The Trese brothers are unlike any other Android developer. Relentlessly dedicated to providing the type of hardcore gaming experiences that many said simply aren’t possible on mobile, they first made their name with the brilliant (and indeed hardcore) tactical RPG Heroes of Steel, and have been challenging our expectations ever since.
Even still, Star Traders 4X Empires is arguably their most ambitious effort to date, as it attempts to bring the 4X genre to Android with as few sacrifices as possible.
For those unfamiliar, the 4X genre is all about providing strategy games on a grand scale. They task the player with establishing an empire that stretches across the world (or in this case, the galaxy), while also handling the various micromanagement duties that are associated with such an endeavor. Typically this includes everything from stabilizing the economy and spearheading technological advancements, to dealing with rival factions through diplomacy and war. They’re kind of like what would happen if you replaced all of the action and nudity in a Game of Thrones episode, with spreadsheets and tech trees.
Star Traders holds to that design philosophy pretty tightly. In it, you play as the invisible overlord of a group of survivors scouring the universe for new planets to colonize. It’s not long after they get established and start unpacking everything, though, that they split into seperate factions, and all start demanding more resources, better ships, more worlds to call their own and “Oh if you could just help us to smite our enemies so we and our allies are the dominate force in the universe, that would be just great.” Of course, this is all this is before outside elements, like the appearance of hostile alien races, come into play.
It’s all fairly standard 4X stuff, but that’s kind of the point. Star Traders isn’t trying to revolutionize 4X games, but instead prove that their unique brand of wonderfully complex, and genuinely deep gameplay is possible on Android.
In that pursuit, it is a notable success. Even the simplest entrants into the 4X genre still feature more gameplay options than almost any game out there, and Star Traders is hardly a simple 4X game. I’d even argue that pound for pound it’s a mechanically deeper game than even a larger title like Civilization 5. Every choice in this game results in consequences on every conceivable level, meaning that even keeping your head above water will require genuine intelligence, and a knack for problem solving. It’s rare to be able to say that about any game, regardless of what system it calls home.
Unfortunately, there is one area where Star Traders’ doesn’t smoothly convert this genre to mobile, and that’s the user interface. Playing on a phone, I found it difficult to smoothly navigate the various menus, and maneuver my units around intuitively. Part of this is due to the natural awkwardness of trying to hit so many little buttons with your fingers alone, but I have to say that a little more indication of which button leads to which menu beyond a vague icon picture, would have helped ease this particular burden. The interface is better on a tablet thanks to the larger surface area, but overall it could use a little tweaking.
Also, while it may have not been the developer’s main focus, Star Traders does suffer from a lack of personality. There’s not much on display in terms of visual panache, or amazing character design or the kind of brilliant semi-scripted encounters you find in a game like Masters of Orion. Even little things like animations and effects feel somewhat bland, removing some of the thrill of exploration, as the game’s universe feels largely identical throughout.
The lack of those intangibles leaves Star Traders feeling cold and mechanical at times, and holds it back from true greatness. In fact were these instances when I felt like I was playing a very good game, which is really the foundation of a great one to come.
But a very good 4X strategy game for Android is still nothing less than a small miracle. For true strategy fans looking for a no compromise 4X game for their mobile device, Star Traders is a no-brainer purchase.
Is it Hardcore?
While lacking some creativity, this is as pure of a 4X gaming experience as Android gamers are likely to ever see.