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Master of Orion 3 (PC)

Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares is one of the best loved most underrated strategy games of all time. Released in 1996, it was the definitive space strategy simulator. Oddly, the Master of Orion has received little mainstream hype from the media, and has principally been embraced by the more hardcore segment of strategy gamers. I personally know people who have been playing MOO2 for seven years waiting for the sequel.

The game is so absolutely deep and complex it's hard to even begin explaining its intricacies. You begin as you choose one of the 16 a races with predefined characteristics you want to play as, or you can choose a race then customize your own statistic. Races are broken up into six categories: each with several different species in each race. Choosing a race that can compliment you playing style is essential since there are a myriad of more than a dozen different attributes you need to take into consideration -- among them toughness, cunning, and diplomacy. Picking the wrong race for your playing style could easily take you out of the running for victory from the begging. Using the Harvester race will make a diplomatic victory virtually impossible while diplomatic victory is the best route to take when playing as the humans.

Complicating your choice even more is a complex web of allegiances and hostilities among the different races. The Cybernetic and Geodic races, are bred to have a natural disinclination for Humanoid and Saurian races. Life in a galaxy of species that hate you regardless of what you've done for them isn't comforting one bit.

After choosing a race you're dumped head first into the Universe that is Master of Orion 3 without any idea about how to proceed. Luckily, there are helpful prompts on each new screen to get first time players through in a matter of one or two hours. The game does a good job of teaching new players the basics of the game, but it totally fails in its attempts (or total lack-there-of) to teach first time players more advanced options. A first time player is likely to feel aimless or misguided or even totally lost at some points, and the game and manual do little to help after teaching the player the basics. This is one of the first games I ever though really needed a tutorial mode. Usually one's unwittingly forced upon me. Here it would be a welcome addition.

The manual teaches the player nothing but the sheer basics of gameplay. Most of its pages are dedicated to chronicling the in depth backstory of the Universe the Orion games take place within. It's much too complicated for me to explain here but here is the tightly compressed PR reader's digest version of the story.

"The thousand year Dark Age of Antaran rule was brought to a startling end, the indigenous races of the Orion Quadrant once again reached out to the stars. Rebuilding their empires from Antaran-imposed backwardness, they reached out beyond their lonely home worlds seeking new planets, moons, and other heavenly bodies to survey and settle. The great question surrounding the sudden leadership vacuum surrounding Orion is 'who will rise to fill it?'"

Believe me, the story is much more compelling than it sounds here.

After learning the ropes MOO3 becomes a beautiful balance between broad micromanagement, macromangment, diplomacy, and combat. With the addition of local viceroys (governors) taking care of your colonies, you can control as little or as much you would like on the local level micromanagement and concentrate more fully on issues concerning your whole empire and diplomacy. These issues, combat, empire-wide taxation, espionage, diplomacy, and colonization/expansion are what take up most of the time.

In the broadest sense, micromanagement of your empire can be compared to the managing individual cities in Civilization 3. If you elect to micromanage your individual colonies though, CIV 3's level of detail pales in comparison to what you get in MOO3. You're better off just leaving them alone, because managing all of them can be tedious and take up vast amounts of your time later in the game. This game was not designed for you to control every one of your colonies separately though. If you try, you'll be constantly battling with the game's AI to keep things your way instead of the way it wants your planets to run.

On the macro level, taxes and research funding can be toggled from the "Finance" screen using a slider. Also funding for unrest controls, and grants to fund planetary infrastructure, and military grants can be toggled on this screen. Some interesting innovations include a slider called the opressometer that judges the amount of oppression your government inflicts on you citizens. If you raise this bar you're more likely to capture enemy spies in your territory, lowering the bar will have the opposite effect, but you'll have much less civil unrest on your planets.

Choosing an appropriate government for your style of play is helpful in achieving victory. Your government can be changed to several types under three different branches: absolutist, representative and collectivized governments. Collectivized governments are the most efficient and give you the most bonuses but not many races can properly maintain collectivized governments. A representative government like democracy is the second best. Absolutist governments like monarchies are the worst of the three.

As the leader of your government, you delegate general orders to your governors on how to run and maintain your colonies. At the same time, you suggest what military equipment their planets should build. On the "empire" screen, you give your planets their primary, secondary, and tertiary focuses like manufacturing, trade, and military. You can delegate the governors of your large planets to concentrate on research and building military units while you tell small planets to mine, farm, and trade.

Multiplayer and online play is rather easy, facilitated by Gamespy's Gamespy Arcade software. The game can be played over LAN or directly connected through IPs. I haven't been able to get this working, and I assumed this issue will be solved in the upcoming patch. It can also be played online using the Gamespy Arcade software that comes on the install disk. One flaw with this system is that if you do not elect to install the Arcade software while you installing the game, you can't install it from off the CD later on. To get it, you have to either reinstall the game, or download the 5.70 mb file from Gamespy's website separately which is a bit of a pain.

Finding games using the software is quick and painless. Surprisingly, the registration process is similarly easy and nonintrusive only asking for an email address, a user name and a password.

Since the game is turn based, you should probably create online games with short turns and battle times (2 minutes is good for both) to encourage fast gameplay.

The Bottom Line: I've been playing near constantly and I'm still not very good at all. MOO3 has huge learning curve, but in the end for a game as deep as this it's well worth it. It's not for everyone though. If you expect giant explosions at every turn, twitchy Quake style gameplay, massive fiery Starcraft battles, or "in your face" Unreal Tournament 2003 type attitude then I'm sorry but you'll be sorely disappointed. MOO3 is for strategy nuts and anyone who has the patience and commitment to enjoy an excellent game.

Rating: 9.6/10

*There is a patch for the game that is due to be released shortly. It will fix some of the bugs including ineffective point defense mounts, and will probably solve the multiplayer game via problems.
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