Sword of the Stars is a space strategy 4X game developed by Kerberous Studios, comprised of members of Barking Dog Studios. Barking Dog Studios were the developers of Homeworld: Cataclysm, an expansion to the famed space combat RTS. You should have an idea of what to expect in SotS’s battles as a result. Unfortunately, the campaign seems to be an excuse for battle context. Still, this is the closest we have to Total War in space (it’s not Armada 2526 but still a good game).
There is a limited story that I picked up from the intro. We, Humans (you are a human…right?) finally created a ship capable of FTL travel and set off into the stars. Assuming that there was no other intelligent life in the universe we set off without weapons, and were attacked by the Hivers. The Hivers followed us back to Earth and nearly killed us all, but we managed to fight back and push them away. Now armed, we set off to fight against the other races; the Liir, the Tarkas, the Zuul, the Morrigi, and of course the Hivers.
Sword of the Stars Complete Collection has a total of six races in all, all listed in the last paragraph. SotS does a brilliant job of making each race feel unique, and you can tell that a lot of work was put into them. For example each race has its own version of FTL travel. Humans travel along node lines like in Master of Orion 3. Node travel is extremely fast, the downside being nodes can be few and far in between. Many planets don’t even have a node connections, forcing you into STL travel.
Tarkas can travel anywhere, regardless of nodes, at a constant rate. The downside being that once they’re in motion, their orders can’t be changed. This is pretty much the typical 4X FTL (MoO1&2, Armada 2526). You can eventually research Hyperspace Communication, allowing you to change orders mid-flight (you can also do that in Armada 2526 with a later tech).
The Liir’s FTL is similar to the Tarkas’, but it starts out ridiculously fast. As they approach their destination; however, it slows down tremendously. This makes it impossible for the Liir to sneak up on anyone, but at least they can travel through deep space quickly.
Hivers have the most difficult and interesting form of travel. In order to travel quickly, the Hivers must build gateways using special gateships, at the point of departure to their destination. You have to travel STL until you actually establish these gates, and it’s easy for your enemies to destroy them if they’re sent in unguarded.
Zuul are similar to Humans in that they also use node-lines. The difference is that the Zuul must create their node-lines with special mining ships. After boring a “space tunnel” they can travel FTL between planets. This eliminates the Humans’ disadvantage of limited node-lines, the downside being these “tunnels” must be maintained, and deteriorate over time.
Finally the Morrigi use traditional FTL travel similar to the Tarkas or Liir; however, the Morrigi speed is dependant on the size of the fleet. The more ships, the faster they travel.
It’s obvious that a lot of work went into making each race unique in its artwork, design, voice-work, and general gameplay. Compared to other 4X games, SotS goes above and beyond the required effort in creating unique races, and it pays off with a more interesting experience.
After starting the game and choosing your options the first annoyance manifests; the 3D Map. While a 3D starmap is more realistic, Kerberos would’ve done well to have put some thought into why it hasn’t been done en masse. There’s no scrolling, rather the game uses a focal point that you set. Double-clicking on any planet sets it as the focal point and makes it easy to then rotate and cycle the view.
While this makes it easy to keep your bearings in the vertical maps, it creates a major problem. When you have to traverse massive maps you have to double-click, double-click, double-click, you get the picture…just to get across the map. This alone is enough to make me wonder why they didn’t just stick to a top down 2D view with scrolling. If they had to have 3D they could have at least added scrolling for an alternative. Eventually you will get used to it, but it has the tendency to annoy you every so often, which is bad.
Fortunately, you see the game’s potential fairly quickly, which helps you put up with the camera. Research in this game is very cool. In order to cut down on surefire strategies, and to add to the mystery Sword of the Stars uses a randomized tech tree. While all the techs are the same, the computer randomizes which ones you get and which ones you do without. There’s a slight “problem” with this though. It’s easy for the randomizer to take away something essential like shields, which can seriously cripple your military. To me though, this figures greatly into the overall strategy. If you have no shields then it’s much more important to research point defenses and armor more quickly.
