Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Release Date: August 22, 2006
It's almost here. After many months of anticipation, the game that will put intergalactic space domination back on the map is just about ready to release for all to look upon in wonder. I suppose this is somewhat conjectural; after all, you may have some form of physiological aversion to entertainment that takes place in the cold voids of space. For all I know, you may even break out in hivers. (Oh wow, that was a bad joke, even for me.) I digress, as usual. August 22nd is the day that Vancouver-based Kerberos Productions will unleash their debut PC 4X title Sword of the Stars, to the enthusiastic applause of all of us who remember Master of Orion and Spaceward Ho!
This game has been given a fair amount of coverage here on WorthPlaying throughout its development cycle, and so it will be tricky for me to avoid rehashing the same information I've already given out. Here is a quick recap for those of you late to the party: Sword of the Stars is a 3D, turn-based "4X" (expand, explore, exploit, exterminate) game with real-time combat set in the far reaches of space. Players can choose from one of four races (Humans, Hivers, Tarkas, and Liir), each with their own cultural history and technological approach to the void. It's a fully multi-player supported title that looks to offer hundreds of hours of playtime to the fervent enthusiast. It also has an incredibly dense mythology, written by not only some of the ex-Homeworld: Cataclysm authors, but one of the wordsmiths behind the critically lauded Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura worked on the canon of each race as well.
So what's changed since I last took a dip in these waters? Well for starters, the graphics have been polished significantly; each texture has been given a great deal more detailing, the planets now have dynamic surfaces, and the cosmos backdrops illuminated with smears of luxuriant cloud-nebula gas. I've already ranted at length over how much I love the strategic GUI, and I'm pleased to report that the tactical combat elements now look every bit as good. It's a solid package of eye candy, to be sure. Also, the single-player campaign scenarios have been completed, the voice-acting mastered and coded in, and Von Neumann devices no longer run away when you attack them. That last part is bad news for you, but good news for artificially evolved bio-mechanical virus forms.
Now that I've had a little time to absorb some of the details without fear of the Kerberos crew annihilating me in three turns, I can divulge a few more impressions than those garnered during multiplayer sessions. The GUI remains every bit as beautiful as I have previously stated and so I don't really need to go into any further detail there. What I would like to look at now are some of the strategic elements, starting with the interchangeable nature of ship design. Each race has three default craft prototypes (armor, tanker, and colonist) that consist of three sections (bridge, body, and propulsion). Each different section carries with it different functionality, from greater armor to increased weapon points to advanced fuel capacity to speed increases to shields to deflector plates and so on and so forth.
As you research your way through the different technologies, your options increase, allowing you to tailor your fleets to your own style of combat. If you're a defensive player, push for advances in deflectors and shields. If you're all about making things explode, research better nukes, particle beams, or ballistic weaponry. The final word is this: For every avenue of approach, there is a foil. Remember that as you sink your R&D budget into full-spectrum laser cannons, someone might be polishing their hulls to a more-gleaming-than-a-mirror-shine.
The tactical combat is surprisingly dynamic and violent. It's also much more than just clicking on the opposing ship and watching the explosions. There are hit locations factored in, which automatically makes the fighting more elaborate than contemporary space-combat games. As a primitive example of how this can work, imagine entering a new sector with a weaker force of defenders than your invading armada. You are the victor in the ensuing skirmish, but if your vanquished foe spends all of their energies on taking out your propulsion systems, it effectively severs your tendons and leaves your fleet the winner of the battle but thoroughly incapable of moving anywhere until a repair craft can come patch you up. In the interim, they might be able to get a much bigger gang to come avenge their humiliation. I am nowhere near good enough at this game to detail the more advanced strategies that arise when you hit the top of the technology trees; so far, the AI smacks me around with little effort. That the best strategy I've been able to come up with on my own is "Uhh ... take out their engines, eh?" is evidence of my lack of battlefield acumen. I dream of the dreadnaught-class ships that can literally annihilate a planet in three volleys that I've read about. The very idea alone makes me smile, it appeals to me in an "overcompensating" manner.
What I find so intriguing about Sword of the Stars is how it appeals so much to me on a theoretical level. I'm absolutely horrid at the game itself; we've proven that I'm no tactician. However, I can't help thinking of the different possibilities and ways about forging an empire when I'm not actually playing. That I find my mind wandering back to what technologies I can apply to my "scorpion" line of armored strike-craft is a testament to the potential Sword of the Stars offers. I am still convinced that this game is going to make a big splash when it finally hits store shelves. We don't have much longer to wait to see if my theory proves out. There is a demo available for those of you too impatient to wait two weeks. After all the positive press we've been giving this title, I can't say that I'd be surprised if your curiosity got the best of you.
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