Ever since I first played Master of Orion, I’ve been a huge fan of the 4x sci-fi genre. When Star Ruler first appeared on Steam it immediately piqued my interest. So many games have tried to fill the empty gap in this genre over the years. Every now and then a decent game arrives but very few games have made the impact that the golden oldies did. So does Star Ruler have the potential to become one of the legends of the genre? Let’s find out…
What is Star Ruler?
Star Ruler follows the same basic concept as most games in this genre. The player starts with one planet, usually referred to as the ‘Home World’. This planet is pretty well built up and your civilization has just entered the space age. Unfortunately, several other planets are in exactly the same state – thus starting a race for global domination. The start of these games is usually pretty similar: You build scout ships to explore the systems around you, and colony ships to colonise worlds of strategic interest.
Star Rules plays entirely in real-time and the sense of scale is absolutely enormous. The only real limit on the size of the universe and the number of ships is your hardware. Personally, I was very impressed with the universe itself. The stars are very pretty and the planets have visible atmospheres and land masses. Observant players will also notice comets zooming around the star systems, and moons orbiting planets. You can zoom in and out absolutely seamlessly from a ship, to a system view, to a portion of a galaxy, to the universe, etc. When I say the scale is enormous, I do mean it!
The game can be played single player, against AI opponents (which give you a pretty hard time!) as well as against other players in multi-player. The engine has been developed in-house by Blind Mind Studios, and it’s really quite an impressive piece of work. It’s best seen to really appreciate the effort that has gone into this aspect of the game. So let’s look into the various elements that make a good 4x sci-fi game, and see how Star Rules handles each.
Star Ruler handles research a little differently from most 4x games, and I found it quite a refreshing approach. There are various research areas, each unlocking different ship subsystems and planetary structures or improving upon older ones. Some research areas are locked however, and can only be researched once the correct ‘link’ as been established from an existing research area. Players can choose to research links rather than the area of technology, but the result is random – although this can be changed in the game settings.
There are quite a few different research areas, each focusing on different aspects of your empire. You can queue research by CTRL-clicking on a tech or node and the currently researching technology is always at the top-left of your screen, as well as the ETA to completion so this is all fairly easy to manage.
I was pleasantly surprised that the fact Star Ruler is real-time has not at all taken away from the depth in the research tree. It’s at least as comprehensive as some classic turn-based titles, and there’s some pretty impressive end-game technology. (Yes, you can blow up planets and stars!)
This is another aspect of the game which I found both impressive and interesting. Usually, real-time titles just give you already configured ship classes and types, without too much customisation. Not so in Star Ruler, which has one of the most in-depth ship design modules I have ever seen in a game. Think Space Empires IV – and then add an additional layer of depth by taking directional damage into account. The position where you place various subsystems in your ship blueprint has a direct impact on its combat performance.
Let’s use a simple example: You design an manned vessel, which includes a hull, engines, a bridge, life support, crew quarters, fuel cells, laser weapons and solar panels to generate power. If you place your solar panel at the front and your ship receives a frontal hit, it’s likely that your solar panels will be destroyed. This would mean you no longer have power to power your laser weapons. Now suppose you put your bridge in front instead and that gets hit. Your ship is now unable to operate its engines or weapons. And so on. All subsystems have various degrees of interdependency making ship design and placement of armor, shields, bulkheads and other methods of absorbing damage a very tactical affair.
Another aspect of ship design in Star Ruler where the game really does things differently is the ‘scale’ factor. This number represents the size of the vessel – and you can choose pretty much any scale you would like. For example, a fighter is typically scale 0.35 and a dreadnought 6.00. But I’ve already been flying with carriers of size 64.0 – and there’s actually no real limit at all. If you want to build a ship the size of a planet, with the capability to blow up other planets – you can. The only thing holding you back is the amount of resources and thus time such a project would take! Even nicer is the fact that this scale is also represented in the game, if you place a scale 1.0 ship next to a scale 128.0 ship, you will definitely notice the difference!
I have to be honest here – the diplomacy side of Star Ruler is a little rough around the edges. The developer has promised to improve this in future patches, with some pretty interesting ideas so this is guaranteed to improve with time.
Currently, you are able to make peace, declare war, trade resources and trade research but the interface is a little unfriendly, and there is no real emotion or interaction with the other empires as such. It’s functional, but that’s about it.
