Friendless Space: Why Master Of Orion 3 Is Important

Games are either good or the worst thing to ever happen. That’s just how it works. Oh, sure, there are divisive games, but once the consensus has been reached that a game is bad, that’s it. Cast it away into the pit of 1 star reviews, the lair of the Thumbdown, to be spoken of only with frothing hatred and contempt. Never to be touched. Never to be examined.

Master of Orion 3 is one of the most important 4X games ever made. There, I said it. It’s all over for me now. Follow not where I dare to tread.

Infogrames released Master of Orion 3 in early 2003, following a long and troubled development period by Quicksilver Software. It was a mess. It’s still a mess. The highly anticipated sequel to the two most beloved space 4X games ever is a maddening exercise in battling your own empire’s broken AI for hours, only to discover that you’ve already overcome your only real opposition.

The interface is an overwrought clickfest – and locked at a resolution of 800×600, which was already quite backwards by 2003 and a genuine obstacle when standard maps feature hundreds of star systems. Rival empires send regular streams of erratic and self-contradictory messages, until you learn they can be completely ignored as they seldom actually do anything. Vital components of (rather ugly) combat failed to work at all. Your shipyards are utterly consumed with the desire to fill the universe with useless transport ships. Except for the lovely designs of the aliens, it’s appearance is featureless. There’s a fair bit of truth to the common refrain that you can just click ‘end turn’ a few hundred times and win without doing anything.

If you’re having trouble imagining it, it’s a bit like if Firaxis had decided to give soldiers in XCOM the ability to act without orders, but instead of shooting aliens all they did was fiddle with themselves and cry. Leave them to it for long enough and the aliens all drown.

Lots of drama behind the scenes followed by a shrug from Infogrames meant it was released far too early, given a few cursory patches, and left to die at the hands of furious fans. A few of these fans, however, got over their shock and released a mildly confusing collection of unofficial patches in an effort to redeem it.

To some extent, they succeeded. Even the basic “vanilla” patch (limited to bugfixes only) changes the experience substantially. But this is not the part where I say that they turned it into an unsung classic. For all their hard work, Master of Orion 3 remains flawed, and will only ever be truly enjoyed by a fringe within a fringe.

The first mistake was in calling it Master of Orion at all. There are few games more bitterly denounced than average sequels to legendary originals, but aside from being not great, and aside from being broken, MoO3 was designed with a completely different ethos to the originals. I barely even need to describe how the first two games worked, as they stand alongside Civilization as pillars of standard 4X design 20+ years on. You start with your choice of species on a single world, build stuff on it, send out ships to find another one, build on that world, rinse and repeat until it’s 4am and each turn is taking 15 minutes because you’ve got so many of bloody planets to organise.

They were great, and they still play well, but Quicksilver did something important: they tried to move the genre on. The lukewarm reception of the recent, tiresomely homonymous reboot has only highlighted how little that has happened despite the recent revival of the 4X. God, I’m bored of that same old formula. It’s been decades, and still we get the same old formula again and again, delivered in the same way, with the same strategies and the same factions and any exceptions a mere oasis.

MoO3 does all four exes, but it was always intended to be an exercise in macromanagement instead, with you setting out broad plans and relaying them from the top, trusting the automation to take care of the details. Instead of painstakingly repeating your standard build order item by item, choosing every research item, and personally tying every soldier’s shoes, you’re meant to delegate all that. You don’t run every planet in the empire, you run the empire. And after all that patching, it sort of works. You can still obsessively micromanage every detail if you must, but maximum, perfect efficiency just isn’t necessary, and could never be worth the sheer time it’d take anyway. So some of your 200 planets have an unwanted building, or you have a few dozen redundant ships in between your 1,500-strong fleet. Who cares? If you could prevent that from happening in such a complex simulation, your skills would probably be better directed towards conquering Europe.

Its constituent parts, like research, are different too, as instead of picking single links in a chain, your people constantly research in six concurrent fields. You set the proportion of work going into each field. When you reach the next level in a field, your scientists start researching every technology at that level at once. Many prerequisites are cross-discipline, most technologies are completely invisible until you’ve reached certain levels in other fields, and finally some technologies are beyond you, and must be stolen or traded for. I became fond of Fusion Cannons in one campaign, but in the next had to go without anything at that level until I could research an alternative.

Then there’s the economy, which splits taxation into three systems, at the planet level, the star system level, and the empire level, each interacting but (for once) handled well enough that the AI can be trusted with most of it if you prefer. I’d be surprised if Code Force didn’t secretly study it while developing their “state vs private sector” economic system in Distant Worlds.

Master of Orion 3 had a highly detailed and elaborate backstory, which manifests in game in some interesting concepts. The villainous Antarans, following their defeat in the second game, returned to wipe out several races and enslave everyone else. After centuries of abuse and genetic experimentation on everyone, they accidentally bioweapon themselves almost to extinction, and wind up stuck on a single highly advanced planet, while you and everyone else suddenly has freedom to grow. About half the races (up to 30 at once) are in the Senate, set up by the Antarans (now the New Orions) to police everyone. You can start in the Senate by spending ‘race pick’ points, if you deduct them from somewhere else like mining or farming – each race can be modified somewhat. Otherwise it’s pot luck. If you’re in the Senate, your goal is to be voted in as leader. If you’re not, your goal is to race towards the galaxy’s core and kill off anyone who might be voted in.

