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Sword of the Stars 2: Lords of Winter – First Impressions

By on November 15th, 2011 6:11 pm

Ok folks it’s worse than I thought, Sword of the Stars 2: Lords of Winter is currently unplayable.

I’ve witnessed some bad releases in my time. This one has been no doubt one of the most disappointing. It’s sad how this is becoming a pattern these days and how the players are being turned into beta testers more and more. Add on top of that the fact that people had extremely high expectations for SotS2 (since the original SotS is a game loved by so many) and you get one of the most dramatic releases of the last years.

It’s fairly known by now that Paradox Interactive and Kerberos Productions have announced that there were (major) problems with the game’s release, so, I am sure many of you are not being caught by surprise. On the release’s very next day the publisher’s CEO Fredrik Wester made a statement on Paradox’s forum apologizing for the current state of the game. One day after that, it was Martin Cirulis time to apologize on the developers forum. In that post Kerberos’ CEO asked for patience and promised that things will be fixed as soon as possible.

Having heard so many horrible things about the release I decided to get my hands into SotS2 as fast as I could. So, in the meantime of my work on the review here are my first impressions.

So, how bad is it?

It’s bad, really bad. Consider that I based these impressions on the latest available patch at the time of this writing (which would be the one from last Friday’s 11th November patch (several patches have already been issued since release day).

3D Map is a bit cumbersome to navigate

Let me start by saying that the worst part of this all is stability. It’s really hard to play the current release because it’s almost impossible to play 20 or more straight turns (actually trying to do something) without getting into a random crash to desktop (sometimes on the fleet manager, others on the “diplomacy” menu and on other places). Other times the game will just freeze, when you try to access the game menu for example. I know this is not happening just here because I’ve been checking forums where people are discussing the game, and they are saying the same there too.

But it’s not just stability. The game feels incomplete, it’s unpolished in many aspects and you can tell that there are features that are dummy or still work in progress. I think a couple of pictures will show you better what I mean.

But it’s not only the incompleteness. Some things are just plain missing. Trade for example is not yet functional from what I could tell. You adjust your sliders to divert production to trade but nothing happens, you don’t get more income as you’re supposed to. (Edit 16/11: So it seems that trade should be already functional by now – from what I could learn in the Kerberos’ forum – however apparently the player is required to build the right kind of station, research the right tech, build freighters, and then trade routes will eventually be established, but I can’t confirm this yet. And surely this is not documented anywhere, and nothing in the game leads you to think you need all this) Another example is diplomacy. At first I could not see any diplomacy options, that’s ok, I had not encountered any opponent yet. Eventually I found an opponent and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Most Diplomacy options are just a placeholder, a dummy version barely 20% functional perhaps. See below.

Diplomacy options are currently a placeholder

It looks better than it actually is. The buttons “System Data”, “Slaves”, “World”, etc, are all placeholders, when you click nothing happens. At first you think you’re doing something wrong but after a while it becomes evident that you’re not. This is what you get if you request or demand something (I don’t know what the difference between the two options is since both lead to the same screen above). If you click treaty you can’t do anything (maybe you can’t yet? At this point you can’t help to start thinking otherwise).

Then there’s the random crashing and freezing (that I already talked about) and the annoying lag-time between menus that can go from a normal 1 to 2 sec time to more than 5, 10 or more seconds in some cases (again I know that this is not happening just here).

Then there’s more unpolished stuff and more annoyances proper of an Alpha/Beta release. Things like:

  • No in-game tutorial.
  • Options and cinematic in the game menu greyed out (unavailable).
  • Not being able to select multiple fleets to strike a system (having to go and assign one by one).
  • Not being able to distinguish explored from unexplored systems in a user-friendly way.
  • Finding a gaseous planet (and a barren planet) with an Earth-type model rendering when you zoom-in.
  • Many Terran planets have Very similar models (if not the same).
  • Having to switch continuously between tech trees to pick the one I want (very tedious process).
  • Info panel states 6 turns for a fleet to reach a destination but actually it takes 3 or less (at least with the Morrigi engines – the ones I played more). This is a very serious problem.
  • There is “salvage research” and “special project” sliders on the empire manager screen that I don’t have a clue what they are for (even after reading both the manual and the beginner’s guide entirely – the Manual is very nice BTW). And what about the locked “Immigration Rate” slider? More tool-tips would help.
  • There’s not an empire wide fleet overview screen, so we lose track of fleets very easily.
  • Sotspedia (or Encycolopedia – not a typo, it’s how it’s written in the game) doesn’t help much and it’s incomplete.
  • Station build order costs can’t be seen upfront, and while you can cancel the order after seeing how much it costs to upgrade the station it’s clear that that’s not the way it should be implemented.
  • We don’t get a sense of distance between stars in the 3D map. To know that you need to simulate sending a fleet there… (couldn’t find another way)
  • UI rendering is very poor in places (some ugliness when over-zooming). Clearly something that’s probably easy to fine-tune with proper testing.
  • Overall UI clunkiness (from not very responsive to some serious lag at times)
  • Can only rename planets right after colonization but can’t rename them ever since and systems can’t be renamed either (if they can please let me know)
  • No random galaxy generation. Currently only a collection of fixed sand-box maps are available (scenarios are greyed out at game setup). The Manual states that systems details, stars and planets change from game to game but systems disposition (galaxy appearance) is fixed. This must be changed.

