Master of Orion 3

I’ve been a big fan of the Master of Orion series, ever since it first appeared on my computer screen. Very few conquer-the-universe games were so much fun. Strategic space games are few and far between anyway, and Master of Orion 2 was probably the finest the genre had to offer.

So it isn’t surprising that the standards and expectations for Master of Orion (or MOO as the series is affectionately abreviated) 3 have been very high.

Well, last week I finally got my hands on it to try and out and review. My feelings are mixed, as I will explain below. Lean back and grab a glass of milk – this is probably my longest review, ever.

The back story: The Antares weren’t really defeated in MOO2 and are now, a long time and many wars later, a declining civilization calling itself the “New Orions”. The goal of the game is the same as always… prep your civilization for the inevitable final conflict. Of course, there are other ways to win the game – get yourself elected the president of the Orion senate, or find the “antaran x specials” hidden somewhere on the map.

The first impression after installing MOO3 is very good. A nice intro video brings us up to date… it isn’t exactly state of the art but it’s done well enough. It felt a little like it was a Babylon 5 intro. After the game starts up, we get to set what type of game we want (opponents, size and shape of the galaxy) and pick a race (or customize it to suit our needs).

Then, the game is on. A starmap which does look like an updated version of MOO2 appears and we can send out our first fleet (already conveniently built for us – two scouts and a colony ship). The first big departure from MOO2 becomes apparant here: Gone is the traditional hyperdrive, replaced by starlanes – jump routes connecting the various systems. Yes, you can of course still go anywhere you please; but it takes pretty much forever (say, 70+ turns for a nearby star). Starlanes are a sort of short-distance version of wormholes (which also still exist but are very rare). Jump routes are of course not an invention new to MOO3; but anyway they give the game a more “island hopping” character. This isn’t a bad thing in my book – it reminds me of the grand game 2300 AD by Game Designer’s Workshop. So one of your first acts will be to explore your branch of the starlane network to find out what your borders are, the strategic choke points, the extent of your immediate sphere of influence, and of course to see if there are any back-routes into your space.

As you explore, you examine many, many systems. They are similar to MOO2 – except they’re nicely done with up-to-date graphics. The major difference is that specials are much, much more common and there many more types of special, from splinter colonies (a great boon early in the game) to ancient battle damage to dangerous animals and pirate stashs. You can set the rarity (or rather abundancy) of specials when the game starts; however, even with the “rare” setting you still get a heap of specials.

Speaking of planets, you will notice the second major departure from the classic Master of Orion design. While every planet still has basic attributes such as size, minerals, and environment, they’re much more detailed than before. Different races have different preferences as to what constitutes a habitable (“green” or “sweet spot”) planet, and what planets are worthless (“red”). Planets are further split up in various regions, each with different fertility in which you build structures such as farms or mines. In addition, there are structures that you build “planet wide”, much like in the old days of Master of Orion yonder. You get two build queues, one for military installations and ships, the other for planetary (“economical”) structures. You can set how much of the planet’s productivity should be used for each, or for terraforming.

Speaking of productivity: In addition to the “global resource” food of MOO2, you now also have to mine enough materials to keep your industries supplied. Luckily, MOO3 has done away with freighters – you are automatically assumed to have enough shipping capabilities for transports between your colonies.

You can control every colony you own yourself, or let the planetary governor run things. You can set “development plans” for various types of colonies: A newly established colony might build other things than a “core” world. This is a rather nice concept that I didn’t play around with too much yet. But if I am not mistaken, a planet that has starvation will get into a “starving” category – which means it could automatically switch over to a plan you set up that will build farms and other agricultural installations.

By and large, the planetary governor runs things relatively well. It’s building too many troop ships (ground transports) for my taste, though.

Speaking of which, the AI for MOO3 seems to be doing alright. The governors build things that make sense (except for their ship selection), and you can always overrule them.

Another difference to MOO2 is how spies are built. In MOO2, you would just add a “Spy” to your build queue. No longer! You have a global “Personnel” tab, where you control your leaders and can train and deploy spies. leaders, by the way, have global effects. I like this much better than the MOO2 way, where you have four leaders for dozens of colonies.

