Sword of the Stars Review

by on 15th Feb 2007

Now now... I sure took my sweet time reviewing this game. Why ? Firstly, StrategyCore didn't receive the game in the first wave of review copies. Secondly, I was advised to wait for the patch 1.2.1. Thirdly, I was laz... let's just stop the fingerpointing, shall we?!

I hope you've had the time to check the StrategyCore preview and interview first. You should read both, you really should. Because we strongly believe they are worth the read.

General

Sword of the Stars is Kerberos Productions' first project. While it is a new team, the members do have a lot of experiences. As written on their homepage: "Before forming their own company, the team was responsible in the development of both Homeworld: Cataclysm for Sierra and Treasure Planet: Battle at Procyon for Disney Interactive. Team members have also worked on over a dozen hit games, including Homeworld, Ground Control, Team Fortress, and Counterstrike.".

After buying the game and installing it, patch it. I mean it, it's a must do. The patch won't only remove the bugs (few, yet the constant companions of all games), it will enhance the features and add new, NICE graphical effects as well. A much bigger space for setting up fleet formation is just one of the enhancements.

When you are starting a custom game you can choose the number of stars in the galaxy, the shape of the galaxy, available races, economic and research tempo (efficiency) of the game, number of players, duration of strategic and combat turns, difficulty etc. Scenarios have a story, some settings predetermined and the goals set.

Strategy

The strategy star map is, as written in the preview, phenomenal. While the idea is not completely new it has set new standards for space strategy games and I will hardly be satisfied by anything less in the future. The transition from the usually seen 2D star map with grid to the fully 3D, rotatable and zoomable can be compared to the transition that the Total War series has made from the Risk style provinces to the continuous 3D map in Rome TW. At the end of each turn you get comprehensive reports of what went on. The report enables you to view the place of each event, be it a battle or researched technology. There are no drawbacks to the strategy map...

...except the strategy itself. If you are an avid strategy player you may find yourself wanting more involvement in the managing of your stellar empire. In other words, it needs more strategic content. The only part of the existing strategy that I really don't like is mining. While great as an idea it could be better realized. As it is you need to check the turn reports very closely or you are very likely to miss the ships being loaded and they will stand there and wait loaded for you to remember about their existence. Which can take a number of turns if you like to end your strategy turns quickly.

The thing that can have a big influence on the strategy in games is travel. In SotS it has a huge influence. The presence of three completely different ways of travel in one game is a precedent. One that is superbly implemented. The difference between a "normal hyperspace" travel, teleportation and a net of star lanes is almost too much. I was a bit scared that one way of travel or the other would rule them all and the rest would have no appeal. I'm happy to admit my fears were unfounded.

Playing as Hiver is completely different from playing as Human and both are completely different from playing as Liir or Tarka. The strangest thing is that such a mix of otherwise incompatible elements works great. You can beat any of the races while playing as any other. If you still don't feel like mixing elementary building blocks of space games like way of travel definitely is, don't. You can always choose all players to be of the same race (Liir and Tarka do make a good cocktail) and get three different games. Really, I am unable to give this part of the game enough credit, so I'll stop trying.

Research in SotS has changed from the preview copy in that the interface is much easier to use. Not everybody may like the necessity to research basic technologies linked to command & control but each game can have its own standards for what is given and what must be researched.
I would like you to bring the SotS' random tech tree back to your memory. Some technologies are always available and others are randomly chosen for each player in a game differently. This prevents the same research path every time, also demanding new ship designs every time. Yet another superb addition to the game.

Diplomacy in SotS may not offer a huge number of options, but the few available options work well. Non-aggression pacts and alliances have to be earned and you also have a chance to help your friends with money or research.

Shipyard

Sail away! Well, solar sails aren't a technology that would win a war, so don't expect them in SotS. But there are numerous things to make your ships fancier, no worries.

Ships come in three sizes; destroyers, cruisers and dreadnoughts. Each ship is composed of an engine (rear) section, a mission (mid) section and a command (front) section that you can combine to create a huge number of different ship combinations - classes.

Finished research may add a new kind of section into the ship design interface. The new technology may require a mission section in a destroyer, but only take a command section in a cruiser or dreadnought - leaving the mission section open for other technology.