There’s more but I’ll save that for the review.

Anything good?

Plenty of it, great stuff, but unfortunately you can’t experience it for long because of all the bad stuff already mentioned, especially the stability issues.

There’s the beautiful ship models (some are just ok but others are gorgeous). The color palette may not be the best in places but the ships detail is generally awesome. You can even see inside the bridge/cockpit of some starships, I’m not talking about a painted model feel I mean you can actually feel you’re peaking inside the ship’s bridge. Awesome stuff (see below).

Want to peak inside a Morrigi cruiser?

There’s plenty of depth on the new stations concept. You can build many kinds of stations and you can upgrade them with new modules. This needs to be done carefully since they are very expensive yet very powerful. I really like this new stations feature. There’s Naval, Civilian, Diplomatic, Science, Gate and Tribute stations. Each of them level up several times till they become Science Centers, Star Cities, Star Bases, among other important base establishments that seem to have a strong impact in the game.

Gorgeously detailed stations

The lore is very interesting. The races background-story is detailed, rich and immersive. The races description is probably the best part of the manual by the way, and surely one of the best parts of the game also.

Other good and great aspects:

  • Overall graphical rendering detail is very beautiful (planets, ships, stations).
  • The missions concept is refreshing (survey missions, colonization missions, strike, invade, etc).
  • Leaders: I could only see Admirals for now. For every fleet you need one of those. Each leader provides its own set of positive and less positive traits. Good one.
  • Research randomization is kept from the original SotS and now there is the “Feasibility Study”, required before researching techs. Good addition in my opinion.
  • There are small nice touches here and there. The tech icon rotates faster with more research spending and when there are ships under construction the build icon flashes to indicate you’re building something.
  • Combat is overall nice although I experienced some clunkiness here and there. At some point I lost sight of my ships and it was hard to find them back … then the battle ended. Nevertheless space combat does feel epic, perhaps one of the best to date in 4X space games. We’ll see.
  • There are independent races in the game that will not expand as much as the other major races. Finding them is supposed to be rare and you need to survey systems intensely in order to spot them (at least it’s what the manual states). Sounds good.
  • There’s also a province concept where you can combine systems into provinces for economical bonuses and possibly other benefits I couldn’t grasp yet. Sounds great.
  • The Survey missions, although a bit rough on the edges still, deserves an applause. eXploration has always been a weak link in 4X games, SotS2 does a great step in the right direction.
  • Empire manager screen is rich in options and allows a good level of detail and control over the economical part of the game.

There’s more but that will also be in the review.

Bottom Line

In summary there’s plenty of good and even great stuff on SotS2 but there’s also plenty of horrible stuff as well. Some of the issues can (and will mostly probably) be resolved with patches to come (which the devs stated they are strongly committed on undertaking). When the stability issues are resolved, the trade made functional (Edit 16/11: or better explained) and the diplomacy complete I think the game will be fairly playable and probably already very enjoyable. At this moment however I think it’s not possible to enjoy playing, at least in my neck of the woods.

The release has been a disaster, that’s a fact, however both the devs and the publisher have made a sufficiently in-time mea-culpa, apologized and committed right away to support the game evolution through the coming months.  Moreover in order to help mitigate all this Paradox and Kerberos have offered a copy of the original Sword of the Stars Complete Collection to all the people who have bought SotS2 (or just the ones that have pre-ordered it, I’m not sure on this one).

