Master of Orion III Review (PC)
A man was driving through the countryside and spotted two cows grazing in a field. He rolled down his window and yelled, “MOO!”. One of the cows looked at the other and said, “I see he plays that maddening game also.”.
The game installed and played well on my PIII 550, except for the opening video movie, which was choppy. MOO3 started off well – the video was intriguing and established the “feel” of the game. This game is huge and complex in its design, and it is doubtful that someone could start playing without consulting the manual. The manual itself was daunting – some 160 pages with extremely small writing (a magnifying glass would be helpful). The excellent history of the Orion sector is sprinkled throughout the manual – it covers the development, conflict, and victories/defeats of the Orions, Antarans and the lesser races (like us Humans). It is written in a story-like fashion and really sparks one’s interest in starting the game. The next step is exciting also, for it is time to choose a race! There are 16 species/races that the player can select from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. There are humanoid, ethereal, cybernetic, saurian, aquatic and insectoid races – so much to choose from and all were interesting. For example, the human race has a toughness and environmental rating of poor, yet humans are skilled economically as investors, and have a special cunning ability rated as dangerous. The Ithkul, on the other hand, are a Borg-like assimilation race that has poor diplomacy and trade skills, yet they excel in bioharvesting (food) and manufacturing. Once you have chosen a race to play, you next select one of the flag options and name your Empire. Additionally, you may customize a particular race or design your own based on a point score so that you cannot select superior in all categories. Next, the player is taken to a galaxy setup screen that has a number of variables. For example, a player can choose the number of opponents, game difficulty, galaxy type (different sizes of clusters or arms) as well as the size and frequency of star lanes. Star lanes are essentially highways in space that decrease the amount of time it takes your space vessels to move from one star system to another. Finally, a player gets to select his victory conditions that may include sole survivor, or being elected to lead the Orion senate, or to discover all 5 ancient Antaran X’s (secrets) governing the galaxy.
There are three main strategic level screens within MOO3 – the galaxy, star system, and planetary screens. There is information that is common for each and these will be examined first. Along the top of each screen are the usual game function buttons: the game menu, turn number, total income, encyclopedia and turn button. However, arguably the most important is the Sitrep (situation report) button, which shows the important messages, issues and events of the current turn. These events sometimes have links incorporated into the text so you can zoom to an area where you need to adjust or fix something.
It is now time to examine the specifics of each of the three strategic screens. The first screen that the gamer is presented with is the galaxy screen. By scrolling the screen with the mouse, one can see their home star system as well as many other star systems, black holes, etc. By single clicking on the home star system, some general information about the system is shown. Also, known star lanes (those highways) are revealed on this screen but there are generally few at start. Finally, the player will see his Empire flag symbol next to his star system, indicating that he has space vessels in this star system; hence, he can click on it to reveal which ships are stationed there. It is from this screen that ship movements are plotted and executed. The top of this screen also displays some key information in symbol format. Here can be found the total food, mineral, industry, production points and research points earned and needed for the current turn.
The third and final strategic screen is the planet itself. Those planets that are owned and colonized by the player can be clicked on to reveal the planet screen. This is where things get very detailed. When this screen is first brought up, one immediately notices a larger view of the revolving planet in all of its splendour. Next to the planet is more detailed information such as how much food, minerals, industry, production points, test tubes and research points that are both produced and needed by the planet. The relationship here is that the amount of industry controls the amount of production points. Similarly, the amount of test tubes controls the amount of research points the planet has. Finally, population productivity and civil unrest are also indicated here. But the information provided to the player on this screen does not end here! There are six menu tabs that may be clicked on which display a pop up menu for each. In brief, the first menu is planetary infrastructure, which shows the different regions of the selected planet and what DEAs (Dominant Economic Activities) are there, i.e. what is being produced in each region (food, minerals, etc). The second menu covers the economics of the planet - the income, expenses, and taxation rate. There are funding levels for such things as research and also two build queues that displays what is being constructed in the military queue (i.e. ships) and the planetary queue (i.e. planet defenses). Ground forces can also be created here, such as infantry, but again I experienced difficulty creating any with little reason given by the game. The third menu covers planet classifications so you can identify and find planets of similar classification. The fourth menu displays military information about the planet, such as what space and ground forces are currently present. The fifth covers the demographics of the planet such as how much population is there and of what races. The sixth and final menu is an environmental one, showing different environmental states for different races.
In later turns, as star systems are explored, the player will want to eventually colonize those planets habitable to the race selected. Not all planets are suitable, and they all come with differing resource potential so that even a habitable planet may not be worthy of colonization. While exploring and colonizing it is inevitable that contact will be made with foreign races. At some point this will involve space combat. The options before every battle allow the player to let the AI control the battle and punch out a final result (yawn), or it can control the battle and let the player observe it (gee, that’s fun) or actually let YOU control the battle. Of course, most will opt for control of their own ships (at least at first anyways). What follows is a major disappointment in MOO3. The screen displays a large black emptiness – space, of course – with tiny little blips that represent the ships on both sides. The blips maneuver and fire tiny laser beams at each other for a few seconds and then one side will be victorious. Unbelievable. Now, before the reader criticizes me, I know that this is largely a strategy game and not a tactical one, but this was pathetic. This was a new all time low in gaming – it looked like “Return of Space Invaders” and not MOO3. I felt insulted and cheated.
The graphics in MOO3, as stated earlier, are downright poor. Basically, a player interacts with only three screens and lots of menus - nothing extraordinary here. The combat experience was graphically immature and insulting, a return to the 1980s. While I can forgive strategy games for being definitively “un-flashy” in nature, MOO3 makes no effort whatsoever to impress the player. On the other hand, I did enjoy the sound (especially the music) that constantly plays in the background. It is subtle, yet creepy and mysterious, much like the music score for XCOM. Music should have a mood stimulating effect on a game, and MOO3 does this very well.
In summary, MOO3 is downright maddening. It could use a good tutorial to get players over the learning “cliff”. In many instances, especially further into the game, it is simple to just allow the AI to run the Empire, but then the player becomes a mere automaton – pressing the turn button over and over – not really controlling anything, just observing. Regrettably, MOO3 boils down to this. Unless a player is determined to stick it out for many weeks he will be doomed to frustration and failure. Quite frankly, even if I had the time to eventually learn this game completely, I wouldn’t bother. I have better things to do – things less stressful and much more fun. Finally, MOO3 bogs down in its detail, its vast amount of information and menus, and its failure to allow the player to control all things simply and quickly. The game developers should re-think this one and give us a strategical management game that works – one such as XCOM or Civilization. MOO3 will collect dust on my shelf for a very long time – maybe the Antarans will be invading us by then…