There are several resources in Star Ruler. Metal is a finite resource present in every planet in the form of ore, though you can’t *really* run out. Your efficiency merely drops to 20% when the planet has no ore left, crashing your economy if you don’t find alternative sources. You can also mine ore from asteroids, using mining ships equipped with cargo bays and mining lasers. Metal is used both as a resource during construction and as the basis for other resources so it’s pretty important.
Further, there are Electronics, Advanced Parts, Food, Goods and Luxuries. Electronics and Advanced Parts are used in the construction of pretty much anything. Food is used to determine population growth and you should ensure your empire always has it in abundance. Finally, Goods and Luxuries are used to keep your population happy. They are empire-wide resources so you luckily don’t have to manage individual planet happiness, as this would be close to impossible at this scale.
Sooner or later, you will enter combat. Ultimately, that is what games like Star Ruler are all about. You build up your empire, you research technologies and then you smite your opponents by crushing them under your huge galactic boot.
So what is combat like in Star Ruler? Luckily, combat looks pretty awesome. Seeing huge fleets swarm at each other in full 3d, unleashing their lasers and cannons can be pretty impressive. Lasers firing everywhere, ships exploding left and right – everything looks and feels quite epic. Just the sight of your fleet, built up after a vast effort of your intergalactic empire, approaching its intended target is awesome.
Personally I like trying to take on large numbers of enemy vessels with just a few massive ships – that’s when you really feel the power of the ship design. Every decision you took during that design phase really comes to full effect at the moment the ship starts receiving enemy fire.
Woah, this sounds cool!
I agree – but there are a few things you must be aware of. Star Ruler should currently be considered as an unfinished game. Blind Mind Studios had to release the game early in order to survive the financial burden an Indie developer carries with an ambitious project like Star Ruler. They have apologised for this and are incredibly open to potential customers about this fact, so it’s not something they’ve tried to hide in any way.
I’ve had several long conversations with their QA Director, and they basically intend to keep developing the game until it has reached the state the originally intended, and hopefully a little beyond that. Feedback from players is taken incredibly seriously and they have asked that we don’t shy away from being honest and pointing out the game’s flaws. So here goes:
One of the biggest things the game currently suffers from is that it can become very difficult to manage your empire later in the game. If you’ve chosen to play a fairly large galaxy with a large number of stars, it will become harder and harder to know what’s going on in all corners of your empire. Functionality such as a ‘colony overview’ or ‘list of systems’ has not yet been implemented – but is being worked on.
Similarly, I found that it’s very difficult to get emotionally attached to your empire. Currently, you cannot name your Empire, choose its colour or its banner. There is no such thing as ‘races’, nor a graphical representation of what your population look like. You can also not rename planets or star systems. This means you are playing with a randomly generated empire name, in a randomly generated star system name. This can be a little challenging later in the game, as renaming systems is often a good way of keeping track of things. This emotional attachment is very visible when engaging in diplomacy, as there is no way to really remember opponents other than by colour and placement on the map. Since the map is full 3d and the camera can be moved anywhere, this further adds to the difficulty of keeping a good overview.
The ship design section has similar issues. Due to its immense depth, it’s even more important to keep things intuitive, with all information at your finger tips. In single player you can easily pause the game, but in multi-player this luxury does not exist. Blind Mind Studios have already informed us that further enhancements to the ship design area are planned so that is good news for people who bought the game.
The game also suffers from a few bugs, interface issues and small glitches with textures, but nothing too catastrophic at this point for the vast majority of players. Overall, its very important to bear in mind that you are essentially playing a game in its beta, with huge changes planned in the coming months.
So taking all the above into account, is Star Ruler worth buying? The game costs $25 (roughly £16) – though various offers exist on the distribution platforms. The game is fun to play in its current state but some small issues might frustrate you from time to time. However, not many developers are as dedicated as Blind Mind Studios are to their game. I’ve had a very long conversation with them, and they are absolutely dedicated to making the game what it SHOULD have been at launch.
The only way Indie developers like Blind Mind Studios will survive is if fans of the genre support their efforts and if we bear in mind what this game can become with a bit more polish, I would definitely say it is worth forking out the money. If the changes that we’ve discussed with them become reality, then Star Ruler has the potential to become one of the best 4x sci-fi games ever made.
In its current state, the game is at least as fun as Sins of a Solar Empire, with a lot more depth in ship design. Gamers who are interested in the genre but less confident of forking out their hard earned cash on the game need not worry. We’ll do another review in the future, when the promised changes have been implemented. We think that the game will end up surprising more than just a few people at that point!