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.”.

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Maddening, frustrating, confusing. Just three words in a long list that describes Master of Orion III (hereafter known as MOO3) by Infogames. A long time ago I almost invested in the MOO series, so when I was given a chance to review this game I drooled in anticipation…how could it fail to live up to its predecessors? However, it wasn’t long before I realized that this game was not fun at all; in fact, my stress level increased to an unhealthy level.

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.

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The next step is becoming familiar with MOO3 and its operation. This is not a game that one can jump right in and hope to learn it on the fly – it is too detailed and complex for that. It took me approximately 4-5 hours to both read the manual and interact with the many menus. I must emphasize that this does mean learning how the game is played – it is simply finding out where everything is, how to view a planet, which menus do what, etc. The complexity of the varied menus is mentally challenging and somewhat confusing. There are also some discrepancies between the manual and the menus, a minor nuisance, although they do detract from the whole package. The encyclopedia within the game is sketchy and incomplete, unlike the encyclopedia found in Civilization III for example.

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.

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The most important menus, however, are found along the bottom of each screen. There are eight in total and each will be discussed in turn. The first is the Technology menu. Technology in MOO3 is divided into six schools. The player may choose to increase or decrease funding in any of the six schools as he desires. The schools are economics (i.e. economic models), mathematics (i.e. ECM), energy (i.e. shields), biological sciences (such as hydroponic farms), physical sciences (weapons), and social sciences (i.e. types of government). The current research project is also listed with how many turns until its completion. A matrix or research tree is included which shows the six schools and what may be researched (if anything) based on project complexity and whether or not advances have been made in specific technologies. Although the player can control the amount of funding allocated to each school, there is limited control in the selection of any specific technology, which is somewhat annoying. The second menu is Finance. Here the typical budget is displayed, such as income and expenses, the treasury, and the Empire’s overall economic policy. Empire is the third menu and here the player may set the Empire’s overall policies on colonization, oppressiveness, regional zoning, type of government, and enforced labour. For example, if the player selects “type of government”, he is given despotism, monarchy, oligarchy and constitutional monarchy from which to choose from. The fourth menu is Personnel, and here one may find those leaders (if any) who have joined the High Council of the Empire. Each leader has his own characteristics and effects on an Empire’s abilities, both positive and negative. A leader may affect things such as diplomacy and trade. There is an espionage tab here also, where spies are recruited for different missions, from assassination to stealing scientific research from other races. Foreign Office is the fifth menu. Here, messages to and from foreign diplomats are sent and received. One can choose to send a message by begging, making a statement, a demand or many other ways. A foreign matrix is included displaying who has an alliance or who is at war with the player’s Empire. The sixth menu is the Planet menu. This is merely an abbreviated display of all of the player’s colonized planets with all of the important production information. A smaller galaxy display map shows where these planets exist in the galaxy. The seventh and most frustrating of all is the Shipyard menu. The player is immediately taken to a ship design screen. Supposedly, one can build 14 different sized ships, from Lancer class (very small) to the Leviathan. Similarly, there are 14 different orbital stations that may be created, from Defensive Satellite to Citadel. Ship design is a confusing and maddening experience. You select the ship size, its classification, its mission (i.e. long range attack, reconnaissance, etc). Next you have 4 options for outfitting the ship – basically weapons, engines, defense options and specials (like troop pods). The spectrum of possibilities seems endless, and there is little help in deciding which options can be loaded onto what ship, how long it takes to be built, how effective it will be, etc. I made a concerted effort in designing two separate ships, yet I was blatantly told by the game that the designs were not possible (gee sorry sir but we can’t build that ship for ya!!! How about some doughnuts instead?) Unfortunately I was never informed why I couldn’t build them, something that was to haunt me throughout MOO3. Reluctantly I pressed the “auto-build” button so the AI could control the shipbuilding process (I thought I heard a snickering coming through the speakers). On this menu one may also view the ships assigned to different task forces. Task forces are simply groups of ships, and each ship brings a specialization to support the overall task force and its mission. In the army we would call these battle groups. The eighth and final menu along the bottom of each screen is the Victory menu. There is an Empire overview that shows the player’s current ranking in the game, the allies and enemies, government type, etc. The victory conditions are also shown – one’s VP score and all of the victory conditions selected in the setup of the galaxy. It is from this menu that one may also dispatch Antaran expeditions into deep space to find the 5 Antaran X’s, which may be one of the victory conditions.

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.

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The second strategic screen is the star system itself. If one double clicks on the home star system, all of the planets and moons of the star system are displayed, aligned in a row, based on how far away they are from the star or sun. By selecting any of the planets, basic information such as population, mineral richness, gravity and size are displayed. Otherwise, this screen is not that useful.

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.

The first turn in MOO3 is simple enough. On the galaxy screen the home star system will be shown. Alongside it, the Empire flag symbol representing a few ships in the home star system will be present. Two or three star lanes will be visible – these are speed routes to other star systems. After adjusting the Empire policies, building new ships, reviewing your current research, etc it will be time to explore. By clicking on the Empire flag, a pop up menu reveals what ships (i.e. colony ships, scout ships, etc) are present. Simply select a ship (probably a scout at first) and drag the mouse pointer to a nearby star system. The “elastic band” will indicate how many turns it will take to get there. Once everything is plotted and adjusted, hit the turn button. A bombardment of quick messages may be received, don’t try to read them unless you possess speed-reading abilities. At the end of this process the Sitrep screen will automatically open showing all events, messages, etc that have transpired within the turn. This can get confusing (OK, so what do I do about it? And how?) Although the events are colour coded for priority, it will take some time to figure out which events are important enough to act upon and how the player can actually try and solve it. As already mentioned above there are many menus, and also menus within menus within menus, etc. It can be frustrating to say the least as the player becomes enmeshed, looking for the correct way to respond to an event.

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.

As colonies develop, and worlds are explored, and races are found, things become quite chaotic. The player ends up clicking like mad, trying to find out information that he needs that is mostly time consuming and frustrating. It becomes increasingly necessary to let the AI handle the job as the game degenerates into clicking the turn button and watching a myriad of events happen to and around the player. MOO3 drains any fun that the player may have had when originally setting up the game.

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.

The AI for this game was average, especially the operation of the other competitive aliens who are struggling to outdo the player. Sometimes they are very cunning, other times they will fly a lone reconnaissance ship into your home world system and try to take on the capital ships – recce by death as we used to say in the army – not too bright. MOO3 is also capable of being played over a LAN (private network) or the Internet via Gamespy, or a player can host his own game.

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…

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