Retrospective: Master of Orion 2

Submission 2013-08-17

Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares (MoO2:BaA) is a turn-based 4X game that managed to ship every sci-fi trope imaginable and somehow make them work. While some of the tropes associated with the gameplay actually originated with the title, most of the source material comes from elsewhere and is adapted only enough to dodge copyright claims. Star Wars, Star Trek, Battle Beyond the Stars, and a host of other sources give rise to a tech tree with everything from stellar converters to “doomstars” and every old-school alien concept you’d expect to run into. In many cases, this kitchen sink approach leads to a terrible abomination of a game. In MoO2’s case, the result is delicious nostalgia that has aged remarkably well in the face of sequels, spiritual successors, and copycats using the same formula.

The Bulrathi from MoO to MoO3
The Bulrathi changed from straight up space bears in MoO into… Christ, that’s not even a helmet, is it? That is that dude’s real head. Wow. They’re not even playable in MoO3. I assume this is because someone killed them all with fire and stellar converted their planet into a hyperspace bypass. In hindsight, it was probably for the best.

Each of the three Master of Orion (MoO) games has a completely different art style and varied play mechanics. If they were named differently, there would be little to suggest they were related apart from the shared history and race names. While I don’t see many nostalgic references to MoO in the face of MoO2, I do regularly see dire warnings against MoO3. MoO2 is currently available from GamersGate or Good Old Games (GOG). Good Old Games bundles MoO and MoO2 together on the cheap for a fiver ($US). MoO3 is sold separately.

The Races Are Tropes

The alien races available in MoO2 are a Noah’s Ark of xenobiology. The core concepts are classic sci-fi or borrowed heavily from other works. This has the advantage of making them feel familiar even the first time playing versus other games with completely new, made-up aliens. The portraits alone will tell you most of what the stock race will be good at. Does it look like a space ant-man? It’s going to be industrious and have some kind of hive-mind thing going on. Does the human look like Jean-Luc Picard? Humans are going to be diplomats in this one. Have you got grey things with big foreheads? That’s a race of squints. The racial specializations practically write themselves.

One of the best qualities of the MoO2 racial artwork is the races all look approachable. The limited color palette and comic style of the artwork completely sidesteps both the uncanny valley and a number of phobia triggers. The character design is distinctly non-sinister and not even the Klackons inspire instant revulsion. MoO2 kept all the original MoO races and threw in Gnolams (based off the D&D gnoll), Elarians (space elves are done to death, so get in there!), and Trilarians (You could do worse for space fish names. I’m looking at you, Mon Calamari) for good measure.

Another excellent feature is the race customization option. This gives the player the ability to try out a nearly endless variety of sci-fi traits and to craft races from other sci-fi systems. You can literally build a new race or emulate a classic one out of tropes. Someone trying to emulate the Borg from Star Trek might take the Meklon photo and combine cybernetic, telepathic, unification government, and repulsive traits, for example. This customization ability is one of the factors that gives MoO2 amazing replay value even into this decade.

There is some argument over the points balance of certain racial modifiers even in the game’s final patch, and many mods exist to address these perceived imbalances. The problem I see with this criticism is it’s not universal. I knew a guy in college who wouldn’t play anything but tolerant, creative lithovores, despite the supposed limited value of the lithovore and tolerant traits, and the massive penalties required to get points for them. The min-maxers will argue incessantly about the synergistic effects and counterbalances of race picks, but the fact that such discussion exists is good evidence that the argument is not settled and much depends on play style and universe design. An organic, rich universe mitigates the advantages of the lithovore trait, whereas huge galaxies can cause mid- and late-game problems for highly aggressive races with poor research skills. Many arguments say the uncreative trait is a terrible disadvantage, but if your espionage is up to snuff, or you’ve decided not to piss everyone off and get into diplomatic technology trades, it’s not that bad—unless you’ve made a huge galaxy with only one other race competing with you.

As the game is very technology focused and many traits are situational, it is easy to hamstring yourself with poor custom picks for the galaxy you’re generating, but this also offers a way to limit higher skilled players in multiplayer games. Instituting custom picks is a simple way to balance highly efficient players with newer ones.

