Master of Orion III Review

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Publisher: Infogrames
Developer: Quicksilver

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 300 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 8x CD-ROM, 800 MB HD space

"Twenty thousand Galactic Cycles have passed since a supernova annihilated the diverse, multi-species culture of Center One. Over a hundred million sentient beings are believed to have left Center One before its destruction, whether willingly or unwillingly. These exiles and travelers spread out across their arm of the galaxy, and planted the seeds from which many powerful spacefaring civilizations evolved." – Master of Orion III manual

Now, you can lead your species out of the dark ages of forced colonization into domination of the galaxy.

Kyle Ackerman

The Master of Orion series is a seminal set of games that helped to establish the 4X genre. The four "X"s, (Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate) are the basic elements of many turn-based strategy games, including the Civilization titles. Master of Orion III (MOO3) claims to add a fifth "X" – Experience. That experience is really an invitation to examine what makes 4X games entertaining. Part of the experience is participating in an epic saga, bringing a space faring culture up from the surface of its homeworld to galactic dominance. Mostly, however, what makes the 4X games entertaining is the sense of control.

Why Do You Want to Rule the Universe?

In his talk at the 2002 D.I.C.E summit, Sid Meier noted that whenever a player succeeds, a good game should make that person feel it was entirely due to their skill. Whenever the player fails, it should seem the result of extreme misfortune. If the gamer truly did something wrong, have the game show the player how to improve. MOO3 entirely lacks that feedback.

To my mind, a 4X player should be able to exert control over anything and everything, i.e., if the player can see it, the player should be able to control it. If the player can't interact with something, there's little reason to provide much information on it. A well-made game will also allow the player to delegate responsibilities to the computer, so that you can choose your desired level of micromanagement. MOO3's greatest failing is that the game often feels entirely beyond your control, and it submerges you in a morass of extraneous data.

While MOO3 has plenty of compelling backstory, graphics and detail, its shortcomings are particularly poignant, because 4X fans would have been tremendously pleased with a simple update of the nearly-seven-year-old Master of Orion II. New graphics and a working multiplayer function probably would have been enough to secure MOO3 a dedicated and substantial following. Instead, the game ventured forth into new territory, attempting to become a more complete simulation of galactic empire building. In doing so, the player becomes less able to exert direct and complete control over every aspect of an alien culture. We all understand that, in reality, Gandhi couldn't oversee Indian culture from the Neolithic era to his culture's ultimate colonization of Alpha Centauri. We also understand that a Klackon queen wouldn't personally supervise every planetary production queue. This, however, is a game. As a player, I want the choice of personally allocating the production of every planet or delegating that decision making to my computer-generated aids. That's quite a demand, but that's also what makes a good 4X game.

MOO3 blends startling complexity and mediocre documentation with a form of indirect control that somehow isolates the player from running an empire. In fact, when you start your first game, it can give you the disjointed sensation of an insane monarch, whose advisers feel the need to simultaneously protect him from a needlessly complex universe while sparing the people from the weight of his capricious hand. After muddling through myriad screens (and the associated tutorial messages), the player is confronted with a dizzying array of options. In truth, almost everything is taken care of for you, thanks to automated processes. You can actually get by with doing little other than managing major diplomatic decisions and directing your interstellar fleets. That would be a good thing, except that exerting more control is a difficult and sometimes hopeless struggle.

The Power Behind the Throne

It will take considerable time just to understand what you can and can't do in MOO3. Only by the end of a second 10+ hour game did I feel I was controlling as much of my empire as my advisors would allow. Admittedly, much of that early play was searching through the interface screens, convinced that I should be doing something, when all I really needed to do was advance to the next turn. After that (admittedly steep and long) learning curve, there is a game to be enjoyed.

The problem continues to be a lack of control combined with excessive detail. Systems are generated according to a relatively sophisticated cosmological model. Each planet is then divided into DEAs (go ahead – try to find what DEA stands for). Structures can be built that enhance the planet overall or just improve a specific DEA, which can be improved as a zone focusing on economic, military, research or other activities. At this point, for each planet you control, there are multiple DEAs with building queues, planet-wide building queues, and military building queues. Using only the manual and the in-game encyclopedia, it's very difficult to understand what impact the various structures and choices make. After extensive research on the internet, perhaps with the aid of a purchased strategy guide, the choices become clearer, as does the overwhelming complexity.

The eventual outcome of your decisions is then further influenced by factors such as your species' preferences, the climate, and the existence of "planetary specials." Just figuring out what planetary specials do is an epic act of real-life research. This has the potential to be a micromanager's dream, while more casual dictators can leave decisions to an A.I. planetary governor. What makes this unbearably frustrating is that, after having set up a planetary build order, you find when you return to the planet that those orders have often been changed. This is where the loss of control is ultimately most frustrating. Did I fail to enter the orders correctly? Did foreign spies disrupt my production? Is this a game bug? Did the planetary governor override my decision? There is no feedback mechanism to let me know, so the game seems out of my control. Even if you check your planets every turn, many mysterious ships, troops and buildings will somehow materialize from your species' industry.