Another cool feature is immediate funding and “accidents”. You have the option to directly pour money into a research project. This greatly enhances its progress, but the more money you pour into it directly rather than through government finding, the higher chance you have of a research accident. While accidents on a weapon system could result in the entire research team killing itself, wait until you have an accident while developing Artificial Intelligence…just nasty!
Unfortunately 3D carries over into this interface as well. You have to rotate the view in order to see all of the techs, and zooming in allows you to actually read a particular technology’s description. While it definitely wins points for aesthetics, it suffers from the starmap’s problems. It gets annoying to rotate, rotate, rotate, and zoom, zoom, zoom, just to find the tech you want.
Now we talk about the most disappointing aspect of Sword of the Stars for me: Empire Management. Sword of the Stars borrows heavily from the orignal Master of Orion for its colony management system, most notably the sliders. SotS uses sliders for practically everything, which is both good and bad. In economics you’ll manage the Savings/Research slider, the Overharvesting slider, the Construction/Trade slider, and the Infrastructure/Terraforming/Shipbuilding slider.
The advantage of the slider system is that firstly, it forces you to make decisions. You can’t have it all so you have to choose what is more important to you and balance it. Secondly, it keeps colony management simple, which keeps the game flowing a helps out on larger maps. The problem with sliders is that for people like me (who want more control over their colonies), the system is too simple.
Overall though, colony management is quite solid. You’ll chose planets based on three things primarily; Size, Hazard Rating, and Resources. Size dictates how many people you can have on a planet, Hazard rating is how comfortable it will be on that planet, and Resources dictate how fast production goes. On planets the Overharvesting slider literally destroys your planets resources while greatly enhancing production. Terraforming lowers the Hazard Rating, while infrastructure determines how many people you can cram on a planet (High infrastructure is like skyscrapers). Like I said, not a bad system, just a tad too simple.
There’s one more thing I’d like to discuss before talking about the battles and ship design. The game is easy. Really easy. On the normal setting I’ve yet to be challenged in the game. Planetary morale is a snatch, with many of the “moral-boosting” technologies being superfluous. It’s seems nigh impossible to go bankrupt, with surpluses of money being common. You would have to try hard to lose this game. The only challenge comes from the random events. If you’re a 4X veteran crank those up and start on Hard.
Ship Design in Sword of the Stars is handled very simply and efficiently. Each ship is divided into three parts. Command Section, Mission Section, and Engine Sections. There are also three classes; Destroyers, Cruisers, and Dreadnoughts. After choosing the ship’s size and sections you add weapons. Each weapon slot has a firing-arc that it covers, and SotS’s combat engine makes it very important to plan your design (generally you want to put your best guns front and broadside).
Let’s talk about the ship sections. The Command section adds a secondary ability to your mission section, and generally carries the second chunk of weapons. For example if you choose the Deep Scan Command section you’ll be able to reveal cloaked vessels and see further, a good combination with the Extended Range Mission Section, which allows you to travel further.
The Mission section determines the overall purpose of the ship. A Tanker mission section means the vessel will be used for refueling, meanwhile an Armor section carries the most weapon slots. There are numerous sections that can be researched and added and it’s a good idea to use many of them in any given fleet.
Engine Section is pretty self-explanatory and dictates the ship’s range and speed, though it’s important to also balance the cost and other factors (such as turning speed) into your ship’s creation.
Designing ships is that simple. You can also add various components to sections such as armor, or engine boosters. While some GalCiv 2 fans may be disappointed by the lack of actual ship-modeling, there’s no denying that SotS’s system is easier and much closer to the Master of Orion games (besides, I never could design a good looking ship in GalCiv 2).
