Master of Orion 2: The Battle at Antares was probably the defining game in the 4X genre (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate); it set the standard for a decade of games. Featuring a robust tech tree, intricate ship design, active ship combat, a big, goodie filled universe, and intense colony management, MOO2 had it all. Despite being well over a decade old, the game still has a level of depth that has been unmatched by its successors. Additionally, even though Microprose is long out of business (gobbled up by whomever), the game’s support has been taken over by fans (Lord Brazen, for those interested), who have kept the game playable on KALI and have steadily eradicated the last remaining bugs in the game. As exciting as it is to have a game so old with such a following, it also depresses me that the industry has yet to produce a worthy sequel.
The game is so deep and enjoyable that it’s hard to tackle it all in a review. Being the review hero that I am, I will attempt to do so. Hold on to your retinas. The best place to start is where you start in the game: picking your race. As one would expect, you have numerous choices in race selection. While the pre-made races are fairly mediocre, this is not for lack of differentiation, but rather because the custom race design is so much fun and so powerful.
Each race is given a number of “picks” to work with. You can get additional picks by taking penalties, and positive picks are spent on bonuses. Although many of the bonuses are strictly numerical, such as bonuses to production, money, ship or ground combat, there are also a variety of “depth” bonuses that have more complex benefits. One example is the “aquatic” characteristic, which makes a race more at home in wet environments (such as tundra or swamp planets). Another is the “telepathic” bonus which allows a race to mind-control conquered planets, immediately utilize captured ships in battle, and grants a straight up bonus to spy rolls. The net result is deep customization that allows for many different playstyles.
Once you get going, you’re catapulted into a fairly detailed and nuanced universe. Each solar system can have multiple planets, which vary in type, size, and mineral content. Each planet can be colonized, and each system can be shared by multiple empires. The universe itself can have wormholes (instant travel between connected systems), black holes (no travel through them unless you have a leader with the right skill), or nebulae (shields won’t function in a nebula without the proper technology). Random space monsters or other “specials” can be periodically found as well, such as gem deposits on a planet that increase that colonies’ income. As per the 4X model, you begin colonizing space in earnest, seeking out quality planets to expand your empire. Planets can be bolstered with a large variety of buildings and units based on technologies available. These range from buildings that increase production or research, defensive structures (such as fighter hangars or starbases), or even terraformers. With a full tech tree, planets can become powerhouses.
The tech tree is another strength of the game. There are eight categories of research, with 1-3 technologies per level. Standard races can pick one tech per level. “Creative” races get all of the techs, and “uncreative” races cannot choose (they get their tech randomly from the category). To fill out lost techs, races can trade with each other, steal from each other, scrap captured ships with new technology, or obtain technology upon planetary conquest. Techs cover everything: buildings for planets, technology for warships, innate bonuses, and more. One of the most controversial aspects of the game is the “creative” racial ability. Creative dramatically changes the flow of the game, giving players the huge advantage of having complete access to the tech tree, thereby unlocking dangerous combination for ship design that the computer AI can’t match. On the other hand, if you’re an OCD gamer like me, it’s very hard to play the game without full tech access. Many online games of MOO2 have house rules of no creative or all creative to compensate for this.
Ship design is another aspect that is wonderfully detailed, with numerous options for customization. Ships come in several sizes, ranging from tiny scouts to doom stars (a small version of the death star). Weapons come in four categories: beam, missile, bombs and special weapons (such as tractor beams or assault shuttles). The game functions with a system that calculates range and damage per weapon vs defensive measures. Some weapons are devastating at short range but dissipate greatly (such as fusion or plasma beams) at a distance. Others can hold their charge regardless of range (mass driver, gauss cannons, disrupters). But in addition to a large variety of weapons, there is the ability to customize weapons based on technology level.
As you research up the tech tree past the level that unlocks a weapon, customization options open up. These can include bonuses to hit, multiple firing weapons, or, for missiles, MIRV or emission guidance warheads, to name a few. The net result is that often the best weapon is not your highest tech weapon, but instead a customized lower level weapon. Many weapons have interesting secondary effects as well: gravitron beams, for example, cause bonus structural damage, and ion beams only damage ship systems.
Other strategies might include ships designed to capture others, utilizing tractor beams, shuttles, and troop pods. Players can accordingly construct ships that match their combat style. Defensive measures include armor and shields, and there are also a variety of special systems a ship can have. These special systems include extra armor, shield bonuses, ECM jammers, and many others.
