Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sword of the Stars Review

Sword of the Stars, developed by Kerberos Productions and published by Destineer Studios.
The Good: Streamlined gameplay, semi-random tech tree, ship upgrades are straightforward, hardly any micromanagement, managing large fleets is easy, races have marked differences, multiplayer match flexibility
The Not So Good: 3-D map is tricky to navigate, narrow victory conditions, new alien contacts are treated as hostile
What say you? A fine introduction to the world of 4X strategy games: 6/8

After a period of time spent on life support, space 4X strategy games have been making a comeback of sorts. After the demise of the Master of Orion series, the genre needed a solid title, and Galactic Civilizations was the answer. The sequel has made the genre even more popular, and along with other recent titles like StarShift and Earth-based Civilization IV, the 4X strategy game is living well. Another entry into the fray is Sword of the Stars, which replaces the micromanagement present in other games with more hot ship-on-ship action. Is Sword of the Stars another worthy addition to the genre? Are there any pictures of this hot ship-on-ship action?

Sword of the Stars is played on a 3-D map. While this is more realistic than most games that take place on a flat plane, it results in a lot more confusion for the player: trying to estimate distances between and location of stars is extremely difficult, and the game doesn't include some sort of grid to help you out. The 3-D map looks OK, as the planets and stars are detailed enough and very similar to those found in Gal Civ II. The space backgrounds are underwhelming, as most space games fill the void with colorful nebulae. The 3-D map is not worth the effort, as the game would have been much easier to play in just two dimensions and could have looked and played the same. The combat turns have some good effects, but nothing that will astound the user. The battles are much less intense than, say, Star Wars: Empire at War but are just good enough. Again, the graphics are typical of a 4X strategy game, and Sword of the Stars offers nothing we've never seen in compeating titles. The sound is very basic, consisting of simple voice-overs and weapon effects, and the voice acting is quite horrible and annoying at best. The background music is generic and not memorable at all, and it just serves as filler to make the game not appear totally silent. Sword of the Stars does just enough to make it average in terms of graphics and sound.

Unlike some space strategy games, Sword of the Stars features both single player and multiplayer gaming modes. The cool thing about the multiplayer modes is that you can leave, have an AI player substitute for you, and join back in at a later time. You can issue general commands to the AI while you are away (such as expand or defend), and they’ll do an adequate job in maintaining your empire. If the host of the match quits, the game is saved and can be hosted by another of the remaining players. You can also host a game that’s been started in single player or vice versa. This kind of interweaving between single player and multiplayer modes is smooth and generally flawless, and the game can be persistent as long as the host remains in the game. Because of the turn- based nature of the game, online play is lag-free as well, so Sword of the Stars should satisfy those players looking for human competition. Each of the games can be customized in terms of galaxy shape and size, containing upwards of 350 explorable stars, which is quite ridiculous. This makes for an extremely long game that’s boring in the beginning while you’re exploring the galaxy, but the option is there for people who want it. You can also set the number of initial colonies and technologies (for a faster start) and the efficiency of research (for a faster start); Sword of the Stars includes a good number of options that can tailor the game to suit any preference. The game also includes a handful of scenarios, but they are extremely difficult and most people will probably stick to the random custom games.

There are four races in Sword of the Stars, which differ according to their movement method and focus. Humans can only travel fast along set routes (called nodes), much like a highway system. The Tarkas and Liir can travel between any system at a fast pace, while the Hiver travel extremely slow but use gates once they have reached a system for instant travel. To compensate for their slow initial speed, the Hivers have high population growth and more sturdy ships. The Tarkas have a military focus, the peaceful Liir specialize in research, and the Humans are good all around. In other games of this genre, the differences between the races are usually superficial things like behavior and disposition, but in Sword of the Stars the variations affect the overall strategy of your side, especially in the case of the Hiver.

Most of the game will be played from the 3-D strategic map, which, as I mentioned earlier, is tough to navigate. There is a slow-moving news ticker at the bottom of the screen that can be clicked for all events during the turn; there should be a better method of informing the user of important proceedings like an automatic pop-up. Sword of the Stars provides a simple pie graph illustrating the division of income into the fixed fleet maintenance and developing planet costs, as well as the user-set balance between research and the treasury. Most of your flexible income will initially be spent in research: you’ll only need a small amount of money for constructing new ships while your empire is young. The fact that you only need to make one setting for your empire’s economy shows the elimination of a lot of the tedium associated with 4X games: Sword of the Stars is more concerned about the big picture, rather than the small aspects of your budget. Your income is gained from your planets, which are rated according to their climate: different races can stand different levels of climate, so an inhospitable planet for you might be just right for another player. The speed at which planets can produce ships is a product of the amount of resources, infrastructure, and population. Most of your budget in the beginning of the game will be spend terraforming and improving the infrastructure of your planets in order to make them more welcoming to your citizens, and you can split funds between improving infrastructure and terraforming and your income from trade. Again, buildings and structures are constructed automatically, so you don’t need to worry about all the buildings at each of your planets.

