StarDrive is Zero Sum Games' entry into the 4X game arena. Typically based in space, 4X games charge the player with growing their fledgling empire through eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation, and, if need be, eXtermination. So, without further ado, let's see how well StarDrive measures up:
The game comes with eight pre-generated races to play, from humans through intelligent plants all the way to squidly-looking critters that worship Cthulhu. Each race has special abilities that tweak gameplay in certain ways along with its own distinctive ship designs and flags/icons. You can customize the flag icons even if you choose a pre-gen race, or you can go all out and customize your entire race by picking your own name and choosing your special abilities from a long list of various physical, sociological, and historical traits.
Once you've got that ironed out, you set up the game itself by selecting galaxy size, density of solar system distribution, number of opponents, game pacing (how fast research and construction is conducted), and AI difficulty. There's also a “Game Mode” selector, but there doesn't seem to be any way to pick something other than the “Sandbox” setting, which simply lets you win by either conquering everyone or uniting all the other races in a grand alliance. My guess is that this selector is for future DLC and/or scenarios, or it's a leftover from initial development that didn't quite pan out. The last setup tweak available is a setting to adjust how fast FTL travel works within systems and planetary gravity wells.
The game starts you off in true 4X fashion: You've got a single planet that's reasonably well established, a scout ship, a colony ship, and a basic combat ship. Right off the bat the game starts to diverge from typical 4X-ery, though. First of all, you can directly control any ship you select as if it was a top-down shooter. You can drive it around and shoot at things if you're so equipped. In practice, though, I was usually far too busy with engagement tactics to even consider driving around a ship on its own.
Planets and colonies form the backbone of your empire. Each generates food, production, and research according to its population in whatever ratios you decide to set. Have a colony on a world with high fertility? Turn it into a food production powerhouse. Here's where StarDrive differentiates itself yet again: While your empire's entire research is treated as one big pool of Science, food and production can be stored and shared between colonies. You can design and build freighters and then set them to automatically shuttle food, production, and colonists from worlds that have a surplus to worlds that need them. This creates actual supply lines that can be interdicted and destroyed, allowing you to blockade systems to choke them off or send raiders into the rear areas of an enemy empire to wreak havoc.
It should be noted here that while the game plays in real time (as opposed to turn-based 4X games like Endless Space or Civ 5), the game does pause automatically when you're in one of the planning screens or if you hit the spacebar. This lets you pause the game and set up a whole slew of orders, then unpause it to watch it play out.
And time is definitely something you'll need when you're designing ships. Ship design is a big part of space-based 4X games. Since starships are your main means of projecting power, most games give you a lot of choices in hull sizes, weapons, defenses, sometimes even colors. This is probably the area where StarDrive really distances itself from its competition. Instead of simply creating a list of weapons and modules that all fit into a hull's various limits, StarDrive has you actually place each component inside the hull where you want it to be. Ship hulls have slots for Engines, Inside, Outside, and Inside/Outside components. Each possible component can only be placed in a slot with a matching restriction. If a weapon can only be placed in an Outside slot, then you can forget about sticking it deep in the middle of your ship for protection. When you install powerplants, each plant can only power modules within a certain radius of itself. If you want to power modules further than that, you have to build extra powerplants nearby or run power conduits to extend a plant's influence. If that powerplant gets damaged during a fight, all the modules powered by it are affected too. If the plant explodes, get ready to lose a big chunk of your ship.
In combat, ship damage is applied according to facing and module placement. This is where the fleet design screen comes into play. You can design up to ten fleets, assign ship designs to each fleet, position your ships just so, and give them orders within the fleet to preferentially attack or defend certain targets in certain ways, maintain formations, and other rules of engagement. If you don't have the ships already built for a fleet or have lost some in a battle, you can queue up new ships to fill out your empty places with a single click of the Requisition button. Very handy. As you can see, the ability to fly an individual ship is neat but almost irrelevant given all the ways you can customize and manage ship combat.
And how do you get all those lovely missiles and cannons and ship hulls? Research, of course. There are six tech trees: Colonization (which gives you various ways to improve colonies), Energy (which covers shielding technologies and energy weapons), Socio-Logistics (various ways to influence diplomacy and economics), Physics (better engines, sensors, and things like EMP effects), Space Weapons (which covers all the space-based weaponry that uses ammunition), and Starship Construction (your source for all your other ship hulls besides the measly ones you start out with, along with armor technologies and nifty modules like fighter and raider bays for creating things like carriers). Research is fairly standard as these things go. You make a research queue and the game goes down the list, giving you new technologies as it completes items. Nothing really new here.
Research also gives you access to new buildings for your colonies. These offer various ways to improve your colony by affecting resource production, adding defenses against invasion, helping your colonies build ships faster and better, and so on. Colony management consists of micromanaging the individual food/production/research sliders or just telling the AI to manage it according to preset preferences, along with setting an empire-wide tax rate that's your main method of getting currency but also takes away from colony production by the same percentage. Each colony also has a production queue for whatever buildings and ships you want to build. Colony improvements are laid out in a grid that's supposed to represent the planet's surface. This grid is also used for ground assaults when attacking a world, so you can land troops to tackle defenses first, then move onto the squishier bits.
No 4X game would be complete without a way to negotiate treaties and such with your opponents. StarDrive gives you the option to chat up your opponents, take a peaceful, neutral, or threatening posture, negotiate treaties, and recruit and train spies to steal tech, sabotage colonies, and other various nefarious enterprises.
So that's the basics of the game, but how much fun is it? I think one of StarDrive's problems is a common one amongst 4X games: A learning curve shaped roughly like a cliff. In its rush to have lots of unique features that differentiate it from the competition and to maximize replayability, it's piled on a ton of fiddly complex details and then committed the cardinal sin of not offering a tutorial to help you figure them out. Oh, there's a selection on the main menu called “Tutorials” but it's just a slideshow of screenshots with various items picked out, like a Powerpoint on “Stellar Conquest For Dummies.” There are some tooltips and a decent help system inside the game itself that gives you a basic overview of most of the game's systems, but it's largely up to you to figure out how it all gets put together. I also found some tooltips apparently missing, usually in places I really wanted them. It's all well and good to have an intricate game, but I'd rather spend my time playing the game itself rather than trying to figure out how to play.
The AI can be brutal, even at normal levels. Some can be relatively peaceful but at least half of your opponents will have no qualms at all about eyeing your military and then attacking relentlessly if they think you're weak, which can put you on a defensive footing that's hard to recover from. This can make a diplomatic victory (where you basically convince all the other empires to be absorbed into your “federation”) nigh impossible, which is going to disappoint the pacifists out there. I should note here that this is a single-player-only game, no multiplayer. It's possible to team up with other AI players, but the only sort of coordination you can pull off is on the level of “Hey, let's go to war with that guy over there.”
One of the game's signature features, the high level of ship customization, might also be its biggest hill to climb. Players of “Gratuitous Space Battles” will know what I mean here. It's not so much that there's a gigantic list of ship components, but there are virtually endless ways to put them together. I found it far too easy to spend far too long fiddling around in the Shipyard screen shuffling power plants and weapons and cargo bays and engines and defenses and… You get the picture. I think ship customization is a good thing in space 4X games, but I feel like this might be too much of a good thing.