Confession: I haven’t played the original Master of Orion since, like, 1995. So trying to think back to the series now in 2016, with a reboot on the way, has been a strange experience.
I remember it being good. Wonderful, even. It was a strategy game that I’m pretty sure had some smart ideas about the differences between factions, about customising your gear, about exploring the vastness of space.
But I don’t remember it clearly. The specifics are lost to me, so approaching this reboot (which is still in Early Access, so these are impressions, not a REVIEW), I was excited, if also short on the details of what I was supposed to be comparing this to. I had a vague recollection of some outlines of greatness, not a fresh shopping list of finer details that I was going to compare between the old and the new.
So excuse me if the first thing I notice is that I think this game owes a lot to Civilization V. Maybe this is my foggy memory of the original talking, maybe it’s the fact I’ve played a lot of Civ V lately, but the influence is everywhere. In some ways, like how leaders are introduced and presented with lush full-screen animated sequences (and one hell of a cast voicing them), it’s obvious. Others, like a general feeling of logical slickness when it comes to the interface, the linear tech tree and a soft, relaxing score are less clear, but they linger nonetheless. Ironically, in many ways this feels more like a Civilization game than that series’ own sci-fi spinoff, Beyond Earth.
The tools at your disposal are clean and fast and very well implemented. I almost didn’t need the tutorial; a combination of familiarisation with Civ V and good menu design mean getting around MoO felt quick and snappy. Everything I needed was only a few mouse clicks away, and I never got lost or felt like something important had been buried under 13 menus.
With a pretty face, a zippy UI and some cool features like news broadcasts (that give you periodic updates on the state of the game), after a few hours coming to grips with Master of Orion I felt good, like I was about to settle in with a decent game about kicking arse in space. But… nope. Just as I expected the tutorial side of things to taper off and lead me into the real meat of the game, around three to four hours in, I found there wasn’t actually much to keep me interested.
It feels like NGD Studios, the team tasked with rebooting the series, have taken painstaking notes on the little flourishes that make a game like Civ V great, but forgot to bring over some of the more substantial and important elements of the genre.
I never felt like the game opened up in scope, presented fresh challenges or really varied itself too much between the races. I never felt like there was a clear and reliable alternative to a military victory. I never felt like there was anything deciding the outcome of battles other than who was able to bring the most ships.
I’m looking at this game now, and where it fits into the market in 2016, and scratching my head. As Alex explained in his preview earlier in the year, you’ve got to wonder why they’re bothering with the Master of Orion name at all at this point, because this is a gentle, almost casual experience that sits at odds with the original games hardcore fanbase.
It’s a weird Early Access game, too. It’s incredibly polished in terms of presentation (the visuals and score feel 100 per cent complete) but seems like it’s missing giant chunks of the actual game. Normally its the other way around! To be fair though, progress is being made – espionage was added between me starting and finishing this preview, which did a little to flesh out the midgame experience.
But there’s a lot more work to do if this game is going to compete with something like Stellaris, which at the moment has this beat in pretty much every department. And with a full release planned by the end of the year, it’s going to be interesting to see whether NGD have enough time left to build on this game’s decent foundations of clean UI and cheery visuals and actually get some meat in there.