The Tech Tree is Tropes

Another part of MoO2’s allure is it’s complex enough to be interesting and allow great variety, but not so complex that it overwhelms. The tech tree is a good example of this with each item’s effect clearly spelled out and quantified. Except for some beginning techs required for space travel, each science’s tier contains up to three technologies.

Unless your race is creative or uncreative, you can select only one tech per “level.” The others are only available if another race has researched it and if you can coax it out of them through trade, espionage, or outright theft. This frequently forces the player into some tough choices. If there are few races or the computer is reluctant to trade, then some techs will just be unavailable. This may significantly change the course of the game if, for example, no one ends up with automated factories or robo-miners. I’ve seen games where planetary conquest is made trivial because there are no planetary weapon emplacements, no battlestations, and no star fortresses.

Most sciences do not have a clear “best choice” at each level since the utility of some technologies depends on your race and the galaxy you’ve generated. For example, biospheres are generally thought to be better than hydroponic farms, but if your galaxy is full of inhospitable rocks, you may want the farms. Also, if you’re playing the Meklons, hydroponic farms will negate small worlds starving from blockades because two food can feed four cybernetic population even on toxic worlds. If you’re playing the Silicoids, you eat rocks and don’t give a rat’s ass about pollution, so you needn’t waste time researching, trading for, or building any of the farming or pollution management techs. If your race is telepathic, you have little need of ground combat technologies since you’ll be mind controlling everyone instead of invading. Trade-offs like these are common due to the breadth of choices available.

Even the Monsters Are Tropes. Wait… Monsters?

In a nod to the weird, there are various space monsters you can encounter to make your expansion miserable. If these show up early on, they can put the victim way behind since no one will have the firepower to deal with them. Some of them even spread, which can make everyone miserable, so don’t get smug just because the space Eel is interdicting your enemies. Its kids will be coming for you.

Besides bumping into the Guardian in the Orion system (which is why you always send a scout before sending your battle fleet), there are giant space amoebas, eels, crystals, hydras, and even dragons as space monsters. I don’t know where the idea for space monsters in MoO came from, but someone must have thought they were a good idea. Instead of getting rid of them, MoO2 doubled their variety. If there’s an exceptionally attractive planet out there, you can rest assured one of these bastards will be guarding the system to make sure you don’t get an early lead.

What’s with the Name?

Loknar, the last luchador... er, OrionThe Orion and Antares parts of the game’s title come from an old feud between the Orions and Antarans. Judging by the only actual Orion you come across, the Orions may be descended from an ancient race of professional wrestlers. This is better than the Antarans who are clearly modeled after Aliens‘s face-huggers.

The Antarans can be turned off if you don’t want their interference. When active, they’ll randomly come at you with hyper-advanced ships that beg to be captured and reverse-engineered. Capturing their ships, as expected, is challenging thanks to their marine compliments and quantum detonators. Any marine-killing weapons have a tendency to destroy the ship before eliminating the defenders, and even captured ships will explode anyway half the time. Still, it’s worth it considering the technologies you can harvest by scrapping them.

If you don’t have sufficient defenses at the planet they attack, you can expect them to bomb the bejesus out of it and leave. Their target selection is fairly random. I’ve had games where they target me exclusively, but I’m not sure if this is because I repeatedly kicked the hell out of them or just on account of me owning damned near everything.

The Antarans provide an additional victory option if they’re enabled: researching and building a dimensional portal, and rolling up on them with a wig-splitting fleet. After taking out the face-hugger homeworld, no one’s going to mess with you. Defeating the Antarans without doomstars and fantastic technology is possible, but it will take a massive fleet.

The two basic victory options in MoO2 involve getting elected king of the universe or killing everyone who ever crossed you, everyone who liked you, and everyone who didn’t lean either way. For the first, sometimes making too many friends can actually work against you if you intend on a military victory. If you’re popular enough that everyone votes for you, your own votes may be insufficient to prevent yourself from gaining a two-thirds majority, aka the “Cry me a goddamned river, prom king!” victory. If this happens, you can turn down the job and “defy the will of the council,” but they’ll get pissy, elect your opponent, and give them control of everything with a fresh Writ of Exterminatus on you. Needless to say, if you didn’t have the votes to prevent your own election, chances are you’re not equipped to stare down everyone at once. This is somewhat suboptimal unless you’re angling for the Tony Montana ending.

