Master of Orion reboot hands-on: A PC gaming classic dragged into the modern era

Wargaming's rebooting Master of Orion and the Alkari have never looked--or sounded--so good.

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“It is a legend. We need to get it right,” says Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi in reference to the company’s upcoming Master of Orion remake/reboot/sequel. And he’s not wrong. Master of Orion is one of those hallowed PC games—a 4X title so ahead of its time that it’sstill referenced as one of the greatest in the genre, twenty years later. Even by us.

That’s quite a legacy to live up to, which is—I assume—why Wargaming stresses how much it’s playing safe. The original races, the original storyline—in a lot of ways, this new Master of Orion endeavors to recreate the original except, as Kislyi points out, with the benefits of 2015 hardware.

Further reading: 33 must-see PC games revealed at E3 2015

And on that front, Wargaming succeeds. If there’s one thing that’s immediately clear about Master of Orion, it’s that the game is beautiful. If I put Civilization: Beyond Earth, Galactic Civilization III, and Master of Orion in a room together, Master of Orion is coming out on top as far as graphics.

It’s the little touches. For instance, every building you create is rendered out on the surface of your planets—planets that are constantly in motion, with ships and satellites orbiting overhead. Or it’s the fidelity of Master of Orion’s classic races, now rendered in full 3D and animated in thematically appropriate ways (i.e. the Mrrshans move like cats).

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The races are in fact one of the most impressive parts of Master of Orion’s whole. Voice acting, for instance, is also tailored to each race. Playing as the Alkari, our advisor tossed in random bird squawks which—while somewhat a parody of each alien’s role—does help make each race feel suitably different and appealing. Each race also opens with a fully-animated, unique cutscene to sell the backstory, which is a nice touch—it avoids the follies of Beyond Earth’s more blank-slate approach to factions or Age of Wonders III's info-dumps.

I came away from my demo feeling like Wargaming has succeeded in selling the spectacle of Master of Orion—of recreating that space opera feel of the original.

But I’m still not sure how it plays, aside from your standard 4x trappings. The galaxy map is back, you send fleets out to chart and colonize new systems and planets, you build ships, you engage in standard Civ-esque “trading favors” diplomacy. The biggest difference is a UI overhaul that looks much more modern and sleek—definitely an improvement over the original.

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Again, though, that’s a graphics thing. The whole game is beautiful, but by adhering so close to the original in other respects I’m curious whether Master of Orion brings anything new to the table. One of the reasons the original is so revered is because it was so ahead of its time—but it’s been much-emulated by a host of spiritual successors over the past 20 years. This new game, aside from being gorgeous, doesn’t seem incredibly dissimilar from (for example) Galactic Civilization III. In fact, what I’ve played of GalCiv seems more compelling, thanks to its amazing custom-ship builder.

But it’s honestly hard—almost impossible—to know. With Master of Orion today I got a brief demo of a not-so-brief game, and picking up on the subtle differences between 4X games is difficult even in longterm play, let alone over such a short timespan.

For now, my feeling about Master of Orion is it’s simply “another space 4X game”—lovingly updated, but entering into a niche that’s gotten pretty crowded lately. It is, of course, “another space 4X game” with the benefit of a twenty-year legacy and name, but even so that might not be enough. Being faithful to a legend doesn’t just mean recreating it for a new audience—it means pushing it forward. I’m convinced Wargaming has done that graphically. Now I’m waiting to see whether they’ve also done that from a mechanics perspective.

Stay tuned for more coverage of E3 2015 from PCWorld, and be sure to follow my Twitter account for up-to-the-minute impressions and shots of the show floor.

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