Michael Eckenfels, 23 April 2020
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
In The Beginning
Reach For The Stars started a genre in the gaming industry with its simple yet addictive gameplay. The goal here was to fully use the concept of E4– Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate. Then came Master Of Orion. Now, we have Starships Unlimited: Divided Galaxies. Does it end? Probably not. With each passing version of the same style of game, graphics (are supposed to) improve, sounds (are supposed to) improve, and newer features are (supposed to be) implemented.
Developer: Matrix Games
Publisher: Ape Zone
Starships Unlimited is a game that doesn’t exactly allow a gamer to just jump right in and play–the interface is complicated, but it becomes easy enough with use. The question is, does a gamer want to take the time to learn it all?
The answer…read on.
Your Galactic Playground Awaits
Starships Unlimited is a combination of turn-based and RTS action that lets you micromanage your empire while conquering the rest of the galaxy. Management is usually “turn-based” where research and production are most heavily invested. Building or researching takes a certain number of turns, which progress at either a slow or fast speed (1x or 5x). Without additional speed settings, even the 5x level takes a while, especially in the early stages of the game. Faster settings would have been most welcome, especially with a pause feature that stops the game whenever a significant event occurs (such as a scout ship finding a new artifact).
Most anyone who has played MOO or RFTS will know exactly what this game is all about immediately; there’s no hidden lesson here. You start on your home planet, move a scout about the galaxy finding planets to colonize and artifacts to grab, build attack ships, and defend your worlds until you beat the bad guys (who is just about everyone else). That’s oversimplifying things, but in general that’s all there is to it. With no surprises, the game’s enjoyment has to be left to presentation and immersiveness.
The RTS side helps tremendously, as combat is real time; players, especially novice ones, will want to take advantage of letting the computer play out the combats at first; it always seems to do a decent job. Firing, hits, maneuvering, and damage can all be dealt with by the computer, allowing a gamer to sit back and watch the explosions.
At the beginning of any game, a choice of races (any one of eight) awaits, each with their own unique strengths (the Terrans, for example, are excellent diplomats). A gamer can set the galaxy’s size and shape, different combat options, set advantages for themselves or the computer, and choose from a host of other things. With all these options, the game offers a different experience each time it’s played. Even choosing the same options, such as the same galaxy size and shape, can make for a different map each time.
I was immediately concerned with scouting out as many star systems as I could, as all star systems have at least one planet, and every planet has one artifact. Wisdom artifacts are “general” artifacts that allow a civilization to advance through different eras, and to keep it interesting, the game doesn’t have enough of these for every race included in the game. This adds a unique aspect, as anyone caught short of the necessary Wisdom artifacts to advance to the next era will find themselves in a world of trouble down the road.
Expansion is actually facilitated mainly by freighter routes; the computer can manage their production for you and creates one for every star system that you clear of artifacts. The freighter then automatically travels between that system and your home system, hauling the materials to fuel the gamer’s interstellar empire. Colonizing systems is somewhat discouraged, actually, as they are a huge drain on your economy for about their first fifty years of existence; even after that point, their infrastructure should be developed enough so that your economy isn’t taking a hit every year from their lack of production. The only real reason to colonize a world is to build a forward base to attack enemies. Building up an empire of many colonized worlds should be part of the fun, but Starships Unlimited manages to downplay this for a more realistic approach. The drain on your resources is heavy but not impossible to overcome, which adds a measure of challenge to any level of game.
Installation and Technical Issues
Strange things are afoot on my hard drive. No movie played as an intro, which was indicated by the error messages I received as the CD started up. It didn’t prevent the game from playing, but I was obviously missing out on something that may have added to the drama of this game. I was disappointed; after all, I have a GeForce4 Ti4800 128MB video card in my computer, so just about everything that works on a 500MHz should work on my system without any graphics compatibility problems.Nevertheless, I couldn’t get the intro movie to work. Otherwise the game ran very smoothly and didn’t crash or hiccup once.
In Space, No One Can Read A Hard Copy
The CD has a full version of the manual in PDF format, easily accessible and readable. Also, the manual is accessible from the game by pressing F1. The two versions, on-line and CD, are different. The CD documentation looks more like what should come with the game (with the extra graphics and illustrations), and the on-line manual is more of a reference without the extra artwork and fancy fonts.
The documentation is well done and complimented with an excellent in-game help tip system (either right-clicking or SHIFT-left clicking on an object brings up a window with more information). The information is error-free from what I’ve determined, making the materials easier to go over and digest.
Visions Of Space
The graphics are not bad but not great. It should be mentioned that this title wasn’t meant to run with a higher-end 1GHz+ system (it requires only 300MHz), so it’s not going to have mind-blowing displays. What it does do is good enough, with a few things that bear explanation.
First, the worlds are done extremely well, with shading (dependent on the position of the system’s sun), cloud cover, and other minor things added to make for a pleasing sight. However, each world comes initially with guardians of sorts, usually storms, plasma bugs, or the occasional weak starship. The starships look fine, but the other objects look cheesy. The plasma bugs, for instance, look like something that may have come off of a TRS-80 model III.
