Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares Review

Screenshot from Master of Orion II
Exploring strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldy exterminate them like no empire has done before

  • Reviewed by: Mark Goninon
  • Developer: Simtex
  • Publisher: Microprose/Wargaming Labs
  • Release Date: 22 Nov 1996
  • Time played: 8.5 hours

What is it

The short-lived studio Simtex was founded back in 1988 but closed its doors just a decade later after Microprose closed it down despite the fact they were working on a game called Agents of Justice. Notable games they developed included 1993's Master of Orion, 1994's Master of Magic and 1996's Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares.

The original Master of Orion was a critical success and was the first game to be called a "4X" title ("eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate"), thanks to writer Alan Emrich coining the term in a preview of the game published in the September 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World. I'm assuming the game sold well enough too, since the game I'm reviewing today is its sequel, Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares.

Like its predecessor, Master of Orion II is, at its heart, a 4X sci-fi turn-based strategy game, although the game tends to play more like Sid Meier's Civilization in space thanks to an even greater emphasis on micromanagement instead of just assigning planetary outputs using slider bars. Besides the usual colonising of planets, researching of technologies, designing of ships and taking over the galaxy, Master of Orion II also introduced a new enemy called the Antarans: alien raiders from another dimension that would wreak havoc on any empire they deemed worthy of their wrath.

How I got it

I played the original back when it was released in the 1990s but the most current version I played was off GOG and back when GOG were actually acquiring good old games (instead of newer games like it does now). The game has been sitting in my GOG library since 2010, so over 8 years later I've finally decided to give it a proper replay to see how the game fares in the 21st century.

Screenshot from Master of Orion II
Designing ships is one of the best parts of Master of Orion II

What I like:

Sci-Fi 4X

There have been sci-fi 4X games before the Master of Orion series, games like 1983's Reach for the Stars for example, but my earliest experience playing sci-fi 4X games was Master of Orion and it introduced the genre to a whole new generation of players. Something was just appealing about exploring a galaxy, researching new technology, colonising new worlds, building up your economy and crushing any enemies that stood in your way (although I'm generally more of a pacifist so I always try and take the peaceful route first 😉).

Of course, nowadays you have a whole bunch of sci-fi 4X games out there, including well known franchises like Galactic Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire, Endless Space and Stellaris, and that doesn't even cover the handful of indie titles out there too; I'm sure many of the designers of these games were inspired by Master of Orion.

Build and design your own spaceships

While this isn't probably a big deal nowadays, it was back in the 1990s: the fact you weren't only allowed to build ships but design them with technology you actually researched was awesome. This meant you could tailor your fleet to capitalise on your strengths or exploit enemy weaknesses. It also adds an extra layer of complexity since not is it only crucial to keep ahead in research to ensure you have the best shields, computers and weapons, but you also have to choose carefully what you actually install in your ships; while designing a ship with the best of everything might seem the best choice, this results in a very slow and very expensive ship which could take several turns before it sees active service.

Races with different pros and cons

Again, this is quite common in strategy games nowadays (even Sid Meier's Civilization comes to mind) but it wasn't always the case especially back in the 1990s. Consequently, I found it a breath of fresh air when you could play as a race that had naturally gifted pilots, or one that could colonise volcanic worlds with ease: it made for a more interesting game. Master of Orion II was particularly special since it even allowed you to customise your own race using the traits available for other races (although you can apparently create some quite overpowered races by doing so).

Screenshot from Master of Orion II
I really hate these guys

What I dislike:


I don't remember Master of Orion II being so difficult as a kid; maybe I was just more persistent then or maybe I didn't turn on the Antaran attacks because when they are on, man are they hard to defeat. Anyway, it took me 4 games before I finally managed to beat the game on Tutor difficulty, the easiest difficulty setting in the game (and as I mentioned before, I'm no stranger to the game either).

I first played as the Klackons but was outmatched in every way by the Psilons who I was allied with. Eventually it became a case of either taking on the most powerful empire in the galaxy or taking on the Antarans – neither seemed like it was going to result in a victory (especially since the Klackons have the "uncreative" trait, meaning they have limited options when it comes to research).

I then played as the Alkari but was getting pwned by the Klackons and the Antarans. My third game involved playing as the Bulrathi and while I managed to survive longer than my second game (with even an AI empire surrendering to mine) the Antarans were relentless in their attacks and eventually obliterated my empire.

My fourth and final game I did finally manage to win, but only because I read some advice online on how to counter early Antaran raids (it basically involves building lots of planetary defences) and only because I double-crossed my ally at the end of the game before the Antarans had a chance to wipe me out again (hey, I was playing as the Darloks, it's just roleplaying if I stab my friends in the back, right? 😉).

The Antarans

As mentioned, it seems that the root of my problems with this game are the Antarans; they are the ones that truly make the game difficult, even if you're playing on friggin' Tutor difficulty! What I found particularly annoying though is that there's really only one way to counter them which involves boarding their ships and stealing their own technology; if you're not prepared to do that or not even aware you could, then you have to take over the galaxy the old-fashioned way, either through domination or diplomacy with the Antarans working as a sort of timer to hurry things up.

Emulation quality

The quality of the emulation sometimes suffers and includes popping sounds, stuttering music, unresponsive menus and crashes to desktop. The game works, most of the time, but you might not be getting the true authentic experience you would get playing the game on a Pentium 1 with a CD-ROM drive running MS-DOS 6.2.

Lots of micromanagement

This is also a problem with games like Sid Meier's Civilization and I believe Master of Orion II veered away towards the middle ground you had in the original Master of Orion where managing your colonies wasn't as much of a chore; managing your empire in Master of Orion II when it covers a majority of the galaxy definitely becomes tedious when each turn you're spammed with a hundred notifications.

Score – 7/10 (Good)

If you had asked me to review this game back in the 1990s, I would have easily given it an 8 or even a 9. However, playing the game again in 2018 serves as a reminder of just how insanely difficult games were back in the old days and the problem was only exacerbated by the fact that the Internet (at least for the general public) was in its infancy (i.e. it was harder to find hints and walkthroughs). I'm still not convinced that adding Antarans to the original formula that was Master of Orion was a good idea not to mention the increased micromanagement which seems to be inspired by games like Sid Meier's Civilization.

Slightly shonky emulation aside though, the game does show us why sci-fi 4X games are so addictive and why its legacy lives on to this day: the ability to play as different races, flying around and conquering the galaxy in ships you've designed is a winning formula that can't be beat. While you can probably find better implementations of sci-fi 4X games nowadays than Master of Orion II, if you want to experience how it was back in the 90s, it's worth a try.

Is the game worth $7.89 AUD?: This price gets you both the original Master of Orion and Master of Orion II on GOG which I believe is a steal (especially since I have more of a soft spot for the original than the sequel). The game is also $5.99 USD on Steam but even at that price, I think it's a fair one considering there's a lot of replay value with a title like this, provided you're not detracted by its dated look and feel.

If you like this game, you might like…

[ LINK: Master of Orion II on GOG ]
[ LINK: Master of Orion II on Steam ]