StarDrive was my first real foray into the space 4X strategy genre since Galactic Civilizations II, a game from which StarDrive appears to derive much inspiration. The basic premise should be familiar to fans of the genre - you head a galactic empire spanning multiple solar systems, and it's up to you to conquer, obtain through subterfuge, or negotiate your way to galactic supremacy.
In your quest for galactic supremacy, you focus primarily on managing your colonies and space fleet, which dominates the majority of game play. This involves developing your core planets and colonies to produce food, production, and research, which grow your population, construct buildings and ships, and develop new technologies respectively. Planets produce a combination of these resources based on their inherent capabilities, which can be enhanced through research and development, and The AI will take over specializing planets for you based on your preference.
Exploring and discovering new planets is rather simple - you start with a scout and they go forth into uncharted territory, finding new planets and giving you a brief summary of its capabilities. You can explore manually if you wish, but given your other tasks, you can simply order your scout to wander to new galaxies on its own. In fact, each of your ships can be automated to perform its key tasks, with your more specialized ships able to automatically transport resources where they are needed, and military ships automatically patrolling your empire to provide the necessary defense. The automation is effective and welcome especially while learning to play the game, and the AI is satisfyingly effective at managing your empire as you tend to tasks that interest you.
This automation is welcome, because the map can be enormous and somewhat unwieldy at times, but it is filled with beautiful visuals and plenty of tasks and stimulation for the player. The game speed is variable, allowing for some alleviation of uneventful peaceful periods, but the diplomacy helps carry the game through down times. The diplomacy is hardly innovative; you can trade, make war, make alliances, etc, but it does provide the depth players have come to expect in any empire management game. You can also engage in espionage if you so choose, though again, it is not particularly innovative to anyone familiar with the Civilization series or other empire building games.
The AI is erratic in its ability to handle the diplomacy/espionage system - most of the time it seems to perform well, but occasionally it will break down and exhibit some bizarre behavior. Each race has a unique, amusing, and somewhat engaging diplomacy screen, with variation in their messages based on your relationship and their unique racial personalities which alter their aggressiveness and general strategies (forget the bizarre, showy, and repetitive Civilization V diplomatic screens).
On the topic of playable races: each race is heavily customizable, and contains virtually all sci-fi tropes without being too dependent upon these tropes in order to add flavor. There are your insect swarms and AI collectives, but also some unique and amusing races, such as samurai bears and followers of Cthulu.
The customization of races entails allotting bonus traits and penalty traits, each of which provide a positive or negative point count, which must balance one another out. This allows the player to create racial characteristics with clear strategies in mind, or a balanced race with long term goals, and make for many different combinations and a varied play style across multiple play-throughs, enhancing replay value.
The system of alerting you when things happen across the empire could use a little bit of work, in that it will notify you of really important events but periodically you will lose ships or face enemies without much prompting. I lost my starting frigate, I assume to some random enemy drones I found in a solar system I wandered into, without much prompting from the alert system. Given how massive the world is, watching all your borders and systems can be a bit overwhelming and problematic.
As with any game that is rather deep, there is something of a learning curve, and some of the more interesting features require a fair bit of investment in time and attention in order to enjoy to the fullest, while some fall a bit flat into the late game. While automation of most features alleviates this problem considerably, the research aspect of the game is one area where players must simply guess which will be most effective, as the research tree is enormous and it isn't entirely clear what the actual benefits of each technology will be without considerable experience.
Military conflict is the same way - I ended up just building lots of ships and hoping my forces would win, without too much understanding of the relative capabilities of my fleets to my enemies. This became a problem in planetary assaults and ground based combat - I suffered a rebellion which took me considerable time to identify and learn how to suppress.
The economy seems like it could use some more work fleshing out, and while some of the features are interesting at first, a few seem like they could use more development to make them truly integral and interesting parts of the game, especially towards the end. Each of these somewhat obtuse and involving features may scare some casual players away, and made the game feel a bit incomplete, but the developers at least deserve credit for their considerable efforts to make the game more accessible to new players.
Overall, this game is a welcome entrant to the 4X space genre, with a good mixture of the empire building aspects with nice visuals, decent diplomacy, and some cool space battles. If you prefer a space empire game more in the vein of Galactic Civilizations II with less emphasis on combat, this will be a great pick up, though if you prefer more gratuitous space battles, the combat may fall a bit flat for your tastes.
The game is built on a solid foundation but does suffer from some obtuse features, but if you are at all interested in the 4X space genre and are willing to wait a bit for patches to fix some of these few remaining issues, for $30 dollars it will be a great addition to your gaming library.
This review is based on a digital review copy of the game for the PC provided by Iceberg Interactive.