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Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter Review

By on January 30th, 2012 2:29 pm

Sword of the Stars II was one of 2011’s most anticipated games for the PC, and its release was also one of the biggest disappointments. The original Sword of the Stars game (plus its three expansions) has been a very successful title among strategy gamers, and probably to non-strategy gamers also due to the game’s simple mechanics and streamlined gameplay, which made a 4X space game accessible to a larger audience. All the anticipation and expectation behind SotS’s sequel, combined with a very unstable and unfinished game culminated in probably one of the most dramatic and disappointing game releases of the past few years.

Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter was released in October, 28 2011. After the first few minutes playing the game players started reporting, incredulous with what they were experiencing (or not experiencing), that the game was very unstable and incomplete. The (un)official word by release day was that (by mistake) the game had been released in beta state. That “bogus version” would eventually be replaced by the final product. However that build wasn’t final either (very far from it actually).

Two weeks after release I wrote a (somewhat lengthy) SotS2′ first impressions. I saw no point in publishing a review at that time because it was more than clear to everybody by then that the game was released unfinished. In public announcements, both the publisher and the developer have apologized for the game’s state at release time and committed to complete it.

Three months after release (more than the producers had announced they needed to put the game in a playable state), I’m writing Sword of the Stars II’s review. I read all the game’s latest documentation available (manual and beginners’ guide) and I played 3 games, for around 250 turns total. One game I played with the Sol Force faction, another with the Morrigi Confederation and finally one with the Liir-Zuul Alliance (the one I liked playing the most, by the way).

Exploring the Sword of the Stars 2’s Universe

I admit that I was never a big fan of the original SotS’ star map and its 3D navigation. Although it looks nice on the surface I find it quite hard to find a view that I like, so, I’m re-adjusting it constantly. Anyway, eventually you will get used to the starmap’s navigation mechanics. You can zoom in and out and rotate in every direction, but I miss the ability to intuitively grasp distances between star systems. And the UI doesn’t help you with this either since it doesn’t give you quick distance information, like parsecs, turns, whatever unit really, so that you know how far a star actually is.

On the other hand, SotS2 offers a very interesting way to move your ships around the stars. To send your ships to other star systems you must first create a fleet. To do that you must pick an admiral from the admiral pool (each one with its positive and negative traits). Then you need to select one or more ships to include in your fleet. Your fleet must always include at least one command ship, a special type of ship that is required to coordinate the other ships. After that you can start conducting missions.

Actually, almost everything you do in SotS2 is achieved through the missions concept. You assign a mission, the designated fleet moves to some place, does what it needs to do and then returns to base. Take into account that the mission ETA (the time it takes for the fleet to do what you order it to do) includes the time for the fleet to arrive at its destination, perform the required mission (survey, colonization, construction, patrol, strike, invade, etc) and then head back to base.

To explore star systems you assign a survey mission. Any type of fleet, with any type of ship is allowed to do this type of mission. To build structures you assign a construction mission. In this case you need to have at least one constructor-type ship to be able to conduct such a mission. Then you can issue colonization orders. For that you need to have at least one colonization transport in your fleet. These missions (survey, construction, colonization) are your basic non-military type of missions but then you have a series of military-act missions you can do, which include patrolling, striking or invading star systems. You can also perform an interdiction mission which will not directly attack a system but will attack anyone coming in or out of it.

I love SotS2’s mission mechanic. I like it because in my opinion it removes the barren feeling normally associated with the traditional way to create and move ships around in other games of this type. Moreover, and since you can’t have hosts of fleets, your ships and your decisions really do matter, and that, in my opinion, is a big plus for SotS2.

Expanding your empire across the galaxy

Another Sword of the Stars 2’s great feature is the stations concept. Stations are modular structures that you can evolve over time by purchasing additional modules that increase their efficiency. Some modules will lift empire limits, others will unlock new possibilities. Stations evolve through four stages, with the culminating stage being a very special, expensive and unique structure for each type. There are four basic types of stations: Civilian, Diplomatic, Naval and Science stations. Besides these four basic types of stations there are two additional specific ones, one for the Hivers faction (the Gate stations) and another for the Suul’ka Horde (Tribute stations). Then there is a lesser station type (to some degree) used for mining purposes.

You can use stations to expand your empire’s military and research levels but also to boost trade and diplomatic relations with other empires. Although it’s fun to build and develop your stations there’s still also some mystery about them since you don’t know, exactly, how much of an impact a particular station is having on your research, for instance. Research modules should increase the research bonus ok, but then you can’t see an accumulated bonus modifier. There’s some polishing work to do here, as I found the stations concept, more the information about them, a bit obscure.

