Friday, April 15, 2016

Star Ruler 2

Well, I asked for a ringworld, and now I've got one. Not in Gal Civ 3, but in Star Ruler 2.

Be careful what you wish for.

The original Star Ruler, while somewhat short of Kerbal verisimilitude, was one of the more stubbornly "hard" themed SciFi games out there.
Everything moved. Planets orbited their stars. Ships mimicked real-world inertia. Goods were shuttled between planets by haulers propelled by Bussard ramjets. Objects had mass and distances were shown in astronomical units. The sheer wealth of information made it slightly difficult to get into, and I now find I'm sorry I gave up on it too quickly, but to the extent I did I found it a nerd's delight. Partly, I didn't put too much effort into it because the sequel had already been announced. I mistakenly assumed it would build on the original's strengths, a niche item for all us Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein (and maybe Niven) fans who wanted an expansive 4x strategy game with a sense of proportion, with that hard-edged 50s or 70s chrome-plated feel.

Unfortunately, as you can see from the interface, Star Ruler 2 is attempting to go pop. Bubble-gum pop to be exact. It attempts to remove all that troublesome information from the player's view. Planets still orbit and ships still make a show of gradually slowing, but distance and mass are nowhere to be seen. Small ships are automatically produced by your planets and automatically join up with your capital ships as they pass through a system. Planet management, instead of a balanced economy, revolves around building up each planet's one exportable resource. Bright and cheerful, streamlined and fast-paced, it's clear that the sequel is addressing a whole different audience with different priorities than its predecessor.

Both games are real-time. It shows. 4x games thrive on their expansiveness, and the usual turn-based system serves not only to define the player's interaction with the AI but to keep your RAM from melting under the weight of an entire imaginary galaxy. Those bright colored dots in the background of my ringworld in the first screenshot each represent planets and stars, over five hundred of them. This next one shows my processor screaming in agony.
Yes, Firefox is taking up half a gig of memory because I have thirty tabs open because I'm just one of those people. Shut up. Not the point.
Regardless of how old my computer is (not all that old) I can't help thinking a great deal of this processing power is being wasted, as Star Ruler 2 is actually less capable of running a large, expansive galaxy than its previous incarnation. While the first Star Ruler boasted galaxies of over ten thousand stars, its progeny warns you off with a pop-up message if you try to create one with more than 150.

And really there's no point to doing so, because the unlike the first game, the sequel's interstellar environment simply fails to feel in any way immersive. As does everything else about it. For instance, diplomacy's a card game.
No, really. Your empire produces influence points which you can use to buy "cards" which are randomly generated every thirty seconds, which you then play and back up with more influence points to impose your will over the other players.

That's the real crux of the matter: other players. Star Ruler was a single-player, dreamy, immersive science fiction adventure among the stars. #2 is intended to capture a competitive online game market, and as such everything about it feels very... gamey. Abstracted. Everything is a move on a board.

That ringworld above took hours' worth of asteroid mining to fund, after which I had to have a ship go around to all the planets where I'd stockpiled the ore and gather it up, after which followed a lengthy period of construction. Sure, sure, very epic and stuff... except... you see that star the ringworld's orbiting? That was instantly generated, using yet another card which randomly popped into existence. Just like that. I made a star. In fact, I made about half a dozen stars before building the ringworld.

Kinda takes the zing out of the whole thing. You maniacs! You fizzled it!

Everything else like the lack of control over smaller ships and the much smaller map size follows suit. It's all intended to make for quick, half-hour or hour-long multiplayer matches for hypercompetitive little snots with no attention span. If you start a game with the maximum number of AI players, you'll notice most of their randomized names are actually duplicates of each other. For all the processing power this game's eating up, why does it feel like I'm getting so much less?

It's not altogether a terrible game, but I can't help noticing yet another developer selling out its niche audience in hopes of stealing away a slice of Blizzard's mass-market tween hordes, and I doubt it'll work. Usually doesn't. Instead of simply creating separate product lines for such disparate games they've managed to poison the Star Ruler brand name, and from the utter lack of media buzz (or even a wikipedia article) around Star Ruler 2, I very much doubt it managed to capture its intended fast-fingers, slow-brain online l33t-d00d customer base.

And so, another developer will likely join the hordes of other would-be sellouts and copycats in well-deserved bankruptcy. Though I do apologize for the bubble-gum pop slam. If anything ties both products together and separates them from the competition, it's being among the few modern computer games to feature interesting music with some sort of personality.


