Reviewed: May 24, 2003
Released: February 25, 2003
If you ever thought space was a vacuum, prepare for the truth. That big void of nothingness is actually home to fifteen other races, all determined to be the rulers of the galaxy in the turn-based strategy game, Masters of Orion 3. Infogrames brings struggle for control of the Milky Way in this triquel for the PC. From crystalline creatures to borg-like descendants from an ancient Łber-race of beings to insectoids and lizardmen, other species are also voyaging from their homeworlds to colonize, mine, and control other star systems. Itís a big galaxy, but not that big. Get ready for a fight.
Before you can fight, though, youíve got to get your infrastructure up and running. And every infrastructure needs resources, so the name of the game early on is colonize, colonize, colonize. Once youíve spread your seed like a salmon north of the falls, you will find that the colonization is running automatically, and you can focus on the next crucial step to victoryótechnology. Boost your research however possible, and focus your research in the more critical areas, like energy and physical sciences, so youíll have the martial advantage whenever you do meet your neighbors. Once youíve found your friends, the real fun begins.
Diplomacy and warfare are the building blocks of any international relationship, and itís good to know some things donít change. Masters of Orion 3 actually adds a new aspect to diplomacy by including a tone you send with the message. So, you can be very forceful trying to create a trade agreement to get respect, or servile to achieve the same thing through appearing harmless. If thatís too blunt for you, you can always try silent diplomacy.
Espionage is a vital tool. You can train spies to attack different areas of your opponents. Scientific spies steal techs and hinder their research capabilities, military spies affect their production of ships and leaders, and so forth. War, of course, is always the draw of any tactical game, and MoO3 has a very nice and sophisticated real-time battle screen for space combats. If, however, you prefer the stoic march of the AT-ATs to the dance of Star Destroyers, youíll be disappointed because the ground combat is purely text and menu based.
MoO3 has three different ways to win (which you can modify each game). The first is the simplest, and most traditional: be the last man (or whatever you are) standing. The second is to be elected the President of the Intergalactic Senate. The third, and final method is to find all five of the ďAntaran Xís.Ē The Antarans are a mythical, ancient master race that mysteriously disappeared. The ďXísĒ are lost capsules that are secretly buried within the galaxy somewhere. You canít control the expeditions sent to retrieve them, so itís really just a matter of producing the ships. As an added bonus, if you get all five Xís, youíll find out what happened to the lost Antarans.
You donít play this game so much as keep it from screwing up too badly on your behalf. Aside from combat, which weíll get to in a moment, the most you actually have to do is hit the turn button. That will bring up a screen of situation reports that details what events have occurred, buildings and ships have been built, espionage that has taken place, diplomatic messages, etc. This is the most action you usually see. You click on the links that take you to the planet and then micromanage production however you want.
The key term here is micromanage. There are AIís set up to run things for you, from infrastructure to military construction, even to planetary colonization. The problem is that while they are all encompassing and probably the most active management programs theyíre STUPID. They default to building the smallest ships in your fleet, even on planets that can spit out that Leviathan in five turns or less. I canít tell you how many troop ships I ended up with before I just built a huge one and marked the first one obsolete.
The other thing is that you have to constantly monitor those pesky governors because theyíll build all sorts of installations that you donít really need on some planets. The smaller spheres obviously have a hard time supporting a massive space dock and shipyard, but no matter how many times you dismantle the structures the computer will rebuild them, and your resources are slowly siphoned away in upkeep costs and rebuilding structures on the planet that havenít had their upkeep paid and collapse.
And yes, you did read that right; I designed my own ships. There are a few base schematics and an auto-build feature, but in almost every case youíre better off building them on your own. Besides who really wants to go marauding across the galaxy in a Devestator that some computer designed for you, whereís the fun in that?
So now that youíve designed, named, and actually chained your planetary governors to their desks so you could get some ships built youíre ready to take on the universe. The universe is generally ready to take on you too so donít get cocky. Most specifically you have to face the New Orions, who start with practically every research completed so good luck prying them out of their system. The other little fly in the ointment is the Guardian. There are usually at least one to three Guardians scattered throughout the galaxy in different systems. Until youíve reached at least level 30 in your military researches it will eat your ships without taking a scratch, and feel free to send that massive fleet of forty or fifty ships, if youíre below that tech level youíre just making so much scrap. The Jawas will thank you.
Thatís most of the basics, the infrastructure, research, colonization and diplomacy is all handled through pretty much static screens where you hit the button and then wait for the results. While there is a lot of detail in the diplomacy functions they really donít seem to affect much aside from if someone is attacking you or not. You can enter into trade agreements or alliances, but be warned after sterilizing a few planets your allies tend to turn against you.
That all aside, the only real action portion of the game is the combat, and this leaves a little to be desired. As mentioned above, the field is big enough that you canít see the whole thing at any one time. The misfortune in this is that you can never get a handle on the whole situation and that much space was never necessary unless you just wanted to stand back and bombard your enemies into submission with missiles and fighters, which is my particular favorite method, but not everybody wants to conquer with no losses.