Developing your empire… but… with so many doubts?…

The economical part of the game is probably the most confusing one of all the game’s weakest elements. I mean, what exactly is a planet’s “Economical rating” anyway (moreover it’s always the same value for all colonies)?! And the manual doesn’t help you either. What about the biosphere concept? How exactly does it work (again the manual fails you and there are no tool tips available to guide you). This is the sort of thing that makes you frustrated and wanting to stop playing the game because if we have so many doubts about the game how are we supposed to understand the full scope of our decisions?

For example, in the empire manager screen (above), where you make all your economical strategic decisions, there’s a slider called “Stimulus”. No tool tips are provided on how it works and again the manual (and the in-game encyclopedia) fail to help you again. So, it was only after I consulted the game’s forums that I could understand what the intention behind the stimulus slider was (I went to the game forums constantly to try to understand stuff I could not find anywhere else btw).

So, it seems that there’s a private (or civil sector) of some sort in SotS2’s mechanics. The idea is that if you help, the best word is stimulate really (like government spending), areas like mining, colonization and trade then the civil sector will act autonomously from you and will create their own trade ships, trade routes and mining bases, and even help the empire on the colonization efforts free of charge (no maintenance costs associated) at the cost of lack of control over those enterprises that is.

This civil sector seems to be a great feature but as so little information about the stimulus slider is available on how (or when) this can be used to help your economy you can’t help not to feel quickly frustrated again. For instance, there are a series of techs that you need to discover first before the stimulus slider can actually work. But nothing is said anywhere about what needs to be done, and the sliders are just there open for you to play with them. However you don’t have a clue on what you’re doing (or obtaining). There’s no feedback from the game (no feedback at all) so you actually don’t know if your investment in stimulus is producing any effect. This is a very severe game shortcoming.

SotS2′ tech tree is probably one of its stronger points however. There are many tech trees (or branches) to invest in, with plenty of techs to research. In some cases, before researching a new tech you must first undertake a feasibility study. This tech pre-assessment will tell you how likely a tech is to breakthrough. This is very interesting because this uncertainty on how many turns a tech will actually take to research (if it will breakthrough at all) adds another layer of uncertainty on top of the random tech tree. In summary, there’s enough content and depth in the tech trees to keep you entertained by researching and experimenting new techs.

The worst, or better said, most incomplete aspect of SotS2 is the diplomacy system. And SotS2 would not be a 4X game without it would it? Well, in fact there’s barely any information on the manual or in-game about how diplomacy actually works, yet and in a way this is quite consistent with what the game currently offers in this respect (or at least is perceived to offer), which is, very little.

The diplomacy functional skeleton is already there, you can see what races you have already contact with. You can negotiate treaties and request things from them however there is so little feedback on your diplomatic actions, and the bugs are so many that it’s utmost evident that the diplomacy system still needs to be finished before we can even say anything further about it. In summary, the game’s diplomacy system is not yet finished and is barely functional at this stage.

Spaceship design and construction

And now we reach one of my favorite parts of the game (that actually feels very complete): the ship design and invoicing system. If you want to prototype your own cruiser, dreadnought or leviathan class ship (or any other ship for that matter) SotS2 offers you a straightforward and satisfying way to do that. Like in the original SotS, ships are modular. There are three modules that need to be customized separately. There is an engine section, a ship-type class section and another module for other vessel special characteristics.

At first not all that you’re required to do (or know) is evident, which is a SotS2 general problem. But after you experience around with the various options provided to you, you start to get the hang of it. There are many weapons, weapon types and mounts to choose from. You can even compare one weapon against another in a nice graph instead of having to memorize damage numbers, or having to cycle through the various weapon one by one. There are also extra modules, mostly that you unlock through research that you can include also. As already said ships are separated in three modules that increase the configurations variety, so, you can also play with that to further customize your ships. With respect to ship design SotS2 also includes a very nice ship testing feature. After choosing all your ships’ parameters you have the chance to see it in action before entering in real combat. The game puts you in a simulation controlled environment with some targets for you to test your armament.

The invoice system, i.e. the way you instruct your ships to be built, is also nicely done and gives you (in this case) all the information and features you need to build your ships. Before building ships of your newest designs you must invoice a single prototype. Only when your prototype gets built you can start producing that design in mass. The only negative aspect worth mentioning in the invoicing system is that I didn’t find a way to re-order invoices in the invoices queue after they are submitted. Although this may sound realistic I think the game should allow you to re-order your build queue anyway.

