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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Master of Orion 3 Becomes the Failed Apprentice

by Ken Newquist / April 16, 2003

Book Cover I wanted Master of Orion 3 to be the greatest turn-based strategy game of all time. I wanted it to be a worthy heir to its predecessors. I wanted to spend endless hours lost in its strategic depths, gladly loosing a few hours of sleep to secure victory over a strategic star system.

I wanted all of this ... and I got none of it. Master of Orion 3 is one of the biggest gaming disappointments I've ever experienced -- it's the Highlander 2 of computer games, and that's saying a lot.

Looking at the box, reading the manual, and glancing over the game's interface, it looks as though MOO3 has what it takes. The set-up is similar to what came before in Master of Orion 1 and 2. Players fight for control of star system, each of which is home to planets of varying quality. The game extends planetary management beyond that offered in MOO2 by giving each planet several different "zones" which can be assigned different tasks.

Planets provide the infrastructure for the game, allowing players to build social improvements that keep people happy, technological improvements to add with research, and martial upgrades that improve fighting and defensive capabilities. They are also responsible for producing military units, such as warships and ground troops. Like the previous MOO incarnations, players are able to custom-build starships based on technology they researched.

Movement in the game is more restrictive than in previous editions. Star systems are linked by "star lanes" which allow for quick and easy transfer between connected stars. Unconnected stars can still be accessed by fleets, but the travel time is measured in decades. The map has been extended into three dimensions, and players need to rotate the grid in order to see how close stars are to one another and to understand the underlying structure of the galaxy. As in earlier games, there are myriad alien races, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Many of these are familiar holdovers from previous editions of the game, but there are several new races as well.

As in previous games, ship-to-ship and ground combat are handled in their own screens, but this time around, the combat's more extensive. Players are given a fleet-eye view, and are able to order their ships around using flanking and other maneuvers. The same goes on the ground.

Fleshing out the game is an extensive back story that re-invents the galaxy's history for the new game, expanding upon it even more than the first sequel did. There are several victory conditions -- military, trade, political, etc. -- which allows players to do more than just crush all who stand before them.

So with all these great-sounding features, how did the game go so very wrong? Too much complexity combined with too overarching an AI.

The planetary zones offer a good example of this. My guess is that giving zones to planets was done to provide more depth to empire management, similar to adding planets to solar system in Master of Orion II. The difference is that adding planets increased the complexity of the game by a factor of 2 or 3. Adding zones to each planet did the same, resulting in exponential growth. Let me put it another way. In MOO1, players controlled a half dozen to a dozen planets. In MOO2, players had the same number of stars, each with at least one planet, often with two or three. This resulted in something like 24 to 32 worlds to be managed. Early in the game these worlds were easily managed by the player. Later in the game, it was easy to manage a few important worlds, and hand the rest over to the AI.

In MOO3, with zones, you have the potential to manage upwards of 50 zones in a smallish-sized empire. This is insanely complex, and almost from the word go players choose to let the computer do the work.

This pattern plays out again and again. Ships are two or three times more complex than they were in MOO2 -- not only do you have different sizes of ships, and assorted technologies that can be incorporated them, but you also have different classes of ships. Once again, you could do this by hand, but why? The computer does it easier (if not necessarily better).

In MOO3, ships no longer just pop into orbit, ready to be deployed through out the galaxy. Instead they go into orbit around the planet, where they don't show up on the map. You then must assemble them into fleets, which like ships come in a bewildering array of types and sizes. You could manually assemble a fleet, but again, why? The AI faster and in this case, better.

As with its predecessors, MOO3 gives players the opportunity to watch or take active control of battles between fleets. The difference between MOO3 and its predecessors is that the older games, while offering crude renders, at least let you understand what was happening in the battle. In MOO3, fleets engage on a solar system scale, which unfortunately means that the ships displayed as tiny little dots. Battles consist of these tiny little dots firing at each other. Directing a battle is uninspiring, and actually watching a battle while the computer fights is useless. Often the ships will just dance around each other, occasionally taking pot shots, and dragging out the combat unnecessarily. This leaves a third option, letting the computer resolve the fight, off-screen, and then display the results to the user. But because this message is essentially "you won" or "you lost", you have no way of knowing why you won or lost.

Even technology research offers you more of the same automated monotony, but this time, you don't even get to pretend to be useful. Players assign priorities to one of six research areas, and then the computer decides which fields to research. Multiple discovers are revealed each round, which a essentially meaningless because players didn't choose what to research, and thus, don't ever fully understand the usefulness of the technologies that appear.