The other problem is that you cannot set up how you enter the system, sometimes you will appear on the far side of the field from a planet and others youíll appear right next to them. Your losses rise the closer you start to the planet. Also there are really no tactics involved, you just throw the largest number of the biggest most advanced ships at the problem to win. This is mostly because your control is so inexact. Ships fire at intervals not when you tell them to, and if you click on a large group of ships and tell them to move they all try to converge on the same spot, and since they canít all hold it together many of them just stop moving.
Most disappointing though is how long everything takes. This doesnít even involve combat, though that phase alone takes a good five minutes or more depending on how many battles youíre fighting. Individual turns take forever and thatís even if youíre just concerned with keeping your shipyards building how you want them to be. The problem is twofold. First the only way to keep in the game is to colonize worlds, and the more worlds you have the better off you are. Itís that simple, if you keep that rule you will win more often than not.
The problem is that after the first twenty or so worlds your site reps become so involved that they take a few minutes just to scroll through to read and manage. Thatís before you even think about moving or creating task forces or creating Antaran expeditions or training spies or making diplomatic deals. So you can waste a good fifteen minutes per turn just managing your planets after they build something. The other thing that makes this take forever is that the military and infrastructure project completion messages appear in the same colors, so you have to scroll through all the messages just to see the important ones.
That is more or less it. You can set up infrastructure on a planet, build defenses, and all that stuff, but after the fifteenth time or so you just start clicking and stop taking so much time to plan out development. Also itís quite boring to build up that massive Starfleet because you just have to sit there and click the button however many times you need to complete the job. Basically things are pretty slow and thereís no way to speed them up short of sacrificing control and strategy.
The graphics of this game are decidedly inconsistent. First, the good: the combat real-time graphics are pretty darn cool. Each raceís ships are designed differently, and the designers did a good job of making that apparent without being repetitious or cheesy. Itís much better than seeing the Klingon Bird of Prey and the Romulan Warbird look like twins with different paint jobs. Also, the perspective change as the view rotates is really excellent. Admittedly, the field is still two-dimensional, but I think that adds to the playability of this game.
Also, the missiles and beams as they fire are very nice, and fighters fly out in formation until they attack their target, at which point they break individually and look like a swarm of gnats. There are two deficiencies with the combat screen. The battle area is huge, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, you can only see about a quarter of the screen at any given time, even at the least zoom factor. The other thing is that your ships donít always follow the commands you give them if you have a large force. Ships that would bump into each other circle around aimlessly instead of at least trying to move closer to their destination.
Aside from the combat graphics, the graphics go downhill. To start, the only other point where any graphics are used at all are brief three second animations of one of the other races as it makes a speech to you. Literally everything else in this game is an unmoving picture. The artwork is good, but ground combat, military productions, ship design, and everything else is completely text-driven. Some of that is because Masters of Orion 3 is a turn based strategy game, and these are becoming increasingly few and far between. However, ground combat at the least should have been added to the real-time graphics.
Also, there were no real movies at any point in this game. Even when youíve gone through the considerable trouble and time to locate the Antaran Xís, all you get is a talking head explaining what happened. Max Headroom really is ďBurning down the house.Ē That was a test of the emergency 80ís broadcast system. If you understood that sentence and both references within, please tune into your local eighties station and relive your youth.
So now youíre wondering how this all sounds, and that answer is about the same as the graphics look. The combat audio is pretty good with laser blasts sizzling, missiles hissing and exploding on impact, ships blowing up, etc. The ground combat and bombardment phases also come with appropriately good sound. The ground combat, especially with voice transmissions follows the action in a vague all encompassing sort of way Ė weíre winning sir, weíre losing sir sort of things though better than that of course.
The part where they spared no expense on the sound was giving some vocal tracks to accompany the diplomacy videos. Each race has itís own ďlanguageĒ to go along with the missives and they are all suitable unique and sound perfect for each race that they belong to (though that only applies to the humans if you assume that weíre all Russian by the time we colonize space.)
The bad is of course that there is also very little else in the sound department, and the aforementioned talking head is nearly inaudible through about half the movie that they show you. In short the London Philharmonic this is not, nor did they go out of their way to find Haley Joel Osmet or Terry Gilliam.
As mentioned in the previous section, a game will get you plenty of time for your buck; however, length of play is not a good measure in this case. If it takes so long to play one game, there is no incentive to play more to experience the different races or to improve. Combine that with a total lack of tutorial and no campaigns with an actual plotline, and this game is basically for die-hard multiplayer fans.
In that regard, Masters of Orion is decent; because turn based strategy games are almost nonexistent in multiplayer modes. They play quite differently than RTS games, in that good strategy and game know-how is needed rather than a quick hand with a mouse and pure economic skills. So, if you have a few friends that are all willing to set aside dedicated hours, then itís probably worth the $39.99 you'll spend on it.
Masters of Orion 3 is a decent game that makes a few improvements (Iíd assume seeing as I never played 2) over the previous games and other turn-based strategy games, but ultimately fails to pay off in any rewarding way. You can easily spend a lot of time playing even one game to completion, but by the end youíll probably wonder if you would have been better off getting your noodle baked by watching some anime or slowly roasting ants under a magnifying glass on a cloudy day.
There are some reasons to pick it up, and if youíre a fan of the series you wonít be terribly disappointed, but I wouldnít go out of my way, and probably save my money for a good Axis & Allies board or something.