In addition to all this, the complex history of brutality between the races has left them with default relations that will likely win out whatever you do. Lizard races will almost invariably hate the aquatic races, robots hate ethereals, insectoids hate silicoids, and everyone hates the Harvesters – sentient bioweapons who can never join the Senate and will infect and assimilate anyone they share a planet with. The result is that many games will escalate into some variation of the Great Fish/Lizard War as everyone gradually aligns. It’s this that partly explains the still erratic diplomatic attitudes, which are otherwise dissatisfying. Relationship bars give no explanation of their influences, and often make little sense. Close allies often suddenly declare war without warning, and as the insectoid Tachidi I merrily bombed and invaded several lizard planets, making no dent in their positive opinion of me.

Diplomacy only makes any sense when you play along with the base relations. The trick is to think about the enemies of your enemies, and exploit the obligations of alliances in order to create a Triple Entente situation, forcing allies into war with their other allies before they later do it to you instead. But it doesn’t quite work, nor does the Senate. Members can propose legislation but most of it is useless crap, and races can be invited or expelled, apparently at random. In theory, a non-Senate race could suck up to members and angle for an invitation, but that’s unreliable at best, and the prospect of the game suddenly ending at any moment because some race you never even met won the vote is frustrating to say the least.

But it was trying. It was trying to create a new kind of 4X game, a simulation of directing an empire in a realistic setting, amid gigantic wars, ancient grudges, and a hint of an emergent story more compelling than “hit whoever’s most powerful and then attrition for 50 turns”.

Like most interesting ideas, it doesn’t quite work, but the result is almost an inversion of the usual experience. Where every other 4X game starts out fast and fun and full of possibilities but soon grinds to a dull halt, here the meat lies in the mid and late game. As your long-term direction of research bears multiple simultaneous fruit, designing ships and directing fleets along strategically important star lanes becomes more interesting than the usual case of just whomping whoever’s in range. If anything, it’s wargamers, not 4X fans, who might get the most out of a campaign once it’s in full swing. Indeed, there’s an option on start-up to have the game run without you for as many turns as you like. It sort of works but mostly hints at something even better, like a procedurally-generated 4X you can jump into partway through.

That last point is, essentially, the bottom line with Master of Orion 3. Thanks to dedicated fans it sort of works, and is revealed as a Franz Reichelt of 4X games; an innovative but catastrophic failure that ought to lead to greater things, if only its ideas and mistakes alike are properly considered.

1/10 worst game evaaaar never speak of it again.


  1. Someoldguy says:

    I’m the fringe of the fringe, I guess. I loved MoO1 and the AI really knew how to play the system, bombing your planet to extinction with vast waves of cheap ships armed with bioweapons when they couldn’t defeat your high tech spaceships. Turn by turn you’d blast away a hundred or more as they inched closer to your planet but some would get through. I never had that same tension with MoO2 despite it’s improvements in other areas. Then MoO3 came along and (once patched) it really scratched my itch for something new and different. You didn’t just win by building a stack of doomstars to blast the enemy planets to dust. You had to (ok, were rewarded for) building a proper integrated fleet with frigates, destroyers, cruisers, battleships, carriers and fighters/fighter bombers. You had to identify and control choke points to prevent enemy fleets slipping past your cordon, because they’d outmanoeuvre you if you relied on a single fleet. You’re right, the start of the game was poor, but sometimes it built into a truly enjoyable large scale galactic war. I loved that so much more than yet another game where it ended with one doomstack tediously swatting down the opposition one planet at a time. It’s what excites me about Stellaris. It has that same vibe of eventually needing an integrated fleet for best effect. Hopefully once it’s patched and improved it will be a thing of beauty.

    • Zankman says:

      I dunno about Stellaris.

      Patches will improve things, DLC will improve things…

      But a lot of people have argued that the game is just inherently flawed and, although it will improve over the years due to patches, updates and DLC – will never truly be good.

      With that said, I have no clue myself, so, I am genuinely asking for an opinion on that.

      • Rizlar says:

        A lot of people are wrong.

        If you have played other Paradox Development Studio games you can see how much they improve, tweak and revamp systems over time. Stellaris feels very light at the moment but it forms an interesting foundation. It seems to emphasise relationships between empires, a galactic political map informed by the identities and behaviours of different cultures. Unfortunately it doesn’t really go anywhere with it. But the basis is there for something really cool.

        • Captain Joyless says:

          “If you have played other Paradox Development Studio games you can see how much they improve, tweak and revamp systems over time.”

          Yes, and sometimes for the worse, like in CK2.

          Just because they tweak and revamp systems there is no guarantee they’ll do so well. But by all means, continue to pay $50 per year hoping that those DLC will make a mediocre game into an amazing game.

          • Someoldguy says:

            I always play the wait and see game with Paradox DLC. EU4 is now awesome with all the DLC I want installed and the stuff I don’t want left on the shelf. Ditto CK II. Where the crap creeps into the main patch accompanying the DLC you can always freeze your steam installation at a specific patch level if you prefer. I can’t be sure Stellaris will become awesome, but I am keeping my hopes up. I have enjoyed my hours spent so far anyway.

          • Rizlar says:

            Or don’t buy any of the DLC and enjoy all the new systems introduced in free patches. Or roll back to a previous version if you genuinely think the new stuff is worse. Or do whatever the hell you like and maybe buy some DLC for peanuts when it’s on sale.

            Whatever makes you happy, Captain.

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            Malarious says:

            For the worse in CK2? Really? Compare CK2 at launch to CK2 today: it was a shell of a game back then comparatively. Don’t get me wrong, I put hundreds of hours into it anyway — but it’s better in every possible way now. I mean, I’ve bought all the DLC and will probably continue to buy all the DLC indefinitely: the sheer number of hours I put into Paradox games absolves me of any guilt there.