Once the full scope of this problem sets in, you can give up exerting detailed control over your empire, and just manage overall policy. There is an excellent policy screen that lets you establish classifications of planets, and give that classification primary, secondary and tertiary goals such as manufacturing, planetary defense or trade. Each planet's managers will then pursue those goals. Unfortunately, even this level of control is incomplete. No matter what empire-wide priorities you dictate, you will end up with a tremendous surfeit of troop transport ships. Control is so lacking, that when I wanted to mobilize military production to protect myself from invasion in my first game, my advisors seemed to ignore my orders, building transports instead of a defensive fleet. The first time I was faced with a Grendarl attack fleet I was tempted to pull a Mad King Ludwig, get drunk and use my vast supply of troop transports to send my army to an attractive moon to build myself a pleasure palace. Of course, I couldn't figure out how to set that as an empire-wide priority.

Most aspects of your space empire can only be managed using high-level directives. The only way to defend against spies is to set a slider called the "Oppressometer," determining how much totalitarian control you exert over your people. You can set levels of spending to diminish unrest, but there isn't the satisfying ability to go in and manually tinker with a planet to build entertainment structures or buy your peoples' love. Sure, you can direct construction of theme parks, but you'll probably just get troop transports. You can direct scientific spending, and allocate that spending between various fields of study (such as social, energy or mathematics), but you can't control individual research projects the way you could in MOO2. We all understand that it isn't realistic to order an entire race's scientists to research rail guns, but that level of control is engrossing, even if it comes at some expense, such as efficiency.

There is Good in the Universe

MOO3 is full of nice touches that are improvements over the previous Master of Orion games. The galaxy, for example, is now a three dimensional construct that can be rotated, but always has at least one two dimensional projection in which stars don't overlap. Star types correspond in many ways to the universe as we understand it, so habitable planets tend to be in certain orbits around particular star types. This helps you make informed decisions when deciding how to explore or colonize, particularly in the early game when resources are limited, and you can only see the color and size of a star, and not its orbiting bodies. The animations and speech for each race in the diplomacy screens are spectacular, and add tremendously to the aura of being in tense negotiations with enigmatic creatures. Although often difficult to deal with, the concept of a fully functioning Orion Senate that can set policies that affect all participating governments is compelling. It is fun to consider whether you want to support a bill that improves your economic efficiency, realizing that it will also do the same for your enemies.

At the same time, MOO3 falls short in a number of areas other than just issues of management. Combat is probably most obvious. In MOO2, the process of designing ships was a critical and enjoyable precursor to the involved, turn-based strategic combat. MOO3 uses a real-time model for space combat, in which formations of ships combat on a two-dimensional plane. The combat is difficult to control, and it's possible to lose your fleet to missile salvos before even locating the enemy. For that matter, the ships were carefully sculpted in 3D, but to fight on a scale where they are larger than a single pixel is unwieldy. Of course, if you cede control to your more competent computer advisor, you will often forgo the option to bombard or invade a planet, forcing you into painful sorties against the enemy. Furthermore, for a game that is so heavily automated, it requires considerable manual attention to keep your fleets up to date with the current technology, so considerable effort needs to be expended to keep your planetary governors from constantly building vastly outdated fleets.

Ground combat is even worse. Gone is the pleasant, even cute, screen in MOO2 where the computer effectively generated some random numbers to see who won while troops ran at each other from each side of the screen. Now, you have multiple tactical options, and combatants must consider the terrain, the gravity, and their armaments, among other things. Who knows if your warriors should choose a pronged assault or echelon formation in low-gravity broken terrain against a high-gravity foe with divisions of armor? You probably won't. Should you allow your troops to use chemical weapons in that assault? The effects of your choices need to be clearer for the process to be enjoyable.

There are a variety of victory conditions, from diplomatic to military victory. You can even send ships on seemingly endless missions for mysterious Antaran "X"s, but (without deactivating the option) I have yet to see a game won except by diplomatic means. If any race other than the New Orions is elected president of the senate, that race wins. Votes are by population (except for the Orions who start with plenty of extra voting clout), so in all the games I've played, if I was part of the senate, I won by ultimately generating enough population to vote myself in. If I wasn't part of the senate (in the fringe arms of the galaxy), the game usually ended around turn 200-250, with another race claiming victory, regardless of my military or economic might.

Does it Stand with the Herd?

Ultimately, the game is enjoyable if you are in the mood to make some broad decisions, sit back and watch the turns pass, constructing your own narrative of galactic development based loosely on the events of each round. There is plenty of intricate backstory to help you with that, such that every race and galactic leader has a detailed history. The game is much less satisfying if you wanted a bigger and badder MOO2. The multiplayer in MOO3 works, but the lack of control takes away the euphoria of victory and the pain of defeat. The best aspect of MOO3 is that you can manage your space empire in great detail. The worst part is that your decisions don't always stick – they are sometimes overturned, without your knowledge, for whatever reason, and the AI's decisions need monitoring, lest it repeatedly send all of your colonists to the same planet or just cause your entire race's industry to build troop transports.

Master of Orion III is a game damned by its own heritage. Considered on its own, MOO3 is an adequate 4X strategy game, stuffed with excessive detail. As a game bearing the name Master of Orion, and containing the Meklar and the Psilons, MOO3 came burdened with enormous expectations. The final package is flashier than its two predecessors, the alien races are pretty and the attention to cosmological detail is much appreciated. What the game lacks is control over galactic events, making the player more of a Policy Advisor of Orion, rather than its Master. Let's hope this isn't the game that kills a franchise.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 27, 2003 7:03 PM.

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