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Master of Orion 3 Review

publisher: Atari
developer: Quicksilver
genre: Strategy

PII 300, 128MB RAM, 16MB Video Card, 800MB HDD
ESRB rating: T

release date: Feb 25, 03
» All About Master of Orion 3 on ActionTrip

Anticipation in games can be a good thing. When a truly revolutionary game is created, or a game is so good that it garners throngs of fans that play the game so incessantly it borders on religious, the community practically demands a sequel. Or, in this case, a sequel to the sequel. The problem with the anticipating is that, if the game takes too long to develop, it runs enormous risks. This is a syndrome that we, as gamers, are all too familiar with. Just look at Daikatana. Heavily hyped, it took John Romero and his team at Ion Storm 4 years to develop, and it ultimately turned into the worst game of all time. Conversely, we have Half-Life. When this game was in development, the gaming community hyped the coming game for the entire 3 years it was in development - and for good reason. Half-Life is still one of the most played games today - 5 years after its release. So the anticipation of a coming title works greatly to one of two ends: If the game lives up to the standards the gaming community demands it does, the game is enshrined in the hearts and minds of gamers for years to come. And if it doesn't, the games flaws are magnified to a similar degree, and it can cost people their careers in gaming (see John Romero).

Master of Orion 2 is such a game. It was so intensely popular, and so much fun, that the gaming community practically demanded another title in the series. It took them a while, but the development team at Quicksilver finally got around to finishing the third installment in the Master of Orion saga. The announcement for Master of Orion 3 has created quite a buildup among fans that have waited for seven years to see a reincarnation of their favorite sci-fi turn-based strategy.

Although much of the back-story remains unclear in the game itself, the official web site offers an in-depth look into the history of races and star systems of the entire series to educate those unfamiliar with the MOO series. Centuries have passed since MOO2. The Antaran race has made tremendous discoveries in fields of Trans-Dimensional Physics, Wormhole Physics, and Genetic Manipulation, leaving other technologically inferior races and worlds cowering at their feet. The Antarans have managed to forge a powerful empire, called New Orion, which successfully dominates a great part of the universe. Your task is to prove your worth by evolving your species in fields of economics, politics, science, and various military technologies, in order to survive over other powerful empires and races that are scattered across the galaxy. By exploring and gradually expanding your own empire, you'll be able to create task forces and armadas with which you can start occupying the far regions of space.

Several improvements over MOO2 are obvious right from the start. Race customizations and other various options for your civilization are more flexible and straightforward than before, which gives players a lot of room for developing their ideal species. So, before you being colonizing you very first star system, you can optimize the characteristics of your civilization by distributing a certain amount of points to the field you wish for them to have experience in. Awarding points to a particular field, say diplomacy, may weaken other skills and capabilities of your race. Luckily though, this system of point distribution was suitably devised so players can make the best possible use out of them. When you're done with these, you can go through a set of standard options, which can help you create a preferable in-game atmosphere, simply by adjusting the galaxy size, setting a desired number of CPU opponents, determining victory conditions, establishing a preset number of turns, choosing a specific amount of specials, etc.

At first glance, the interface and main map screen seem pretty clear and easy to use. Although, once you get deeper into the game, you will discover that many things could've been simpler. First of all, most players will surely have a hard time learning how to move their ships, fleets, and task forces. Basically, it needed to be a lot more intuitive. Similar flaws can be observed in the real-time 3D combat mode, but we'll address that issue later on in the review.

Although I never was a great fan of the series, Master of Orion 2 is familiar to me and I did get a chance to play it a while back, which made it easier for me to get into the basic concept of gameplay. Inexperienced players, on the other hand, may need to go through a slight adjustment period, while pondering how to use all the technologies, economy systems, and politics in practice. Also, in its old days, Master of Orion tended to emphasize micromanagement, which would occasionally put some strain on the player since there were too many systems and planets to keep under surveillance. Trying to avoid this, the developers have ineptly walked into a rather foreseeable trap. Basically, instead of carefully reducing the level of micromanagement, they've completely transformed a well-oiled turn-based gameplay principle. Frankly I thought it would be more of a challenge to the mind. Instead it's all very routine and mechanical; the CPU practically does all the work. Production and all kinds of manufacturing processes are left up to the AI, which could definitely use some serious balancing. Constructions, diverse science developments, and military training projects can be left up to the AI. The problem arises when you try to deactivate these AI functions, so you can take matters into your own hands. Oddly enough, the computer will sometimes continue to work on projects and developments regardless of your commands. Granted it would've been a tremendous bore if the player had to deal with matters of each system manually, but this is just too much. Leaving everything up to the CPU just takes every challenging impulse out of the whole experience.