            If Stellaris gets a major economy/trade rework, a major character rework, and significantly fleshed out mid-game events and political interactions, then it’ll mature into a fantastic game. Considering the Game Director for Stellaris is the same guy responsible for the Victoria 2 beta patch which fixed a ton of issues, as well as the excellent CK2+ mod and the Reign of the Ancients mod that made EU: Rome playable, I’ll be genuinely surprised if Stellaris isn’t a significantly different (and better!) game 3 years from now.

            Considering all the other 4X games on the horizon look incredibly mediocre (except Civ6 which will almost surely require a few expansions to be worth putting in >50 hours), my hope is hinging on Stellaris. I don’t have any expectations for Endless Space 2 and MoO was terrible. At least I’ll always have Aurora to tide me over, I guess.

          • P.Funk says:

            Its a bit of an extreme strawman to take the argument that Paradox has somewhat ruined the recipe of CK2 and proclaim that such criticisms is criticizing all expansion of the game since 2012.

            The problem with CK2 is that they’re not making it better because they have a good reason to, they do it because its a cash cow. They make relatively large changes and they’re often in the later stages of the DLC changes that justify the DLC and offer almost nothing to those who get the patch alone. Conclave in particular seemed to do nothing but make the game worse for those who didn’t have the DLC.

            CK2 should have stopped getting major feature changes a year or two ago. I’m not one to be critical about DLC for DLC’s sake, but in this case I feel like CK2 is still only being “developed” to justify the DLC. Whatever needed to be done since 2012 to make the game substantial has been done, and slightly undone.

        • Gormongous says:

          I’ve played every first-party grand strategy game by Paradox since EU2, and I have to say that I disagree with you. The core design of Stellaris is much further towards the lightweight end of the spectrum, approaching Sengoku territory. If you leave out the RPG elements of early-game exploration, you have a real-time wargame with no combined arms or terrain, fought between the player and twenty AI personalities (although the latter has hundreds upon hundreds of minor variations thanks to traits and ethoi). You expand, consolidate, fight one of three endgame threats, and then pursue one of two immensely unsatisfying victory conditions or quit.

          What makes me think that this won’t reach the same heights is another Paradox title with bland gameplay and the lack of late-game pressure on release, EU3. How EU3 got better was introducing more and more specific features that allowed the player (and, to a lesser extent, the AI) to recreate certain historical moments if they chose to do so and, in general, allowed the game to follow certain recognizable dynamics. By dint of its speculative setting and recombinable species, Stellaris doesn’t have access to that same avenue of improvement. New features are going to have to tap into a nebulous cloud of sci-fi tropes without either overcomplicating or marginalizing the systems with which they interact. It’s a narrow line to walk and, without the crutch of historical precedent, Paradox doesn’t really have a great record of walking with it.

          Also, Stellaris is still being designed as a multiplayer-first title, for some reason, and that’s antithetical to a lot of what is important to me for a 4X game.

      • teije says:

        I have played Stellaris and it is already pretty good, but not as cohesive as Distant Worlds. But give it another couple patches (the one next month sounds good), and some great event writing by Alexis Kennedy (formerly Failbetter) and it will turn into something special.

        One of my favourite aspects is actually the sector system, and it attempts to make mandatory macromanagement just as MOO3 did. More successfully too I think.

        On topic, MOO3 did some pretty interesting things actually as Sin wrote, and I think would be much more fondly remembered had it not been the sequel of the “holy duology”.

        • Someoldguy says:

          My only beef with the sector system is what kind of idiot puts all their industrial planets in one corner, all their science planets in another corner and their agricultural planets in a third? The way it forces sectors to be contiguous and share a single economic plan makes it a complete disaster if the enemy overwhelms one. I hope this feature gets tweaked. Otherwise you have to micro the planets development before handing them over to sector control, which rather defeats the point.

  2. Konservenknilch says:

    Thanks, that needed to be said. It is one those games that crashed and burned so hard that the good ideas behind it were discarded as well. I love MoO2 as much as the next guy, but the endgame turned into a gufe micromanegement slog. Goddamn build orders. So the governors, admittedly implemented poorly, were a great concept.

    Hey, anyone remember the opressometer? That should really make a comeback.

  3. Rogerio Martins says:

    It had some depth, but stupid AI and buggy as hell prevented it from being good, let alone ‘important’. MO2 was important, it was innovative, it was challenging it was fresh, MO3 was a bad rehash with horrible graphics and terrible UI.

    Games are not wine, they don’t get better with time, most people might have forgotten who bad and disappointing that game was, but I certainly have not, I have no sympathy or nostalgia glasses to make it a better game for me.

    • Zankman says:

      Lmao, I take it you’re biased and didn’t actually read the article.

      • Rogerio Martins says:

        I did, it wasn’t a rant against the the author.

        • Sin Vega says:

          For what it’s worth, I feel like you missed quite a lot of what I said (I explicitly agreed with most of what you said, for one), but please don’t feel like you can’t express further disagreement. The variety of civilly-expressed opinions is one of the best things about RPS comments and you’re obviously contributing to that.

          • Rogerio Martins says:

            Ok, I suppose my rant was a bit confusing, I should have explained better. What I meant is, that I agree with you in all your points, when I said the game sucks I wasn’t challenging your opinion, because I share them. It was a rant against those whole actually think the game is good.

    • TheOx129 says:

      I’m honestly confused by your critiques. What does the bad AI have to do with the fundamental shifts in design when compared with the first two games in the series? That’s like arguing against the design choices in Civ5 by saying “well the AI was bad” – it doesn’t actually address how choices like having 1UPT, hexes, city-states, etc. affect gameplay. To me, bad AI goes into the category of “problems regarding implementation of the design” rather than “problems with the design itself.” Granted, I do understand how some design choices can create difficulties for AI programming: to use the Civ5 example, 1UPT effectively introduced quasi-wargame like mechanics, and it’s notoriously difficult to program an AI that can effectively balance strategic and tactical decision-making (or at least create an effective illusion of doing so).

