Space-based 4X games always start out behind the 8-ball. This 8-ball has a name, and its name is “Master of Orion”. The first question everybody asks when a new game in the genre comes out is, “Is it as good as Master of Orion?”. Many have tried (“Sword of the Stars”, “Galactic Civilizations”, etc.) but none have really succeeded. I don't know what the problem is - “Civilization” was great, but there are other land-based 4X games people like just as well.
This reviewer will spare you some reading and simply state up front: “StarDrive” (SD) is not all that good. It is certainly no “Master of Orion” or “Galactic Civilizations”. One can see the influence of those games on SD, it's just that SD doesn't do anything very original with those influences. One is left thinking “I should have played one of those other games instead. I wonder if they will be updating MoO the same way they did Baldur's Gate?”.
The player starts out by choosing a species. Each species has its own graphics, which look nice. There are space bears, space Cthulhu, space mollusks, and others, each of which have their own default traits. These traits can influence game play by making certain actions easier – better research, easier colonization, or harder – worse research, more expensive ships. You start out with a certain number of points: buying positive traits costs points, taking negative traits gives you more points to spend on positive traits. This takes away from the feeling of distinct races while providing a feeling of customization, making the whole thing a wash. This crops up again and again in “StarDrive” - it seems like you have a choice, but it actually doesn't make that much of a difference what you do.
It turns out most of the traits don't make that much of a difference in the long run. The game can only end through either forcing everyone into an alliance or, failing that, killing them all. There is no tech victory, nor can one build a “wonder” or simply earn enough money. Everyone must agree with you or you must kill them, and everything you do for the entire game should be aimed at one or the other.
But before your race is ready to struggle on a galactic scale it should have a firm economic basis. The best way to get rolling is to grab a few planets. There are three primary types: agricultural, industrial, and research. In actual play any planet that is bad at agriculture and industry usually becomes a research planet because SD scientists like crummy planets, I guess. An interesting feature is the ability to ship excess resources from one planet to another. For example, Breadonia (an agricultural planet) can ship its excess food production to Mechtopia (an industrial planet), allowing Mechtopia to support more workers than it otherwise could. In turn, Mechtopia could export its excess production to other planets, allowing them to finish construction projects faster.
By itself this would make for an interesting economic/empire-building game. In SD it becomes an exercise in micromanagement. After you empire becomes a certain size you can easily spend most of your time setting up these resource shuttles. Planet-building can also become micro-management. The individual planets are composed of squares upon which buildings can be built. Buildings do the usual – create troops, provide production, etc., so you can craft a planet the way you want. However, after a while there are so many planets that need stuff built on them it is easy to get frustrated and just turn on the planetary governor, which obviates the need for the building mechanic in the first place. You can either make a lot of choices that don't make much difference, or none at all.
Tech research is the same way. It looks like there is a lot of tech to choose from, but you'll pretty much just want the weapons and armor tech.
Once you have an economy going it's time to deal with the other species. Diplomacy is acceptable – the other species are colorfully rendered, and their actions generally make sense given the game's idiom. Unfortunately, the game's idiom is “everyone wants to kill you most of the time” so that's what a lot of diplomacy comes down to: tech trades, threats (stay out of my system), declarations of war, peace negotiations, and so on. Basically, both sides are only talking because neither has a big enough stick at the moment. The aggressive races may not talk even then. Again, it seems like there are choices, but they don't matter much.
So it comes down to fighting. SD supports custom ship design, which is nice Each ship model is made up of a bunch of squares, and design consists of taking pre-defined parts (guns, missiles, engines, power supplies, and so on) and filling up the squares with them. This allows the player to take a single hull and deck it out lots of different ways: as a fast scout, an armored tank, missile ship, or whatever. Better techs allow for bigger hulls and better parts. There are a couple of flaws. For one, each square must be filled, which is a pain sometimes. The big problem is that it is not clear why putting a part in one square rather than another might be better. It would be nice to have more feedback on what was going on, or maybe a “battle simulator” so different designs could be tested against each other. Overall, the whole thing works well enough, so that researching a new hull design is a welcome break from the rest of the game, as one can spend some time designing new ships.
The actual battles fought by these ships are standard RTS-style fights. The implementation is competent for the most part. The AI has some issues with ships holding formation (they don't), so the effort put into setting up formations before a battle is mostly wasted. Like many RTS games it mostly comes down to which side has the bigger fleet. So you have choices to make before each battle, but they do not matter much.
In the end, then, that's pretty much how StarDrive feels: there are choices to be made, but they don't seem to make much difference either way. The mechanics, graphics and gameplay are acceptable, but there are better alternatives. The player is left feeling, not unhappy, but uninterested.