Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Release Date: August 22, 2006
The basic premise of the space empire-building Sword of the Stars is that humans have left their own solar system and are venturing into the great unknown. When they do so, however, they meet other alien races who do not take kindly to the new kids on the block.
Aside from playing as the humans, you can play as three alien races. There are the bug-like Hivers, the warlike Tarkas, and the enigmatic Liir who resemble aquatic creatures from Earth. The great thing about the different races is that they are rather unique and distinguishable from one another. The ships look vastly different from one race to the next, but more importantly, your race determines how you move about the galaxy. For example, Tarkas use a very standard warp drive, much like those seen in most other space-based titles, while the Hivers move incredibly slowly toward new stars, but once there, they can build teleport gates which allow for instantaneous movement around their empire.
Something interesting in the turn-based empire portion of the gameplay is that the usually large amount of micromanagement we find in this genre has been whittled away immensely. All the menus are intuitive and fluid, allowing easy access to all pertinent information. For the most part, whenever I start a new title like this, I have to stumble along through my first game, but what amazed me is that in this offering, I managed to make some real progress after only a few minutes.
There is a lot of replay value to SotS , mainly because of the amount of customization the player has on the open-ended games. Enemies, starting cash, number of stars, and even the shape of the galaxy can all be tinkered with, and if the player decides he does not want to play in one of the custom games, then he can fire up a handful of scenarios that have certain objectives. There are only a small number of these missions, though, which is disappointing.
To build your empire in SotS, you settle new planets, your economy grows, you create more ships for your fleet, and you destroy the competition. Thankfully, the economy is extremely simple, giving you sliders to set how much money you want to spend on different aspects of the empire like research or ship building. This is handy and cuts down on a lot of micromanagement.
One questionable area of the game design is the diplomacy system, which is incredibly basic. You can set up trade routes and basic alliances, but it reaches nowhere near the level of depth seen in other examples from the genre, such as Galactic Civilizations IV. Another weird thing is that when the player first meets a foreign race, all weapons are set on standby, even though the alien race is most definitely not coming over for tea.
Ship design is perhaps the strongest and weakest aspect of SotS. On the one hand, it is a rather deep process that can be tinkered with for hours on end, and it really does produce some awesome death-dealing machines when the player researches a few technologies to supplement the basic weapons. However, on the other hand, there is almost no feedback about what the upgrades do in regards to your ship. Some things are common sense, like cloaking devices, but when it comes down to choosing the different weapons for your ships, it becomes vaguer because you have no idea what the damage or recharge rate is comparatively.
Another interesting aspect that increases variety is that each time you start a new campaign, the research trees are scrambled somewhat, meaning that you will never advance the same way twice. This is a rather minor factor, but it is something I would like to see in more strategy titles so that the campaigns do not devolve into some sort of algebraic reasoning.
Although the combat in SotS is quite fun at first sight, the combat is, I'm sorry to say, immensely flawed. You build up huge fleets to demolish your opponent, making sure to counter his ship designs with your own. However, the battles are highly unresponsive, although they are played out in enjoyable real-time. The feedback you receive during combat is scant at best, especially from your own ships. You have no health bars to refer to, and instead you have to keep track of the ship's physical appearance, which can be difficult when you have a large number of ships.
Some good points about the combat are that you can target specific parts of enemy ships, and the battles are really hands-on. There is an auto-resolve feature, but oddly enough, if you use it, you'll receive no battle overview at the end to see what had transpired. Moving the ships around is also an easy task, familiar instantly from other RTS titles.
The graphics in SotS are standard fare; the interfaces are simple and two dimensional, with crisp design aesthetic. Most of your work will take place on the galaxy map, which shows every shining star in the sector of gameplay. It looks really good, and the space battles are rather well-rendered, too. The only problem is that the starting weapons are underwhelming in their effects, but later on, you can unleash some spectacular fireworks.
Sound effects in this offering are well designed, even though there isn't much sound in space. The explosions and other weapon effects are rich and help pump up the player for battle. The voices of the different races could have been bungled in many ways, but it sounds extremely good and convincing.
The multiplayer portion fares surprisingly well. Up to eight players can face off against each other or the A.I., and the custom game setups can keep things interesting for quite a while. You really get to see what the game should be like during multiplayer, as diplomacy is made fully possible when interacting with other people. One impressive feature is that when a player drops out, he is replaced by an A.I. player. The only downside to the game online, as with any turn-based game, is that it can get a bit lengthy and require a large time investment to play through with the maximum amount of players.
Overall, Sword of the Stars is a decent foray into the sci-fi strategy genre. However, the combat system and lack of diplomacy really holds back this offering from being truly great, and the depth of other titles in the genre also dims its lights. If you've already played the greats of the genre and need some filler, pick up this game.
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