Space combat

Since SotS was always much more about space combat than strategy, we now reach one of the game’s critical areas: space combat. First of all SotS2’s space combat is very demanding in terms of performance, but if you actually have a good, or very recent 3D accelerator video card, you should be fine. But I leave the warning for people with moderate-to-good video cards from 3 years ago: you may struggle a bit to get a decent and smooth space combat rolling, if you do manage to tweak your card well enough in the end I mean.

Unlike the rest of the game that plays in turns combat unfolds in real-time, in a limited time span between 5 to 12 minute sessions(this limit is set by you at game setup). Overall graphics are very good. The planet models for instance are probably the best looking I’ve seen to date. The space stations and all spaceships are also very nice looking (some of them absolutely gorgeous), so, the graphical aspect of space combat is overall very good.

Now, in terms of gameplay, I found combat to be quite straightforward. You point, click, order attack with the left mouse button, select several ships and order movement with your right mouse button. Point, click, shoot, move, shoot again or standoff and retreat, all the basic combat options that this sort of game usually offers. I quite enjoyed the combat overall. The voices are nice, a bit repetitive but actually quite good, especially the Liir ones. I had only a few annoyances to report, but those are not strictly related with the combat itself but more with the preceding and the succeeding UI panel, that I found to be a bit rough and even wrong, as it contained some mistakes. For instance the battle report screen (at the end of battle) shows you a wrong number of destroyed ships.

Some further scattered thoughts

The game offers multiplayer options (LAN and Internet) but during the time I played for this review I only saw one open game there, which was protected, so I can’t tell you anything further than this regarding multiplayer.

The ETA system for turns is still unfinished and frankly quite disappointing. Sometimes fleets take less time to arrive at their destination. Sometimes a fleet uses less time to build a station, for example. Other times these issues are far more evident. Sometimes you get negative ETAs (yes, “-2” turns for example) or you get “5937593” turns, or overlapped text. I found this ETA instability very disturbing.

Sometimes you can’t colonize a world and you don’t know why. Other times you can’t relocate a fleet somewhere and you also don’t have enough information either in-game or in the manual to understand why. Could it be that you can’t have many fleets stationed in one system? But we don’t actually know that there is a maximum number, so there’s that lack of information and feedback problem again.

Sounds are basic, and music is minimal (although there is one for each faction), but they are enough to set the tone well. Voices are ok in general, mediocre at places (with annoying accents or simply unremarkable) but excellent in others (like when playing with the Liir for example).

Game screen switching, i.e. entering and leaving screens can lag severely. In large maps you can get up to 8-10 seconds to return back to the starmap (from the research screen for example). In smaller maps this is largely mitigated, and you end up getting “only” 1-3 seconds lag.

The fleet manager is cool, you can assign formations to your fleets (even in different layers: up, middle, down) although I’m not sure if this is actually working in combat as it should since in my battles my ships were all set in a straight line.

You can actually see stations under construction.

I didn’t like the fact that you can’t play with less than 3 systems at game start (for any map size).

The colonization system is interesting. After you colonize a new world you may decide to keep giving support to that recently established colony, especially if it was built in a less favorable environment. When you’re giving support to those colonies you accelerate their development, the downside however is that your colonization fleet is unavailable to establish new colonies elsewhere.

Very interesting shield technologies. The are several types of shields offered for research (against beam or projectile weapons for example) and you actually need to mount them in ships using special modules in order to use them.

The different factions, lore and background information is very good.

Bottom line

It’s clear to me that the game’s problem is not one of design but one of implementation. Both the art and the overall game’s design looks, and feels great. But you can’t help not to end up feeling frustrated sooner or later because of all the lack of information, crashes (for some people), bugs, lack of feedback or just incomplete or missing features.

After playing the latest version of Sword of the Stars 2 (the version the game was at, at the time that this review got published) I have strengthen my believe that this game has really great potential, and I mean BIG. Many issues have been addressed since release and the most important one being stability. The game is actually very stable now. At least for me it is. At release, and a couple of weeks after, I couldn’t even play for more than 4 straight turns (actually trying to do something) without crashing the game, and now, 3 months after that, I didn’t have a single crash after playing for this review.

At the time I wrote my Sword of the Stars 2′ first impressions I don’t think the game was playable at all, judging from my experience “playing” and by what everyone else in the game forums was saying. Now, judging from the type of activity I witnessed in the game forums (a lot more: “What’s that?, “How do I do this?” and less “I get a CTD here.”) the game is finally quite playable now. It’s not yet finished and lacks a lot of polishing work though. There are still bugs also to iron out. Examples of these are: wrong or negative ETAs, overlapped text at places, sliders that should not be active at game start, extreme lack of information and unpolished and buggy UI.

