Master of Orion [official site] and its sequel (the less said about the third entry, the better) spawned a horde of 4X and space strategy fanatics, sending them out into the galaxy to explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. Wildly ambitious, full of fascinating aliens to meet and kill – they’re rightly hailed as classics with a legacy that continues even two decades later. Death to the past, I say. There’s a new Master of Orion now; fresh blood with an old name.
Just try to ignore the fact that it’s wearing the tattered and worn skin of its progenitor.
Unfortunately, the one big surprise that Master of Orion has in store for us is that it’s not fresh at all. Underneath the brightly shining stars and slowly spinning marbles, it is as musty as my grandfather’s slippers.
Gosh, it’s a shame to have to write that. My experience with the Early Access version suggested that I might come to this conclusion, but I’d hoped that over the course of development a massive injection of vigour would have been thrust into its veins. Nope! What we have here is a game that’s competent, sure, and polished, but entirely devoid of surprises; a game that acts like you’ve never played a 4X title before and thus will be satisfied by a string of extremely conservative features.
It has all the stuff you’d expect from a 4X, presented through a slender but legible UI. There’s a checklist somewhere with a lot of big ticks on it. From turn one, it follows the all-too familiar pattern of picking technologies to research from a flavourless tech tree, building stuff on planets to increase food, production and research, and sending out ships to explore the galaxy and eventually fight. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this pattern, but it should be a foundation on which more novel systems can be built. In Master of Orion, it’s essentially the whole experience.
Through the first phase of the game – where exploration and peaceful expansion takes up most turns – I found myself going through the motions: working through the clear but dreary technological paths, constructing the same types of buildings with increasingly larger numbers ad nauseum, uncovering the same mostly featureless star systems as I hurled ships down the network of starlanes. It didn’t help that I was playing as the Psilons, a race of boffins whose special ability removes some decision making from the tech tree. You see, most races are presented with a choice when unlocking certain techs, forcing them to specialise, even though the options are rarely stimulating. Not so with the Psilons, who get it all. Ostensibly, it’s a benefit, but it makes research a bit mindless.
My experience playing as the Psilons certainly didn’t make a good first impression, then. I played peacefully, for the most part, but with exploration and construction containing little nuance or interesting spins on old formulas, Master of Orion is not a game I recommend playing as a lover rather than a fighter. Things got a little more exciting, however, when I took command of a more aggressive faction. Conquest! Mayhem! All the best parts of being a space emperor.
As the Terrans, a rather mean human off-shoot who can be summed up as the ‘space arseholes’ of the game, there was simply more going on. Sure, diplomacy remained nothing but a collection of bland treaties and demands, trade continued to be almost non-existent, and the galaxy never stopped being a disappointingly shallow place, but there was at least a bit more tension as I found myself facing a multitude of enemies. On the default settings, those enemies posed little challenge, but I did start to have a bit of fun annihilating them, peppering space with the carcasses of a hundred frigates and destroyers.
While it’s possible to auto-resolve every battle, there’s also the option to take full control of a fleet in real-time-with-pause scraps. A small number of formations and limited fine-control over the ships means that the combat does wear out its welcome pretty quickly, but there are hints of good ideas buried inside it. There’s a bit of terrain, for instance, like gas clouds or destructible asteroids that can provide cover. Don’t expect to see these things often, however. I’ve played three games so far (I say so far, but I’m sure you’ve already guessed that I won’t be returning for more) and the vast majority of my battles have taken place in empty space.
Once those brief conflicts are over the game goes back to being dreadfully dull, the only thing that makes it stand out from its contemporaries being that it seems content to wallow in the past.
On paper, the 11 races (10 in regular edition) all seem fairly diverse. While most fall into the typical 4X archetypes – the science guys, the warmongers, the boring humans – there are also a few that aren’t so easily pigeonholed, like the lava-breathing Silicoids who consume rocks rather than food. Lamentably, most of their differences prove to be superficial and don’t really translate into noticeably distinct playstyles beyond being peaceful or aggressive. And as I noted earlier, only one of the two is remotely compelling. Attempting to win the game through diplomacy, for instance, amounts to having a big population, while an economic victory involves merely building a lot of economic structures. The rest of the differences between the races largely amount to statistical variations, while everything else, from the ships to the buildings, remains the same.
Not only does this lack of meaningful variety cause the game to run out of steam after one playthrough, it doesn’t make sense. Let’s go back to the Silicoids for a moment. They don’t eat. They don’t farm. Their biology and culture is entirely unique in the galaxy. So why the hell can I construct fungal farms? There are several technologies and buildings that the Silicoids can research and construct that are entirely useless unless they eventually conquer planets with other species living there. It’s confusing and counterintuitive (especially since the game fails to make it clear how pointless they are), but the strangest part of this is that solution to this problem can be found in the original 23-year-old game. The first Master of Orion gave the Silicoids a more specialised tech tree and stopped them from being able to use things like farms and soil enrichment unless they traded with other races for them.
If I wanted to be generous, I might suggest that Master of Orion is not for the likes of me, and is instead a game designed to gently introduce a new generation of armchair space admirals and emperors to the genre. But if I was inclined to be that generous, I would also note that this doesn’t preclude Master of Orion from doing interesting things, and using a game like this to ease new players into the genre makes about as much sense as introducing someone to EDM via Gregorian chants.
There’s a glimmer of originality in the espionage system at least. 4X games traditionally fail to do much with the shadier aspects of running a space empire, but Master of Orion allows you to establish a whole network of spies to carry out a plethora of tasks. They run the gamut from simple information gathering missions to poisoning food supplies and inciting revolts, softening up the enemy for invasion. Eventually you can embed spies and saboteurs all across the galaxy, destabilizing worlds and helping you pick choice targets.
Unfortunately, however, it’s another victim of Master of Orion’s obsession with simplicity. Spies are simply a resource that generates over time, and they never grow or develop new skills, meaning that the death of a spy and the failure of a mission never really feels like a serious loss. Espionage effectively stays the same, from the moment you build the necessary structure to spawn your agents.
It feels like a huge waste, Master of Orion’s caution. A great deal of effort has obviously gone into the game. Just look at the voice talent found within: Alan Tudyk, Michael Dorn, John de Lancie, Mark Hamill, Robert Englund, just to name a few. And it’s striking, with fanciful spacecraft, stunning, kaleidoscopic galaxies, animated and colourful alien races – it might feel like an anachronism, but it’s a hell of a pretty one. The aesthetic doesn’t make up for its lack of depth though, nor does the plethora of talented voice actors make up for the functionally similar factions.
Master of Orion’s biggest crime is that it’s simply boring. One of the greatest powers of a long-form strategy game, whether it’s a 4X or historical grand strategy, is its ability to spawn emergent narratives that make players feel like they had a unique experience. I have no stories about Master of Orion to share. They’re all too dull. Nobody wants to hear about the time I found a space monster and just killed it, or the time I fought a war and won because I had a stronger military. They were just events that are already quickly fading from memory.
So desperately, it seems, the developers wanted to recapture the magic of this series that they forgot the context of its many successes. Master of Orion and its sequel were bold games, forward-facing and bar-setting at the time, and you can’t simply recreate a game that’s over 20 years old and expect it to have the same impact. If it wasn’t for its name, Master of Orion would be forgotten in a year. And even with it, I don’t imagine anyone is going to remember it fondly two decades hence, if it’s remembered at all.
Master of Orion is out for Windows, Mac and Linux, and is available on Steam and gog.