Sit down to play a game that bears his name and ol'Sid will suddenly appear under your desk to slap two colossal cement blocks around your feet. He will then rise up and whisper "one more turn" in your ear before slowly evaporating. And thus you're stuck: glued in front of the computer for infinity.
But if you expect the same visit from Sid when you start Starships, you will wait in vain. He will not come.
That's not necessarily a bad thing.
Firstly to clarify: Starships is not a Civilization title. However, it is a spin-off to Civilization: Beyond Earth. This means that there is a clear connection between these titles, both game and story-wise. Many characteristic features that define a Civilization game are here, if in a more streamlined way. That said, Firaxis' customary ability to create deep and tactical gameplay in true 4X spirit remains.
The game begins with you selecting a leader from a possible eight candidates. Each offers a particular perk, such as earning two random technologies from the start or the ability to repair craft at half the price.
You immediately realise that these benefits divide your play neatly in two; Either go with a leader who offers a starting bonus or those whose advantages become apparent further into the game. Initially, there's a worry that the leaders aren't sufficiently balanced, but we realised that the key to success is to match the right leader with the right Affinity.
Affinity is another game mechanic that needs picking. These come in the form of "Purity", "Supremacy" and "Harmony", just like in Beyond Earth. Unlike Beyond Earth, these Affinities do not play any political role, but allow you to further customise your play style.
Now, it's time to set a few other perimeters. How big is the galaxy? What should the difficulty be? How do you win? That last parameter is a pretty interesting discussion.
Firaxis are aiming for a more streamlined approach, yet they have chosen to offer the possibility of multiple win conditions. But there's a certain illusion to that, as there's really only one way of winning: wiping the enemy from the face of the galaxy. Those other ways are not only uninteresting but also poorly integrated. Because no matter what kind of win you are aiming for, you still need to wage war for it.
Leader and affinity chosen, now it's time for some fun. You'll see the game board in the shape of a galaxy. You start on your home planet, your main base, your special little corner of the universe. In the same galaxy, you will find a large number of planets with extremely catchy names like Trianguli 51 and Arietis 82. The planets are initially neutral and belong to no federation. Yeah, in Starships you play as a unified federation - not individuals, as it is otherwise customary in a game from Firaxis.
While a planet's status is neutral, the planet's population will offer players missions. These are pretty entertaining, numerous and highly variable. A mission can, for example, have you eliminate a group of enemies, or safely escort a transport ship, or control three key points on the map. If you manage to complete a mission you will receive a reward and also gain influence over the planet. Four points of influence and the planet's population will join your federation.
As you go from one planet to another and complete missions (or not), your crew's morale will fall. When it hits rock-bottom, that's when a mutiny begins. Your only option to restore morale is to click on the Shore Leave button. This will end your game and let the enemies make their move. Now, an experienced Civilization player might think "Why Shore Leave? and not old-fashioned End Turn?" Well, the fact is that the galaxy map isn't your only viewpoint and focus. There's another game state where the fighting's done.
Once you have selected a mission or a planet you want to annex, you will be moved to this second play-field. This takes place outside the selected planet and consists of a large map on which contains randomly placed asteroids and wormholes. Each planet also has a peculiar characteristic which further randomise events, such as asteroids doing more damage than usual or that there are extra wormholes to exploit. These additional elements to the game board brings with them different strategic choices.
As the game name night suggest, your in-game federation is represented by spacecraft. You start with two. These have several different modules you can upgrade with the Energy resource, the same resource that's needed to buy more spaceships. This means that you may choose to command a few powerful spaceships or an entire armada.
When you are done customising your spaceships then you are ready for battle. Here Starships is insanely entertaining. Trying to outsmart the enemy in an epic intergalactic game of chess can be really captivating. Take what happens to us at one point: we decide to wipe out an entire federation by destroying its home planet. We accidentally click past the menu that calculates the chances of us winning the battle and the second menu, which tallies how many ships we'd have to deal with.
To our great surprise we were greeted by a swarm of spaceships, while we only had two at our disposal. The whole thing turned into a cat and mouse game as we tried to keep our two main ships far away from the swarm of enemies while our little fighters were circulating around and sprayed laser shots in the enemy's rear (you take more damage from behind and from the side). After nearly 40 minutes of intense battle, we emerged victorious. It is precisely at these times that we really dig the game. Unfortunately, these moments are scarce. Many battles are almost completely uninteresting. This is just one of several weaknesses with Starships.
Take for example the upgrade modules. You can upgrade a module to let your ship become invisible. An interesting idea in theory. But in practice it means that you click a button and your ship becomes invisible ... in front of the nose of your enemy. Technically, you are invisible, but what does it matter when everyone know exactly where you are on the board? If you move the ship, the cloak disappears and then you have to activate it again. What is the point of invisibility? In addition, if you spend resources on a sensor upgrade, cloaked ships can be easily spotted, even from a great distance away. It doesn't pay therefore to consider adding a cloak, or even waste resources on a sensor. Some additions like this just seem senseless.
Another significant weakness is the presentation. Not only are the battle effects ugly and tame, menus and fonts are uninspiring. Screen real estate is poor, with too much dead space and tiny text.
We also kicked off in windowed mode, a default we thought could easily be switched to full screen while we also tinker with resolution and other small things. But there's no option. Nor does the game have any kind of expected keyboard support (you can not even click the space bar to finish your round). It makes you realise this is just a poor port of an iPad title.
Under the right circumstances, and the right platform, Starships can be enjoyable. But there's much to be desired from this PC build. That whisper of "one more turn" now seems desperate in its tone, a wheedling "please" attached to its end. The legs no longer seem wielded to the floor.