Sword of the Stars

February 4th, 2008 by Potato

Sword of the Stars has been way, way in the back of my mind for a long time now. I got the demo shortly after it was released, but just didn’t have time to play through it, and CivIV: Warlords came out, and all kinds of other stuff just conspired against me… not the least of which was that the first half hour or so I did spend playing the demo didn’t exactly knock my socks off.

So this weekend I found myself with some free time to play video games (a very rare and wonderful and much needed break), and decided to give SotS another go around. The demo has been updated, so I started off by getting a fresh version. For those who don’t know, SotS is a space strategy game along the lines of Master of Orion, Galactic Civilizations, or Space Empires. What sets it apart, and what really got me salivating, was that it doesn’t just pick one flavour of FTL space transportation. Each race has their own method of getting around the stars: the humans take advantage of natural proto-wormholes, leading to a network of space lanes which they can’t deviate from, kind of like the Space Empire series, Wing Commander games, etc.; the lizard-folk can just spin up their hyperdrive and shoot off in any old direction, like in MOO2 and several other titles; the bug creatures have to travel by sub-light drive and build a network of instant teleportation warp gates. Having all these different ways of getting around the galaxy seemed really interesting. On top of that, the galaxy map is truly 3D, the kind of galaxy map MOO3 was supposed to deliver (sigh, MOO3).

Despite my high hopes, I haven’t really been blown away by SotS so far. Unfortunately in the two demo games I’ve played so far, I’ve ended up as the humans both times playing… the humans. So the different galactic transportation strategies haven’t come into play yet. Other things have started to bother me. Tactical combat for one: it’s quite neat and intuitive when you’re near the beginning of the game with some small fleet skirmishes. But later on, I was annoyed that I could send a massive War Armada of Doom and still only got to deploy 3 ships at a time. I also found the complete lack of a mini map made it impossible to engage the enemy at a distance: they’d be lobbing missiles at me, I’d be hemmoraging ships, and I still couldn’t even see them. It was highly frustrating (and improved sensors tech didn’t seem to help, either, but I can’t say for sure if my upgraded sensor squadron ever made it into the battle). So then I started using the auto-resolve for tactical combat, which brought with it its own slew of frustrations. First off, it wouldn’t give a summary of the battle, so if my armada was wiped out completely, I would have no idea whether their defending fleet was left with just one limping destroyer, or was at full health laughing at me. And, in what might be a bug, if I used auto-resolve for one of my attacks, I was then forced to manually defend myself against their attacks.

Other little things started getting to me. The voice work for one really seemed amateurish and grating. Some things I might just need the manual for, but I had trouble controlling my empire. The game is very much built around getting to the basics of the 4X genre, with a tech tree almost solely devoted to improving your ships and production thereof, and economy and planets that are just shells of what they are in other games. Because of that, I didn’t seem to understand or control what my economy was doing. Some turns I seemed to be raking in cash like crazy, and other turns it seemed starting a new colony would bankrupt me and suspend all my research. In the demo I didn’t get to see much in the way of diplomacy, so it’s really just exploration, expansion, and combat.

So now I’m a little torn. On the one hand, I wasn’t thrilled with the demo, and the issues with tactical combat in particular would lead me to pass by the full version. On the other hand, I didn’t get to see how the different FTL technologies would interact, and I think I’m willing to ignore the obvious faults I’ve seen to get to the gimmick real appeal of SotS…

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