Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood Review

by on 10th Nov 2007

When Kerberos Productions was founded space gamers were given a new hope. Their first - and until now the only - project, Sword of the Stars, became one of the very rare space strategy games in the last few years so seeing it "bear a child" was exciting. An expansion Born of Blood (BoB) was received with a lot of expectations. BoB went gold on June 5th this year but we waited quite a while longer for retail version.

StrategyCore preview and review must have given our distinguished readers a feeling that the writer really liked Sword of the Stars and this was the second reason for excitement. Well, I could mention that I also continuously spied on the development (all legal and forum-wise) and had a pretty good idea about what to expect. Another huge catalyst for excitement...

Born of Blood brings a lot of candy. As a gamer would demand from an expansion, it brings a lot of upgrades to the already existing features. Some expansions stop here, but this is not the case with BoB. It introduced great, completely new features that enhance the gameplay to unexpected proportions.

The better

"The better" part of the game includes most new research. Research is handled the same as before, but there is plenty more of it. New technologies, new ship sections, new weaponry. Making new sounds and new explosions.

Among these technologies you might (and might not - remember, some technologies are randomly picked each game) find corrosive missiles, dumbfire missile racks, torpedo defences etc. Corrosive missiles have proven themselves devastating against stationary targets while torpedo defences have given the planets some real chance of survival against an enemy fleet. Naturally, the research and the construction of such defences will cost you dearly.

Before the expansion there was a problem with ship design - you weren’t able to tell how effective the weapon was going to be because there was no information on how far its turret can turn. Shipyard now shows the horizontal firing arcs of weapon turrets so you are able to design ships with optimal coverage of chosen weaponry. Which means that you can also optimise point-defences to cover whole ships or just the desired parts. More exact firing arc and range can be seen during the battle. During the battle one can also notice improved ship behaviour, new "pursue" ship stance and ships being able to make a roll, but all three will appear after applying the 1.4.1 patch. Just as with the original game Kerberos is introducing completely new things with patches as well. Pursue ships stance will enable your ships to more willingly turn toward and fly after their target when it leaves the battle plane. This may be a step toward a more 3D battlefield but the stance does hinder ship behaviour enough to only make it an escape in dire situation. Ship roll can be pretty useful when you are making a side flyby with your ships although it does have a negative side. The AI is unable to use it so you may feel like cheating when using it yourself…

Diplomacy has been upgraded considerably and you can send very detailed messages to the AI players as well. It is possible to coordinate attacks, ask and be asked for assistance and more and more. The only thing that bothered me here was that the AI proposed dates, meaning turns, were usually way too fast for me to show up on time.

Sword of the Stars review pointed out some huge grievances. Biggest of them was that saving games would not save the changes made in that turn. This has been corrected and you will not lose your precious ship designs and carefully though-out fleet moves any more. There are other things slightly improved but faced with the task of writing a section on much, much more exciting features I just can’t go on with this one for much longer.

The new, the shiny, the Zuul

Born of Blood, as its name implies, rides on a wave of violence. Brought by a new biotech foged warlike race - the Zuul.
As you will read in advance, they bring many new things to the game, but what I liked most about them is their artwork and feel. Mad Max 2 sprung into my mind in the instant I saw Zuul ships. The prevailing colour of the sand and the outlook as if they were put together from bits and pieces of scrap.

Add the post-apocalyptic story both share and there you have it. As the desert marauders from the movie the Zuul like nobody and are liked by no one. This becomes very clear in the newly added scenario "His Master’s Voice" where you play as newly added ancients. No way to have any diplomatic interaction with your neighbours but believe me, they seem to know very well you are the bad guy. Being pounded from all directions made me feel sorry for myself - and I was supposed to be the warmongering bloodthirsty bastard of the universe!

You might remember me praising the three totally different yet balanced ways of travel in Sword of the Stars? Well, now there are four.

Zuul travel - similarly to Humans - along the nodelines, but this is where the similarities end. While us Humans exploit the existing fractures in space and travel along the existing nodelines, the Zuul do not care about the natural placement of interstellar highways. They build a new one where they like it. This carving of new nodelines wounds space fabric in ways I do not wish to perceive but the end result is a new speedway through space.