Throughout the game, players must use any means necessary to ensure the survival and progress of their civilization. In due time, you can hire spies to sabotage enemy researches or simply learn more about their operations in any field, be it social, political, military, scientific, or diplomatic. One of easiest ways to guarantee your civilization's progress is to make contact with other races via various diplomacy channels, which will be available depending on how much experience your race has in negotiating with foreign offices. Unfortunately, diplomacy turned out to be a major bummer instead of a rewarding way to dodge a conflict situation. The main problem is that most of your time-honored peace treaties and trade agreements will sometimes, for no apparent reason, be completely ignored by your ally. After that, your ally may suddenly declare war against your race, again offering no sensible explanation or justification for that kind of action. This is why occasionally diplomacy may seem like a totally useless gesture on your side.

Perhaps, one of the good things about MOO3 is that there's a gigantic universe out there for you to explore and venture in. You head across the uncharted regions of space, set up colonies, populate lands, and establish well-organized governments. Maintaining these systems is challenging because there are so many different issues that require your undivided attention; looking after planet environments, settling population unrest, farming, regulating tax rates, establishing a strong economy, building military defense systems (training troops, that sort of thing), assembling fleets, and so on. One of the most significant improvements over the previous MOO game is that you're now able to create and optimize your ships and fleets before you build them. Which is a good thing from one point of view - namely you can attach various improvements to the ship's weapon, shield, and engine systems (provided the technologies have already been discovered and fully researched by your science team). From a different point of you however, the ship designing process may take up a considerable amount of your time because every enhancement has to be done manually. Clearly the game lacks an upgrade option which might have made things easier.

During my tireless ventures through the universe, I embarked upon a lot of unwelcoming civilizations, which is when I finally got to discover the enhanced real-time combat system. The minute you engage in a 3D battle, you will notice a rather simple GUI that features all the necessary readouts and orders you can give out. In terms of gameplay, everything seems to work smoothly right up to the point when you want to issue orders to your units individually. This time around your fleets are formed automatically and will act in groups rather than an individual task force. Sometimes you just wish to separate your units, so you can send swift and short-ranged crafts into action and your slow frigates away from danger. Sadly, you won't be able to do this, and that can really annoy you at times.

Technically there's not much to comment on. Master of Orion 3 was designed to appeal to gamers with its complex world of races and evolution processes, making the visual aspect slightly less important. Still, there are a few things that should be mentioned. For starters, the GUI is alright and seems to offer intuitive access to all of your necessities. The graphics are not exactly ground-breaking, but the concept art really seemed to have paid off, which is best observed in the imaginative and beautifully designed characters, creatures, and races. On a rather disappointing note however, the new 3D combat mode offers a rather puny presentation of ground battles and space combat, displaying small low-res ugly-looking ship and unit models. All in all, we expected more. The in-game sounds are quite acceptable though, although I would've been happier with more music themes (that's the way I like my cosmic journeys anyways).

We found that the multiplayer wasn't all that fun either, simply because it lacks a more dynamic gameplay. Any addictive aspects the game had throughout the single-player experience are definitely missing in the multiplayer. Nothing much to add on the subject I'm afraid; other than the possibility of playing trough the standard multiplayer variants - LAN and Internet.

Overall, many fans of the old series may just approve of MOO3 because it does rekindle some gameplay characteristics of its predecessor. There's a lot of new options and customizations to tangle with and you can explore and colonize a virtually endless universe. And yet at the same time, players will encounter numerous downsides of the gameplay that might slowly decrease the popularity of an otherwise excellent franchise. The unbalanced AI, weak diplomacy, poor combat, steep learning curve, are all pieces that draw the players attention away from the game and ultimately decreases any replay value. I fear that the people anxiously awaiting this game may be supremely disappointed.


6.9   Above Average 

There's a huge universe out there for you to explore. Various available race optimizations and improvements since the previous game.

A rather steep learning curve and can be too complicated for inexperienced rookies. The AI does most of the work for you (even if it's told otherwise), so it's not all that challenging. Major flaws in the diplomacy system. Evidently the wide range of customizations and various options may not be too easy for MOO newbies to grasp. Definitely too tedious at times. The manual is missing several crucial explanations about the game and its countless options.



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