As much fun as it is to design ships, the chance to see them in action is even better. Ship combat is fought in a 2D field of space, with each fleet on a side. Battles only include 2 opponents. They can take place in deep space, or at a planet (with planetary installations and starbases partaking as well). You have control over each ship in turn based combat determined by ship initiative. Ships can move, fire weapons, deploy special units, etc. Each ship has shields (optional), armor, structure, and systems health. Typically shield and armor protect first, but some systems and weapons can penetrate straight through to structure and systems. As systems take damage, they can fail–when a warp drive fails, the ship explodes in a spectacular fashion, damaging everything nearby. Ships can also be captured and used after combat (or in combat if the race is telepathic).
Combat can get somewhat cumbersome later in the game – what the AI lacks for in intelligence they make up for in volume. Fights that include 80+ ships can be long and boring. But otherwise, despite the simple 2-D factor, the ability to design ships for specific roles and effectively have them act in tactical combat is quite fun.
Of course, war isn’t everything, so there are diplomatic options. Unfortunately, this is not one of MOO2’s strong points. Not so much for lack of functionality, but poor AI. The AI tends to be mercurial and war is usually inevitable, so most players take the “repulsive” trait, which grants bonus picks in exchange for limiting diplomacy to “I will kill you and rape your sister” (declare war) and “Please stop hurting me” (beg for mercy which the AI rarely grants). Unfortunately, repulsive also limits the heroes you attract to pretty much the dregs of intergalactic society (who else would want to hang around the repulsive races, anyway?).
Speaking of leaders, yet ANOTHER (I know, I know, this review goes on forever!) feature is the leader system. You can recruit ship and colony leaders who convey substantial bonuses upon their respective ships/systems. Leaders are pre-made, each one having several characteristics (the characteristics are standardized, and come in either regular or specialized mode). You are allowed a maximum of 4 leaders for ships, and 4 leaders for colonies. However having the max of 4 prevents you from recruiting new ones, so 3 is often the number until you go late game. Leaders typically wander in on their own looking for work, but you can also rescue them in some solar systems if you get lucky.
Since MOO2 is actually called Master of Orion: The Battle of Antares, I should mention the Antarans. It’s unclear to me why the Antarans are pissed off, but they are. Well, they are ugly. If I was that ugly I’d probably be mad too. Essentially they are your standard “uber old lords of the galaxy.” They get their jollies by periodically warping in and attacking colonies of human and computer players alike, raping, pillaging, and generally blowing your stuff up. Their technology is quite advanced, and their attacks can be absolutely devastating early on. Later on, as your technology, fleets and infrastructure increase, they become less of a threat, eventually devolving into a joke. If your technology, ship design and perseverance are great enough, you can capture their ships and scrap them for access to technology outside of the tech tree. One option for victory is to build a dimensional portal and attack the Antaran homeworld. This is a sissy way to win the game.
Ultimately what makes MOO2 such a fantastic game is the incredible depth. From race selection, colony management, the universe, and ship combat, there are many ways to play, and games are incredibly varied. The combination of depth at so many levels remains yet to be matched in a game yet. As I play MOO2 again, I am left but to wonder why the 4X genre has yet to create a worthy successor.
Although some of the newer 4X games have superseded some of the aspects MOO2, I don’t feel as if any has managed to create as complete a game. For example, Galactic Civilizations 2 is probably a better game in almost every aspect, except for ship design, combat, and the fact that Gal Civ 2 isn’t multiplayer. Although the aesthetic factor of ship design in Gal Civ 2 is awesome beyond all belief, the weapons are a strict rock paper scissors based on numerical values , and combat, although animated, is autoresolved (see my review for more information). To me, the combat and ship design is the single biggest disappointment of Gal Civ 2, but these flaws stop it from being a comparable game.
Sword of the Stars has excellent ship design and combat, combining Homeworld’s interface (although only partially 3-D) with customization. But SOTS has very bland, although streamlined, colony management, that focuses on a quantitative system based on numerical ratings instead of buildings (see my SOTS review for more information). Although SOTS is a 4X game, this intentional design choices by Kerebros put it in almost a different category in my view. SOTS also had the randomized tech tree, which I am in love with and consider a huge conceptual contribution to the 4X genre. MOO3 was such a catastrophic train wreck I won’t even get into what went wrong for fear of hurting your brain. See, I treat my readers well by sparing you that agony.
So, like the curmudgeon I always feared I would become, I am left pining for an old game instead of embracing a new. Still, if I had to be marooned in a solar system, waiting to be rescued by a civilization that would then employ me to impart large bonuses to their colonies, I’d hope that my non-functioning spaceship would have a copy of MOO2 on it. It was and continues to be the best 4X experience that can be found on the PC.