      Also, how is MoO3 a rehash? Besides the disastrous state the game was in on release, I remember a lot of fans getting furious largely because it wasn’t a rehash. Instead, it was the exact opposite: a fundamental shift in core design for the game.

      At no point is it argued in the article that MoO3 is a “good game” as most would understand it, rather that it is an extremely flawed, buggy mess that explored some very interesting ideas intended to shake up the staid 4X formula. I also think that the article has a fair point that MoO3’s disastrous reception likely contributed to a period of minimal innovation with the 4X formula, something that has only started to shift relatively recently: the Endless games by Amplitude, At the Gates, Stellaris, Distant Worlds, Alliance of the Sacred Suns, etc.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      Something can be ‘important’ without being good.

  4. nillenille says:

    And there I thought you didn’t do click-bait.

  5. R says:

    I loved how the aliens were genuinely alien, and not just people in a parrot suit.

    • PhilBowles says:

      If anything that’s one reason this shouldn’t have used the Master of Orion name – that cartooniness gave MOO character few space 4xes since have ever matched. To the extent that even though the new MOO does nothing new and is really just a graphical update of MOO 2, it feels like a Master of Orion game in a way 3 never did.

  6. Zankman says:

    Interesting article, just a while ago I was thinking “Could that game really be that bad?”.

    Since you briefly mentioned it: What is Distant Worlds like, when compared to these “usual” 4X games like MoO2 as well as the unusual MoO3?

    I think I have heard it being talked about like a Grand Strategy game, in space; wouldn’t that be something like MoO3 then?

    • Hyena Grin says:

      Distant Worlds (Universe) is one of the best currently relevant space 4X titles out there. I quite like it.

      It lacks some of the character of some more popular titles, but the simulation and AI actually make it a deep and satisfying experience, as long as you have an imagination. But it is a realtime game, with systems in motion, so it plays very differently than most other titles in the genre.

      • Zankman says:

        I don’t mind real time and, as long as I can get immersed in the game and its depth, all is good.


    • WCG says:

      Distant Worlds: Universe is the first 4X space game I’ve really enjoyed since the original MOO. (I was disappointed with MOO2, though I don’t remember why.) Tastes vary, of course, but I’d recommend it.

      Also, I’ve heard that Stellaris (by Paradox Interactive) is sort of a cross between a 4X space game and a Grand Strategy game set in space. That sounds reasonable, given their other titles (Grand Strategy games like Europa Universalis), but I haven’t tried it myself.

      • PhilBowles says:

        Stellaris is a MOO clone with Paradox’s trademark narrative quest chains. It isn’t a grand strategy game and the Paradox fans expecting it to be all seem to have been disappointed by the actual result.

        I found it engaging on the first runthrough, as I had to deal with slave revolts, contact with a subterranean race on one of my planets and determining whether to assimilate its members into my colony, choosing whether to activate potentially homicidal AIs found on a planet, capturing alien zoo animals (since I last played the irritating closed borders that prevented me from completing this quest appear to have been removed).

        But like all Paradox games, at least early in their release cycle, there are too few of these quests to fill the time – the non-unique ones repeat counterimmersively and when the unique ones run out there’s not a lot to do. It doesn’t have any of the emergent gameplay of CKII, as you don’t have individual character relationships to manage just a typical set of 4x diplomacy screens with all the usual options.

        • fearandloathing says:

          I’m a Paradox fan and I approve of the statements made in this post.

    • Sin Vega says:

      Distant Worlds Universe (the name given to the complete package with all expansions – it’s fairly pointless not getting the complete set) is a difficult game to compare anything to because it’s almost entirely unique. I’d argue that it’s actually closer to MoO3 in concept than to any other game, but it’s not entirely fair to make that comparison because DWU is vastly better.

      Everything in DWU can be handled by the AI, and at least some of it really should be or you’ll be playing a single campaign for the rest of your life. You can pick and choose the aspects that interest you most (even to the extent of automating everything and only personally controlling a single ship as a sort of roleplay/adventure/shooty exploration game), and most of its parts have at least one well-implemented idea. You can also play as a pirate faction, which have a totally different playstyle (no planets, they operate by extorting or raiding or hiring themselves out as mercenaries). It has a complex economy based around mining and shipping and processing dozens of resources, and every empire has civilian ships beyond your control that carry out vital functions and actively engage in the commerce that provides your funds.

      The campaign is terrible, but easily ignored, and the sheer complexity of it makes for some unwieldy menus. It will likely take a lot of beating into shape before you get the degree of control and feedback that you like (I for one found there were far too many panicky ‘alerts’ over nothing, and the AI far too prone to repeatedly blundering into obvious danger. But with a bit of reading around I figured out how to get it to stop. Others have different criteria but likely a similar process).

      It’s also very, very expensive, and almost never on sale.

      TL;DR: it’s super interesting and ambitious and huuuge and unique and all the good things, if you’re patient and learn to set it up right. My biggest reservation is the price, as £40 is quite the burn for a game you don’t like. If not for that, I’d recommend you try it if you even think you might like it.

      • Zankman says:

        Thanks for the input on Distant Worlds.

        I’ve looked into it in the past, I’ll try and get a better look now; the way you describe it sounds damn fine to me, I like automation – as long as it helps “the experience” go along smoothly, keeps me immersed; management is fun, both macro and micro, but I am not really into doing *every, little thing* and min-maxing.

        It does sound very good and, yeah, needing to adjust the experience via UI and stuff being a small flaw, promising.