The mission section can be said to be the most important in a ship, because it defines the ship's purpose. Among the available mission sections are colonizer, repair, pure combat, CnC and so on. The command section gives an added value to a ship by enhancing the armour and/or firepower of the ship or giving it further special abilities. You can always pick a cheap standard command section. The hammerhead section has more armour and weapons while the fire control section will help all the weapons to fire more accurately but is less armoured. Engine sections are what their name suggests. The better the engine section, the faster the ship and possibly some other extras that I won't spoil for you.

When you mix and match all three sections to form the ship you will also need to select the weapons. There are small, medium and large turrets on the sections and you can place the appropriate weapons on them. Some weapons demand a medium or a large turret and you can't place them on a small turret while vice versa is always possible with the exception of point defence. Choosing a smaller weapon in a larger turret will simply bring a larger number of smaller weapons to the turret where a single large one could have been. Some weapon placements are reserved for missiles and other heavy weapons.

The ship design can be rotated to see weapon placement better. You are still not able to zoom in, but with rotation you can see the weapon placements well enough. It remains hard to see the cone of coverage for individual weapon, especially for point-defense weaponry.

Up close and personal

With the multiplayer dedicated lack of strategy (check the multiplayer description for clarification), battles in SotS should be the strong point. In a way they are, but I am quite spoiled by past and present games.

The 2D control plane in the otherwise 3D space seems to be disharmonious with the beautifully designed star map. Yes, it is easier to control, but I don't believe "space gamers" are all about ease of use. Since the ships can move away from the 2D control plane sometimes you can also see one of them being pushed far from it by the kinetic weapons. This is nice, but its enemies are very reluctant to either follow it or turn towards it to allow the weapons to fire. This can be annoying.
The battlefield also lacks variety, meaning that it has little tactically important terrain. Yes, it's space and space is mostly void, but SotS is a game. Some altering of reality isn't always bad.
You can set fleet formations but in the battle they become obsolete very quickly.
My opinion is that the ships lack differentiation and those that do have it don't use it efficiently enough. Torpedo destroyers for instance could be a relatively cheap counter weapon against larger ships but they need to be micromanaged heavily to actually achieve it. On stand-off orders they don't run away fast enough and are quickly destroyed. Point-defence ships lack guard orders and have to be micromanaged as well if you wanted them to guard anybody else but themselves. I could also complain about the group orientation and group movement, but it doesn't really matter since, as I said, the group formation doesn't have a lasting value. Perhaps it matters most when you use ships with shields or deflectors in front to protect the ships after them as well.
The spoiled nature of my gaming self also cried for being able to set up waypoints for ships.

Quite a few flaws found. So what makes the battles worthwhile?

Seeing the ships I so carefully designed actually perform, shoot their guns, follow my orders, try to get away, hang crippled in space and inevitably explode is nice. The control freak in me demands the leadership of battles, just as the grand strategist wants as little necessary micromanagement as possible. Also most of the problems I listed bear little consequences because you can pause the battle and micromanage at much as you wish.

Multiplayer

If I were a huge multiplayer fan I would perhaps hold no grudges against the game. The lack of strategy content to make the turns short enough, the 2D control plane… a lot of simplifications can be attributed to the strong multiplayer orientation of SotS.
The way it handles MP is great. You can start a MP game or join one either from the beginning or jump in at any time if there is an open place. Player leaving the game will not disrupt it in the least. A computer will take over and the game will go on. The player can return if the position is still open.

When I joined games somewhere during the game I wished the fleet management screen would show weapon placement of the ships. The AI doesn't save it's designs and even if it would they are far too numerous to be evaluated one by one. You will want to create your own designs as soon as possible anyway so this does not present a huge problem.
Sadly the MP community of SotS isn't a huge one yet. I guess most of us are still learning all the secrets of the game to not look like greenhorns on the internet… But I'll be waiting. It's worth it.

Ratings and closing comments

The reviewing system sports an AMD 3000+, Radeon 9600 Pro 128MB RAM and 1GB RAM. After the initial surprise - that the game works at all - another came when I saw it works great.

