First of all, I'm a fan of 4x games. Now, I've somewhat strayed away from them over time; I've found a differing love for grand strat in the vein of Paradox games, specifically the economical and political ones such as Victoria 2. I ended up having a distaste for civ 5 and certain other new games (the endless bunch, etc) because they were just.. well, either too easy, or too messy. Several decent ideas wrapped in a gross tortilla, or something like that. I started to dislike how board-gamey they got to cater to the people who couldn't stand micro. I hadn't even really heard of Star Ruler 2(SR2) until earlier today, when I saw Scott Manley blow up a black hole. I pretty much bought it on the spot.
I've not played SR1.
Steam says I've played almost 8 hours of this game. An hour of that was in the tutorial and a 'practice' game I played, and the other seven hours were in a full game I did. The full game took place in two galaxies of 40 and 30 planets respectively, with myself and 4 AIs. I used a custom race.
I will go through each of what I feel are the main elements of a 4x game, rate them, compare them, and write criticisms. --- The UI ---
Positives: One of the biggest dinks that most 4x games get- the user-friendliness of the UI. It is understandable, as pushing enough information to the user that's required can sometimes leave the UI cluttered, with too many buttons, too many numbers, etc.. SR2 does both extremely well and somewhat poorly in this regard, neutralizing out to it having a decent UI. The big pluses are fantastic- the game operates in a tabbed format with different types of windows, so if you want to have four tabs for your best planets, you can. You can customize your different views of the galaxy, zoom to them at will, etc- keep a tab open for research, keep a tab open for whatever you want, really. The quick-ui that shows fast info on the side of the screen is also fairly informative, and makes it easy to do things at a glance.
It also doesn't restrict much of what you can do, as you can affect the game using the UI (tethering planets for trade is one of the most important game mechanics as I will explain later, and you can tether a planet from its notice on the ui, for example). For what it does, the UI is extremely functional, and superior to its competitors. The built-in wiki that runs very well and the IRC to get quick help/talk to other players is also very nice, as while I may not want to play multiplayer at this time, I do still like talking to other players.
Negatives: On even a medium sized map, the UI gets extremely cluttered near the end of the game. You get lost in a sea of information that takes quite a while to discern exactly what you want to do. A lot of the 'resource icons' on planets are fairly small, so when I'm looking at 20 unused resources I seriously have to mouse over to see what each one is, unless it's something very easy to remember and see like water. There are quite a few resources, so I can't imagine how to fix this without shafting users with a lower resolution. The technology grid is a chore. It's somewhat difficult at a glance to tell what is researched and what isn't, what is available and what is. It took me much longer than it should have to even find the starting point of the grid. In most other 4x games, even Distant Worlds, the research grid/chart is extremely easy to understand, though the actual contents of it may not be. Greying out techs you can't even possibly buy yet(but you can still mouse over for info) would be a huge step in the right direction. It's also sometimes hard to tell where the tech grid is going.. it will end up in weird places that aren't really logically conducive to itself. Overall, the grid isn't very nice to look at. I'm sure familiarization with it would help, but compared to something like Endless Legend which has a pretty good tech grid system, this is just a bit too ambiguous.
The technology grid has been redone to be easier to understand and find what you're looking for.--- Core Mechanics ---
Just like every other 4x game, the core mechanics are to build your empire, strengthen your military, create a massive economy, protect your borders or crush your enemies, and be the dominant empire on the map. SR2 uses some traditional 4x systems (such as the building construction), some things of its own design, and things from other genres. The game, first of all, runs in real time. You can slow down, speed up, and pause the game. It is not the pseudo-realtime of Paradox games- it is true real time. Thankfully, everything happens slow enough at 1x speed that it is not much of an issue. The most imporatant part of the game is managing your resources, colonizing useful planets, leveling up your core worlds, and making economic powerhouses. The game REQUIRES expansion; you cannot support a huge economy by trade alone, and there is no way to turtle. I think it is one of the few games where I got to the end of my expansion and truly started eyeing my neighbors for what they have, rather than being content with my borders while being able to endlessly improve on itself. You 'tether' trade from worlds to other worlds, leveling them up by tethering a certain amount of resources to a specific world. For example, it takes merely food and water to level a planet up to level 1. After that, it requires more food to sustain the higher population, plus raw materials of some kind to create planetary 'production' which is reflected in a higher population, level, labour (production), and more things.
Each colonized planet has a single resource, and rarely two (typically one that it supplies to itself for free). Some resources have extra special effects, such as increasing research, influence (to be explained), or your 'energy'(also to be explained).
This leads to feeding all your expansion planets into one of your core worlds to make a few very powerful economic powerhouses; managing all your resources to efficiently make as many strong planets as possible to support a larger military and production base. No longer can one create a Venice and protect it only; you MUST keep your logisitical supply lanes protected, as one lost system can break your whole economic structure down and require a full restructuring. This is the core, and the essence of the game. It reminds me very dsitinctly of the Anno series, though you do not specifically need certain resources to enhance planets.
Although you may find yourself strained for resources, there are ways to increase your number of planets without conquest. There are a few 'relic' type things scattered around the map which let you do things like create new stars, new planets, etc etc. There are lots of cool things. Using one of these requires energy, which is gained via research and resources. Energy is simply a 'mana' type substance which is used to activate these abilities and certain extra special abilities ships have that can be equipped later via technology, such as blink. These types of abilities are very cool, and you definitely start to feel like an interstellar god as your empire grows bigger.
Construction is based on the civilian sector. Much like Distant Worlds, you, as a federal government, have little control over your civilian sector. It automatically constructs cities and improvements on your planets as long as you supply them correctly. There are buildings you can put on planets which are expensive and cost upkeep, but for the most part, civilians and the AI take care of everything on the surface. Orbital space stations are player-built, at least.
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Thanks if you got this far already!