For the ones thinking about buying the game at present state consider yourselves warned. For the brave and generous souls that are going to buy the game at this moment I think you have a good chance of not having your money badly spent since you’ll be supporting the devs through the patching process, now that all has been said. For the ones of you that have pre-ordered the game I guess there’s no big drama here either since you can choose to keep your faith in the game and on the devs or just decide to ask for a refund. I can’t see what’s the big fuss about this, at the very most people had their money tied-up alright but not lost.

All things considered I think SotS2 has all the ingredients to become a great game, perhaps even one of the best 4X space games of all time, but at the moment it needs many hours of polishing, tweaking and improvement still in order to aspire to reach that far.

I think I carried myself a bit with this first impressions article, it came out quite longer than I first anticipated, for an article of this nature, but I think it can be helpful for people to have an in-depth overview of the game’s current state. Thanks for reading and good luck to the devs on the major task ahead!

Check the review for more details.

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  1. Ermdog says:

    It’s too bad they have so many problems with the game, I was looking forward to playing this game. Once everything is fixed and running smooth then I’ll decide to purchase it.

    • Adam Solo says:

      From the good and great stuff I’ve seen in the game so far I’m convinced SotS2 will truly shine. Now the question is when? And let’s hope Kerberos’ and Paradox keep to their promise to finish the game. It would be a catastrophe if that would not be the case :(

  2. Nick says:

    Very sad, all the more reason to give PC games at least 6 more months in the oven after ship, heck, then pick it up off Steam during one of their half yearly sales for half off.

    That they were able to respond to the state of the game so quickly after launch means they knew the game was not ready. If they just came clean and said “we had to release to make money before we went out of business” I think people would be more sympathetic (They wouldn’t be the first 4x in recent memory to do this )

    • Adam Solo says:

      Yes, if they would be candid stating that the game was still unfinished and asked for the pre-orders to fund the game perhaps some folks would still join the boat nevertheless. And overall there would be much less hatred and sense of betrayal. Deciding to do it like this, a bit on hiding, they can’t get rid of the pre-order-bait label. Well, people can still ask for a refund but many will probably not do that.

      I guess in the end they decided what was best. I do sympathize with the devs (I’ve also been in that deadline death-or-life situation before). The situation seems to have been pretty serious no doubt. There was probably no-win scenario for this one. It had to be this way. Now, let’s hope they fix it soon so that we can play it :)

  3. Arrthog says:

    From what I’ve read, Paradox fully trust Kerberos’ ability to make the game stable and fully playable.
    So it seems like it could be a good game given another couple of months.

  4. Will says:

    i got it just to try and my version wont even launch, tried contacting company but been given cold shoulder. not impressed. i mean i know its buggy but when it wont even run than theres something wrong that they havent picked up on, shame too ’cause i love this series

    • Adam Solo says:

      What error do you get? Do you think it may be a steam problem? I couldn’t run the game because I had a problem with my Microsoft Redist Package.

      • Evil Azrael says:

        Me too.

        Every time i start the game it wants to update the VC Runtime. Und sometimes it wants to install some .Net stuff.
        I wonder why the Game is not creating Crash dumps when CTDs happen. I have a bunch of them from DX:HR until the fixed the game. I think good crash dumps could help them.

        Oh, and i get CTDs even before starting a game. Just click around in the ‘pedia.

        And i think it’s not yet the time for DX 10 only releases. They should target XP too to get a bigger user base. Or they should have targeted XP so they get a bigger preorder pool ;)

  5. Ermdog says:

    Yes I have heard that rumor too, that they were under budget and had to release the game to get money. Who knows what the real problem was, but lets hope it gets fixed and is a great game

  6. SolCommand says:

    Wow, now those seem to be a lot of errors. Too bad they released it like that. Even if they fix everything in the next months the damage is already done to the franchise.

  7. Fernando Rey says:

    You took your time to review the state of the game at launch, it’s been 3 weeks and several patches later I still regret preordering this “game”. I needed to get it mainly to see what was new and experience any good ideas I could pick for my project, but as a game right now it’s simply a waste of money. Maybe with luck it will be playable by christmas, so I recommend anyone intending to buy it; to wait until then and get it in the Steam sale for example.

    • Adam Solo says:

      What are you working on Fernando, can you advance anything?

      • Fernando Rey says:

        Sadly I can’t advance or show anything yet, but I am spending as much of my free time as possible coding something that resembles an 4x game. That much I can say ;) Hopefully I will have an alpha build for my friends to test and thus get some feed back, in a couple of weeks; but won’t have anything remotely good to show publicly for at least half a year.

