Sid Meier's Starships Review

Sid Meier's Starships is probably not entirely what a PC gamer would expect from a Sid Meier game. It's more 4X-lite than it is 4X, and it's pretty obvious from playing the game that it was designed for mobile first and then ported to PC. Keeping all of that in mind, it is possible to have some fun with the game for a little bit, although it almost certainly won't hold your interest for nearly as long as would a typical Sid Meier game.

As the name implies, the primary focus of the game is your fleet of starships, although a more appropriate term than "fleet" would be "squadron" since your small collection of ships are moved as a single unit throughout the game. On each of your turns you'll be able to move your single fleet of ships from star system to star system along the predefined space lanes between them until you've made enough moves and fought enough battles to fatigue your crew to the point where you'll have to allow them to take some time for shore leave (i.e. you run out of action points and hit the button to end your turn). Moves to systems within your empire can be made without consequence save a little crew fatigue, but moving to a system held by a rival faction will initiate combat and moving to a neutral one will generate an encounter which will involve some sort of combat-focused, objective-based mission. Success in those latter missions will sway the local populace to favor your empire, and if you manage to curry more favor than your rivals the system will join your empire until you win the game or a rival faction takes it from you in battle.

Sid Meier's Starships screenshot 1

Your local stellar neighborhood

So "explore" involves seeing which systems are connected to the system your fleet is occupying, and "expand" is accomplished by first completing missions for the locals and later by attacking your neighbors' systems. "Exploit"? Well, this aspect of the game is so abstracted to the basics that seems like it's barely there at all. Your systems will generate resources for you each turn which can be spent to put more cities on your planets or to build improvements for those cities, but this essentially involves incrementing an improvement counter which decrements the corresponding resource counter so that you have more resources on your next turn to increment other counters. There's also a science resource that can be spent on research, but there's no tech tree to ponder over. Again, there are a collection of counters to be incremented, each of which has a direct one-to-one correspondence to something like ship lasers. You can win the game by maxing out all of the research counters, but it would be a terribly dull way to do so.

To be honest, I've never been quite sure if diplomacy falls under "expand" or "exploit"; I suppose it depends on how you approach that particular art. The Machiavellian types among you will find the game's diplomacy system pretty disappointing, though. It basically boils down to: Me: "Let's have a peace treaty." Rival: "OK." Me: "I want to attack you now so let's cancel our peace treaty." Rival: "OK." Each faction is supposed to have its own personality and play style based on the factions in the game Civilization: Beyond Earth, but I didn't see all that much difference between them when it comes to diplomatic interactions.

The "exterminate" aspect of the game is where you'll spend most of your time with it. Your fleet will initially consist of two ships (three with a faction bonus), and from there you're free to spend your resources to build a larger fleet or to rule the galaxy with a couple of dreadnaughts, armored to the hilt and packed to the gills with weaponry. You can tailor the ships as well, for example specializing in long-range weapons to try and devastate enemy ships long before they can get close or making fast ships with short-range weaponry that move in quickly for a devastating strike. Part of the fun in the game is playing with different upgrade combinations to see what kinds of ships you can come with and how you need to adjust your tactics to use them effectively. I wish the customization extended beyond the ship upgrades, though, which are once again handled through lackluster increment counters. The game will automatically generate the ship class names for you based on the combination of upgrades that you've selected and there are several different ship models that help to make it look your ships are actually improving, but it may take a few rounds of upgrades before anything actually looks different and you can't tell by looking at a ship if it's covered with short-range lasers or armed to the teeth with torpedoes.

Sid Meier's Starships screenshot 2

Starships at war

Battles take place on a two-dimensional hex grid (Khan would appreciate that) and play out in a turn-based manner. The maps feature planets, plenty of asteroids, and a wormhole here and there to keep things interesting and to add additional tactical elements to contend with while maneuvering your ships. Each ship can perform one move and one special action per turn, be it firing weapons or launching fighters. Battles can be enjoyable, at least at first - it is certainly satisfying to move a ship into an advantageous position and unleash a devastating strike, and it's fun to ride along with a torpedo so that you can pick the exact moment of detonation for maximum effect. Play your way through a few battles and you'll quickly realize that the AI isn't up to the fight; it's pretty easy to get the best of the enemy, as long as your technologies are roughly on par. Run into an AI faction that has leapt ahead of everyone else thanks to the acquisition of planets that come with free tech bonuses and your smarts will get you nowhere when your weapons are having little to no effect on the enemy but your ships explode like moon-sized battle stations with unprotected ventilation shafts when hit. And if your empire is boxed in by one of those factions, well, the game goes into super-boring mode, during which you will basically pass on any fleet actions each turn until you can increment your counters high enough to have a chance of winning a battle.

Overall, Sid Meier's Starships is simply too simple and bland to hold the interest of empire builders for long, and its best feature, the battles, is neutered by lackluster AI. I don't have anything against "4X light", but there were times when I felt like I was working with a spreadsheet as much as playing a game. The game really is better suited for a tablet, on which its shortcomings won't be as apparent because mobile games tend to be played in sessions that run far shorter than those on PC games.

Final Rating: 62% - Starships is more of a "there's still another turn?" game than a "just one more turn" game.


Note: A review code for this game was provided by the publisher.

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