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The third game in the Master of Orion series was published by Infogrames and developed in-house by Quicksilver, and was released in February of 2003 (after about three months of delays). Before its release, this game was extremely hyped by many members of the gaming press and community, but this is nothing new. It is, like the previous games, a turn-based strategy game, set on a galactic scale.

The first Master of Orion featured an extremely simple interface, and very simple rules. These simple rules, when put together, made a pretty complex game. Each star in the galaxy could have, at most, one planet (thus making "star" and "planet" synonymous). Planets could only do a few things: improve themselves, make ships, build missile turrets, research things, and so forth. The things it could do were divided into five categories, and you could set a slider for each category to divide that planet's efforts. Though the game's graphics weren't pretty even in its day (not to mention now), this interface was reasonably elegant and easy to use. And, just to drive the point home, it was simple.

Master of Orion 2 was a bit more complex. The whole philosophy of using sliders for everything, as the first game did, was pretty much abandoned. The designers imported much of the design (most of the bits that differ from the first one) from the game Civilization 2. The diplomacy screens, for example, seem almost identical to it, and, more to the point, the planetary management stuff seems very similar as well. The concept of simply dividing a planet's efforts between five discrete categories was abandoned in favor of a system where you build buildings, which each affect the planet in some way. So, rather than adjusting the planet's ecology slider to make it terraform itself, you'd have it build the "terraforming" improvement, and maybe allocate more workers to construction to speed it up.

The result of all this is insane micromanagement. Where in MOO1 you could set a planet's sliders to a reasonable level and then just leave it alone for a while, in MOO2 you need to pay pretty close attention to what each of your planets are doing at any given time. The interface, while prefectly reasonable for what it's trying to do, is fundamentally more complex than the MOO1 interface: you have to dive two levels in to change what a planet is doing, while the MOO1 options are right there on the main galaxy screen.

So MOO1 and MOO2 are very different (and each very good) games. Obviously, there are other differences between them as well. However, this difference in the complexity of planetary management, and of the interface needed to work with it, is the main one, and usually goes right to the root of whether one prefers one game over the other.

This third game attempts to combine the best aspects of MOO1 and MOO2 into a game that fans of either game can enjoy. They do this through the fairly simple method of first making the game even more absurdly complex than MOO2, and then making a very sophisticated AI which can handle it all for you. You, the player, can then give the AI an overview of how you want to run your empire, or you can go in and micromanage to your heart's content. Sounds good, right?

The trouble is that they didn't pull this off. A player seeking to play it like it's MOO1 becomes enmeshed in the hellish system of telling the AI what to do. The easy way is to give very basic overarching commands, but this is hardly satisfying and, furthermore, boring. The hard way is to define different strategies for each of several types of planets. There are two problems with this: first, exactly how the system works is pretty opaque (the documentation for the game is very poor); and second, this process of using this system begins to border on the level of micromanagement seen in MOO2 that a MOO1 player would probably be seeking to avoid.

Someone seeking to play the game like it's MOO2 would realise that this would swiftly become an excercise in fighting your own empire's AI more than the other players. If you leave a planet's AI on, you will constantly have to change what your planets are doing if it decides it would rather do something else. If you decide to turn it off, first it's not immediately obious what things aren't now being controlled, and second it becomes very much more difficult to control the planet, as things really are more complex than MOO2.

A player new to the series would be frustrated by the fact that everything seems abstracted out a level. Rather than controlling things, you say how you want them controlled. Because the AI is the one actually playing the game, and in control of all the low-level functions, all the player is encouraged to do is tell the AI what sort of things it should be doing (Should it make lots of ships at the expense of production in other areas? Should it oppress the people more in order to put a stop to enemy spies?) and to control the movement of the fleets. Designing new ships (a mainstay of the series since the first one) can be doled out to the AI, but one can usually make a better ship than it can. Unfortunately, the interface is bulky and fairly unworkable (I actually think the decision to remove the six-ship-type limit was a very bad one in the interests of keeping ship management sane).

To put this all another way, you can control your empire as a whole easily with a series of (what are essentially) slider bars, but actually trying to change what each individual planet is doing is extremely annoying. Relying on the AI to make the choices that you would make for you is just not something I trust it enough to do. Actually controlling your emipire exactly how you want it controlled is basically impossible.