        Well, the price too…

    • Sin Vega says:

      Oh! And: if you’re interested in scale and a generally ‘alternative’ approach, consider Star Ruler (not played 2 yet but it is well reputed).

      • Zankman says:

        Well, damn… What the hell is Star Ruler – it even has a sequel?!?

        I thought I had tabs on all of these games, apparently not. -.-

        I don’t know anything about it, haha. Will have to check it out…

        Since I am here, I have to ask: Can you give me some info on Sins of a Solar Empire and Sword of the Stars?

        Namely, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (which apparently improved the original by a ton and also includes all previous content) and Sword of the Stars Complete Edition (containing the base game and all 3 expansions).

        I hear that they are macro-focused RTS games with 4X elements, as opposed to being true 4X games; still, they sound promising, yet, on first glance, oh so similar.

        So, I am having a hard time trying to come to a conclusion when it comes to them; all I know is that, apparently, Sword of the Stars II sucks.

        • Sin Vega says:

          I’m completely unqualified to help with Sword of the Stars and Sins of a Solar Umpire, and as it happens they’re the two games that have for whatever reason consolidated in my mind. I always forget which is which and despite buying both I’ve never taken the time to play either for more than ten minutes.

          For what it’s worth, I hear Sword of the Stars talked about much more often, particularly in terms of each race doing things a different way.

          • Zankman says:

            Haha, so I am not the only one…

            I’ll look into them, maybe you should get to playing them too when you get the time.

        • DEspresso says:

          Sins of a Solar Empire is a RTS set in Space, SotS is a TBS with (optional) realtime combat which is mainly about ship design imo.

          SotS II was unfortunately quite broken at (premature) Release and while it runs stable now quite some convenient feature from part 1 didn’t make it. For instance in the First one you could rightclick a slot to fill every samesize slot with the same antimatter cannon, in part II this crashes the game ;)

          Still pick up SotS, I recommend it if only for the asymmetrical Races with own priorities in Ship Design. Unique styles of Travel later stolen copied by Stellaris (Warp-Lanes, Jump Gates, Sublight) and sliders for everything.

          The Universe Lore got reused in the SotS: The Pit Dungeon Crawler.

          Ships completed my Queen.

          • Zankman says:

            Thanks for the input.

            Not sure if a game where ship design is very important sounds appealing to me. :/

        • Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

          Sword of the Stars I is fun as hell and I absolutely adore it. It’s very much focused on combat, though: don’t expect a deep level of simulation on anything other than that. It’s a 4X in name only. Think Total War in space.

          What it does offer is a lot of asymmetry in the races, ship customization, huge space monsters and a simple but well made real time battle system. Oh, and lore, which is detailed enough to explain why the insectoid race finds polygonal shapes relaxing, to the point that they use them in their art.

          SotS II? Don’t bother. It didn’t get even half the support it needed. It’s still slightly broken, the UI demands a three steps process between different screens just to move a fucking unit (Sots I was point and click and more than capable of filtering through hundreds of units stationed on a planet), there are weapons available since the early game having no counter until much later and draconian limits on fleet sizes for no reason other than “We want you to get attached to your ships”. Sots I had MASSIVE battles right from the beginning.
          The one good thing about Sots II is that it’s very, very pretty ti look at. If you can get them both in a bundle, this might make it worth it for one playthrough. Otherwise, play Sots I.

          @DEspresso: “The princess has landed, my Queen!”

          • khamul says:

            Sword Of The Stars 1 is absolutely Total War in space: well, with the expansions there’s some options for less than total war. In the base game, ‘bomb the planet flat and rebuild’ was the *only* diplomatic option…

            But it was a truly, deeply, innovative game in a way that no other 4X game I’ve come across has matched. It will also very happily hand you your ass, without cheating: start on easy, and give yourself advantages.

            I think SOTS2 gets an unfairly bad rap. Which is not to say that the criticisms are not justified – they are! But it was an attempt by Kerberos to do something *different* to SOTS1, and if you’ve played a lot of SOTS1, it takes some effort to get your head around the new systems, how they work, and to break your assumptions of how they *should* work.

            It’s not entirely successful, but it’s interesting. And, as mentioned, very pretty – even for a game that’s a good few years old now.

            The one thing both games desperately need is a campaign mode, to slowly introduce and teach the player the systems. As it is, they pretty much chuck you in the deep end and let you figure it out – and there’s a lot to learn (e.g. without Point Defense – anti-missile lasers – you’re going to have a hard time. But it’s not a core tech, the tech tree is HUGE, and it’s easy not to discover it. And because tech tree links have a %age chance to exist, outside core, you might not ever get it… until you know that, you’re playing at a big disadvantage).

            All in all it is absolutely _criminal_ that other studios haven’t been watching and learning from what SotS did.

            We need a ‘have you played’ on it.

        • PhilBowles says:

          Sins is a very traditional RTS wrapped in 4x graphics – where Starcraft, say, has bases with mineral deposits and blank areas between them, Sins has planets with mineral asteroids orbiting them, separated by space lanes. For most of its run that’s really all it was – you amass giant fleets and stick them at the edge of the lanes which act as choke points to either attack or defend.

          The execution was capable in principle, but the game wasn’t doing anything as novel as it appeared to, the timescale was too slow for multiplayer, and while the AI came with a suite of possible personalities, each was very predictable and long games basically ended up with them building superweapons to fire at your planets more or less at random, whether or not they had a fleet capable of moving in (only one of the factions actually destroyed the planet’s population and so could win the game with superweapons alone).

          It got much better as an exploration game with its small DLCs, which added more of a true 4x feel, but the gameplay remains basically “very slow-paced Starcraft” that’s essentially single player-only.

