Monday, November 14, 2011

Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter Review

Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter, developed by Kerberos Productions and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Ships must be organized into fleets for (theoretically) easier management, semi-random technology tree, government type based on player actions, a manageable economy, distinct races, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Terribly limited interface in many aspects of empire management, budget ignores ship construction costs, unnecessarily confusing ship design, tedious research tree, no list for fleet locations and tasks, shallow and abrupt tactical battles, unpolished with poor performance and missing features like diplomacy and objective-based scenarios, very slow pace, no tutorial, lacks truly random maps, only one victory condition per game
What say you? This 4X turn-based strategy game is far from a finished product: 3/8

This review also appears at

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Originally, I had a traditional introduction written for this review, referencing the original Sword of the Stars, its pitfalls, and its place among other 4X strategy games. But then Release Day Armageddon happened: first, an old beta version of the game was released on Steam, and then the “proper” version was released with a lengthy list of its own troubling issues. Clearly, the game wasn’t ready to be released on its designated date, and improvements have been slowly trickling in from the development team to hopefully subdue the angry, angry Internet. Has Sword of the Stars II returned to its hyped and desired status of a 4X game to be reckoned with?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Strategy games start and end with the interface, and the one featured in Sword of the Stars II is frustrating to deal with. The unimpressive 3-D map is loaded with shortcomings: surveyed systems are not indicated, ships sometimes can’t be clicked on directly during a mission, the view doesn’t zoom towards the cursor position, and the escape key does not open the menu. Also, I’m not sure why the game has a list of all your planets and stations but does not have a list of all your ship fleets. The 3-D interfaces for ship design and research do more harm than good, making each process more arduous than needed because ship components aren’t listed in an intuitive manner and endless scrolling is required to view each research path. While the tactical battles have very nice ships with detailed textures and impressive weapon effects, the bland backgrounds are filled with low-res stars. Overall, Sword of the Stars II has very poor performance: the game lags when you access and close any full-screen display, which is pretty much all you do in a strategy game such as this. Additionally, the game occasionally crashes and throws up error messages. The sound design is subpar, with the same voice acting as the original game and forgettable, subtle background music. While I don’t expect the graphics in a niche strategy game to be top-notch, I do expect some semblance of efficient functionality in the interface.

ET AL.
Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter (not to be confused with the Dukes of Autumn or Kings of Leon) is a 4X strategy game, the 4 “X”s being “Nina,” “Pinta,” “Santa Maria”, and “eXterminate”. The game consists of the main turn-based mode where you manage your empire, and real-time battles against the foes you will encounter around the universe. There are six distinct races that move differently throughout the universe: the Humans are confined to linear nodes, the Hivers use gates, the Tarka warp, the Liir move small distances very quickly, the Zuul use temporary nodes, and the Moorigi move fastest as a group (like migrating birds). Sword of the Stars II features sixteen non-random maps (the planet resources are changed around, I think, but the star locations are not), and you can choose a single victory condition such as conquering all of your foes or being the first race to build a specific number of special objects. However, you cannot have two (or more) simultaneous objectives in the same game, which is an odd limitation. You can, however, customize the planet size, turn time, and economy and research rates. There are also goal-oriented scenarios that have yet to be added to the game (the first of many things promised that are not actually present). Sword of the Stars II does feature multiplayer if you like that sort of thing, and the AI can play your role when you leave and use one of three strategies (maintain, defend, or expand) until you return. Sword of the Stars II does not feature a tutorial (yet), so everyone will have to read the manual to figure out what’s going on.

Space has stars and stars have planets, and it’s your job to find the most hospitable worlds for your race and then befoul nature for valuable resources. Development is budget-based, adjusting the amount of terraforming and infrastructure expansion done on new colonies. Although the cost of transforming new worlds into fully-functional parts of your empire can be expensive based on the climate, there’s little reason not to colonize everything within range (especially since other races will be trying to do the same). You can discover neutral, independent worlds and bring them into your empire by promoting good relationships. Beyond simple tax and production income, various stations can be constructed around each planet, supplementing research, trade, diplomatic, or naval attributes. Systems can also be organized into a province, which provides increased trade revenue but is accomplished through (like most things in this game) a cumbersome interface.

Running your economy is pretty easy. First, you designate how much of your income will be used for research, and then rest is divided among government operations: security (operations against corruption, intelligence, and counter-intelligence), stimulus (mining, colonization, and trade in your empire), and adding more funds to your savings to purchase ships and stations. Expenses include colony development, fleet and station maintenance, loan debt, and corruption resulting from insufficient security funding. Poor funding could result in low morale and rebels taking over your fringe colonies. Your research investment can be split between your current project, “special projects” (which, no doubt, are special), and salvaging research. Neither the game nor the manual actually describe what the latter two options are for, but I funded them anyway!

Ships in Sword of the Stars II are comprised of three hull modules that can be swapped out to form new vessel types. Each module contains a number of places where weapons or vague components (what does a “Hannibal” do, exactly?) can be attached. This is all done in a 3-D interface that works quite poorly; it would have been a lot easier to swap things from a list and see the changes in the background instead of having to hunt around the ship for icons. The starting ship types are not intuitive (did you know the Revenge and Teacher are colony vessels?), which adds to the confusion that permeates throughout ship design.