Now, about the golden questions you may be asking at this time: “Is the game already playable?”, “Is it ready?”, “Do you recommend the game?”. I will reply with this.

For the ones of you with a tight budgets that need to select carefully where to spend your money to maximize your game experience I can’t recommend this game for you at this moment. It’s too incomplete to be satisfying enough for you, and to be able to offer a solid game experience. At least for the $40-$50 price.

For you 4X veterans out there, that are still undecided whether to jump into SotS2 or not, I would say it’s already worth it for you to go ahead and buy SotS2. I think you can squeeze as much of the current game’s state to be worth the $40 or $50 bucks it costs. However don’t come back to me saying you had an unsatisfying experience because that’s probably what you’ll get. There’s the risk of not getting more than what you get now, yes, but there’s also a good chance you will.

If you’re new to this genre (space strategy) I don’t think it’s a good idea to enter in the SotS2 universe just now. There are other titles available that are definitely far better products, that will be more worthy of your money, and that will give you a better impression about the genre than Sword of the Stars 2: Lords of Winter will.

Guess I’ll need to re-review this one in a 3 to 6 months period, which is becoming a strange need these days.

Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter

Buy it at GamersGate. Also available on Steam and Impulse.

Space Sector score:
The Good:
– Graphics are great overall
– Very interesting, and refreshing way to move spaceships around (missions concept)
– Cool stations concept lets you build and upgrade massive space stations in a fun way
– Elegant research system, with random elements and good tech tree depth
– Designing and building spaceships is fun
– Alien factions offer a distinctive way to play, and their lore is also interesting
The Bad:
– Lack of information and overall UI feedback shortcomings are very frustrating
– The diplomacy system is in skeleton phase still (barely functional)
– The ETA system (turns for some event to happen) is broken. Unacceptable for a TBS
– Screen switching lag is unbearable in large games (yet it is acceptable in smaller ones)
– Trade and mining implementation is obscure and unsatisfying at this stage
– Overall buggy, unfinished and unpolished product
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  1. Claude says:

    Thank you. A great review. I agree, the game has a lot of potential. That’s why I bought it; to help the developers.
    For now, I cross my fingers and I pray.

    But I’m optimistic, VERY optimistic.

    It’s just a question of time. Too much has already been done.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Thanks Claude. I agree, a lot seems to have been done since release, so, in a 3 to 6 months period from now the game will probably be much better. If the publisher and the devs don’t leave the boat that is.

  2. Fernando Rey says:

    Excellent review Adam. The game doesn’t offer anything more or less than what you describe here. Sadly I didn’t wait for such a review and got it at release, very bad move on my part. I still can’t get over the lag between screens though. I’ve got a fairly powerful computer and all settings on medium, but I still have a more than 5 second lag to get to the research screen. Oh well hopefully it will get better with some patches and/or an expansion(which I won’t be getting at release of course). I’ve yet to play a full game and my in game time,according to Steam, is like less than 2 hours(104 min in fact)

    But the sad point is that the dev team deceived us, the game was not ready for release when it did and looking back now; it was to be expected since it had already been delayed for a month. It’s sad that they will resort to this kind of actions in order to get funding, not only it shows a total lack of management knowledge but also a terrible under-appreciation of their customers. One would think that after forming such a great community, they would have know better than to treat us like this.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Thanks Fernando, it was an hard endeavor to write this review (in a time consuming way) but very rewarding in the end. Kerberos people are more than aware of the lag issue, because I reported there (also) myself :) I’m sure they will get that fixed eventually, after they resolve the other 535 more important things (according to their priority scheme).

      Nobody knows for sure what happened for sure but we can speculate that they run out of money, or had a catastrophic event (like losing the entire subversion system, or key personnel leaving). Frankly we can only speculate. Funny thing is that all the people responsible for game admitted the game was unfinished since day 1 and still now don’t know what would be the best decision. In my opinion probably a “We don’t have it ready yet, please help us finish it” would probably be the best decision, because in the end it is effectively what happened, we are all alpha and beta testing the game.

