Nerdstalgia: Master of Orion

I have been playing video games for as long as I can remember. I remember thinking Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 was probably the best game of all time (I was very young. Don’t judge me.). I remember getting our Commodore 64, and spending enough time playing Jeopardy on it that I could pretty much buzz in on every question, confident that I’d remember what the answer was (I don’t think there were many puzzles on that one). Later, Lemmings on the Super Nintendo was the ideal puzzle game, and Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV in Japan and all modern incarnations) was the best RPG ever.

All of these “best games ever”, though, pale in my memory when compared to Master of Orion 1.

I remember stumbling across the Master of Orion box among the other computer games, though I couldn’t tell you what store we were in at the time. Honestly, it wasn’t that flashy compared to other games; it was a basic black box, with a generic sci-fi scene (ships above a planet) and the name printed on the side of the box without even a fancy font or logo. I must have played other strategy games and liked them, because “Strategy” is the only thing that stands out on that box to me now, but, honestly, I don’t really know what drew me to this one.

To be honest, it’s been a few years since I’ve played Master of Orion, but not nearly as many years as you might think. Over the years, I have reverently moved the Master of Orion files from one external drive to another, periodically picking it up and playing a few games of Master of Orion, helping the Silicoids or the Psilons achieve their rightful places as the rulers of the entire galaxy. When I booted it up for this review, I wasn’t really worried that the graphics would look dated, or that I wouldn’t enjoy the gameplay, because it hasn’t been that long since I’ve played it.

The graphics and game layout are obviously a product of the time in which they were created, but they don’t really seem dated to me. It wouldn’t be too long after this game’s release that video games started being rendered in 3D. In a sense, these games had taken their 2D designs to their limit, and while the resolution of the screen and certain elements may show the technical limitations of their age, there isn’t a lot of room to criticize them, in my opinion 2

Even almost a quarter century later, the graphics are fine. They’re not flashy, but they don’t need to be.

The same can’t entirely be said for the game play. Most of it is workable. I wish I could zoom in and out on the map, and it took me a while to remember that simply clicking on the map will refocus it on my cursor. I kept trying to drag, which led to unexpected behaviors when the map would simply recenter on the last point where my mouse button was down. Still, most of the management is done using sliders (see the screenshot to the right for just one set of sliders). Lots and lots and lots of sliders. Each planet’s spending priorities are controlled by slider. Research priorities are controlled by sliders. Espionage and infiltration? Slider.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since I prefer it to the way Master of Orion 2 did things (expect a review of that classic at a later date), but I suspect it would give the game kind of a clunky feel if one wasn’t compelled by nostalgia to love it as much as I do.

The game itself is one of the models on which most future 4X games would be based. The term itself was coined for this game. You start off controlling a single planet, and you slowly explore and expand your empire, exploiting resources as you find them. Eventually, you’ll find other races among the stars, and, as a would-be galactic emperor is compelled to do, you will have to exterminate them. Where other games in the genre would eventually allow you to win through diplomacy and alliances (and those aspects are at play during any given playthrough of Master of Orion), the only winning condition for this game is to be the last empire standing.

I hated this stupid GNN reporter. I’m pretty sure the inhabitants of Endoria that I haven’t evacuated yet probably hated him more, though.

Because of that, Master of Orion is actually pretty simple, comparatively speaking. You build up the infrastructure on each planet, making sure to balance that with protecting the environment (unless you play as the Silicoids, who don’t really care about things like breathing or radiation). Eventually, those planets can earn research points, save money, or build ships. Researching can improve any aspect of this. Early on, increasing your ability to explore, expand and exploit is going to be your main focus, but there comes a time when any young emperor’s fancy turns to love extermination.

When that time comes, you’re going to start building a fleet of ships intended for something more than defense. Ship design is pretty basic – you pick a size for the ship, pick one of the ship images, and decide what items to put in there. Available ship styles are dictated by the color of your flag and the size of the ship you’ve chosen. Engine, Armor, Weapons, Computers, and “special” items (like the colony ship unit that turns a ship into a colony ship) all fit inside. As your technology increases, you’ll have access to better and better items, and the existing items will get smaller and smaller.

Space combat is strategic and turn-based, but pretty basic.

All space battles will take place in orbit around a star system, usually in orbit of the star’s primary planet (stars in Master of Orion have no more than one planet shown), or in empty space if the star has no planets. The attacking fleet will be stacked on the left, with the defending fleet stacked on the right. Since you can have six ship designs at a time, that means you have at most six icons on your side (unless it’s your planet, in which case you get to control the planet’s ground-based missiles as well.

Battles are generally pretty quick; your ships can move one space for each “level” of engine they have, and the entire stack of ships fires at once. If your design includes a single set of missiles, but you’ve got a stack of 10 ships, then you’ll fire 10 missiles at a time from that stack. Beam weapons and missiles can be fired at separate targets, and, if you’re fighting against a planet, you may also use bombs to attack the planet. In addition to the playing through the strategic battle, you can click “AUTO” to simply watch the battle play out.

 

Planetary invasions are even more basic than space combat.