Research is done similar to MOO2, except that you do not pick one category or technology, but you distribute your research points among the various categories. It’s a bit more detailed, and there are many more technologies than in MOO2. Nothing too special, I think the science system works fine.

By now, you’ll have explored various systems and run into your first alien race. That is, unless you started out a member of the orion council. This is my major gripe early in the game – you start out way too close to other species. I’d really prefer a more even spread for the races. Since cooperation with the AI is not really possible – with a human player I could agree on a territorial border – this means sooner or later you will run into armed conflicts and spy incursions. It is worse than it sounds because ships in MOO3 do not have a limited range – they can travel along the starlanes to wherever they wish.

This is a big headache since it means you have to divert a lot of resources from other projects just to keep the pesky spies at bay. And nevermind that when *I* propose a bill in the senate, it fails. Always. But when another race proposes a bill for “total war” against me, all the other races jump on board, especially the New Orions (who have a majority at the beginning of the game). Why? I didn’t do anything to them, and I even had very good relations with the other races who voted “Aye”. Bad AI. Not much of a surprise, if you remember the diplomacy AI of MOO2 where races would just declare war on you even though you could not reach each other at all. How dumb.

The Senate itsels, by the way, is a nice touch – there are various bills that you can propose with wide-ranging effects. I like this; especially in a multi-player game, this would be a very interesting tool.

Okay, so we go to war. The combat in MOO3 is basically the same as in MOO2, but with huge differences. You assign your ships – custom built from various components – into task forces and send them fof to battle. When you first see the battle screen, you think it’s incredibly boring – those ships are barely specks even when you zoom in! However, the combat scales MUCH better than MOO2 where you had to control dozens of ships individually, later on. The battle is real time, but not so fast that you cannot keep up with what’s happening. And all the goodies from MOO2 are still there – the various graphical effects for the weapons, for example. It’s really fun to see those battlegroups pound each other, with missiles closing in on their targets and fighters zipping around like angry hornets. Pretty well done.

Orbital bombardement is still the same as in MOO2, with a bit more flashy graphics.

Once we’ve blasted our victim planet sufficiently, it’s time for invasion! Unlike MOO2, you have to first build individual ground units – there are only a few types (like marines, armor, hackers, and so on as well as a few support units), and then you have to load them into troop ships. A bit more complex than MOO2, but not too much detail. So, we land our troops on the planet, pick a strategy (“massive assault”, “pronged attack” et cetera), and the computer does the rest. I love the invasion – it’s similar in its simpicity to MOO2, but the atmosphere is better. Your troops will send (audio) messages on the battle’s progress. “We have them outgunned – now it’s time to pull the trigger” and “This world is ours now!”. Neat.

It may sound like I am wholeheartedly enjoying Master of Orion 3…. but unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The overall concept is very good, and I disagree with the voices that blast the ame. “They killed MOO”. They didn’t. They just took it further than what was possible before (I do remember having to wait for my computer calculating a turn of MOO2…) But where the concept and design is good, the execution fails.

Take the early contact for example. Because ships can go anywhere they want (slowly, at first), you will step on someone else’s toes very quickly – or have your toes, tentacles, whatnot stepped on. And with all the espionage going on, I really, really miss a detailed counter-espionage screen. Yes, I can build spies. Yes, they capture enemy spies sometimes. But I can not contact a race and tell them “take your spies home and leave me alone, or I will nuke your planets”.

Random events are another major gripe. It has happened to me in various games that I got five turns of random events, with each event being a variation of the one before. How many “Red Tape Reduction Projects” does my government run? How often does a Rogue AI destroy my research? I like the fact that the random events are more varied than in MOO2, but please, give me a friggin’ break – that’s got to be the worst random number generator I’ve seen.

