The name "Master of Orion" carries a demanding pedigree. The original Master of Orion is truly a classic game. It sits alongside Sid Meier's Civilization and the all-but-forgotten Master of Magic in MicroProse's triumvirate of early-1990s PC empire-building, which defined the genre and will continue to influence it for generations to come. When the first sequel, Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares, was released at end of 1996, it had minor bugs and some significant balance issues. These were eventually rectified by a patch, however, which rendered the game one of the most complete and engaging empire-building titles of its time.
The biggest complaint about Master of Orion II was that its interface seemed complex and unwieldy. While hardcore players learned to appreciate the opportunity to control so many aspects of their galactic empires, more casual strategy gamers resented the need to dig two or three screens down to find the information display or settings screens they needed. Ultimately, empire-building fans formed opinions of Master of Orion II according to their tastes: those who liked the game's complexity found the interface relatively efficient considering the degree of control it offered, while those who prefered accessibility over sophistication were less enthusiastic.
Master of Orion 3 caters to players who valued the sophistication of the earlier game, to the complete exclusion of those who would appreciate more accessibility. It is extremely cumbersome and complicated, even compared to other games in a genre known for depth. While each menu and information screen in the game is logically placed, there are dozens, if not hundreds of nested windows and pop-up panels. Reaching the sub-menu screen for nearly any hands-on management task requires the player to click though multiple layers of interface.
Perhaps Master of Orion 3 would be more accessible -- and certainly much more fun -- if it did a better job explaining itself to the player. Unfortunately, the manual is hard to use, as instructions on the different aspects of play are interspersed with lengthy (though well written) back-story fiction. Amazingly, there is no index, and even worse, the in-game "Galactic Encyclopedia" suffers a similar problem. Structured in outline form, only its most basic, chapter-title keywords come up in a search, so seeking relevant information on a particular planetary characteristic or made-up science-fiction term can be frustrating, and often fruitless.
Unlike those of its predecessor, all of the menu screens in Master of Orion 3 have the same sterile, generic GUI appearance. They all convey the same aloof perspective on the empire, whether the player is gearing for combat in a ship design screen or queuing farm and industry development on a new colony. This makes for a clean, unified presentation, but it dampens any emotional attachment to the given task at hand. Players now have greater control over more aspects of their Orion empires than ever before, but taking advantage of that control is a more burdensome enterprise that feels even further removed from the actual ebb and flow of the game.
Master of Orion 3 is a disappointment, because this sophistication is the only manner in which it improves upon its predecessor. The graphics quality in Master of Orion 3 is not much better than that of Master of Orion II, which was released over six years earlier. The maps are now three-dimensional and the combat screen offers more believable-looking ships, but these displays are iconic anyway, designed to provide easy-to-read assessment of a situation instead of a realistic representation of detail or scale.
Master of Orion 3's most rousing presentation is in its diplomacy interface, through which the player communicates with the leaders of other races. Yet despite its 3D graphics and higher resolution, it's hardly more entertaining than that of the earlier game. Some aspects of presentation are actually less appealing in Master of Orion 3. For example, the animated scientist and spy screens that would pop up to alert the player of new technologies in Master of Orion II have been replaced with plain, boring text messages, listed among numerous other informational alerts in a by-turn "Situation Report." The driving sense of immediacy suffers. For many, becoming Master of Orion the third time around will feel more like an exercise in accounting than in conquest.
In spite of its mind-bending level of detail, Master of Orion 3 is not a difficult game. In fact, it's easier to win than either of its predecessors. This is, in part, because nearly every aspect of empire management -- from research, to planetary production, to military development -- can be automated. While the turn-opening Situation Report may warn of some pending economic or technological concern, once players burrow through the interface to reach the relevant control screen, they'll often find that some AI governor has already accounted for the problem. Though impressive, this intelligent automation works against the game, as it diminishes the player's sense of purpose.
Since the AI that governs every facet of the player's domain is at least as competent as the AI steering the other races, it is conceivable that players could click right through scores of turns, and watch their empires develop at a competitive pace with virtually no hands-on interaction at all. While good AI support may be one of the game's biggest strengths, it is also at the root of its failure. By removing the need to actively govern over turn-to-turn operations, it also removes much of the player's emotional connection to the empire. Overall, Master of Orion 3 will not completely disappoint those who long to recapture the feel of the earlier games in the series, but it could take them several hours to learn the new interface well enough to catch on to that feel.
Although Master of Orion 3 offers a solid, balanced, expansive strategy contest, few gamers will be drawn to properly appreciate its theoretical concepts and their abstract consequences. Newcomers attracted by the reputation of earlier Master of Orion games are almost sure to be mystified by the series' popularity, as they load up this version and quickly find themselves tangled in a web of impersonal data screens and esoteric sci-fi jargon. "What's so appealing about menu settings and text messages?" they'll ask.
In spite of Master of Orion 3's countless detail-oriented improvements, connoisseurs of the series may also find themselves pining for the personality of the earlier games, wishing to trade some of the new intricacy and erudition for a better sense of interaction and consequence. So, the advice to both groups of strategy gamers is essentially the same. Neophytes who want to know for themselves what becoming the Master of Orion is really all about should look for a bargain-bin copy of Master of Orion II. Likewise, fans of the series are advised to pull out their old discs and have another go at defeating those nasty Antarans. Even six years later, Master of Orion II is a better game than its sequel in every way that matters.
Graphics: All the important gameplay takes place through generic GUI windows and menu screens. The sterile interface disconnects players from the passion of conquering a galaxy. Even the animated diplomacy screens look sorely out-of-date. The only advantage is that the game will run on a relatively slow PII with a four-year-old graphics card.
Sound: Seems specially designed to please veterans of the series. Fans of the earlier games will recognize the unobtrusive, ethereal score that flows softly in the background as they ponder the many facets of their empires for hours on end. They'll also appreciate the familiar confirmation "bleeps" and "bloops," which sound exactly as they did in Master of Orion II. The brief bits of alien "voice acting" are nicely done as well.
Enjoyment: Polished and balanced, but difficult to learn and even harder to appreciate. Players desiring the same degree of depth with more flexibility might prefer Shrapnel's Space Empires IV. Players seeking a more accessible game of galactic conquest might try Star Trek TNG: Birth of the Federation. Above all, it's likely that everyone except the most hardcore statistics junkie would find Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares to be a better presented, more enjoyable game than this sequel.
Replay Value: Those who put in the (significant) effort it takes to learn to appreciate Master of Orion 3 will keep themselves busy for countless hours. Random maps, customizable races, an abundance of set-up options, and multiplayer support serve this game well.
People who downloaded Master of Orion 3 have also downloaded:
Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, Sid Meier's Civilization IV, Homeworld 2, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, MechCommander Gold
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