Sid Meier's Starships review – deep-space exploration with a nod to the past

Sid Smeier's Starships logo

There is definitely a niche in games that embrace lapsed gamers.

The kind of people who grew up playing PC or console games; who used to be great at them; and who still love games in theory. But who in practice haven’t got the time – or frankly the skills – to play them properly any more.

The teenage me easily racked up 10,000 hours of expertise in Championship Manager games, for example. But put me in front of the latest version of Football Manager on a PC, and my face takes on the haunted expression of David Moyes at the nadir of his time in charge of Manchester United.

(Specifically: this face.)

I’m a lapsed gamer, in many ways, but the games industry is realising there are plenty like me. See the “Classic Mode” in the recent Football Manager games that strip away the complexity again. Or, as I like to call it: #DadMode.

Also see the way mobile game Clash of Clans appeals to people who were amazing at Command & Conquer in their youth, but would mouse-flail like idiots if thrown into a League of Legends game now.

Or, indeed, see Starships: a new game from veteran designer Sid Meier that you’ll love if you grew up with his Civilization, but feel a bit lost amid the sheer scale of its modern sequels. The setting may be deep space rather than land and sea, but this game’s genetic link to the original Civ is undeniable – and that’s a great thing.

Starships is all about, yes, starships: your fleet of starships which you build and upgrade, while exploring the galaxy and either conquering other factions or keeping the peace with them.

It doesn’t look like Civilization, but the comparison is all about the rhythm of the game as you explore, fight battles and build cities, research scientific advancements and improve the planets that join your federation.

Games can be done and dusted in a few hours if you choose the small map, or much longer with the “epic” one. And most importantly, the blend of upgrades, combat and exploration is restricted enough not to feel intimidating, but not so shallow that you get bored.

You’ll start with a homeworld and two ships, from which you can travel to nearby planets and complete missions to build influence with their populations, and ultimately to welcome them into your galactic gang. Once in, you can build improvements to strengthen their defences and yield more resources for your cause.

The resources include energy, metals, science and food, and balancing them is the key to healthily growing your space empire, while ensuring you don’t leave any weak spots for enemies to attack.

The turn-based missions are the core of the game: they take place on hex-based maps incorporating planets, asteroids, warp gates – which zip you to different parts of the map instantly – and enemy starships. Goals vary from destroying pirates and securing facilities to escorting transport ships and simply surviving for a certain number of turns.

Beating the missions requires careful fleet management as you spend your acquired energy on upgrades for your ships – engines, shields and armour through to torpedoes and stealth cloaking – and build new ones.

As you get to know the different missions, you’ll experiment with building different kinds of starships that best suit them, as well as your own tactics. There’s great satisfaction to be had scooting through warp gates and jumping out from behind asteroids (or whatever the spaceship equivalent of jumping out is) as you get to grips with the gameplay.

The main point, though, is that you will get to grips with the gameplay. Sid Meier’s Starships is accessible and it’s comprehensible even if your strategy gaming muscles are rusty – you can get your head around what you need to do and how to do it.

It’s a game you can complete, and when you do, you’ll want to start playing again immediately, perhaps bumping up the difficulty level or increasing the map size. That’s exactly the same kind of replayability spark that Civilization had all those years ago.

There are some limitations. The diplomacy aspects are basically “we’re at war” or “we’re at peace”, and there isn’t an overarching story to uncover as you go along: this is a conquer-the-board game rather than a sci-fi space epic. Less a criticism, necessarily, and more about managing expectations.

Starships has been released for PC and Mac, and also for iPad. The latter may be the platform where it prospers, not just because it adapts seamlessly to touchscreen controls, but because it’s tailor-made for the common on-sofa, on-train and in-bed tablet gameplay patterns of people who don’t have huge slabs of (non-work) computer time.

Being a lapsed gamer isn’t about growing up – the notion of games as a childhood pursuit that you can and should grow out of is as ridiculous as suggesting you can grow out of other artforms like music or film.

Lapsed gaming is about not managing to find time for the thing you still love: kids, work pressures, abject shame at dying seven times on the controls-explaining introduction to Grand Theft Auto V. For example.

Tablet and smartphones have engaged a huge new audience in games who didn’t play before, which is exciting, but these devices – and the contexts they’re used in – have also re-engaged old gamers by helping them to find the time they worried they’d lost.

As it turns out, Sid Meier’s Starships fits neatly into those gameplay patterns, whether you’re hunkered down for half an hour on the train or taking the odd turn while watching TV – while still working just as well on a PC screen glowing late at night, with a player who can’t stop taking just one more go.

• Sid Meier’s Starships costs £12.99 for PC, Mac and iPad

Powered by article was written by Stuart Dredge, for on Friday 13th March 2015 15.33 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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