However, my biggest gripe has got to be the clumsy interface to control your colonies. If you remember, MOO2 had a Colonies screen, where you could see the state of all your worlds. Well, MOO3 rolled this into the “Planets” screen. That’s not so bad, had it been done better. Worlds with outposts on them do not count as “under control” and hence I have to scroll through all the worlds I have explored to find it. And if you want to change something, you cannot do it from the colonies screen – you need to double click the planet, edit the queues, and go back. Clumsy, especially when I want to change many colonies. I’ve given up trying to micro-manage my worlds; it’s simply not possible to keep up with them given the tools I have. Yes, taking micromanagement out of the players’ hands seems to be a design choice. I still dislike it, especially since the AI is pretty dumb when it comes to contructing fleets.

There’s other examples of the poor execution. MOO2 will not remember the game parameters I set (“Huge spiral arm galaxy, 5 computer opponents, rare specials”, but instead I have to set them every time I start a new game. The same goes for the races – MOO2 used to at least remember the “last race used”. MOO3 has no such thing; you have to set all the parameters again every time you start a game. How tough can it be to save settings? This takes a programmer like what, two hours with debugging? I’d really expected a “save custom race” feature, ideally the race would then show up alongside all the other races.

So, what’s the bottom line? Is this game as bad as people say? Yes and no… the basic game is fine, but there are many, many things for Quicksilver/Infogrames to fix. In it’s current form, the game just isn’t too much fun because you get tangled up in the interface and the flood of data. I’m really glad I didn’t buy it, but tried it first. I’ll give it another try when the first patches are out – I hope they’ll use the time to introduce some bigger changes and not just bugfixes. The game has potential, but it isn’t classic-potential on the scale of MOO2 yet. Save your money for now and wait for the patches, or until the game is available at a discount.

_Update, March 22nd 2003:_ Elmar points out that starting a “Quick Game” will re-use the last set of settings (including custom race). That’s useful. Still, there are enough other problems in the game that I recommed to wait for the first patches.

_Update, August 25th 2003:_ By now, Quicksilver has released a few patches for MOO 3 so I decided to give the game another chance. I installed the current patch (1.2.5, for reference) and lo and behold: The game is actually fun now. They’ve fixed all the bugs I had noticed and only introduced one new, minor one that is cosmetic only. Above all, and this is immediately ntoiceable, they added several enhancement to the play balance. Researh has been slowed down over 30%, according to the readme, and the pacing of the game does seem much better now. And my single most favorite change – and brace yourselves for this one: computer players no longer prefer to spy on human players.

Why on Earth did they prefer to spy on human players? The way it’s listed I have the feeling this was a design decision back when the game was first created, to make sure the game would be more challenging and they didn’t realize that the challenge quickly turned over into frustration. DUH. Quicksilver, you guys might be new to this: But it’s the worst sacrilege you can commit in a strategy game to have the computer opponent cheat.

Of course, that is the entire problem – Quicksilver didn’t do beta-testing – or, if they did, they really need better quality assurance people. Well, let’s help out a little:

1. Events still need some work – too repetitive
2. I am missing some diplomacy options and tweaks. Most significantly, I want to pose the choice to my enemies to either accept my terms – for example, to hand over a system – or declare war (automatically – the choice must be clear to the AI)
3. Why the HELL can I only attack a planet with 10 task forces? Space is BIG, if I want to send in 1000 ships to crush the imbeciles, why can’t I? I do understand computer performance can become an issue – my 1GHz Duron/Geforce 1 had some trouble when there were really a lot of ships on both sides, planets, orbitals, hundreds of fighters and missiles – but it still smacks me as a silly design choice.
4. Designing your own race is still awkward, at least the game now remembers the other game settings…

Anyway. With the various changes, I was able to play a 220 turns game yesterday and pretty much come out on top. Okay, the New Orions are still tougher than I am, and most of the races have sizeable empires but I seem to be the “second toughest dog on the block”.

So, qould I recommend purchasing the game now? Maybe. It’s fun, and Quicksilver seems commited to improving the game so far, but one wonders why these issues were not caught in beta. I mean it’s not like any of what I discovered was usbttle. If this game ha dbeen my responsibility, I’d have considered the current 1.2.5 “good enough”.

Right now, I think about 20 Euros would be a fair price for the game. Let’s see what future patches bring, I hope that Quicksilver isn’t done yet with Master of Orion III. The game does have potential.

Let me close by saying that computer game companies really should do better beta-testing before release.

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