Archive for the 'sword of the stars' Category

Sword of the Stars

August 9, 2006

Sword of the Stars is a stripped down space 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) game where the objective, as ever, is to expand your empire from your home world and conquer a galaxy. 4X games are a tricky proposition to review and indeed play, since they require a serious investment of time just to tell if they’re fun all the way through, and to see if they’re fundamentally broken. However, if a 4X game clicks with you, you’ll find that nothing presses your obsessive-compulsive-gamer button like epic turn-based strategy. And then keeps pressing again and again for years.

SotS seems to be a genuine effort to raise the 4X bar in several areas. To make each game unique the tech tree is freshly generated for each game with several branches missing, so you can’t just race for photonic torpedoes every time. This alone ensures that you’ll play the (very long) demo 3 or so times, just to see what other tech is out there. Ship to ship combat and planetary bombardment take place in real time and can be user controlled or resolved automatically. Ships move in a 2D plane (viewed in 3D) and have a simple combat system (concentrate your fire well and you should come out ahead). You can only control a certain number of ships, depending on what technologies you’ve researched, in each battle at a time, so epic 400 ship battles play out much the same as 20-a-side skirmishes. This makes sense from a game balance point of view but is a little disappointing. The combat AI is sadly pretty poor (“Charge!”)- you’ll want to control the battles yourself to maximise the value of your ships, yet this part of the game gets old fairly fast.

Micromanagement of planetary resources has been cut down to a minimum, which is a great improvement in accessibility but might not please the serious 4X fan. However for some reason they’ve made the spaceships very touchy about fuel, a step backwards to match the step forwards. Remembering to build plenty of tankers is essential. Likewise, for an accessible game the tutorial and manual are useless, luckily the controls are simple enough to figure out with a bit of experimental clicking. SotS also suffers from the same problem that a lot of games like this do: the endgame takes forever. When you have a big lead in tech, fleets and economy you really can’t lose, but the AI insists on fighting to the death, leaving you to either declare yourself the winner and stop playing, or spend the time to crush an unworthy enemy into dust – neither option really satisfies. Also, there are no allied victories, so any alliance you make will inevitably end in backstabbing.

The SotS demo is remarkably comprehensive, with two of the four races represented. Each race has a different method of moving between the stars, the Tarkas with sci-fi conventional faster-than-light engines and the Humans with “node drives” which can travel much faster than the Tarkas, but only along certain routes between stars. This leads to some interesting play scenarios, as two worlds that are close in normal space can be distant on the node network, giving the Tarkas freedom to attack without retaliation, or the opposite can be true allowing the humans to zip across the galaxy and establish a beachhead far away. The demo only includes the smallest of the three classes of ships, but with a fairly large tech tree so many different variants are possible. The are no time or turn limits on the demo, and LAN and online multiplayer are supported, with the option to start with several planets and a large treasury to get things going, and turn time limits for frantic blitz games.

If you’ve never played a 4X game this is a great one to start with, it’s accessible to new players, has lots of options you’ll want to try out (the demo is practically a full game in itself), and will keep most genre fans amused through a few games.

Score: 2/3 – Play the demo

Tech details:

Size: 227MB

System Requirements: 1Ghz CPU, 512 MB RAM, 128MB DirectX8 video card, Windows 2000/XP