Take me out in to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back

I’m a sucker for 4X games, especially ones that deal with space theatre. So I guess it’s no surprise that when I heard about Star Ruler I gave it my undivided attention. After all, there’s been few successes in this genre of this particular theatre (in general of anything, to be honest), and, as an indie title, I was completely skeptical. After watching some gameplay videos and reading some testimony I decided the only way I could truly be sure is if I got my hands dirty. And boy, am I glad I did.

Star Ruler is done by Blind Mind Studios, an indie developer with little fortune or fame to their name. The game is simple enough: build a space empire expanding over numerous solar systems while also dealing with galactic threats such as space pirates and other factions. In essence, it sort of sounds like Spore’s Space Stage. Thankfully, it’s nothing like it except in its scope. Oh yeah, Star Ruler has got scope in Spades, my friends. Say goodbye to your free time.

The game handles like an RTS. You have an overlay screen, you use the keyboard to move the screen around, and everything you handle is through micromanagement and menus. Before you even start the game, however, there are numerous options to configure how your game will play out. This includes customizing your race. We’re not just talking about your faction’s name and its flag color, but also a background detail that reflect on what bonuses and negatives you start with in the game. You can do the same for your AI factions as well. Although the best part to this customization comes in the form of how you want your galaxy to function. Definitely the best part of it all is you can detail how many systems you want in your galaxy, how far-spaced you want one system to another, and even decide on the shape of your galaxy! There’s no limit that I know of; go insane and try a 1,000 star-system galaxy and say goodbye to your social life.

The meat and potatoes of Star Ruler is where the game truly shines, however. You start off in one system with one planet. From here you build your empire, starting right at home. Each planet has a number of slots based on the position it is in the system’s habitable zone (in other words, earth-like conditions). If you see a heavenly body that looks like Earth, then it’s a pretty safe bet that that’s the best world to colonize in the system. All worlds are fair game, however, as all of them contain precious ore. Ore is refined into metal, which is used in all structures and ships in the game. Metal can be further refined into electronic parts and advanced parts, both of which are necessary when building more complex buildings and ships. Trade is then influenced by the number of space ports your planet has, as well as its yield capabilities (if your planet has more electronic fabrication factories than anything else, it’ll produce more electronic parts).

This is vitally important to your success. Star Ruler is not a simple RTS where you can just send some harvester unit to collect resources and then you can go about your business creating armies of destruction. You need to focus on fluctuating prices, demands, and be wary of scarcity. You can never be “comfortably-off” in Star Ruler. The moment you stop expanding into other systems is the moment you start to fall behind in the game. Your adversaries will be well-aware of this and may take the advantage to initiate trade blockades in your wealthy systems, virtually bringing your galactic trade to a halt (and, to an extent, your military production to a stand-still).

With this in mind, before you can even try to focus on going on the offensive, most of Star Ruler is about being on the defensive. This usually means ensuring that your systems are well-guarded enough to throw off pirate raids, remnant attacks (remnants are a neutral faction that attack anything randomly), and even potential invasion fleets. There are numerous ways to do this. Planets are quite fragile but hold a number of hitpoints depending on how many buildings are on the planet (and what level of research your building construction is at—more on that later). People have a number of different strategies—I like to implement automated planetary defense cannons orbiting my planet as first line of defense. It’s the easiest and quickest way to get some cheap defense for a system that you’ve just colonized. Planets also have large ship bays, which means you can also have a number of ships designated to protecting the planet that will automatically undock and defend the system. Or you could use the plain Jane approach and have a guard fleet inside the system to automatically engage anything that looks at you funny. Personally my end-all approach is to build large weapon stations along the outer ring of the system so that I can start hurting anything that comes near it before it’s even near range to any of my planets.

