Written by  :  J. P. Gray (120)
Written on  :  May 30, 2008
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars

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The pinnacle of 4x gaming, infinitely playable even today, and one of the only empire games that eats formulaic players for breakfast

The Good

Master of Orion is brilliant. Genius. An absolute and inarguable classic. One of a handful of games that never leaves my hard-drive. What's so great about another nineties empire builder? Isn't it just Civilization in space? Not by a long shot. Its true mastery lies in its never-surpassed focus on variety and flexibility, and to that end it brought much needed innovation to anemic aspects of the empire-builder genre such as diplomacy and research. It also is the only 4x game ever that casts the player as a galactic emperor in a satisfying way.

One way to determine the unique excellence of MOO is to look at its peers. What kills the vaunted replayability of 4x empire games? What kills the wonder, the excitement? The formula player, excessive micromanagement, and a drab, impersonal, spreadsheet presentation of the world.

Civilization and nearly all its kin must bow in time to the formula player, the fellow who sits his ass in a chair long enough to learn the "One Strategy." Once found, it always beats the game dead barring only a small degree of variance from randomized maps and starting locations. The best formula players can even triumph from the lousiest of starts. After this formula is mastered, the once wide-open gameworld that seemed so free, varied and "alive" becomes dead and empty. There are no more surprises. Beating the game becomes like solving the same crossword puzzle over and over. MOO dodges this bullet through the ingenious design of its playable races, research system, and diplomacy.

Oh, the races of this game! Superficially the ten playable races are mostly unimaginative anthropomorphisms (kittens, insects and bears, oh my!), but the personality and balance of these sci fi cliches are a major factor in the game's success. Usually 4x games either make their races too wildly different or too drably alike. The result is a total failure of balance or bland, impersonal sameness. Orion's balance isn't perfect--there are strong and weak races, and while any race can become dominant you will see a few that regularly run away with the game. The shining beauty of MOO's races, however, is their -variety-.

From the player side, there are hard-coded advantages possessed by each race. Each race has a unique bonus and some accompanying weaknesses that demand a slightly different style of play: the rock-creature Silicoids can colonize any planet and don't have to worry about waste, but their birth rate is very low; the Darloks are shapeshifters and thus supreme spies, but as a result every race mistrusts them from the start, resulting in often-precarious relations with one's neighbors. This forces the player to play each race differently--if you play the Darloks with a Silicoid strategy, you are going to lose. The elegance of this system is not only the usual "advantage/disadvantage" balance, but the fact that those inherent advantages may be duplicated or overcome by the other races. Want to match the Silicoid advantage of colonizing everything? Research planetology. Want to master espionage and render the Darlok spy network toothless? Research computers. Research, research, I hear you say--what about the Psilons, whose advantage is superior research ability? Take a few of their factory-rich planets, spend lots to spy on them, or bomb them to extinction, and you will steal enough of their tech or otherwise negate their advantage.

This focus on personality and variety extends to the AI's handling of these races as well. In addition to the static advantages/disadvantages, each AI race is given a personality and purpose. One affects their diplomatic actions, the other affects their research and production choices. This isn't static, however--each race has dominant personalities/purposes and subordinates, one of each being assigned randomly each game. Thus one game you may be squaring off against Aggressive Ecologist Bulrathi, but the next you might encounter the same race as Honorable Industrialists. Moreover, if enough of their worlds go into revolt or they are losing badly, there will be a coup and a new emperor will come in with a production/personality style that is better suited to the situation at hand--brilliant! These traits are not wholly random, either--each race has a defined range of personalities and purposes. Thus they retain unique identities without becoming static or predictable formulas, -and- since there is a controlled random element you can never be sure what kind of Bulrathi you are dealing with until you meet them. One personality set can be strong in one situation, and yet in another can be helplessly weak. Viva variety!

Speaking of which, the tech tree is almost a greater work of genius than the races. Each race researches the same tech tree for each of the 5 disciplines, but nobody's trees are complete--each race is missing techs from their trees, and in each game what's missing changes. This is random, but carefully controlled to prevent any game-breaking lack of tech. The result is -variety-. Your neat little formula for explosive expansion will hit a huge snag if you lack a necessary propulsion tech and therefore don't have the range to get any colony ships beyond your interstellar backyard. You might have a huge population, but be behind in production if you are missing factory controls tech from your computers research tree.