      • Lacero says:

        SR and SR2 are totally different games, SR is a sandbox like game about ever bigger ships, SR2 is an actual 4x with new mechanics.

        I’d struggle to recommend SR to anyone, the interface is bad and the game concept is a little bit mad. It’ll appeal most to people who like aurora but they’ll be put off by the lack of detail.

        SR2 I’d recommend to anyone interested in 4x, it’s worth playing a few hours of it or reading the explorminate review just to see the new ideas. the explorminate site in general is a good place to visit if you don’t want to miss any 4x game (even the shoddy and generic one ;)

        • Harlander says:

          The most important feature in Star Ruler 2, in my opinion, it its diplomacy mechanics. It plays a little like a card-based minigame from some forgotten Twilight Imperium-alike, and it’s absolutely the most responsive and interesting diplomacy mechanism in a vs-AI game I’ve ever seen.

    • Kalle says:

      Distant Worlds is the worst game I have played in years and I would advise anyone to stay well away. It sets itself out as an innovative universe sim but the big problem is that there is absolutely no attempt to teach the player how to interact with the simulation. The manual is a joke. There are endless player guides on the forums that cover partial aspects of the game, some better than others, but nothing that would enable a new player to progress in any kind of linear fashion.

      I spent 20 hours trying to learn how to play Distant Worlds with the Steam release and iirc five expansions behind it. I had no more of an idea how to make my empire successful after twenty hours than I did when I first sat down to play.

      Everything about Distant Worlds is a black box of design with little or no documentation where I found myself experimenting without seeing how anything I did made any meaningful impact on the game. The game lets you automate any (or all) systems in the game you don’t want to mess with and while I find that as laudable hands-off approach to empire management it also means that if you stop actually engaging with the underlying systems you’re even less likely to figure out how anything in the game actually works.

      • Zankman says:

        Surely you’d consider Dwarf Fortress to be a worse game then, no?

        • Kalle says:

          There are a couple of differences between DF and Distant Worlds.

          First off, DF is free while Distant Worlds cost me 50 euros. If I pay nothing I’m owed nothing. If I pay 50 euros I’m owed a hell of a lot more than a bunch of collected forum posts because the devs can’t be arsed to explain their own game.

          Second, the basics of learning how to play DF can be picked up in an hour. Make a settlement, watch it fail, learn from your mistakes, then try again. The interface is complex but it’s fairly easy to grasp why your settlement failed. You didn’t plant enough food, or you didn’t train militia, or you tried to build an aqueduct in the wrong way. In Distant Worlds I kept failing but unlike in DF the reasons why I failed were a lot less clear. Was it because I didn’t research the right tech? Were my ship designs wrong? Did I mess up the economy? I had no clue.

          DF’s simulation is relatable and direct. Dwarfs with needs that are easily understandable and don’t require much in the way of explanations. Distant World’s simulation is abstract. Future civilisations, starships, aliens, galactic economics.

      • WCG says:

        I keep thinking I learned to play Distant Worlds from watching a YouTube tutorial series, but I didn’t make a note of which one. Sorry.

        But if you want a 4X space game that’s hard to learn, try Aurora 4X. Wow! It’s free, and I love the idea behind it, but it makes Dwarf Fortress seem simple.

        The community at the form is very helpful, and I did learn enough to figure it out, but I’ve never gotten very far whenever I’ve made the attempt. I guess I just don’t have that much ambition these days…

    • PhilBowles says:

      The sense I always had with Distant Worlds is that it’s the game Master of Orion 3 always wanted to be.

      Before hitting Steam as a full package it was dogged by appalling pricing and marketing (an interface patch was sold at full price as the Return of the Shakturi expansion, and basic features that were in MOO 2 from release – from characters to weapon types like fighters and assault boats to pre-warp starts to ground combat – were absent until all three expansions were released).

      It still has serious interface problems (a key bugbear being the lack of any way to prioritise the galaxy resource list by resources needed for ship construction), but functionally it has to be the best space 4x out there. It really makes the case this article does: 20 years on, it’s just about got to the point where it’s doing what MOO 3 wanted to do right, but it stops there.
      There’s not a lot of added depth and the sheer scale works against it when working with an array of planet, space monster, quest and anomaly types no larger than the norm established by MOO back in the day, but it has a level of emergent gameplay other games lack. For instance minor races left alone eventually develop space travel and act like any other empire.

      Just be prepared that the late game, shorn of micromanagement, is pretty tedious and that the victory conditions (even with the race-specific spin) are all basic number crunching – this is a 4x to play as a sandbox into the midgame rather than one to play to completion.

  7. Hyena Grin says:

    Thank you, every time an article comes out that casually throws MoO3 under the bus, I feel compelled to make some sort of rebuttal.

    Nobody would defend its release state or the bungled features. It was by no means a hidden gem disliked merely for being different. There was good reason to dislike the game even if you weren’t a returning fan of the series.

    But the fact remains that it’s approach was way ahead of its time, and if the studio had been given time to wrangle all the puzzle pieces that weren’t quite fitting, I genuinely believe it would have been the model 4X game that influenced the genre for decades to come. It was a much more intelligent and deep approach, with a lot more room for growth and variation.

    But as it happened, the game was released in an awful state, and so instead it stood as a warning sign to all those who might stray from the One True Formula.

    And anyone who thinks we’re better off with decades of MoO2 offshoots is not invited to my birthday party. Nyah. =I

  8. WCG says:

    “If anything, it’s wargamers, not 4X fans, who might get the most out of a campaign once it’s in full swing.”

    You’ve hit on my problem with these games. I loved the original MOO because I could terraform planets, building up even relatively-poor prospects into thriving societies, with vast fleets for protection.