Feel bad for poor old space? Do not worry - it heals. Which in gameplay terms means that these carved roads only last for a limited time, shortened by intensive usage. And you can imagine what happens to a fleet of ships that have a moment before existed in nodespace that ceases to exist. You know, if you exist in a thing that does not exist... You have (had) a problem. Fleets can avoid this nuisance by always taking a specialised "Bore" - drilling - ship with them, but that makes them quite a bit slower. Carving of space takes precision and thus time. The space-time close relationship is proven yet again.

Did I mention trade yet? Oh, it's NEW. There is a new research possibility that enables trade and yet another one for raiding. While I do not like the necessity for trade to be researched (it is a millennia old concept) and would prefer if the trade upgrades were researched it definitely makes a nice addition to the game. Trade is managed in separate trade sectors that you better keep out of reach of your enemies. Planets have a predetermined number of possible trade routes and a sum of all trade routes of all the planets in a sector will give you a maximum number of trade ships you need in its "trade centre". This is also where the raiders are sent to catch a trader now and then. When you wish to see trade routes and sectors you can simply switch the galaxy map to an all-new trade view, enabled after you have researched trade.
I usually try to play games without reading the manual and only use it when I am sure I'm missing something. After purchasing BoB, at least scan the manual. My SotS derived limitations (like never researching certain technologies) drove me crazy while I sought for trade.
But you see, for trade you need partners. You can't trade with the enemy - and please stop pointing out examples from the history. Those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Remember the mutual dislike the Zuul share with other species? That is all they are willing to share, really. So trade is something they do not want - probably because it is beneficiary to both sides. They thought of slavery instead. Dedicated ships for harvesting slaves make up for missing trade ships anytime. Slaves can also be taken to Zuul worlds and become a welcome addition to the factories.

Trade view in the galaxy map is not the only all-new view in the game. By changing the view to political it shifts to hugely nice looking 3D (yep, rotatable, zoomable and through and through enjoyable) map of galaxy where the 3D zones of space occupied by each player - zones of influence - are seen.

Sadly you are unable to direct your fleets while in this view. The addition is a blessing to those who like bigger maps, which you can easily get lost in. Now your space is nicely presented and the bigger it is the better. Or you just zoomed in too much.

The dark side

I admit, there were so many great things to write about that I almost forgot about the ones I didn’t like. Luckily there are far less of those and none of them has been brought by BoB. Inheritance isn’t always a good thing…

The all-too-clear division between the 3D galaxy map and the 2D battlefield plane remains. The better and more informative galaxy map becomes, the more the battlefield plane is flat. No, battles have not become worse in any way (on the contrary) but the abyss between the two is more evident. There are no 3D formations and ships still have 3D movement problems. The new 1.4.1 patch may has removed a large portion of them yet don’t expect a live cinematic sci-fi battles.

Battle AI remains somewhat unable to take deceleration into account. Do NOT just put your planet-defending ships on "close to attack" and go for a snack. Because they may overshoot the attackers and not come back until your planet is a radioactive desert.

I still miss the guard (to name just one) command. Battles would be far more believable if the dedicated guard ships zoomed around the ship they were guarding and did their role far more autonomously.

Space battlefields are more or less empty, too. When you look at them as eye candy they may hold a planet, a moon, asteroids... Nice but more or less irrelevant. Switch to tactical view and you will know what I am talking about. Asteroids are quickly cleared and an empty void remains. As Sword of the Stars review already established, battlefields lack real variety. No dust clouds or useful asteroid fields for a sneak attack. A gamer will excuse some altering of reality if he was given a tactically challenging battle because of it.

Game in general

Added strategic content in the form of trade and upgraded diplomacy made this game a much more real strategy than it used to be. Yes, for a strategic enthusiast there remains a lot to be desired. More types of resources, black market, planetary structures, ground battles or at least their simulation... Wishes and ideas are endless. But one has to take into consideration the very multiplayer oriented design of SotS and now BoB. There is a limit to what a normal turn length can stand. And BoB may well have reached the limit. Me being a very single-player oriented strategist resent this orientation but I am also able to understand people who cherish it.