Thankfully, the tech system allows for you to mediate the damages. First, you can steal tech by invading worlds or by spying, and secondly the disciplines compensate for each other. If you can't get the range you need in propulsion tech, a little construction research will allow you to miniaturize reserve fuel tanks enough to increase your range anyway. If you can't get factory controls in computer tech, you can research planetology to reduce the cost of cleaning up waste, pouring the savings back into production. The tech system is flexible, it's robust, and it makes every game different. You can't just waltz to victory using the same research path every game as you can in Civilization--one crucial tech missing can thoroughly wreck any pre-planned strategy. MOO is situational. You need to adapt, and it makes the game incredibly exciting and fresh on each playthrough. It also will eternally frustrate formula players. :-)

Diplomacy is yet another area in which MOO excels. In Civilization, if you attack or an enemy attacks, that's it. You're at war. Not so in MOO. You and the AI will often have -cold wars-, where ships battle and spies plot, but trade continues and nothing hostile is declared. The AI will often "test" your weaker border worlds in this way when the galaxy is mostly colonized and there's nowhere else to expand but in your backyard.

Naturally, such tension will strain relations, which is a defined by a simple bar ranging from red (feud/hate) to green (amiable/calm, etc.). There are starting relations defined between races (the birds and cats hate each other, for example, and everyone hates the Darloks), but can be modified through player/AI actions. All of the actions that change relations make sense and feel remarkably intelligent. Gathering a fleet on the border will raise tensions, as will having your spies caught in an act of espionage or sabotage. Personality of the AI race also is a factor--negative diplomatic actions will have their impact doubled and positive actions will be halved in impact when dealing with a Xenophobic race, for example. If a race is pacifistic, the opposite holds true. So much variety! You can bribe and threaten to hold off war or invasion, you can collapse a delicate network of AI alliances into a total free-for-all of war by manipulating one of the allies, and you can make solid friends with trade and tribute or by attacking races they hate.

This works brilliantly. Meklars running away with the game? About to send a thousand-ship death fleet against your most valuable planet? No problem. Grease the wheels with some bribes and get the whole galaxy to declare war on them--they'll soon be too busy to concentrate on you. Silicoids marching to a diplomatic victory in the Senate? Steal some tech from the other races and frame the Silicoids until even their best friends mistrust them, denying them valuable votes. The diplomatic model is beautifully flexible.

There are so many other wonderful features to this game. Spying, ship design, the concept of Orion itself--this review is too long already to mention them all. So many great stories can be told within its framework--I'll always remember the game where an unstoppable Meklar fleet full of the population-nuking Doom Virus was approaching and I only triumphed through creative ship design. The "good" of this game is beyond the scope of any readable review, and this is longwinded and didactic beyond any standard of readability already. :-)

I will say however that MOO masters one last thing that is crucial--limiting micromanagement to acceptable levels, yet still allowing a fine degree of control. Its sequel missed out on this (as do many other space empire games) completely. I'm the flippin' galactic emperor! I don't want to be bothered with building individual farm buildings on each planet in a multi-parsec empire! Yet if I -do- decide to tweak a planet's production to a specific degree, I want to be able to do it without a lot of red tape or bureaucrats. MOO's simple, abstract slider production system allows for this. It maintains scope and ease without sacrificing control.

The Bad

With such a vast game, there are always going to be flaws. Some are serious bugs. The negative ship bug (when a 16 bit unsigned integer flips over) can break the game, for example. Some of the technological variety gets overwhelming and confusing, and the in-game descriptions often need to be carefully read from the tech screen before you know what you're doing. The tactical ship combat AI needs a -lot- of work, as the computer does some very stupid things. Given the variety of all the ship gizmos, that shouldn't be too surprising. :-D

The diplomatic penalty for being too huge and powerful is fair but a bit excessive--it's not as bad as Master of Magic's, though. Also, it would be great to set a cap on missile base production, since if you leave the slider up for a few turns you can get huge unnecessary numbers of bases that drain your funds most thoroughly.

But these are all minor complaints! Forget them!

The Bottom Line

For flexibility, variety and elegance MOO can't be beat. Each game tells a meaningfully unique story that is truly emergent from a few well designed variables: the difficulty levels, the galaxy sizes, the present opponent races (and their personalities!), your chosen race, the unique tech trees, the quality of planets (poor, rich, artifacts). Each experience can feel fresh and full of possibilities, and the game is unique in its capacity for rewarding adaptation and situational thinking rather than rote formulaic play. Genius!