  3. Ermdog says:

    Thanks for the review! I’ve been eying this game since it came out but didn’t buy it because of all the problems. I was curious if they fixed all the games problems after all this time, but it looks like a lot needs to be done still. Pity, I had high hopes for this game and thought it would at least be fixed by now. I don’t know what actually happened on the release but it sounds shady. I hope in the future everything is fixed and maybe an updated review will follow. I believe with everything fixed, this could be a great game. Until then I eagerly wait the release of SOASE Repellion

    • Ermdog says:


    • Adam Solo says:

      You’re welcome Ermdog. Yes, something really weird (not official to my knowledge) must have happened at release time. Paradox’s CEO entitled the release or not to release a dilemma of the same caliber as The Kobayashi Maru challenge given to Star Trek cadets (for the ones that aren’t familiar with the Kobayashi Maru it is a fictional non-win scenario given to aspirant starfleet officers to test their character in the Star Trek universe).

      What I found even more curious about SotS2’s release was the statement made recently by Paradox’s CEO that even now admits that he doesn’t know what would have been the best decision to make at the time (with what he knows now). Say stuck between a rock and an hard place, hum. He also added that they are reviewing their QA standards at Paradox for future games. I think that’s a very good idea. In the state SotS2 got released it’s more than evident that QA was not working either at the publisher and the developer.

      Yes, SoaSE seems to be a good title to hope for this year. Stardock seems to have learned their lesson and their games are now released on a “when it’s done” basis, which only a few can afford but surely Stardock can.

  4. aReclusiveMind says:

    Playing Sword of the Stars II is akin to entering an enormous and breathtaking amusement park… only to find that all of the rides are broken or replaced with signs saying “coming soon”. I’ve already paid the (full) price of admission, but I’ve got nothing but empty pockets and disappointment to show for it.

    Very fair review, Adam. Sword of the Stars II was supposed to be the 4x game that I’d be playing for years. Amazing graphics, great customization, intricate diplomacy, and interesting lore. Instead, I can’t even enjoy playing it. I have 6 hours logged since October and less than 1 hr in total was spent having much fun.

    • Adam Solo says:

      It sounds like you didn’t play for quite some time now. Try a small game with the Liir if not for fun sake at least to have a feeling of how different it is to play 3 months after release. Sometimes I was really enjoying to play, I had a few very good moments but those feelings disappeared very quickly as game progressed. I find your amusement park caricatural description quite accurate with my game experience btw. Great apparatus, disappointing experience, at least for now.

  5. Prime says:

    Excellent review, Adam. Thank you. I had been awaiting this game for months and was shocked when it was released broken and unplayable. Thankfully I had not bought it Day One (I’ve been bitten this way before, which seemed to get worse overall this year…) so I resolved to wai another few months to see how work was progressing.

    Your review was a very timely update; I’d been considering buying it.

    I’m not thinking about buying it now – I’ll wait for a while longer, I think, until the game is what it should have been on release.

  6. dayrinni says:

    Thank you for your review Adam, it is great.

    I’ve been waiting to see if the game shapes up nicely and it seems to be heading in that direction. I bet in 6 months it will be quite solid. So, based on that and your review, I’m going to hold off buying this.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Thanks dayrinni. I’ll re-review this one in due time, that is when there’s substantial improvements or the devs decide to stop development.

  7. Kyle "Lordxorn" Rees says:

    I might have to pick this up for $8.99 at gamersgate.

  8. Harry says:

    Could you make an update review..
    Because some told me that it is now much better..

    • Adam Solo says:

      I will re-review the game.

      I’m just waiting for the “all done” flag. Martin Cirulis (Mecron) at the Kerberos forums is saying (Oct 3 2012) “just a bit more patience folks…hang in there :)”. So, I guess we’re not far from that.

      About the “all done flag” Mecron added “I don’t think it was ever established HOW the word would be sent”. So … I guess the only way is to check KB forums from time to time. People are still reporting very slow late games though … although the game should be much better now yes.

  9. andrewza says:

    so will there be a new review. The all clear was given

  10. Phillip says:

    You guys should totally give this one a one more crack at review it has come a long way and if any game deserves one its this one.

    • SQW says:

      I heard the AI is still terrible.

      I bought the game at launch and still haven’t installed it because of the reviews. Loved the first game and expansions to death but if I have have to experience another brain dead Kerberos AI, I’ll give up on the SOTS franchise.

    • Adam Solo says:

      We did re-review this one (I included a link in this review) when they re-released the game as Sword of the Stars 2: Enhanced Edition, which included a free expansion pack.

    • Chuki792 says:

      Not much has changed in my op, the AI still isn’t great, lots of options still missing from the game, still no scenarios and no mod tools. I’m pretty certain they’ve abandoned the game since there are no new patches and I cant remember the last time there was a new post or response from the devs on their forums, although i did stop checking about 6 months ago… TBH, I would just go for the original.

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