Master of Orion II

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This is one of those older games. We played it quite a bit (my brothers, friends, and myself) when we were younger. It’s a “classic 4X” turn based game with a good bit of depth and variation. I haven’t played it in years (and years) now, but here’s what I recall.

Nostalgia Warning! My memories of the game may depart vastly from the game itself. This game may actually be much less interesting and enjoyable than I recall.

Things Master of Orion 2 does right:

  • Interesting tightly woven systems. The race choice (along with a powerful race customization tool) and research options play tightly together. Both directly and strongly influence space combat and planetary colonization choices. There are very few “dud” options, but the choices you make early on can come back later in the game. The no-back-tracking science research acts like a modern skill tree, requiring your entire race to make decisions about trade-offs between different abilities.
  • Randomized star map. Most strategy games have this, but I thought it was worth a mention. The placement can be unfair, but it’s generally well balanced, and makes new games interesting.
  • Not too much complexity. The game systems are refined and well rounded. They could have thrown a lot more in, but the little that they did include makes for interesting play while not being overly obtuse.
  • Abstract art style. The icons are just enough to fire your imagination without getting distracting. Colonists, planets, monsters, ships, they are all representative and easy to distinguish.
  • Lots of optional play styles (turn off the Antarans, change race options, etc). I recall there being a lot of options, especially when hosting a game. The ability to implement “house rules” style stuff that is actually enforced in the engine is a boon difficult to describe. Especially when playing with competitive friends, having the game enforce “no stellar converters” takes a load off your mind. Also, turning off “Antarans attack” is really nice for those of us who feel like a more relaxed pace.
  • Clear descriptions of rules, abilities, technologies, etc. Many games create a sense of wonder by leaving you in the dark as to the exact mechanics of the game. I don’t appreciate this, and MOO2 steers mostly clear of this pitfall. Most of the time you know what it is you’re researching, what systems on your ship do, and how your choices will affect the game state.

Things  Master of Orion 2 does wrong:

  • Micromanagement gets overwhelming late game. This is partially a result of the poor AI (see below) but it feels like an issue in itself. When your empire is composed of three planets, everything feels good. When your reach extends to fifty or so, things are way out of hand. The ability to issue commands to multiple star systems at once would have been nice. Abstracting the micromanagement would be helpful as well.
  • The AI is not terribly bright. This makes fighting the computer too easy. It also makes managing your own planets and fleets a nightmare. I realize this is a difficult issue to solve, but still.

Things  Master of Orion 2 does, but I can’t decide how I feel about them:

  • This is a game designed to be played over and over, and each game takes hours to finish. This can be great if you’re looking for a long experience. But, it can be frustrating if you’re just going for completion. For good or ill, expect to spend some hours on it. Especially coupled with the micromanagement issues, each turn can take tens of minutes near the end.
  • Space Amoeba. What’s with that guy? It makes an entire planet toxic or something, which is amazingly cool, but also amazingly bad. Giant monsters that can terraform (or more likely, de-terraform) planets? So cool! Giant monster just turned my Gaia world into a reeking toxic pit? Not cool!
  • Minimal rendered cutscenes. The game is mostly static icons and simple animations, except for the Galaxy News Network (to inform the player of in-game events), diplomatic negotiations, and a few special planet landings. The rendered scenes appeared cool at the time, but they haven’t aged well. It does tend to lend an enjoyable solidity to the world. But, it could have been done more iconically. The pre-rendered graphics feel gimmicky, and don’t mesh well with the otherwise abstracted visuals. But, it’s neat to see the “research complete!” screen with the awesome Titan class vessel you spent the last ten turns working on rotating in space there in the holodisplay.
  • The Antarans. The game itself is sub-titled “Battle at Antares”, so you know these suckers are intentional. They are annoyingly overpowered. If you turn them on, they will sweep in mid-to-late game and wring your neck. The smallest of their ships can take out some of the largest of your own. Of course, for expert players they are no problem, but it’s still a nightmare to be battling your neighbors (and winning perhaps) only to be side-swiped by the broken “Rocks fall everyone dies” race. They also seem to ignore the AI players in favor of attacking player controlled races… which just feels like they are cheating. On the other hand, if you’re ready for them you can capture their ships and get some awesome tech. Flying around in a captured Antaran vessel will brighten just about anyone’s day.

Although I think Master of Orion II is an excellent example of the 4X genere, it also fails where these games are prone to fail. The fantasy of leading an expanding alien empire is entrancing. The hassle of sheperding a witless band of AI minions is less so. At its best, this game played with friends (who all take turns of approximately equal length) is great. At its worst, it’s a frustrating time-sink until the Antarans crush you into stellar dust.

One thought on “Master of Orion II

  1. Among the things I appreciate about art is that different viewers may enjoy or dislike the same facet.

    The primary challenge I enjoy in 4X games is that of keeping as many details of the game present in my mind at any given time as I am able. So, where Ziggy dislikes the high level of micromanagement required in the late game, I find it among the more desirable aspects of the games. Even in newer games where the governors are more competent, I rarely — if ever — use governors, except in times of widespread war where the details of strategy outpace the minutiae of planet-to-planet workings.

    Too, I enjoy that the game takes a “long” time to play. I’m the sort of player for which Firaxis included the “marathon” speed setting in the later Civilization titles. I want to sink myself into the game world: all of its details and history, the other players (AI or human), and do my best to hold the sum of it in my mind.

    I also like the challenge posed by the Antarans. Master of Orion 2 was the sort of game where, without some external impetus, it was easy to sit and marinate in your own machinations. Keeping peace with rival cultures was reasonably simple (thanks to the weak AI, perhaps), and when an arbitrarily belligerent foe forced your hand, the defensive position was always the easier fight. The Antarans provide the impetus — the need — to advance your culture with sufficient alacrity to avoid destruction. To me, the Antarans were nothing short of the primary reason to build my empires well.

    Outside these exception, I generally agree with Ziggy in his assessment. And now that we’re done here, I think I’ll go play a round or two. 😉

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