Planets are just as equally as precious when it comes to the second most important aspect of Star Ruler, which is research. Research determines what technologies you unlock, how much you trade and fabricate, how much damage you deal, how much health your ships and structures have, how many people live in your cities, how much…well, I think you get the idea. There are a number of technologies to research and they all influence the game in a way that’s integral to your survival. Ignore one technology for long enough and you might find your empire has a weakness to it that is exploitable. The higher your research level, however, the longer it takes to research something. Reducing research time is determined by the number of research laboratories a planet has, which means later in the game you’ll probably find yourself making a few dedicated science planets just to get the competitive edge against your opponents.

Which brings us to the more fun and important part of Star Ruler: ships. Ships are definitely where you’ll be spending most of your time. Not just in flying them around and fighting your enemies, but simply by putting in the time necessary to design ships. Yes, I did say design. Nothing is cookie-cutter about Star Ruler when it comes to ships. You literally can design them from the ground-up. We’re talking about what sort of ship hull you want to start with (whether it’s a fighter hull so it can fit in carrier ships, a cargo hull so it can transport items or even mine ore in asteroid fields, or a station hull so you can create…well, stations), what the crew will be like (this includes adding a crew’s quarters, necessary life support, and a bridge for your crew to man—or you can go green and just install a computer to handle everything), what the armor will be like, what the power systems will be like, what the weapons will be like, and what other subsystems that may be included. Everything, and I do mean everything, you do to a ship’s design effects it in some way.

For instance, for a ship to function, it needs thrust. Thrusters need fuel. Fuel is obtained from power. Power is managed by a crew. And a crew needs life support and a bridge to control all other ship functions, such as weapon capabilities and damage control. Just about everything has a contributing factor to one system to another. A power generator is no good if you don’t have the fuel storage to ensure your ship can sustain flight time for a period of time before you run out of fuel and all systems go offline. Weapons are no good if you don’t have ammunition storage to sustain the ship firing longer than a couple of seconds before it runs out of ammo. All systems depend on each other—if one goes out, it’s likely that the ship will be largely hindered. If your bridge takes a beating or the life support is critically damaged, then the crew is killed and your ship is rendered useless.

This is why it’s important to design ships with a balance in mind. Ships are limited to the number of systems you can place in the blueprint field, so it’s not like you can just keep adding weapon storage and fuel storage to your heart’s content. Further research will help your future endeavors in regards to storage, armor, thrust, and power consumption. And we’re not even talking about the complexity of shield technology or some of the even more complex subsystems that alter other systems to become quite different from what they start with. Ships can be so intricately complex that you can literally create four or five different classes of cruisers for different roles and still not have all of your bases covered. Even if you think that you can sidestep all of these problems by just building a large ship you’ll still run into the most basic of problems. Not to mention your economy won’t be able to handle constructing large ships until much later in the game.

This is what makes Star Ruler much better than some space sim that offers the scope of space but not the breadth of a deep and meaningful economic system that influences everything. Although it’s not entirely perfect. Diplomacy seems largely useless in Star Ruler; your AI rivals will usually go to war with you for no reason, and often. And trade deals seem so faceless when the terms of duration are made in seconds and not in minutes or hours. But other than trade and declaring war, there’s really no use to diplomacy. And I suppose it troubles me a bit that ships have to turn themselves around when trying to come to a stop, making it look rather silly when your fleet arrives in a system with their ass sticking out to the enemy.

Regardless perfection is not to be expected from an indie title. Much like Mount&Blade, Star Ruler succeeds at its genre attempts and proves to be a very fun game—one you can spend days upon days of playtime in and still find yourself progressing in the game. And the pace is all up to you—you can even play a game of Star Ruler with no AI opponents, enjoying the quietness of space. Star Ruler hits all of the 4X points and places them nicely in the space theatre, but completely avoids being as difficult to learn as X3. Which, in my book, makes it the best 4X space theatre game yet.

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About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

2 Responses to Take me out in to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back

  1. Revreese says:

    I have been following Star Ruler for some time and recently bought it. Must say I love the depth and complexity (though it took a while to get the hang of the ship building screen!)
    But the diplomacy was lacking like you said almost useless but if theres one thing I love in my indie games, it’s replayability, and this has it in spades!.

  2. Revreese says:

    Forgot to mention.. love the Firefly reference…. 😉

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