  1. Part One of my response:
    It's worth noting that Star Ruler 2 attempts to actually use the full processing power of your rig - as it needs to. Ships are far more complex objects than they were in SR1 - and there are lots more of them at any given time. Additionally the AI thinks more, the planets think more - the whole universe really is thinking more. Star Ruler 1 tried to use all your cores as much as it can - Star Ruler 2 succeeds. It'll also get out of the way if other applications need your CPU. SR2 is also vastly more graphically complex than SR1, but that's more GPU than CPU.

    I'm not sure Star Ruler was a 'brand' in the first place - given how poorly it sold compared to its competition. It was a niche game that attempted to innovate. Star Ruler 2 is a niche game that attempts to innovate. They've both got the same DNA and same thrust of idea - they just go about implementing that idea in very different ways. They're both big space action RTS games that are about big battles and big dumb objects.

    You can control all your ships. Click on a support and give it a move order. You can also broadly control your supports in an automated fashion, leaving the ships to perform the roles they're designed for - that's what the Behaviors are for. It's all intended to make controlling your Empire less of an annoyance. Drag-select boxes are not a fun thing when you have 23 different things the player might mean to select inside that box.

  2. Part two of my response:
    Also I hate to smash your opinions on it but Star Ruler 1 had multiplayer as well; it was by no means 'singleplayer only'. It was just as abstracted - just had more cogworks that seemed like they were doing interesting things. For example: Nobody can describe how SR1's economy actually works in its entirety. Do you know exactly how much of your Empire's metal production is being affected by the amount of individual Ores on every planet? Of course not. The developers don't either - and they programmed the economy. You can distill it down to a formula - but you'll never be able to actually grok it.

    So Star Ruler 2 makes everything grokable - understandable. Perhaps you've been fooled by the spinning clockwork of Star Ruler 1 into thinking it's a more complex title. It is by far a less complex, complicated, or interesting title than Star Ruler 2. All it 'lacks', if you wish to see it as lacking, is an aggressive stance on player knowledge. "Didn't know your Ore was running out? Well your economy's crashed now too bad." "Did you make sure your power capacitance and power generation rate can survive 1.5 ticks of the game's resource ticking system? No? Well your ship blows up because your bridge runs out of power which means the reactors go down which brings down the life support which kills your crew irrecoverably. Good job."

    Does all this make the game shorter? Sure. It's meant to be more friendly to people who want to player MP in it. The reason for that is: AIs suck and we all know it - once you know how to beat an AI you know how to always beat an AI. SR1's AI was terrible. It only won over players because the -economy- often beat players on its own. Once a player has mastered a means to get their economy going stronger and faster than an AI, that player will always win because the economy is everything in SR1.

  3. Part three of my response:
    The Media 'buzz' lacking is partly because 4X in 2016 is swarming with competition where 4X in 2009 was basically dead. SR1 had the whole market to itself as far as newcomers went. Everything else was superbroken, a MoO clone, or boring. The other part is that nobody's giving the developers the time of day because, surprise, nobody wants to spend a lot of time figuring out how to play the game. That means it's a complex title with a lot of things about it that're needed to be learned. Just like SR1 - except people have less time to tolerate it now. SR2 even tries to address that by simplifying things and making them easier to grok - but people have very little tolerance for it; even diehards.

    BTW, planets still orbit stars (and moons planets, and stations planets, and comets stars). Ships continue to use newtonian mechanics - they're just better at pathfinding now (thus why your CPU usage is higher; remember when I said it was more complex than in 1?) Things that could also be completed instantly in SR1? Ships the size of the entire galaxy.

    This whole blog entry is a whole lot of huff over nothing.

    1. Most of my objections (and your objections to my objections) pertain to the bastardization of the 4x genre into something it cannot be. A style that thrives on expansive terrain and unlimited growth is simply ill-suited for non-persistent, hour-long PvP matches. I'm going to ramble about that on its own at some point so not getting into it too much now.
      On one point we seem to agree: SR1 badly needed better, more intelligible documentation for its various features. However, this only means that the information should've been better presented, not removed from the equation. As for the AI "thinking" more... possibly, but what does it amount to? After a few matches I've seen one spark of brilliance from it, cutting half my empire off by attacking (blockading) a connecting system, and even that may have been a coincidence. The problem is that it's using more resources without yielding more gameplay.
      Finally, yes, very few games manage interesting algorithms for their AI, especially in real-time. However, 4x games are not only about crushing your enemies and seeing them etceterad before you, making the galaxy (or Earth or whatever) your own. This includes exploration, environmental challenges, housekeeping, and every other feature removed from SR2 in the interest of faster pew-pew. Other ersatz players should only be one of the many wrenches in your works. An economy that can defeat you on its own is a good thing... well, so long as its features are well-documented.
      Also, sorry about the 4000-character limit. Blogger's policy, not mine.