Sid Meier's Starships review: space oddity

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac, iOS
Publisher 2K Games
Developer Firaxis Games
Release Date Early 2015

Sid Meier's Starships is a game trying to please too many masters.

Its intention, from the opening cinematic, is to create an epic space opera. But in execution, it falls in that weird middle-ground of gaming experiences; too long for a single sitting, but too simple to feel truly epic. Instead of being action-packed, it quickly becomes tedious. Rarely have I walked out of a great science fiction movie and thought to myself, "gosh, what an exciting war of attrition."

Starships is a very narrow experience

Starships is essentially a tactical skirmish game with just enough story and metagame to glue the various bits together. Its turn-based space combat takes place hundreds of years after the events of Civilization: Beyond Earth. Your human colony has been at peace for generations, and your society's next great endeavor is to journey among the stars and reunite the many lost tribes of mankind.

But your noble, humanitarian mission quickly turns into a military one in the game's opening cinematic. Players take the role of admiral, leading a fleet of mighty warships on a journey from planet to planet. Each neighboring world has their own desperate needs, and each it seems want your help fighting off pirates or an advanced artificial intelligence that has gone rogue. Once you show up in orbit you're quickly embroiled in a unique, turn-based tactical mission which plays out like the climax of an episode of Star Trek complete with a hasty briefing from your first officers on the bridge.

starships screen 1

Should you succeed in that mission, you can begin to bring that world into your society's sphere of influence. While there's some variety to these early-game missions, in my experience there was a fair bit of repetition even within the same game. Regardless, play moves quickly at the strategic level, and before long the galaxy is locked down into a number of warring factions — yours included — vying for total domination.

starships tall screen 1

Everything in Starships seems to move quickly, and that's because the game is a very narrow experience. It toys with ideas found in more complex 4x games, like exploration, tech trees and resource management, but to its benefit it does not linger on them. The meat of the game is found in growing your fleet.

Every action, from founding new cities on distant worlds to building the Civilization series' trademark wonders, contributes to the strength and flexibility of your battle fleet. The more wealthy your empire is, the more you're able to customize your starships by combining modules for engines, shields, lasers, sensors and stealth. In this way you can build out different ships in your fleet for different tasks.

The depth of ship customization, while it doesn't extend to actual ship names, is satisfying. You can pile armor and cannon onto one ship to create a tank capable of breaking enemy lines. Fill a second ship with torpedo tubes and cover it with shields and you have a cruiser able to keep the enemy at arm's length with a moving screen of high explosive. Load a third up with fighters and extra engines and create a mobile flanking force to clean up any stragglers.

As you modify them, your ships begin to develop their own unique look on in the turn-based tactical battles. But in reality, there's only three basic themes to build from and they get a little old after a few playthroughs.

Additionally, the game is very lightly animated. In fact, it's often hard to tell if you've damaged a ship or destroyed it because the visual effects are so similar. Blink and you'll miss a doomed ship vibrating for a few seconds, and then simply vanishing. Its all very anticlimactic.

Perhaps some of the issues with graphical variety stem from Starships launch on PC and iPad simultaneously. The game runs smoothly on my tablet, and the strange formatting of the in-game encyclopedia entries and help screens makes much more visual sense when viewed there, but the controls are finicky. For instance, it's not possible in my experience to move two ships onto the same space on the iPad, while on the PC it's a great way to double dip on close-quarters shots to your enemy's rear.

starships review screen 2

On both PC and iOS, the tactical map will rotate roughly 180 degrees. But it won't stay where you put it, and recenters itself after every adjustment. That means you'll spend a lot of your time zooming in and out to select one ship hiding hiding ever so slightly behind another. Additionally, on iPad you have to use two-finger pinch to zoom, which the game often misinterpreted, causing me to move my starships when I hadn't intended to.

Regardless of platform, the end-game of Starships was a letdown. Since all the game's wonders and technologies are tied to the military, every victory is, in effect, a military one. The only real difference is in how much time you as the player want to spend destroying your enemy's ships in detail.

To knock another empire out you have to chase their fleet back to its homeworld in a series of Risk-like battles. But since each empire only has one fleet, each subsequent battle is nearly identical to the one that came before. Enemy ships only become weaker and weaker as you pursue them, and the supposedly climactic homeworld battles are, more often than not, pretty dull.

Wrap Up:

Starships lacks the scope of epic space operas

Overall, Starships feels like a game damaged by compromise. It wants to be a bite-sized board game experience for a tablet, while at the same time a light strategy game on the PC. In execution, those two conflicting goals rob the game of any drama it might have, and Starships simply lacks the decisive, killing blows that make space operas feel epic. And for that reason it left me cold.

Sid Meier's Starships was reviewed using Steam and iOS codes provided by 2K Games. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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