Given how much fun the AI seems to have running the human-controlled empire, one would expect that it would at least do a half-decent job of running the alien civilizations. No such luck. The aliens expand to fill unoccupied solar systems, but seem content to merely hold those worlds, rather than hold them and then launch wars against their neighbors.

The diplomatic function of the alien AI is just idiotic. In the games I played, one race was constantly pestering me about how much it liked me, new deals it wanted, etc. That sort of initiative isn't necessarily a bad thing ... but every turn -- or even every 10 turns -- is overkill. At the same time that one race was falling over itself in worship of me, another race contacted me every few rounds to inform me that it had either declared war on me or decided to end its war on me. It says something that these periodic messages pissed me off more than its feeble attempts at invasion.

As in MOO2, MOO3 has special "leaders" that you can hire to run the empire more efficiently. Unfortunately, I haven't a clue as to how to keep these leaders alive -- every time I hired one, he/she/it was dead within five rounds because of assassinations by enemy AI. Since your own espionage efforts are oriented at undermining the enemy -- counter-espionage efforts aren't even an option -- there doesn't appear to be anyway to avoid these periodic murder sprees.

MOO3 has a message center designed to be a central source for news about your empire. On any given turn there are upwards of a dozen messages, some detailing new technologies, some talking about completed projects, and some announcing game events, like pirates or assassinations. Almost all of the messages amount to static since the AI is handling everything, and players can easily tune them out by employing message filters that eliminate all but the most important messages (which, of course, the AI is still probably handling).

Even when you choose to make take an active role in the game, the game makes it as difficult as possible to accomplish your goal. For example, let's say you want to colonize a new world. In previous games, you built a colony ship, and then sent it to the world you wanted to colonize. Makes sense right? Sure ... so naturally MOO3 ignores that approach, and instead forces you to navigate your way to the Planetary Management screen, display the planet you want to colonize, toggle to a "missions" type screen, and then order a colony ship be sent to the world. Then, you guessed it, the computer does the rest.

Or how about modifying the build queue? This requires four clicks -- count ëem four clicks -- from the home page. And once you get there, you find that the damn queue can only hold three orders at a time. The game tries to get around that limitation by letting you build ships in multiples of 5, but this merely delays the amount of time it takes for you to build everything you need. It's a pain in the ass, and is one more incentive to leave everything up to the computer.


After playing two dozen or so rounds, it became apparent that the player's only real purpose is to hit the "next turn" button. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the next stage to be reached. I hoped for some sort of empire-level tools that would let me harness all this automated productivity in new and interesting ways.

A few games later, it was overwhelmingly obvious that this isn't going to happen, that the game, strange as this may sound, is actually boring by design. This is about the point where you start hunting for your receipt to return it to the store.

Are there any positives to the game? Well, maybe one or two. The 3D star field is cool, and would have been really useful if the game was as good as it promised. But it wasn\'t, and as such, rotating the star field is pretty much a one-trick, "ain\'t that neat?" pony. Another excellent feature, which is useless in this particular game, is an in-game clock that tells you what time it is in the real world, and allows you to set alarms to remind you to eat/sleep/go to the bathroom/etc. It's a great idea, one that any gamer who's stayed up until 6 a.m. playing strategy games will appreciate. But it\'s wasted, since even the most determined player will probably give it up after an hour or so (sooner if they are lucky enough not to be reviewing it...)

These minor high points can't make up for the game's crushing failures everywhere else. In fairness, I checked out the MOO3 Web site to see if I could begin to fathom this catastrophe. In reading over the posts, it seems that everything I'm bitching about -- the AI-heavy micromanagement, the mindlessly quick turns, etc. -- were done by design. Their goal from the word go was to design a "macromanagement" game. That's all well and good, but the game fails as miserably on that level as it does everywhere else. There are a few players -- a handful really -- who seem to enjoy this game, who've taken a lot of time and effort to get into the game. Their counter-argument to my complaints seems to be "you need to give it more time". But even if this is true -- and I sincerely doubt it -- why should I? Why should I have to spend weeks trying to fathom the strategy behind a game, trying to find the diamond in the rough? Shouldn't I -- as a gamer and as a reviewer -- expect to experience these elements within the first half-dozen or so games?

Ultimately, Master of Orion III is the Alien3 of the gaming world, a failure so grand and breathtaking that it threatens to end an entire franchise. I can only hope that this won't be the case and that some how it will be resurrected for another try, because damn it, this is a franchise worth saving. But I'm not hopeful.

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