I have listed quite some grievances. A lot of things are not perfect. The strategy part of SotS is just not enough for a true strategy player. It may have been simplified on purpose to allow the multiplayer, but if SotS "franchise" is to be called true strategy it will need a serious upgrade. I don't tend to tell the developers what should be in the game just because I've seen it in other games, but there simply isn't enough content.

My biggest resentment is saving games. I like to have things cleaned for the turn when I save my game. Create designs, set up building queues, give movement order, save and exit. So that when I load the game (perhaps several days later) I see what is happening and can end the turn to get a fresh report. This is not possible in SotS. The save will not remember what happened in that last turn. The best (only) time to save your game is when the turn started. The turn report will make the comeback a bit easier but the designs will have to be thought up anew.

Graphics - 8
While the art style is not my favourite, it does its purpose perfectly. It makes the ships of each race very different. I was surprised by how well the game runs even with larger number of ships on the screen. And the ships do have some polys.

Sound - 8
I really like the music. It's unobtrusive yet nicely fills the background. The effects are what you would expect of them. I've heard (read) complaints over the racial speech, but in my opinion it really adds to the atmosphere.

Gameplay - 7
This was a hard one to grade. On one hand there is a lack of strategy, 2D battleplane and so forth, on the other hand there are three ways of travel, beautiful star map, a random research tree and three-sectioned ships. No grade can be completely fair. It depends on your preferences.

Multiplayer - 9
Multiplayer must have been kept in the centre of SotS development at all times, I'm sure. Jumping in and out is of the strategy game and not ruining it is something I haven't seen before.

OVERALL - 8
Why 8? It can't be much less because at the moment Sword of the Stars is (careful, this is my opinion) the best space game with a mix of both strategy and battles. It can't be much more because I have these grand ideas of space strategy and battles…

A reminder; the ratings are biased. I love space games. Also I'm only human, so don't expect a formula with which I calculated the ratings. There is none and they are not calculated.

Recommendations

My recommendation is a small number of stars, meaning up to 30. This makes the game bearably long and it gives a player a chance to NOT research everything in the current research tree. It's simply less fun without research.
If you are not playing as Humans choose an easily recognizable shape of the galaxy. We use node lines for FTL travelling and these are presented as a nice web between the stars. This helps to maintain orientation at all times. Other races don't have the luxury.

Second opinion

Mike9o has also taken a look at SotS and has contributed his own thoughts. He and Slaughter helped make the review less confusing as well. So, Mike9o's thoughts.

On universe map:
"For large universes, I found the map to be confusing, especially if you rotate it the wrong way. If coloured zones-of-control could be added, it would be much clearer where your space was, where the other empires ruled, and where unclaimed space existed."

On battles:
"For a game that prides itself as being "Total War" in space, the haphazard unit control leaves much to be desired. I don't know how many times my ships have gotten in each others way and wasted time trying to dodge their comrades in arms. Or bombarded planets by floating with their engine sections nearest the planet rather than bring their main guns to bear."

Reviewer's Verdict: 8/10

 

Add Comment Comments

Space Voyager\
27 Feb 2007 - 10:37pm
Space Voyager
I agree... Strategic content is lacking. I hope Kerberos will do something about the battles though. So much micro as is needed now is just boring after a while.
Azrael Strife\
27 Feb 2007 - 5:28pm
Azrael Strife
That add-on will certainly make the game more appealing, though it will still miss (from what I read) what I think the game missed the most:

Colony management.
Space Voyager\
27 Feb 2007 - 12:01pm
Space Voyager
Thank you both!  :(

Just to persuade you people even more...

http://www.worthplay...i...ead&order=0
Azrael Strife\
24 Feb 2007 - 11:46pm
Azrael Strife
Playing the demo left me wondering where they left the other half of the game, so sadly, I'm not planning on getting it.

I liked the review though :(
baby arm\
23 Feb 2007 - 6:12pm
baby arm
I nearly buy it every time I go to Best Buy (it's only $20 there), but never actually do. Probably because the preview build didn't really excite me except for that wondeful starmap.

And nice work on the review, Mr. Voyager Posted Image
Space Voyager\
22 Feb 2007 - 7:27am
Space Voyager
Soooooo, anyone bought this game? Perhaps the review made you buy it?  :(

 

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Game Card

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

Screenshots

Databank

Sword of the Stars Series

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