But you’re only designing ships for combat in SotS anyway. Before combat actually begins you have the option to try to peacefully resolve the encounter, auto resolve the encounter, or fight it out personally. There is a fourth option called fight manually if the opponent fights manually, which is intended for multiplayer. After the actual map loads, combat begins. Unlike Homeworld (where you could move ships vertically), combat in Sword of the Stars takes place on a 2D, horizontal plane. Ships will move vertically to avoid collisions if necessary, which looks cool and keeps things simple.
Battles take place in four minute rounds, where ships move shoot, and of course…blow up. If neither party wins at the end of a round, the battle is a draw and will continue next turn. You can decrease the round time to increase the importance of heavy weaponry (in order to kill targets faster), or increase time to make armor and shields more important (so they’ll last until the end of the round).
Battles also get rather large later on with the addition of CnC (Command and Control) ships. With the addition of the Command and Control ships, you can increase the ship cap for the battle allowing you to bring more guns to bear at once. CnC ships also allow you to set out fleet formations, which you’ll want to do in order to protect more vulnerable ships. Protecting your CnC ship is also important, as losing it mean you can’t bring as many ships in at once, which allows your forces to be picked apart piecemeal.
There are a few gripes I have with the system. For one it uses the same controls as the 3D starmap, which just like the starmap, can be a pain. As the battles primarily occur on a 2D plane, and the planetary orbits are much smaller the problem is not as magnified. The other minor quibble I have is that you can’t give orders in sensor mode. In combat you have the default view and sensor view. Sensor view is little more than a wireframe, but is a necessity for finding smaller ships. The fact that you can’t give orders in this mode makes it a pain to target those smaller ships after you do find them.
The last gripe I have is that the view distance in battles is pretty low. I do have all the graphics settings turned up, but regardless it can be impossible to see where enemy ships are until they’re nearly on top of you. It would be nice to have had better view distance, though at least you can follow the missile trails and guess where they are.
The game graphics are pretty nice. 4X games aren’t exactly known for graphical prowess, but SotS does have very nice visuals for a 4X game. Models are detailed and battles look great with all the effects flying around. Some texture work is lacking, but even Sins of a Solar Empire, had some blurry texture work. There is some great art direction and each race’s ships look magnificent. The actual loading screen artwork is pretty bad though (imho), ranging from cartoonish to ridiculous. Space Empires V had some magnificent artwork and I would’ve preferred SotS to have shot for an equally serious look.
Sound is pretty lackluster. Compared to other 4X games, races have a lot of charm, with plenty of voice work and audio cues. That being said they’re not particularly great, though I get the feeling that they were intentionally shooting for a cheesy “feel”. Still, after a while it get’s really annoying, despite the fact that the information they deliver is a must. The main menu theme was great and the good variety of instruments and themes gave off a Battlestar Galactica feel. Unfortunately, only one track exists for the actual star map and it’s not that powerful or atmospheric. It is easy; however, to add in your own music assuming it’s in the .ogg format.
Lastly I should mention that besides the sandbox game there is multiplayer and scenarios. The scenarios aren’t really that great, but I’ve never been a scenario guy finding them far too restrictive. They’re basically smaller sandbox games with special rules and objectives. There’s no real story besides the starting text and no cut scenes of note, so there’s definitely better options out there for Scenario fans. Multiplayer is smooth and easy due to Drop-In, Drop-Out capability, and definitely makes battles much more enjoyable. All the normal options are included, and you can put time limits on Strategic Map turns to keep the game moving.
Sword of the Stars is a solid 4X game that I would recommend to fans of simpler games, or perhaps newcomers. For people who want more control over their empire management, there are better options. It reminds me of the MoO1vs.2 debate. SotS is like MoO1, so if you preferred the second you may want to pass this one by.
Space Sector score:
- Unique races that actually play differently
- Great space battles
- Good for new players
- Colony management is too simple
- Annoying controls
- Poor sound
Zachary Cryer has been a SpaceSector contributor since May 2011. Besides having written this review he also did a Q&A of Sword of the Stars 2 with Chris Stewart (SotS2 Producer and Designer). Zachary has done many other reviews on his Gamespot page.Subscribe RSS
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