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Posted on Mar 27, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Starships Unlimited 3 – Game Review (PC)

Armchair General

And that little story is a demonstration of just how involved I get in these games. Ever since the release of Master of Orion and its follow-up MOOII (we won’t talk about the one that came after that as I’m still undergoing the counselling), I’ve loved playing space Emperor and crushing all before me. In fact, I’ve been looking for a worthy successor to MOOII for some years now. Is this it? Well, alas, no, it isn’t, but it’s still good fun to play and that’s what’s important.

Gameplay – 50/60

I actually bought the first iteration of this game when it came out – but unfortunately I bought it at the same time as the original GalCiv and, well, let’s just say that the latter got played a lot more than the former. But that’s not to knock the Starships Unlimited series – although I was surprised to see that there’s not much difference in the way this one looks compared to the first version, it’s a solid game, despite the basic graphics.

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You can play in different shaped galaxies, and real-time graphs are always available to help you plot and scheme

Essentially, this is a game about galactic exploration. Starting with a single star system under your control, you must expand to conquer, whilst keeping an eye on your economy, your researches, and, if you are so inclined, by using diplomatic channels to speak with the other races you encounter. In fact, there may be up to seven other alien races out there, all baying for your blood.

Getting into the game might seem to be a little tricky at first, one is presented with a bewildering array of text buttons at the bottom of the screen – but luckily there is a handy tip feature that pops up when something new needs to be explained, and this is a life-saver. It wasn’t long before I was clicking back and forth like I’d been playing the game for weeks.

This version differs in that there are various ages that one’s race must progress through – if you research enough technology you can reach the pinnacle of your current age and leap to another, it’s kind of the equivalent of the Classical, Medieval and Renaissance eras that you see in games like Civilization.

Game play progresses fairly swiftly, the action is semi-turn-based, and semi-real time. What I mean by this is that a single "turn" is one month long, but once a player hits the "play" button, the game plays through in real-time, rolling through the turns/months automatically without requiring player intervention until a decision is required. This can take the form of selecting a new research project, giving orders to a ship or assigning new build orders to a planet. You can also pause at any moment. In addition, there’s also an option to run at up to 10x normal speed, which is a necessity in the early stages as it can take several months for a starship to reach even the nearest system.

And, here’s an important note for Fleet builders – the number of units you can control at any one time is relatively limited as a result of yearly upkeep costs and limited resources. Instead, the game forces players to concentrate on optimising the ships they do have, by upgrading components, training and assigning new crew and by keeping their ships in tip-top condition. As you might expect, each ship (and planet) has a specific number of "slots" for inserting equipment.

As players explore the galaxy, ancient alien artefects can be uncovered which are useful in enhancing the capabilities of your Fleet. Once new star systems are explored and claimed, Freighters will automatically be built to harvest the natural resources, or you can manually construct Colony Ships to expand – but choose wisely as this is a very expensive undertaking. To make matters worse, each new Colony Ship costs more than the last one!

There are nice references to the sci-fi genre as a whole, the opening setup screens allow players to select the basic visual appearance of their ships. Expect to see semi-lookalikes of Imperial Star Destroyers, Corellian Corvettes, X-wings, Federation Starships, Klingon Battlecruisers and Ferengi ships amongst others. Players can also choose how their ships are named once built – choose from ships named after historical Naval vessels, countries, myths, explorers, birds, animals, bugs and, rather bizarrely, trees. No, I don’t know why either.

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Above my homeworld, ships of the Fleet can be repaired and restocked with newly trained crewmembers. To the right, the selection screen offers a myriad of options to create your own custom game.

Graphics – 6/20

How can I put this politely? The graphics are not mind-blowing; in fact they are very basic. Views are strictly 2D and popup menus are written in a rather blocky script that probably looked futuristic in the 1970’s but which now just look horrid. Planets are the nicest looking things in the game, but they are just static images. Cities on a planet’s surface are represented by an icon. But it’s the starships themselves that are the most disappointing – with thick black blocky outlines that become even more obvious if one is sitting over a planet, they just look too basic, and for a game calling itself Starships Unlimited, they are actually very limited indeed.

Sound – 5/10

Sounds in this game are also very limited – the occasional crescendo of battle being merely represented by some puny zapping noises, or other sounds that I swear have been lifted wholesale straight from old episodes of original Star Trek. There is a bit of music too, a number of futuristic-sounding electronic tracks kick in seemingly at random, but speaking as a person who normally hates in-game music, this was quite unobtrusive.

Documentation & Technical – 10/10

I’m giving this top marks as the supplied manual really is excellent – informative without being boring and the in-game tip system is fantastic.

Pros:
Deceptively deep gameplay. Tip system makes it easy to get into; auto-pause feature means players never forget to issue commands.

Cons: Not much eye-candy; looks like it could have been released ten years ago.

Bottom Line: An entertaining distraction. If you’re into 4X type games, then it’s worth your while to check it out, but if this is your first foray into the genre, I really can’t recommend it above similar games such as GalCiv II.

Armchair General Score – 71%

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