This game is a well-intentioned, heavily thought-out game packed with features, whose interface is a horrible, horrible kludge of options packed together in such a way that most things are two or more levels back from the main galaxy screen, making everything annoying as hell to deal with. On top of the fact that there's a lot to deal with, you'll find that most of your time is spent battling the interface rather than playing the game; that so much is automated seems to accent this problem (the little that is left isn't especially quick to do).

The one thing, the final thing that kicks the game in the ass in terms of it being worth the price of entry, is the documentation. All of this stuff about the game being so absurdly complicated and opaque wouldn't be so bad if they bothered to tell you about it. Instead, the documentation simply goes over roughly what the function of a button is, rather than really describing how the functions they represent work. Also not in evidence are tables, of the sort which break down the differences between the races or list the items in the tech tree. The result is that the game seems even more opaque and abstract, which really isn't a good thing. The only way around this is to blow $20 on the strategy guide, which is completely and utterly unacceptable: you should not have to buy an extra book to play a game in this day and age. Of course, online guides probably exist, but the developer should not have to rely on random internet users to create their documentation for them. It should be in the box.

Highly anticipated, grand in scope, a horrible interface, and basically no documentation. It can be enjoyed, and I admit to blowing a few hours to it, but you need to be exceedingly patient and willing to try and learn it. If you feel that you shouldn't have to spend a special effort above and beyond reading the manual and the in-game tutorials, this game is not for you.

Master of Orion 3 is a game made by Infogrames Interactive that is your typical sci-fi game fare. You pick from one of 16 species, and you start your space empire.

The basic concept here is that you are one of the many races in the galaxy, and you have to rule all the other races, by force or otherwise. Of course, there are some wrenches in the works; the all-powerful New Orions (The Antarians from MOO2), the Antarian Xs, the Orion Senate, and of course random events. Not to forget the other races, some of whom are extremely powerful.

The Orion Senate is mentioned briefly in the above write-up, and I'll go into detail a bit more here. The Senate is a group of races picked randomly at the beginning of the game. Any race in the Senate can motion one of a variety of things, and, if seconded, will be voted upon to enact the rule (or whatever) in all of the planets of each race in the council. Keep in mind that each race has a number of votes equal to it's population points, while the New Orions have a number of votes equal to their population points, as well as a 1,000 vote bonus for starting the council. The motions are what you would expect from a MOO game, things like war and treaties and the like. For example, if you really hate the Trilarians and not only do you want to kill them, you want everyone else to kill them as well, you could motion for Total War against the Trilarians, and if it is seconded and passes, all the races in the Senate would declare Total war against the Trilarians. As well, these things could happen even with you off the Senate, so irritating several Senate members could be a bad thing.

Moving on to victory conditions here, there are three: Conquest, Senate, and Antarian X. Conquest kind of speaks for itself, but the others don't. You get a Senate victory if you manage to be elected as the head of the Orion Senate and elections happen every 20 turns or so. Because of the 1,000 vote bonus the New Orions have, this is really hard to do until further into the game. This victory condition is basicly the same as the Council victory in MOO2. Antarian X is the only really new one, where you find the five Antarian 'X's, lost pieces of old Antarian technology scattered about the galaxy. Each one contains a new technology that is only available with the X.

On a bit of a tangent here, I'd like to point out that the new system of movement in this game (Star Lanes connect stars together, and movement between stars without Lanes is abysmaly slow) is completely ripped off off Ascendancy. ...Not that that's a bad thing, it's a good system.

The races are:
Humans
Psilon
Evon
Imsaeis
Eoladi
Silicoids
Meklar
Cynoid
Trilarian
Nommo
Ithkul
Klackons
Tachidi
Sakkra
Raas
Grendarl

writeup to be edited as I make way in the game
Master of Orion III, the much awaited sequel to the first two excellent (if quirky and cheesy) Master of Orion games, fell a little bit short due to a radical design change halfway through and a reduced budget/timeline. It was developed by Quicksilver Interactive and published by Infogrames. It has some cool new species, like gas-giant inhabiting jellyfish things and what essentially amounts up to giant headcrabs. Many of the design ideas come from the old Delphi board, which, many said, was the beginning of the end for the game. Anyway, even its biggest fansite (http://www.orionsector.com) now has somewhat rejected it. Many tell me that this game is fun only for a very select group of people.

While it was nice, I, personally, found it pretty much unplayable to the weak AI, bizzare interface, and hyper-abstract everything. The AI almost never attacked you and seemed to have poor strategy, the interface was rife with inconsistancies and irrationalities, and every part of the "charm" of MOO2 was abstracted to a table of numbers and a report at the end of every turn.

