Gameplay - 8
Presentation - 7
Lifespan - 8
Freeness - 10
The visuals don't make this game good, but FreeOrion is the kind of game you play for the mechanics. On these grounds, FreeOrion is worth the download.
The galaxy can at times be an overwhelming and dangerous place. Though it isn’t quite as bad with a fleet of armed space ships at your command. Master of Orion, a 4X game released in 1993, is the inspiration that went into the development of FreeOrion. The team behind FreeOrion developed and maintains the project with the goal of creating a complex universe while retaining their central design philosophy.
FreeOrion targets those hardcore strategy gamers that enjoy space age exploration and combat. It is not meant to be a copy of the game it pays homage to, though it does bear quite the resemblance. The FreeOrion team doesn’t have the kind of resources a big title like Civilization would get, but that didn’t stop them from creating a game with just as much depth and just as entertaining.
FreeOrion is set up in a turn-based strategy game format. You control an empire as they explore and colonize an increasingly hostile galaxy. The fact that you are just one race of people surrounded by hostile aliens from the start can cause some irritating harassment issues. Even on the default beginner mode, which controls AI aggression, the balance of power can at times be overwhelmingly in the favor of your enemies. If you are particularly talented, then you can increase their aggression, and therefore the difficulty. The pacing of the game is largely based on this setting. I find myself losing ground much quicker playing on even slow AI aggression settings compared to beginner. Regardless of how badly your neighbors want to disintegrate you, you are left to manage the industry, growth and research of your empire. What FreeOrion does well is affording the player the ability to manage often large and complex empires without necessitating micromanagement (a key goal in the design of the game).
Sometimes I have to wonder why the aliens can’t just be nice.
The game includes an interesting and complex technology tree. Featured within are upgrades to various aspects of your industry, military, or future research. A vast amount of the depth of the game is found within the progression of technology. I often go straight for militaristic advancements to fill in the deficit in strength between myself and my neighbors. The complexity of the tech tree offers the ability to form equally complex strategies, or a cocktail of randomly selected bonuses and upgrades for the less strategic gamer. Combat is resolved in between turns with no player involvement. The combat log shows the actions your fleets have taken, but the outcome is based solely on the relative strengths of the ships. Perhaps my favorite mechanic found in the game is the custom ship design. You can take available ship hulls, weapon and shield technology, and various accessories to create ships of your own.
I enjoy the simplicity and ease of control found in the overall layout and the interface. The maps are clean and simple to read. The menus offer relevant information, and the use of these features is intuitive and easy to learn. It seems overwhelming at first to pick up on even the basic controls without an in game tutorial. However, with a few minutes of tinkering and occasional glances at the help menu, it all comes together with a satisfying sigh of relief and in my case a quick restart to apply what I have learned.
The graphics alone aren’t anything extraordinary. The most striking visual features are the various nebulae that float around in the backdrop of the map. The menu actually has an appealing background, but don’t expect to be bombarded with an explosion of raw visual greatness. In terms of performance, it runs perfectly smoothly, but may experience some delay between turns later on as the game processes more activity. As far as sound is concerned, there are a few clicks and beeps to be heard in the various menus, and a constant, gentle song that makes me think of what space sounds like. Overall, the game is designed with control and function in mind, so unless your visual demands are similar to that of a mainstream title, FreeOrion gets the job done.
FreeOrion has the benefit of a long lifespan with tons of replay value. Each map is randomly generated with a seed, and can be altered based on features such as the shape, age, and planet density. A new map can be played every time, with more or less of those angry, xenophobic neighbors. Each game can take hours and hours (if you can survive that long). In addition to singleplayer, there is also multiplayer for those who are inclined to play turn-based multiplayer games. There are a lot of races and possibilities, and even more maps to be explored. The lifespan of this game is limited only by the player’s attention span.
As for how “free” FreeOrion is, the game is completely free and open source. It is still being developed but is certainly playable and even fun for hardcore strategy gamers. The game costs nothing to download or to play. It is managed on a volunteer basis, but donations are welcomed if you particularly enjoyed the product or are seeking to aid the development.
To sum it all up, FreeOrion is an example of how to design a game with actual design in mind. Too often games fall short of our expectations because visual appeal sells. FreeOrion does design right by placing value on depth without over-complexity, instead of trying to dress up a tangled mess of mechanics in a colorful explosion of graphic eye candy.