Sword of the Stars has a semi-random technology tree that has different paths each time you play the game. This serves to eliminate the “money” technologies and set paths you’d take every time in other games, but it makes it difficult to remember the prerequisites for some important advanced technologies, and you might not even get access to those important advanced technologies at all. The game also doesn’t offer any suggestions to what research you should invest in next, but the game does classify each technology to make it a little easier on you. Ship design is also streamlined in the game, as every ship consists of three parts (command, mission, and engine) that can be outfitted with different modules to fit a specific role. New mission components are unlocked with better technology, allowing for the construction of colony ships, tankers for refueling, repair vessels, mining ships, and a host of assault and defensive craft. You will have to manually upgrade the weapons on each of your ships when research is finished; this is kind of odd that this isn’t done automatically like most of the game, but it’s still fairly easy to do. Building ships is very easy as well, and a queue can be made to have a list of desired craft. Ships are automatically placed into fleets (greatly appreciated) and can be moved into new or existing fleets simply by dragging them around. Movement commands are a simple as selecting a fleet and the destination planet; the game will also indicate if your fleet as enough fuel to make the trip (building tankers for long distance treks is a must). I really like how Sword of the Stars makes handling large numbers of ships simple with the automatic fleet options and listing of those fleets (and their current locations) on the empire summary screen. I would only like to have an indication of which fleets currently have orders and which don’t, but that’s a relatively minor complaint.

Once ships of different species come together in the same system, it’s time for combat. You have a little bit more input into the combat in Sword of the Stars than other games, as the game plays like a simplified RTS title. You can select your ships, give them movement commands, and order them to attack the enemy ships in specified locations, disabling the engines or the weapons. You can also give generic commands, such as stand-off or close to attack, so that commanding large numbers of ships is a little easier. You can also have the AI auto-resolve the combat, although most of the manual turns will result in draws (due to the combat turn time limit) and simulated turns will result in a victory for the one with the most ships. The weapons will fire automatically, assuming you’ve disabled the cease fire order. It seems that all ships start the round with cease fire on (just in case you don’t want to attack this newly-discovered race), but I still don’t remember whether the green or red light means cease fire is on. Does green mean cease fire is on, or does green mean it’s OK to fire? The game doesn’t really help in the explanation (saying “on” and “off” instead of a color in the manual). The only way to figure it out is to see if your ships are firing, and by then it might be too late. The damage during combat is purely visual, which is fine except that it’s sometime difficult to lock on enemy ships or even to spot them against the dark background.

The AI of Sword of the Stars seems to be decent enough, expanding appropriately and putting up a good fight at the default difficulty levels. You’ll really need to gather a large force in order to take them down, as building defenses in the game is cheap, easy, and effective. Sword of the Stars is pure combat, as the only way to win is to take over the galaxy. There are no alternative victory conditions, such as economic, influence, or technology victories (which puts the Liir at a disadvantage); those players, like myself, that aren’t complete warmongers might be put off a little by this. The game will also treat newly encountered enemy players as hostile, taking you into combat mode whenever you run into other exploring ships. If you auto-simulate these matches, the AI will automatically attack any other units even if you don't want it to. I realize that, because of the limited victory conditions, that you'll need to attack eventually, but I'd much rather spend the early part of the game exploring instead of attacking everything in sight. Can't we all just get along?

While Galactic Civilizations II is excellent for veteran players, Sword of the Stars is great for beginning players or those interested in military conquests. The game is very easy to use (apart from the confusing 3-D map), and I like how Sword of the Stars streamlines most of the game, making a lot of the actions automated with little user input. Of course, control freaks won’t like this very much, but nuts to them. Sword of the Stars makes getting your empire up and running easy as pie, and most of the game is designed to make overall strategy the focus. However, limiting victory to the strongest military players limits some of the options available to each player, and the game becomes a contest of who has the better ships. Still, better ships are a result of a strong economy and good research, so really a conquest victory includes portions of each part of the game. Sword of the Stars also features some fantastic multiplayer options, allowing the user to quit and rejoin the same game while the AI plays for you. The scenarios are quite difficult and not worth the effort (as alien encounters obliterate most of your ships), but there is enough replay value in the custom games (coupled with multiplauer) to keep you going for a bit. While Sword of the Stars doesn’t have a lot of the advanced options present in other titles, the game will appeal to more casual players looking for a straightforward 4X strategy game with combat-only options.