        Nevertheless I’ve been working on the design for years, testing prototype after prototype and I think this time I might actually go all the way. 4x games are so massive in scope, I mean if you actually include all the features a descent 4x game should have, that it feels totally daunting for a one-guy-totally-indy “studios” to get it done. In any case I feel committed to the project, so I am in for the long haul so to speak.

    • ZigZag says:

      I did the same thing. I think that there are several good interface features that are worth appropriating, most significantly, the way in which the game treats multi-planet systems. I also think that the mission-oriented approach is interesting as a way to cut down on late-game stack-moving tedium.

      • Fernando Rey says:

        I am so glad they included this things. It always killed the immersion for me moving fleets between planets just hanging there, without a a star. I mean in Star Wars:Rebellion you at least had the “sectors”, which were kind of solar systems; but in SOTS1 the planets were too lonely for my taste ;) The mission based orders are much better indeed, specially like you say in the late game. Sadly stacks are a problem in almost all 4x, Civ5 resolved that one with the “one unit per tile rule”; but that’s a crappy solution if you ask me. I believe an combat efficiency penalty based solution, like in Hearts of Iron for naval fleets, is the best option. I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this though.

  8. Jani Sillanpää says:

    I actually like 3D maps in sots2 (especially clusters) but if you dont then there is a 2D galaxy option available. It was available in the first sots too.

    >3D Map is a bit cumbersome to navigate

    Othervice I agree. The game has problems:
    -lacking features
    -random crashes per 20 turns (memory leak?)
    -UI lag

    Aside that I love the game even as it is and think it can more than easily be the greatest 4x game every made.

    • Adam Solo says:

      You can switch to a 2D galaxy map? I’ll check that, thanks!

      • Jani Sillanpää says:

        You can choose the galaxy map on the start of the game and atleast one option is 2D flat galaxy. Not sure if its in the release version of sots2 or if it came with one of the patches. The patch released 11.11.11 should contain it.

        • Adam Solo says:

          Well, there’s one map where all stars are more or less in the same plane, but it’s still 3D. I’ve got the latest patch (17/11 – from today actually)

  9. Jani Sillanpää says:

    They released the retail version today. I hate friday retail releases. Never get the game until next week.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Boy, a retail version of the game in this state…. :|
      Well, the new guys will need to hop-in the train of “nextpatchwait”. A term coined by someone I saw yesterday in a forum, can’t remember where sorry.

      • Evil Azrael says:

        Yeah, got a mail from that the game will be shipped on the next business day. I fear the first Amazon user reviews.

      • Adam Solo says:

        Current SotS2 metacritic reviews. Understandable.

        The job of the reviewer is very hard these days. I have my doubts personally. Should a game ALWAYS be reviewed at release day religiously no matter what? I think so. The problem is that if we start doing that, we (reviewers) will need to update our reviews what? 75% of the times. Because many games come out unfinished these days. It’s like a plague. Maybe a new term should be used like Pre-Review or something. That or start to make only First Impression articles, with much less detail and with no score given.

        Devs, publishers and gamers have to understand one thing (at least this is my opinion). It’s OK to release unfinished games in the sense that they can be upgraded with new features or be better balanced after major user feedback with occasional bugs fixed due to the vast number of hardware found around the world. Stardock did that with Galactic Civilization I and II. There were release problems, sure, but nothing like this.

        Patches are fine, 2, 3, whatever, but only to fix occasional bugs, provide community requested enhancements and such. However these days games are coming more and more unfinished, unpolished, broken. What’s happening? Is it the technology, that is more complicated to master now?

        I miss the days of small teams in companies like Microprose doing kick-ass “simple” games.

        Edit\ I understand SW project’s complexity since I also worked in SW projects for years. Believe me, I KNOW what is a god damn complex project. I’ve also experienced the horror of “need to cut corners” or “send it as it is, I don’t care” bullshit from top management. If the problem is not games nor devs than it is one of corporations and their management style. For me when shit like this happens I think the first persons that need to get fired are Top Management, not the lower ranks. In my company that never happened. I filed my resignation from that company because I couldn’t stand that kind of bullshit and decided to do business elsewhere.

      • Fernando Rey says:

        Game reviews should be available on release day because simply put, people should know exactly what they are buying; specially when they are paying more to get a “bad” product sooner. Generally speaking the more expensive the product, the more though goes in to the decision of actually acquiring it; however and regardless of price, an informed consumer is a happy consumer.