    I loved Civilization II because I could modify terrain (Engineers were my favorite units, by far) and build roads and railroads everywhere – again, building a thriving society. And I’m a huge fan of research that lets me do so.

    In both cases, war was absolutely necessary, and I would gladly wage war when attacked. But I’m not interested in wargames, whether they’re set in space or not. That’s not the part that interests me about 4X games.

    Unfortunately, that’s where such games keep going – more and more to just another wargame. I’ve been disappointed in every sequel after the original MOO and every sequel after Civ II. (Admittedly, there’s something to be said for the fact that I can’t play the same game all the time, so sequels probably wouldn’t be very exciting, anyway.)

    So far, Distant Worlds is the only 4X space game I’ve really enjoyed since the original MOO all those years ago. Stellaris looks a bit different, though. I haven’t tried that one yet.

    • Sin Vega says:

      War is the killer of most of my 4x campaigns. It’s nearly always such a ballache, especially when you’re forced into it, which you almost always are.

      I really hope Arcen can pull out of their rough patch and get Stars Beyond Reach into shape, as from what I recall, minimising combat was an important goal. If anyone can do something weird and novel with the genre, it’s probably them.

    • DEspresso says:

      Curious: What did you think of Alien Crossfire where you could literally build a mountain to turn your neighbours land into desert?

    • Nauallis says:

      You sound like me! Are you me?

      Anyway, since building is your preference and fighting ONLY when you have to… don’t play Stellaris. Not the base game, anyway, and honestly, since the base game forces you into warfare whether you like it or not, I’m not sure that playing it long enough to mod it is worth it against that vexatious “backlog of games” that we all seem to have. Stellaris will force you into warfare simply to continue as the #1 species, even if you are playing as a pacifist race.

      • WCG says:

        I’m not exactly a pacifist. I just prefer to play the ‘good guys’ – i.e. the the species which kicks butt after it’s attacked by an aggressor.

        One of the reasons I like Distant Worlds Universe is because pirates are always happy enough to be the bad guys. :)

        I’m not at all a wargamer, but I would get very bored without combat. I really enjoy building up my economy, research, etc., but I can’t be happy if there’s no danger. So, oddly enough, I don’t want a game where everyone else is reasonable. Funny, huh?

  9. TheOx129 says:

    I’m glad to see MoO3 getting some recognition for what it tried to do, even if it fell short of its goals for the most part. I tried the game long after its disastrous release with one of the fan patches (Chocolate or Strawberry or some such name) and remember being consistently compelled by the various ideas they had, even if many of them were not well-realized or just fundamentally broken. Needless to say, I was happy to discover Distant Worlds while being simultaneously disappointed that it had taken so long for someone to pick up MoO3’s torch and explore some of their ideas further.

    For me, while it’s a good game, I think MoO2 was a step in the wrong direction: it made the game too much like Civilization and introduced needless micromanagement. Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like the odd man out, as it’s clear that 2 is easily the best in the series for many out there. On that note, outside of the first Sword of the Stars game, has any other 4X explored the use of a slider system a la MoO1 to reduce micro?

    Anyway, I think the recent emergence of various 4X games that “go back to the drawing board” in one area or another – the aforementioned Distant Worlds, the Endless games by Amplitude, At the Gates, Stellaris, Alliance of the Sacred Suns, etc. – shows that many designers agree the genre is desperate need of a shakeup. And, while I can’t speak for others, once I discovered grand strategy games, the uber-traditional 4X just didn’t do much for me anymore, so I’m glad to see some new ideas being explored, even if they end up not quite working in the end.

  10. mercyRPG says:

    Masterful Games list: MOO1, MOO2, MOM 1. Loved all three equally. Then came MOO3 horrible trainwreck and we were shocked at how bad it was.. Just like this new Master of Orion with MP3-player battles, play, rewind, pause or what the heck ever. Jeeesus! Apage Satanas!

  11. jezcentral says:

    Other 4X games grind to a halt? Au contraire, MOO3 took so long between turns, I left it to run overnight on my first playthrough, which just ran into a brick wall of longer and longer turns, so I had to start again. This time, the game ended when the council voted to make another race Kings of the Universe. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but the game had barely started, and I hadn’t even got as far as meeting any other races. I never went back.

  12. Lacero says:

    There’s a good series of articles waiting to be written comparing the different attempts to bring something new to the 4x genre and the effect they have on a game.

    The card based battles of Endless Space, The automation of Distant Worlds, the story events and racial characteristics of Stellaris, and the everything of Star Ruler 2.

    • Firgof says:

      I have sent many offers for free keys to check out Star Ruler 2 to RPS. None of those e-mails were ever responded to. Don’t expect RPS to check it out or even talk about it – for some reason or other it’s just not ever going to be on their todo list.

  13. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Lizard races will almost invariably hate the aquatic races, robots hate ethereals, insectoids hate silicoids, and everyone hates the Harvesters – sentient bioweapons who can never join the Senate and will infect and assimilate anyone they share a planet with.

    Ugh. This is what ultimately turned me off of Distant Worlds: Universe.

    Smart strategy devs use backstories as a starting point for faction relations, not as the determining factor. Fail to do so and you’ve severely detracted from your game’s replay value.

  14. malkav11 says:

    MOO3 for me stands largely as a great example of why I’d far rather an unambitious title that’s executed very well than an ambitious title that fails at its lofty goals. MOO3 may try, but it does not DO. And so there’s far less fun to be had with it than any of the subsequent stabs at remaking MOO2. (Or, better yet, just playing MOO2 again.)

    I suspect the focus on innovation that games journalists seem to have as a class stems from the ennui that sets in when one -must- play these things past the point where they would naturally have set them down.