Bascially, the main difference (quality aside) between MOO2 and MOO3 is that MOO3 was "de-civ-ized": that is, most of the elements borrowed from the Civilization series were removed: most notably the "population points," but also "city (or in this case planet) views" and the "nerfing" of many of the combat things. With MOO3, everything was supposed to balanced, etc. at least in theory, but, of course, that didn't quite manifest itself, at least, not until the first patch, which will hopefully be released soon. Finally, the combat system was radically changed, some say for the better, some for the worse, but it IS very different than the MOO2 and MOO1 systems. And, of course, there are viceroys (competant AI planet management assistants) which you can "influence" with development plans. Other than star-lanes and a much more complicated backstory with significantly more bearing on the game, little in the way of INTENDED game mechanic has changed.

The original Master of Orion was a simple game - minor differences between each of the different races - the smart one that had quicker tech, the big one that was good at ground combat, etc... Everyone had the same tech - it was a beautiful simple game for its day.

Master of Orion 2 was a worthy successor to it, expanding the races, the diplomacy, and the combat. Designing the ships and the great space battles (controlling the ship to ship combat) were two of the high points of the game - they are what made it fun.

Master of Orion 3 has now become too complex of a game.

The Viceroy

It is complex to the point that you have to have the AI to help play the game on - its not even a choice to turn it off. Economics and management of the planets has become much more involved.

This reminds me of Civ III where the first thing that you do in the game is turn on the AI to manage citizen moods... unless you like scrolling through dozens of cities, making certain that everyone is happy.

The AI is impossible to turn off, and every few turns you have to go back through the planets to make certain that the AI didn't do something that you didn't want to (I have enough scout ships and troop carriers to carry 10x the total ground force I could make - I don't need any more!). Nor can you turn around and have everyone crank out ships or some planet just going for money.

The only slightly good thing about the AI is the ability to classify planets - saying that a "large" planet should become a manufacturing center and a planet that is starving should focus on farms.

Technology

With MOO 2, you had the choice of researching any particular branch of the tech tree. Nothing was forbidden, though sometimes there were hard choices (unless you played a 'creative' race). Now, in MOO 3, technology is near impossible to keep up with (unless you fall way behind in the tech race) and constantly designing new ships and marking the old ones as obsolete to keep the AI from building junk for you (why are you building that old frigate with lasers? It can't even scratch the armor on the new ships I'm fighting... argh! maybe I can use it as an escort for some colony ships as they limp along).

Not all the tech is available to everyone, and you need to either steal it (spies) or trade for it (diplomacy). If your race isn't good at either of these, you're in a world of pain unless you happy to luck out with the technology draw.

Combat

The beautiful ship to ship combat of old has become 'task force to task force' combat - abstracting it one level... and real time combat at that. This is awful for those who don't have fast enough machine and are left to sit there and 'watch' rather than try to click everywhere that needs to be - don't quite have the itchy finger skills. The real time element is probably in response to the other real time fleet formation space games out there - this is a bad thing.

One of the biggest problems is that of not knowing what a weapon does or its upgrade does. Does auto-fire on a point defense make sense? This was fairly clear when playing the old game when you could control each weapon firing - now its done for you again.

In most cases, ship design is left to 'select ship chassis', 'select ship type' (90% of the time starship), and select ship mission (long range, short range, missiles, point defense, etc...). (The ship mission forces you to have ships grouped together in different sizes - One example would be no more than five core ships, three have to be 'this type' of mission, and there must be at least one escort ship and one one picket ship.) At this point you hit 'auto build' which goes and makes the right sized ship for you with the 'right stuff'. However, this 'right stuff' is very lopsided in favor of the newest tech always - this is not always a good thing (one weapon only hits the shields of a ship - not the armor).

I compared this to Civilization earlier. Games appear to have gotten to the point where you have the AI playing most of it for you. This is boring. Civ III just skirted under the 'too complex' and 'too much AI' point. MOO 3 failed both of these being too complex, needing the AI. However, MOO 3 is a game where you let the AI play most of it, can't help but do so, and would loose horribly to something that can keep track of a dozens of planets and micromanage each along with making certain that the ships built are always the best, etc...

In summary - this is a game that one should avoid getting unless you have to have the game to know what it is. I did this - so don't feel too bad if you did too.

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