        Should review scores(which a review DOESN’T have to include) remain static and monolithic through the games’ life? No, they shouldn’t. Because games nowadays(although in PC this is as old as games themselves) change and evolve after release, there are DLC, patches, expansions, community events, etc to report and review. A good standard IMO would be one review at release plus one(if there is merit to it) after the first and sixth month since the games’ release. MMO games should apply this cycle for each expansion as well.

        Regarding the games becoming increasingly buggy at release, something that didn’t happen as often in the old days, I believe it’s due to a bit of everything. Technology is more complex nowadays and big AAA games require the coordination of hundreds of people, most of the time in different parts of the world. Also publishers have more control over the product and push the deadlines to match their plans, with little regard for the projects quality; as long as they meet their minimum expected ROI(Return of Investment). We should also remember that our favorite genre is one of the most complex out there to bring to life, there is simply much more going in there than a guy running around with a gun; regardless of the amazing graphics and animations that might be in the game.

      • Adam Solo says:

        @Fernando Rey
        I agree with basically everything you said.

  10. Cykur says:

    I’m just waiting for my refund at this point. I couldn’t play the game at first because of all the stability issues, so I shelved it for a week until they got a couple patches out. At that point I realized just how much the game was not finished. It is one of the most unfinished games I’ve ever seen that someone had the temerity to try and sell, which kind of shocked me coming from the companies in question. I’m used to bugs, but this game shipped just entering beta. There is also more complexity in the UI and fleet management than SOTS 1, which I think was unnecessary. At its core, this game has a cool combat engine, so someday it will probably be a cool game, but don’t buy it unless you know what you are getting into….

    • Adam Solo says:

      In Beta state games tend to be complete. Buggy? Yes. Unbalanced? Most probably. Unpolished? Yes, still a bit rough on the edges. But right now SotS2 is more at Alpha for me. And to my standards when a game is in Alpha normally it is nearly feature complete with many bugs still of course and very unpolished. SotS2 is buggy, and “crashy”, and incomplete and very unpolished at the moment.

      I don’t have pleasure writing these awful comments about SotS2 or any other space strategy game. It may look that way at times, but it is surely NOT the case. It is more a tone of frustration than anything else because I really wanted this game to be good, as anybody else of course.

      • Cykur says:

        Yeah, I didn’t know whether to call it a late alpha or an early beta, but I was trying to be reasonably fair. If I had to guess, I’d say they have 2-3 months work to do on it. What is really shocking is how prominently the game was marketed for the first two weeks with the various vendors. I recently noticed it is no longer prominently displayed with Impulse / Steam, probably because they have a lot of complaints now.

  11. Kyle "Lordxorn" Rees says:

    So has any of the new patches fixed this thing yet, I have some money burning a hole in my pocket, and I would like to spend it on another game. If SOTS2 is fixed to the point where it is not longer crashing then maybe I might bite.

    • Adam Solo says:

      I’m gonna try it again in the next days to finish my review. I’ll let you know soon.

    • jackswift says:

      Word on the forums is that the majority of the stability issues have been fixed, though some remain. The game is much closer to feature complete and being playable… apparently next Monday or Tuesday (Dec. 19,20) will be “the big patch” that should get the game to the point it should’ve been on release.

      • Adam Solo says:

        If that’s confirmed and that big patch comes out in the way you say, then it will be great news. Next week we’ll see about it. Regarding SotS2 for me now is see to believe.

        Thanks for the heads up jackswift!

  12. Claude says:

    Great review, but maybe an update soon, why not?

    I took the decision TO SUPPORT the developers, so I bought it.
    There are many good games like “Armada 2526”, “Return of the Shakturi”…but, “Sword of the Stars” is special. You love or hate it, but personally, the galaxy generator is sublime. And the research tree, unique.

    I honestly hope they will succeed.
    The intro is very impressive with my strongest computer. Even if I use my Toshiba Tecra (laptop) with an i5 processor and a NVIDIA 2100m Graphic Card, I’m not sure to be able to run the game with all the settings to HIGH.

    And I think that you have the choice: 32 or 64 bits version.
    Or someone will explain more because I’m not an expert.


    • Adam Solo says:

      I plan to review SotS2 soon.
      Yes, the game is quite demanding in terms of graphics card, at least the version that I’ve played a couple of months ago.

  13. Claude says:

    Yes, like you said, “quite demanding in terms of graphics card”.
    That’s why I use my desktop with an ATI Radeon HD 5770, an “average” powerful card, more than sufficient for most games.

    Good luck with your next review.
    You’ll help me and others Im sure.

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Post category: Game First Impressions, Game Previews