    • Sin Vega says:

      That doesn’t help, but I’ve felt the opposite way to you for years, and I’ve been reviewing games for less than two – and even those were almost all games that I was already familiar with and picked out myself.

      The bigger factor is simply exposure. If you’ve played loads of games over a long period, it’s likely you’ll start to value ambitious or unusual things more than the less obsessive player. The same phenomenon happens with people who watch a lot of films or listen to a lot of music, or even go to loads of restaurants.

      The thing is, derivative but good games are never going away, but original, flawed games are both more likely to inspire something better (hell, a lot of safe formulaic games only exist because someone else took a punt on a crazy idea and screwed up first), and more likely to sink without getting a fair hearing.

      • malkav11 says:

        I question that, because I think odds are good I’ve been exposed to as many games as you have, if not more. I have played a -lot- of games in the last couple of decades, and own many more I’ve yet to touch. I just don’t finish them all that often.

        And I think iterative design is more likely to produce that something better than failed attempts at shooting the moon. Don’t get me wrong, when an ambitious design is nailed, it’s really something. But that’s not the case far too much of the time.

      • WCG says:

        I suspect that reviewers play so many games that they always want something new, whereas a more casual player might just enjoy a fun game without even knowing about how derivative it is.

        Likewise, devoted fans of a game always want it to be harder, harder, harder, while the rest of us might get frustrated at that.

        I loved the original Mount & Blade, even though I was terrible at it. (I’m old, so I didn’t grow up with video games.) But I couldn’t play the sequel at all, since they made the combat too difficult for me. So disappointing!

        Hmm,… I’m getting off the subject, aren’t I? Sorry. I just wondered if being a reviewer might present the same problem I usually have with sequels. If I love a game, I want the sequel to be just as much fun. But I can’t just play the same game all the time, so it has to be different, too. That makes a contradiction that tends to make sequels disappointing.

        A reviewer who plays a lot of games would probably get bored with encountering the same features in games, even when they’re good features. I suspect that reviewers might have a particular bias towards novelty, just for that reason.

  15. left1000 says:

    I do think moo3 helped inspire distant worlds and even to some small extent stellaris. Moo3 absolutely failed to work. However it’s original design document/pitch was probably quite good and I hope we continue to see games like dwu stellaris push towards the dream quicksilver had so long ago.

    moo3 actually had a pretty robust combat system. I wish combat in stellaris/dwu were more complicated. At least as complicated as moo3, or sots1. Sots1 or SEIV probably have the most complicated combat, although moo3’s ship designer itself is quite complicated.

  16. Einsammler says:

    I spent a lot of time reading dev diaries before the release of MOO3. There were enough fascinating ideas that it became my education in not pre-ordering games…

    Imperial Focus Points were mentioned as a resource early on. It was supposed to be the attention of you, the actual ruler, and the limits of your ability to meddle in your imperial bureaucracy. Fight a battle manually? Spend an IFP. Set a planet’s production queue differently than the AI governor? IFP.

    Unfortunately the final product contained actively malicious governors and the only limit on your ability to micromanage is the AI’s ability to set things back after you press end turn.

  17. Laurentius says:

    MoO3 is a bad game. It has some good ideas but it is a bad game. One may even fel love in with bad game from time to time but point still stands.

  18. Wulfram says:

    I can’t help but feel that the idea of automating stuff that’se below the level the player is supposed to care about is fundamentally flawed.

    If the player shouldn’t care about it, it shouldn’t exist. Leaving it to the AI just creates frustration when it doesn’t work properly

    Stellaris has the same issue with sectors IMO. Its struggling to get the AI to be good enough at doing things that don’t really need to exist.

    • P.Funk says:

      Automation of this kind is not meant to make the elements being automated uninteresting to the player or to deal with things that are uninteresting. Instead its to make their operation fundamentally different to micromanagement. The output of the automated system is interesting, but the goal is to direct the output from a distance so you can focus on a much more complicated macro-system without the need to be responsible for every minuscule detail of it.

      Its a much more realistic and sane way to make decisions. Delegating to AI is one of those holy grail things if you can get it to work right. It creates new gameplay rather than simply being about eliminating gameplay. Its like how in Company of Heroes you can just send your troops to a spot and they automatically take cover. That’s adding something rather than taking it away. Its being Napolean rather than being every single Brigade commander at Waterloo simultaneously.

    • WCG says:

      “If the player shouldn’t care about it, it shouldn’t exist.”

      The thing is, players are different. We all have different tastes. I like to micromanage some things – maybe more than you do, or maybe just different things.

      I like automating the details when I can choose which details to automate. And sometimes that changes. When I first started playing Distant Worlds, for example, I automated some things that I run manually now. Well, it’s hard to learn everything at once, but as I became more familiar with the game, I started to turn off some of the automation.

      Players vary, in tastes and in experience with a game. I’m a huge fan of options in games – the more, the better – and I think that the ability to automate, or not, is a great choice to offer a player.

  19. ilitarist says:

    Reviewers and hardcore 4X fans want new exciting ways for the genre to go.

    Most players want a new empire building game that is at least as good as the one they’ve played 15 years ago. Once we have a milestone good game you’ll see successful attempts to get away from formula instead of implementing the old “but this time it will work”.

    We need space game as good as Civ4 for the genre to get over trying to make a good MoO game (and even MoO2 wasn’t really a good MoO game) and to make its own Civ5 which redefines the genre and revives the genre.

    • carewolf says:

      If you want a new game better than the one you played 15 years ago, you are REALLY out of luck. At least this was a reasonable request. You can get games that look better and are more streamlined for new players, but something that is even remotely on par, let alone surpass it, especially for experienced players: No.

      That is the problem