The night sky has long been a source of wonder and inspiration for humankind. Seeing thousands of brilliant stars has helped drive our mathematics, navigation, and imagination. The originators of science fiction—H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Victor Hugo—evoked paranoia, loss of innocence, wonder and curiosity, but only the modern masters had sufficient appreciation of the dimensions of our universe to impart a grand sense of scale to their works (as shown in Asimov's Foundation, Herbert's Dune, or Brin's Uplift series). It is the last of these emotions that Master Of Orion 3 thrillingly recreates.
The Master Of Orion series has been held in high regard by strategy gamers alongside other turn-based gems like Civilization and Master Of Magic. In each, the player takes control as the leader of a tribe or race from its inception and attempts to guide it to dominance through accepted methods: military, espionage, technology, diplomacy, trade, and population one year, or game-turn, at a time. While most are played on a planetary map, Master Of Orion was among the first to take this game to the stars.
For the first time in the series, Master Of Orion 3 (MOO3) actually has a plot, but we are lucky it only minimally impacts the game. The back story attempts to integrate prior Master Of Orion events—what happened after Master Of Orion 2 ends with the player controlling the galaxy?—into the current starting universe of Master Of Orion 3. It reads a bit like a bad history book and is confusing to boot, but it sheds a bit of light on why some old favorite races are missing, where new races came from, and the reason behind some of the victory conditions.
With 16 customizable base races from which to choose, it's easy to find one that fits any playing style. Each race has certain strengths and weaknesses that affect the course of the game. For quick research, there's still the trusty Psilon; the Klackons favor population growth, and the mysterious Harvester Ithkul provide a military challenge. Infogrames, the publisher, tried to keep details on what the Harvesters actually harvest a secret, so I won't reveal them now, but anyone with a smattering of imagination and a little knowledge of modern pop science fiction should be on the right track within three guesses.
I'll admit, however, that it took me a while to find the game in MOO3. When reading the situation report provided at the beginning of each turn it's easy to get the impression that everything would continue to happen without your presence; you might as well just press "Next Turn" repeatedly and let the apparent intergalactic Empire simulator run its course. It's true that the artificial intelligence (AI) seems to take an overly dominant role. The trick is to stop thinking of this as another Master Of Orion 2—a mistake I made based on my experiences with Civilization III. The more time spent with MOO3's interface and the more thought given to how the general controls affect the details, then the more MOO3 stands on its own as a novel, interesting, and worthwhile divergence from the strategy game norm.
The greatest revolution in MOO3 is how many of the components are automated by the AI. Rather than relying on the player micromanaging every corner of the Empire, it's the AI advisors that deal with routine chores. The interesting bit is the sometimes arbitrary nature of the AI: it may make decisions that the advisors deem correct even if it conflicts with the player's orders. Many may see this as a flaw, but it more accurately reflects the operation a large hierarchical structure, in which bureaucrats are corrupt or make non-optimal choices. This unique feature adds an element of realism to the game.
In Asimov's Foundation, the decline of the Empire was due not to inferior military strategy or Imperial mistakes, but rather to the extreme entrenchment of social order and general political incompetence. Despite MOO3's fanciful setting, the mid-level AIs attempt to draw in more realism by modeling such a bureaucratic hierarchy. Quicksilver, the developers, have chosen to add an order of realism to the game, and in doing so have created both a possible source of complaints—"Artificial intelligence? More like artificial stupidity!"—and a challenge to redesign an established gameplay style to allow the player to properly and easily guide the AI's behaviors. I believe they succeeded, but some may dislike managing the AI itself.
MOO3 combines the best parts of its predecessors for a great result. The interface and gameplay opportunities are different than anything presented before, yet the amount of detail is staggering. There is much to learn, more to pay attention to, and so much more to do. It can be easily overwhelming for new players, whether they are new to the genre or fans of its predecessors. I started several games in quick succession until I got used to how it worked. It is best to think of the game interface as layers of an onion. One can peel things away to get the specifics one seeks or overlay many generalizing tools to get a view of the whole picture. One might even argue that the interface is the game.
At the deepest layer, planetary production can be controlled through different queues. At the next layer up, control is held by sliders that adjust spending priorities, such as military and infrastructure production, per planet. Each planet can also be assigned two profiles out of a number of roles in order to guide the planetary AI in a preferred direction. These are of great use after the player has gained dominance and a large number of colonies would prevent the player from keeping the entire empire in mind. The solar system view is the next layer, and the only thing to note is that it contains the best graphics in the game. Finally, the Empire level controls are simple high-level systems that give the player control of overarching needs for the Empire. Most of the other fields, such as research and fleet management, are handled with a similar layered approach.
Space battles, on the other hand, require real-time tactical command (a change from prior incarnations). Rather than issuing commands one-by-one, a player bundles ships into task forces, each with a specific focus, such as a carrier group or long-range assault group. During battle, simple tactical commands are given to each task force: attack, move, retreat, etc. Since task forces are created with a mission, the player can elect to let the AI handle both battles and colonization; this will reduce the amount of time spent battling for those who prefer the meatier organizational side of the game. The battle graphics have evolved into crude, blocky voxel-based 3D. MOO3's isometric battle view (like the top-down views of its prequels) means that ships still lack the ability to move in three dimensions. Otherwise, the system does a decent job of presenting a modern naval approach to battles.
Yet because so much of the game is in the interface, the relatively minor flaws that exist are exacerbated. For instance, in order to find out what exactly a planet is building or how long it will take to complete, one must peel back the layers to the deepest view. There are some shortcuts to get there, but this can still be tedious at times; at least the interface animations are short and fast. Other useful pieces of information are not placed on a screen in which the player might need to see them.
Staring into the night sky has always given me a sense of wonder at the sheer scale of the universe. In MOO3, as in many of the great science fiction novels that take this vastness into account, a single leader cannot oversee everything. The new methodology required to deal with this large scale makes MOO3 the first progressive strategy game and avoids previous mistakes of the genre, such as overwhelming floods of micromanagement near the end of the game. It is precisely this refreshingly dynamic experience that makes MOO3 so appealing. The sooner a player releases the notion of constant absolute control established and cemented by prior Empire building games, the sooner the real game in MOO3 will reach out of the monitor and grab the player's mind.