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Master of Orion: A Hands-Off Peek

World of Spaceships

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Remake or reboot? That’s the question I asked Jacob Beucler, director of global operations at Wargaming during an E3 demonstration of Master of Orion [official site].

“Definitely a reboot,” he says. “We’re taking things very seriously in terms of what made this franchise great.” By this he means Master of Orion and its first sequel, not the curious but problematic Master of Orion 3 (which our Adam likes to pretend never even happened).

“If you look at the reviews and read about Master of Orion 3 nobody loved it. We don’t talk about it. So we’re taking the strengths from 1 and 2 and we’re taking the races from 1 and we’re re-envisioning it. We’re bringing this experience to people who were born after 1993 which is a lot of gamers – that’s a big market! So it’s a reboot while taking into consideration that we’re being very true to the 4 Xs.”

From what we talk about in the session and from chatting with Adam who has played all three of the previous MoOs, I’d say this new Master of Orion is on the remake spectrum, then, wanting to stay true to the original as far as possible (and to an extent its sequel), but with fancier graphics and tweaks to the systems where necessary. It appears to be shrugging off the interesting but deeply flawed excesses of MoO 3 entirely.

This seems to be borne out when I ask about the key differences between this game and the original. I’m told:

“It’s going to play better, run better, look better and I’ll say it will be more fun. I don’t know if the original guys on it will agree. We’ve employed them, so the original lead designers and the original musicians work for us and are involved. We bought the IP, we brought them into the family and they’re helping us make this game so that’s part of the way we’re able to stay true to the vision of the original.”

The reboot tag strikes me as probably more about feeling able to make changes if absolutely necessary and perhaps freeing up the franchise when it comes to potential sequels.

Anyway, that’s enough about semantics. What of the game?

Star spotting in MoO

We are shown snippets from a hundreds-of-turns game. If you’re familiar with 4X games you’ll probably be able to take an educated guess at what these involved; the earliest had you picking one race from a selection of ten, then starting to colonise planets, produce units, research tech and take a gander at your little corner of space.

The races on offer were Alkari, Mrrshan, Human, Psilon, Sakkra, Bulrathi, Klackon, Meklar, Darlok and Silicoid. We are the Alkari, a bunch of humanoid birds. I think this is probably because at a later point in the hands-off demo they launch an attack on the cat people and the devs chuckle. It’s like that old saying goes: If a cat bites a bird that’s not news. If a bird drops a bunch of miniaturised nukes on a planet that a cat is occupying that’s probably news.

The interface reminds me of Endless Space but seems a little more comfortable if you’re a newcomer trying to get to grips with a 4X game. I’m not a newcomer, but I tend to bounce off 4X games because of the sheer amount of information and systems I’m supposed to deal with at all times. Usually I’ll get about a hundred turns in and then a game system suddenly clicks – great! Except for the part where I realise I’ve effectively doomed myself and my civilisation from about the second turn by previously not understanding it. After that point it’s walk away or stick it out until the bitter end.

I’m more attracted to the apparent simplicity of Master of Orion. You can drag and drop little meeple to redistribute your production resources or set a preference from the dropdown menu, each of the screens seems manageable and the actual information feels legible. It’s hard to know how this holds up across a game given we’re skipping through at intervals of about two hundred turns and with the producer playing turns rather than us, but NGD Studios have piqued my interest with what they’ve shown.

“Master of Orion is really complex,” says Jacob. “We’re not watering that down. We’re making it more accessible. It really matters to us that we’re using the technology of today for the high fidelity graphics and also the user experience we’ve developed through the last 20 years of game development to make this accessible.”

We start to look at the tech trees. There are 75 technologies to research, starting with basic options and building towards stuff like Doom Stars which let you blow planets up. Early on in the game the producer researches Advanced Fusion which gives access to a fusion drive, fusion bombs and a miniaturisation module. What this means is ships will go faster, they’ll have more effective nukes and the nukes will be smaller so you get to carry more. This comes in useful when, about 190 turns later, we obliterate the cat people (“to send a message”) and still have 10 nukes to spare.

Periodically random events crop up. One comes via the Galactic News Network and informs us that a supernova will cause a planet to explode. There’s uncertainty over which one this will actually be so there’s a chance we might lose some people or resources if we fall victim to RNG. Or a chance that the hated cat people will lose something they love. Hurrah!

I feel pretty, oh so pretty

I ask Jacob about the balance between accessibility and complexity. He says that after playing about a dozen 500 turn games he’s still finding things to tune and tweak or min and max.

“I’m not really that interested in the 4x genre. It hasn’t been my go-to. I love MMOs, I love tanks, I love ships – those are the games I play normally and for this game to engage me this strongly makes me really passionate that we’re doing a good job of managing that balance.”

Finally, I ask about multiplayer. This is a) because Endless Space was a decent over-the-Christmas-holidays timesink and b) because maybe I can win against my jerk friends if MoO proves to be as accessible as the developers are saying. There will indeed be multiplayer, but the specifics are yet to be announced.

I have taken the bold step of challenging all of RPS to a game when it’s out. NGD Studios, this better be bloody accessible or I’m doomed to space ignominy…

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Philippa Warr

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