Individual ships must be organized into fleets, and each fleet must contain a command ship (this took me a while to figure out) for an admiral. This makes controlling large numbers of ship easier, at least in theory. Fleets are issued missions instead of simple “move” commands common in most strategy games: survey, colonize, build, transfer, patrol, intercept, strike, and invade. While I do like the idea of organizing ships together and giving concrete commands to your fleets, Sword of the Stars II does not provide a list of all your fleets, so finding idle ships or busy admirals is nearly impossible. What's the point of organizing things into fleets if you have to hunt for them on the 3-D map? Even if you find them, you might not be able to select them to change their orders if a more pressing need arises. Ships must also return home after a mission, which can extend a simple survey mission to a distant star into a long undertaking. Admirals must be assigned to each fleet, and they contain both good and bad traits and are rated according to loyalty, reaction, and evasion, which would seemingly affect their performance in the tactical battles, although I haven’t seen any dramatic differences in capabilities.

While reading through the manual, I was looking forward to using the many diplomatic actions described: varied relationships, requesting resources, demanding slaves, signing non-aggression treaties, limiting the use of weapons, and spinning diplomatic actions to avoid penalties. Imagine my surprise when I come to find out that none of things are actually in the game yet. Yes, potentially the strongest aspect of the game is nowhere to be found. However, government types are in there: one of nine stances (socialism, anarchism, junta) is automatically assigned based on the player’s decisions regarding morale, money, growth, and production. That’s a much better system that manually choosing one from a list and gaining its bonuses. Another thing that’s actually in the game is research, which is essentially a carbon copy (with one enhancement) of the system used in the original game. Technologies are randomly given a percentage of success, so you’ll end up having to vary your strategy if your favorite tech is not available in the current game. You have to undertake a feasibility study to determine the percentage of success, which adds another step to the process that isn’t indicated from the main interface (the research icon still says you aren’t researching anything during a feasibility study). The 3-D interface used in the research screen also takes too long to cycle through the different types, which slows down an already slow-paced game even more.

Unlike a majority of 4X games, Sword of the Stars II features tactical battles involving ships of warring factions residing in the same sector. You can choose to fight out the conflicts yourself, or allow the computer to simulate the result. Battles are only five minutes long, which is far too short for any type of meaningful resolution involving large fleets of ships. Thus, most battles will take several to many turns to resolve. You are given access to very simple orders: move or attack. You can adjust the stance (attack, defend), movement speed, combat plane, or roll the ship, but these options are quite limited in depth. Shields for the ships are, if the interface is any indication, actually fairly sophisticated, breaking down the three parts of each ship into many small portions that can be damaged individually. Still, most battles in Sword of the Stars II simply involve moving ships within range and waiting until somebody blows up. Units also occasionally forget which enemy ship they are targeting (especially if the enemy ship moves), so you have to keep and eye on your navy and make sure they are actually returning fire.

The AI in Sword of the Stars II seems to be up to the task. The computer develops their colonies well, forms formidable fleets of ships, and attacks vulnerable parts of your sprawling empire. I did not experience any significant shortcomings in the AI for the parts of the game that are currently included. The slow pace of Sword of the Stars II is a real turn off, though, as most everything simply takes too long to complete: research, moving, colonization, ship construction, and battles could all be shorter and contribute to a more action-oriented game. There is really no reason why things need to take so long; I was frequently advancing to the next turn with no input, as all of my fleets had missions, my budget was set, and I was waiting for shipbuilding and research to finish their lengthy durations. This may be partially due to the fact that Sword of the Stars II is currently an incomplete game, but I suspect that even with diplomacy added to the game, things will still advance at a sluggish rate.

IN CLOSING
It’s a shame that Sword of the Stars II was released in this state. Much like Star Ruler before it, this 4X game comes with half-baked ideas and unrealized potential, which is surprising considering it’s a sequel. The interface is a mess: the 3-D ship design and research trees are difficult to navigate and the lack of a master fleet list makes finding ships too difficult. Plus, slow game performance makes using the full-screen menus a tedious chore. Expanding your empire is simple: just colonize every hospitable planet while keeping an eye on the colonial management part of your budget. The rest of the economy is fairly easy to manage (assuming you remember how much your ship construction costs are), thanks to intuitive sliders to adjust the distribution of funding. Diplomacy could be a strong part of the game, if it ever gets implemented. The semi-random technology tree makes things less predictable, but having to investigate a tech before actually researching it just adds an unnecessary step of management. Modular ship design would be intriguing if the game made finding and swapping out parts easier. Likewise, placing ships into fleets is a great idea held back by the difficulty in actually finding those fleets. The tactical battles are very simplified and too brief to determine a victor. The AI seems to handle the game well, putting together effective fleets and invading weak parts of your empire. However, the slow pace of the game makes everything (from surveys to research) take too long, arbitrarily lengthening the game and leading to one “end turn” button press after another. Multiplayer is available for those who desire it, but the lack of a tutorial makes learning the game difficult, especially as you try to wrestle with the occasionally informative interface. Could all of these problems become fixed in the future? Maybe: patches are planned to slowly add in all of the missing features and functionality you would expect at release. But all we can evaluate is what lies in front of us, and Sword of the Stars II is currently a broken, incomplete game that offers nothing over the original version but problems.