game has been regularly updated with developer communications that go beyond patch notes, even including neat short stories.
One thing I liked in particular is NGD’s apparent willingness to acknowledge the game’s weaknesses, and places where some core features need to change, like the Human diplomacy bonus not being useful in multiplayer.
While it is likely that this level of community interaction will taper off after the release, the care shown here is a promising sign for the game and its future.
Your Mileage May Vary
Master of Orion isn’t perfect. The game is still far from release, so it can change significantly between now and when it leaves Steam Early Access. And that’s entirely okay! A part of the reason to buy in now is to observe the game’s evolution and contribute your thoughts on where it should go.
Despite that, it feels like there are a few missed opportunities. As I touched on earlier, the combat doesn’t allow many opportunities for tactics to play a role. Outside of goading one clump of AI ships away from the main group, battles I directed never went any differently to if I just gave the computer full control. While this is often what happened in MoO 1 anyway to save time, MoO 2 had a bit more depth in its combat mechanics. With the latest game, shields are omnidirectional and there’s no reason not to set your weapon mounts to 360 degrees – it costs the same as a fixed gun would anyway.
My other main concern is the research. The vast majority of the techs work off a standard tech tree, with a few choices between two options sprinkled in for good measure. On one hand, there’s no possibility of your empire not developing exactly as you intended. On the other hand, there are still few opportunities for developments unique to your current game to crop up, or much variety in the way tech will progress in most games.
Still, while your opinion may vary on both those points, I think we can all agree that Michael Dorn’s voice acting talents ought to be narrating better exploration rewards rather than a few turn’s income. Happily, the game is still only in Early Release, so there’s plenty of time for these minor notes to be tuned up.
Even with these few minor issues, the new Master of Orion is already shaping up to be a worthy successor to the throne. In an incomplete state it still manages to distil the essence of a classic franchise into something that already feels satisfying to play.
I’m looking forward to the next set of major patches, which promise to round out the roster of alien races and add espionage to the mix. Along the way there is bound to be even more improvements, so even if you are understandably leery of buying titles in development this is definitely one to keep an eye on.
As an additional bonus, people purchasing the game will get a free copy of all the earlier entries in the series. And even if you don’t intend to buy it, you’re still able to get in on the fun and see what made the first game such a classic – Archive.org hosts a copy of Master of Orion that you can play in your browser.
Here’s to the finished game, and while we’re talking about early 90s Microprose classics, maybe an official sequel to Master of Magic!
This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Ryan Vincent.