Once you’ve gotten rid of a planet’s defenders, you have to deal with any alien colonies that are in place. You could simply bomb them out of existence, but why not take advantage of the infrastructure your enemies have so kindly built up for you? You can simply transfer “colonists” straight to an enemy colony (even a single ship in orbit can send all your “colonists” to their doom, so you’ll want to leave a small fleet in orbit long enough to get your colonists delivered. Your colonists come equipped with the best weapons your technology can handle, and they’ll systematically clean up the planet of any pesky aliens before settling in (or, in the case of my screenshot to the left, they’ll die trying…).

In addition to diplomacy and warmongering, you’ll have to face random events. These events aren’t quite as varied as in the next game in the series, but they do occasionally put some of your people at risk, with the all-too-cheerful GNN robot informing you that your people on a given planet are all going to die if you don’t do something. There are also good events (a random planetary realignment might boost a planet’s ecosystem, or you may find ancient ruins that will boost your research), but those seem to mostly be reserved for AI players. I’m pretty sure GNN is biased toward players of the computer variety.
Also, somewhere, out there in the galaxy is Orion. Orion is the homeworld of an ancient advanced race, patiently waiting for the first player to find it and plunder it for some of the best technology in the game, like the aptly-named Death Ray. The only thing between the player and the riches of Orion is the Guardian. You’ll have to build up a decent fleet with some good weaponry to take out the very well equipped Guardian. There are tricks to maximize your chances (it doesn’t do quite as well against swarms of smaller ships), but that’s not to say it’s easy.

Master of Orion is now available on Steam for just a few dollars (I picked up Master of Orion and Master of Orion 2 for $5.99.). I can’t recommend either of the other two bundles, as they both include Master of Orion 3, which was a huge disappointment (I haven’t tried the remake yet, so I can’t speak to that). If you’ve any interest in 4X games and haven’t tried it, it’s definitely worth trying the game for which the term was coined.

The Patient Gamer, Volume 1

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

When we were discussing this group blog project, one of my co-writers suggested that we should review the Xbox Live Games With Gold games each month. Unfortunately, that same co-writer got a case of the “somebodies,” as in, “Somebody should review them, but I don’t really mean me.” For this first review, I nominated myself to be somebody. Games with Gold are, by necessity, older games, and I suggested that we should call the regular feature “Late to the Party,” but, honestly, the more I used it, the less I liked it. Thus, The Patient Gamer was born. If my co-writers don’t like it, well, they should’ve volunteered to review an old game.

The current Games with Gold are Borderlands 2 (360), Project Cars, and Layers of Fear. I would have been happy to review any of those three games (especially Borderlands 2, which I already owned and enjoyed). Unfortunately, something came up. That something was the announcement of Middle Earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. That announcement reminded me that I’d never actually finished Mordor, so I jumped back into it.

Mordor isn’t a new game, and, if you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly heard of it, even if you haven’t played it. Set between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Rings, it tells the story of Talion, a human who is somehow merged with a wraith and given a form of immortality. The wraith has no real memories of who it was, so the two start out on a mission of revenge against those who killed Talion and his family, while trying to figure out exactly what happened to them.

It’s a large, open-world game set in the Lord of the Rings universe, which is one or two points in its favor right there, depending on one’s feelings about Tolkein’s Legendarium. The combat is very similar to the Arkham series of Batman games, which is a huge point in its favor. When you’re surrounded by orcs and only technically fighting one or two at a time, the combat system still makes you feel like you’re in the midst of a huge brawl. The biggest winning feature of Mordor, supposedly to be expanded on in War, is the Nemesis system.

In the nemesis system, there are orc captains (or Warchiefs, at higher levels) who lead large groups of orcs. Those captains each have their own limited personalities, with traits that modify how they fight.  More importantly, if you encounter one, he remembers you. If he killed you (one of the major points of the game is that your character returns to life after death, and the orcs know that about you), he’ll make a comment about it. If you killed him and he

Otha Ugly Face is a new Nemesis.

I think this was the first time I’d met Otha. Just after taking this picture, a second Captain showed up and distracted me, giving Otha the chance to kill me…

“escaped” (which means you got the kill animation, but the game somehow decided that he didn’t actually die when his head exploded or whatever), he not only remembers, but may bear some scars (physical and mental) from that encounter. Burn an orc to “death”, and he may return with a fear of burning.

The whole thing makes the game’s open world seem more alive than it should, and increases the replay value immensely. Let’s face it, this isn’t Skyrim. The open world in question here is all set within Mordor, the heart of Sauron’s evil empire, and it’s populated almost entirely by Orcs, human slaves, and monsters. There’s no thieves guild or Companions to join, it’s just you and your weapons, with pretty limited quest lines. If it weren’t for the Nemesis system (and, to a lesser extent, the good will earned simply by being set in a pre-existing fantasy universe), Mordor would feel like a fun proof-of-concept in want of a game. The Nemesis system completely redeems that, and makes the quest to kill all the orcs (and regain the wraith’s memories, which, honestly, felt like more of a subplot than a driving force of the game) feel entertaining a lot longer than it would otherwise be.

All in all, the plot of Mordor leaves a lot to be desired, but the Nemesis system alone makes it entirely worth playing. I’d give it a 8/10, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.