Killing or conquering everyone is fairly self-explanatory: if you’re the only one who actually has any planets left, you win.

Leaders of Lizard-Men

Independent personalities are also available to lead your fleets and to administer your colonies. Choosing the right leaders, if you can afford them, is another facet of empire management to master. There are 46 leaders available, and while some hail from the game’s existing races, the rest are clearly a grab bag of art assets and name drops.

MoO2 Rogues Gallery

These leader characters aren’t beholden to any of the in-game empires. They’re in it for the money. Altos the Alkari pilot won’t bat an eye if you send its carrier fleet against the Alkari homeworld as long as it gets paid on time. While not every leader will have skills you’re looking for, a select few will boost your efficiency considerably.

On Espionage

Spying is a part of every game of MoO2, but it uses a very simple system. Most games involve a lot more diplomacy than espionage, but if you don’t maintain a stable of spies then your enemies will take advantage of you. Spies are assigned to defense or deployment to select empires, and deployed spies can only be set to espionage, sabotage, or hiding. Every empire should maintain a few defensive spies at a minimum. Unless you have production to spare or are hitting the limit of your ship command points, it’s usually not worth bulking out their numbers. While having spies and enough spy technologies can help keep your enemies from stealing your best technologies, the spying meta game is rather poorly developed compared to other features.

And You Know that We Got ‘Em, Deathstars!

One of the biggest draws to MoO2 was, and still is, the ship design tool. If you have tactical combat off, you’re skipping one of the greatest advantages you can give yourself. MoO2 has a large number of techs that result in ship modules. As you improve your race’s understanding of weapon technologies, the older weapons get smaller and cheaper as well as develop additional options through “refinement.” For example, when you first research laser physics, you can only mount normal lasers. After additional physics research, you get access to better basic weapons and better upgrades for your old ones like heavy mount, continuous, and auto-fire.

Using the most advanced weapon system you have access to doesn’t always result in the best ship. EVE players should feel right at home with this dynamic and should recognize combinations of modules that are more than the sum of their parts. Nasty tricks like firing dummy missiles before the good stuff, and combining the time warp facilitator, stellar converter, and phasing cloak (I call it the DoomsTARDIS) are par for the course. Much as in EVE, there are counters for everything.

While the most basic weapons do scale poorly, new options will open up, providing the same feel as what you’re trying to do. Even heavy mount lasers are completely ineffective once everyone has decent shields, so you’ll need to substitute a stellar converter for the “superlaser” in your “deathstar”. On the plus side, the stellar converter is a planet killer weapon, which is what you wanted in the first place, right?

The real trick is figuring out how to combine your weapons and secondary systems to make a killer ship and keep the enemy from countering it. There are plenty of ignorant options available, from the above mentioned DoomsTARDIS, down to the lowly Katsyusha Frigates with two-shot fast missile racks that fire and flee on the first turn.

Guess what late game large galaxy fights have in common with EVE online?Guess what late-game, large galaxy fights have in common with EVE Online?

The game has odd morals about a pair of techs. While you can blithely bomb entire populations to death, destroy planets, or annihilate conquered populaces at one per turn, for some reason biological weapons are taboo to everyone. To show I wasn’t screwing around, I virus bombed a planet once and every race, even my allies, threatened to declare war on me if I did it again. As a result, there’s little incentive to research and use death spores or the bio-terminator unless you’re the Silicoids. No one likes the Silicoids.

Great Value and Replay

Despite a few shortcomings and a dated look, there is an incredible variety and replay value packed into this title. I played a copy of it on a friend’s computer back when I was in college, played a secondhand copy a few years later, and purchased an updated version a few weeks ago from GOG, and I’m still finding challenge and variation. It’s a great game that’s cheaper than the booze you’ll drink while playing it.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Saiphas Cain.

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