Second, the text is done in a futuristic font, which is a little out of date; I found it to be mildly annoying. It would have been better to see different text for each of the eight races, which would have added a measure of distinctiveness to the game. As it is, the simple font is fine for its purposes but bored me terribly to look at, which translated into skipping over a lot of important text information. Reading shouldn’t feel like a chore.
Sound effects are good in that they got my attention (especially the ones that announce a pause in the game, asking for your attention to a particular matter). These are simple and short, and not loud and annoying. The battle sounds are done well, with explosions sounding perfectly realistic. The only thing I would ask for is an option to shut off the music, which while at times is appropriate, too often changes over to something that feels like circus-pipe-organ music and is therefore completely inadequate to support gameplay.
The game is about 95% mouse driven, with most of that coming from the top of the screen I used the SHIFT key on occasion to bring up the already-mentioned information windows when you simultaneously left-click on what you want to examine. There are a slew of keyboard commands you can learn that mimic the mouse commands, if you so desire, but everything can pretty much be managed with the click of a mouse.
Clicking on one of the menus at the top invariably brings up menus to navigate, which are simple to get around in and well defined. While there are a lot of options and a lot of menus to remember, the simplicity of the interface helps facilitate quicker learning of the game.
The level of play has the relaxation associated with a turn-based game, but also the frantic ‘check everything always’ mood associated with RTS games. There were times I was bored to tears waiting for a scout to get across to another system, while at other times I hardly had a chance to breathe as I fought off enemy after enemy. The combination is compelling but was frustrating early on as I waited for something to happen. The number of enemies you choose to go against (up to 7) will determine how long you have to wait…especially in tandem with the size of the galaxy (50, 75, or 100 stars).
Play involves not only exploring, but fighting and building. I appreciated the pause feature, which can either be manually chosen or automatically done by the computer when a certain event occurs. The computer’s automation of these events acts as a safety net for the gamer.
Strategy here involves gobbling up as many artifacts as possible; when your scout enters an unexplored system that has no artifacts, you can be assured that it has been visited by one of your opponents. Contact is almost inevitable if you remain in the area, so it’s always a good idea to build a colony nearby but not so close as that it could be easily captured. Determining this zone of safety is part of the challenge of the game.
The playground is, as mentioned, a galaxy, with size and composition preset at the start of a new game. Time passes at a rate of five turns per month, and time can be accelerated to 5x (in effect, one month per second or so), greatly increasing action.
Players use individual starships to accomplish their objectives, researching them first and stocking them with tailor-made weaponry; certain classes already require certain basics (such as an engine and a computer) before weapons, shields, or defensive systems can be added. These weapons and defensive measures have certain ranges and certain effectiveness against different targets, increasing the combinations of combat that are possible. Some shields, for example, are more effective against beam weapons but less effective against missiles. Coming across an enemy with racks upon racks of missiles in such a situation can spell doom for the ship employing the beam shields.
The computer’s AI is decent but seems slow off the mark; I can almost always aggressively clean up surrounding systems of artifacts and explore a good quarter of the galaxy before coming into contact with another power, and this is in the larger scenarios.
However, it did have its moments by ganging up on me in some games. Diplomacy is a key factor in the later stages, and having a Terran as your race helps in this category tremendously. Other races have varying success. Usually, Diplomacy is only useful as a tool to keep one potential enemy at bay while dealing with another.
It seems that certain races are predisposed (when controlled by the AI) to build certain ship types, based on their aggressiveness. More aggressive races will build warships and eschew scouts, coming after other empires with a vengeance. Others prefer research over conquest, while still others are slow to build anything military at all. With eight possible empires total, there’s quite a bit of challenge to be had, especially when playing against all seven.
Editors, Expansions, and Replay Value
Matrix Games has a better looking part of their site devoted to Starships Unlimited than Ape Zone, but both should be visited for news and information. Matrix’s site had a patch available already, while Ape Zone’s only had the demo to download.
There are no editors per se in this game, beyond the start game settings. You cannot build your own universes at this point. Nor are there expanded plans in the works for this title. Replay is abundant, however, with the numerous choices at hand.
There is no real multi-player version of SU at this time, which is something of a loss; any game that could support eight players vying for galactic rule has the potential to be interesting. Perhaps this option will be available in a future patch.
Starships Unlimited is hardly new, but it does add new things to the genre, including some rather unique options. It adds good graphics, decent sound, and some new aspects of gameplay to make it more enjoyable.
The lack of more choices for a game speed control (besides just 1x and 5x) is something of a handicap; I would have preferred at least four levels but at bare minimum, three. The game’s addition of the pause feature would easily help any game from going too fast or getting out of control. Further, some of the enemy ships (such as the aforementioned plasma bug) looked too out of date to take seriously. SU should push the envelope of system hardware a little more and make a game with a minimum 500MHz requirement, and up other aspects as well, if necessary.
I also believe this game is a natural for a multiplayer version and should be considered for inclusion in future releases.
MOO and RFTS fans will enjoy this updated version of the old classic E4 games About two years ago I purchased a Microsoft ‘classic’ version of MOO but couldn’t get it to work. My fix wasn’t sated, but Starships Unlimited made me forget about MOO .
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