The strategic - galaxy map - AI is very good. Expect a fierce resistance on easy settings as well, the rest is just masochistic. You need to be brutally effective to succeed. Normal and easy AI levels could be toned down a bit to give the newcomers any chance of winning and wanting to play on harder levels. The AI is also very able to find effective answers to your research and ship designs. This prevents you from specializing in one weapon type.
I once noticed that my bullets were bouncing off the enemy ships while they pounded me with powerful energy weaponry. I was forced to invest heavily into research of energy weaponry and I added an answer to them - point absorber. The wait lasted until I was able to use both at the same time so that the AI wouldn’t adapt to one or the other. I lost four colonies while I tried to fend off the attacks with obsolete ships but then my all-new fleet arrived and made a clean sweep deep into enemy territory. They simply had no answer ready. Oh, but it happened in reverse a couple of times as well.

The tactical AI is quite the opposite. Battles are quickly reduced to intensive micromanagement of both movement and targeting while watching a mixed hurdle of ships with no formation and tactics left. We remain unable to start a battle, sit back and enjoy the show.

Ratings and closing comments

Born of Blood definitely brought good things only. There is not one that I would rather not see included. Patch 1.4.1 squashed some BoB related bugs and as far as I know Kerberos you can count on them to find any that may have remained hidden, along with listening to the public and adding details we would like to see. The expansion is a leap forward both in quality and quantity. To see four very different ways of travel (admittedly there are five travel systems, but two of them play out very similarly), five races, each with some unique technologies, all so nicely balanced, is mind-boggling. The differences between races are even deeper - the Zuul don’t trade but gather slaves and specialise in back-engeneering and Hivers’ are unable to raid traders of races other than their own. With elements like dynamic and large tech tree, very informative galaxy map with several possible views, sectioned ship design, custom weaponry and now trade and piracy Born of Blood made an even deeper Kerberos’ foothold at the summit of space strategy games.

Graphics - 8
No drastic changes in this department. As expected from an expansion.

Sound - 8
Read the graphics description once again.

Gameplay - 8
Some grievances from SotS remain. The grade is burdened with the dark side of battles and a strong wish for more and more strategic elements. But large additions were made and grade reflects the positive change.

Multiplayer - 10
What can I say... The very good MP system from SotS with the addition of new strategy could have had reached the very limits of what players are willing to take in multiplayer. My hope for the future is that Kerberos proves me very wrong. Really, I won’t mind.

OVERALL - 9
Why 9? The reasons for such a high grade are already written in closing comments. An addition of new content can only make it higher than the one SotS was given - and it did. You may have noticed that there is no "The worse" section of the review. It is no mistake.
As a dedicated single-player I would perhaps state that there is again not enough content and go for an 8 but I do have to be objective. If only the battles were as good as the rest of the game and I would have no problems at all with this grade.

Special thanks to Azrael Strife for making this a better review.

Reviewer's Verdict: 9/10

 

Add Comment Comments

Space Voyager\
12 Nov 2007 - 10:49pm
Space Voyager
I can make them smaller if that's the case, no problem. Slaughter?

Edit: I see you already corrected that... Thanks.
Slaughter\
12 Nov 2007 - 10:20pm
Slaughter
Think the images was a little large, so it's as SV says.
Space Voyager\
12 Nov 2007 - 10:58am
Space Voyager
Thanks, and no need for that Mr...  :D

I see the close button. I guess the pics should be a little bit smaller, perhaps you need to scroll to the right.
baby arm\
12 Nov 2007 - 6:22am
baby arm
Excellent work, Mr Voyager. Keep the reviews coming.

By the way, when I click on the screens on the front page, there's no "close" button. Has something changed?

 

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Game Card

Sword of the Stars Box
Developer: Kerberos Productions
Publisher: Destineer
Released:29/08/2006

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Sword of the Stars Series

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