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Back in hoary old 1996, games were very different. Graphics were primitive and processors slow, but gamers gamed and we had fun. I tend to think that in those days they tried a little harder. They knew that no one would be impressed with the blocky and pixelated suggestions of figures that graphics in those days provided, and so they tried to create better stories and better gameplay.
Microprose certainly tried harder, creating a masterful plot with intrigue, poltics, and epic battles between space fleets. Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares is a 4E game, which (for those of you who haven't played this particular genre) stands for "Explore", "Expand", "Exploit" and "Exterminate". The idea is simple: you and several other groups start out with a certain amount of resources to exploit and the ability to explore, fight, and colonize other areas. You also have (most importantly) the ability to advance your group by improving abilities or gaining a new technology. A very popular 4E franchise is the Civilization series by Sid Meier.
MOO2, as it is affectionately known, is turn-based just like Civ and included elements of diplomacy, but that is where the resemblance ends. MOO2 allows for large scale space combat, completely designable and unique ships and, for the expert, the ability to create your own race. Let's dig beneath the surface of game a little and look at what made it so unique and enjoyable.
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Known space has been historically populated by the Bulrathi, Alkari, Darloks, Humans, Trilarians, Klackons, Meklars, Elerians, Mrrshan, Psilons, Sakkra, Silicoids, and Gnolams. But before all of that there were the Orions and the Antarans - incredibly advanced civilizations who (inevitably) went to war with each other. At the war's conclusion, the Orions imprisoned the Antarans in a pocket dimension.
The Orions died off long before the time-period of the game and left their homeworld guarded by a warship called the Guardian. Whoever defeats the guardian gets the Orion system, access to the best planet for colonization, access to technologies not available anywhere else in the game, and the help of the last Orion, Loknar, and his Orion battleship. The various races are vying for control, either by destroying every other race or getting elected president of the galaxy through diplomacy.
At a random point, the Antarans escape their prison and start sending increasingly nasty fleets against you. This introduces the third win-condition: if you can get to the Antaran homeworld and defeat them there.
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Every turn, the Galactic news will pop-up and deliver random events, which can give a huge advantage to a given race or cause problems for all the races. Space-warps can render lightspeed impossible for several rounds, while a famine can break out on your best colony and decimate it.
Rarer random events are in the game as well, but you just have to play a while to find those. They include funny news reports, population booms, and mutation (which in turn helps development).
Throughout the game, you will be contacted by various characters with specific skills you can hire to run colonies and help pilot your ships. These leaders will range all over the place in ability and price, so you are forced to take who you hire seriously, because a bad leader can kill your whole game.
Large-Scale Space Combat
We're talking hundreds of ships doing battle. At the beginning of the game you get to choose whether you want to actually control the ships (Tactical mode) or let them be controlled by the computer (Strategic mode). It is worth pointing out that Strategic mode means you can't design ships and that if you choose Tactical you can choose to let a battle be fought by the computer. I thus recommend Tactical mode.
The final and coolest aspect of the game is espionage. Players can transform their units into special units who can then be sent out to gather information on the other races or commit sabotage. It is worth noting that I have won the game through sabotage. Spies can steal technologies as well, so placing at least a few of them early on in your race's development can speed up your race's development.
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Modern games have the graphics, but it's games like MOO2 that set the standards. I hope you find a way to track down and enjoy the game for yourself.
Like many older games, Master of Orion 2 may give you trouble on newer computers. The game does work in DosBox, an MS-DOS emulator. Check out this guide to setting up the game in DosBox and start gaming!