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Sword of the Stars

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Lighthouse
Developer: Kerberos

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PC Preview - 'Sword of the Stars'

by Rainier on May 15, 2006 @ 3:02 a.m. PDT

Sword of the Stars is a breakthrough Space Strategy game that seeks to reinvigorate the sub-genre. Players will explore planets, manage their empire and research new technology. Sword of the Stars provides quick, intuitive play, state-of-the-art graphics and tactical combat that make the game instantly involving and rewardingly fun.

Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Publisher: TBA
Developer: Kerberos Productions
Release Date: TBA

Sword of the Stars is an upcoming 4X game in development by Lighthouse Interactive and Kerberos Productions. If you've never heard of it, I wouldn't be too surprised; in our modern era of gaming, 4X games tend to keep it on the down-low. 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) games have faded from view within the last decade, but Kerberos would like to change all of that, which is definitely no easy task when confronted with the ADD-starved minds of today's gamers.

A fan of the 4X genre since the classic days of PC gaming, I still remember fondly the original (and still great) Master of Orion. In fact, there's a lot of Sword of the Stars that hearkens back to the good old days when MoO was king. While this game may remind me of MoO, it most definitely is not some sort of modern day spiffed-up remake of that classic. Kerberos has brought a lot of new ideas to the table, for which I applaud them. How successful these innovations will be remains to be seen.

Take, for instance, the 3D star map. Most of the game is spent looking and manipulating this huge assemblage, comprised of over 100 shimmering points of light, with each glowy orb representing a star system. This is where the strategic action of the game takes place and you get to manage your colonies and command your ships. I find the entire idea of having the universe be rendered in 3D to be very cool, and it certainly is pretty sweet to look at and rotate around. However, from a gameplay standpoint, I found myself struggling with the spatial nature of the interface. Trying to do simple things like keep track of where your ships are in relation to each other and gauge the distances between star systems struck me initially as difficult and time-consuming, at least in comparison to games that use a simpler (and flatter) universe. Perhaps this is just a question of getting used to the controls.

To get an idea of what the star map feels like, try to imagine the flat world maps of say, Civilization, except projected into a fully 3D environment like Black & White or Homeworld. Whenever you lock onto an object in space, you then have the ability to fully rotate around it and zoom in and out. Once your empire reaches an epic scale (worthy of an Emperor), it seems like it might possibly be difficult to manage. However, as of yet I haven't had quite enough time to test this theory. Everything in Sword of the Stars that is rendered in 3D allows for this freedom, and much of the game is in 3D. I personally had some difficulties in finding a comfort zone for my camera point of view; however, it's a safe bet that many fans of the 4X genre will love the fact that this is more than just a 2D list of numbers to read.

Kerberos does a good job on creating four actually different races to play in Sword of the Stars. Instead of taking the route of giving each race some on-paper bonus to a random stat, each race has a completely different propulsion system that affects both the strategic and tactical portions of the game immensely. Humans have the "Node Drive" which allows their ships to travel through subspace in between star systems. The advantage is that this provides the fastest travel between nearby stars, with the price being that specific routes have to be followed, almost as though there were an interstellar freeway between the stars. The Tarkas, a lizard-like race, use straightforward warp drive to zip around. At the start of the game, this is one of the slower technologies, but as it develops through research, it begins to overtake the other races while having the benefit of not having any of the limitations the other races must deal with. The Liir, which seem to resemble space dolphins, use a "stutter drive" which continuously teleports their ships across short distances.

This technology even spills over into the way their ships move in tactical mode, giving them a huge advantage in fights in open space and a huge disadvantage in fights near stars (the gravity of stars decreases the effectiveness of their teleportation). Lastly, the Hivers, an insect race, do not have a faster-than-light drive at all. They slowly plod from star to star, but once they arrive, they can set up gates which allow for instantaneous transportation between gated star systems. It's unclear whether any of these sides has a real advantage over any other, but it is a good way of providing diversity in a 4X game and is one of the best shots at doing so that I have seen.

The combat feels pretty simple. From what I can tell, you have a bunch of ships, you tell them where to move and what to fire at, and they take care of the rest themselves. It looks pretty cool, but I kind of miss having more control over the action. A good tactical combat system should be like a game in and of itself (good examples that come to mind are Fallout and, of course, Master of Orion). The research system is pretty cool, and there are a large handful of different research areas, each one having a basic tech tree. This isn't anything new or exciting, but in Sword of the Stars, the tech trees are not the same from game to game, which means there isn't a set order to follow through each time. This at least goes a long way to keep this portion of the game fresh with each replay.

You pick a research topic and tell your colonies what ships to build. Each ship you build costs a certain amount of money, and when you order a ship you pay the cost upfront, even if the ship isn't going to be built for many turns. This isn’t entirely unlike the way it would be in the real world, although it seems a bit jarring at first, especially the first time you discover that ordering more ships than you can pay for results in your having to pay interest on your empire's debt.

Once they're built and off on their merry way colonizing the galaxy, your biggest challenge will be keeping track of your fleet as your occupied star map swells with power. You thought RTS was the best way to flex your multi-task muscles? Sword of the Stars is no slouch in that department, but at least you can take your time and think about what's going on and where.

4X games by their very nature are lumbering beasts; anyone looking for a quick-fix experience will probably be frustrated by the drawn-out process of running an entire galaxy. However, for those players who seek a detailed game that illustrates the highs, lows, and the "hurry-up-and-wait" effect of autocratic rule, Sword of the Stars should be just what the doctor ordered.

The voice acting doesn't initially appear to be on par with "A-list" titles, but that's not entirely out of place when it comes to debut titles produced on typically tight budgets. Perhaps if this game rocks on retail shelves, Sword of the Stars 2 will feature some big-name voice talent. For now, however, the acting is what it is – functional. At least there are volume controls if you find it detracts from your game.

Kerberos look very much like they are on the right track, and they have a lot of the pieces together that could form an exciting new 4X. I'll be keeping my eye on Sword of the Stars, and will be very interested to see what the final product plays out like. The publishers, Lighthouse Interactive, recently decided to delay the launch of SotS in order to synchronize the North American and European releases. This means that Kerberos can take additional time and use it for polish. A gleaming shine on these ideas can only mean good things for us, the gaming public.

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