Genre: Turn Based Strategy
Publisher: Lighthouse Interactive
Developer: Kerberos Productions
Release Date: June 5, 2007
After my first few days of playing Sword of the Stars, I was starting to question my ability to enjoy a turn-based strategy game. Then I remembered good times prior with things like Panzer General and going as far back as checkers and chess. However, where these other games define their approach to strategy as watching your opponent and knowing his next move before he does, the Kerberos approach is more "prepare to be blindsided, and expect the worst at all times."
What I quickly came to realize is that this franchise eschews the notion of the Easy difficulty setting being easy, serving as hors d'oeuvres or strategy 101. Noobs need not apply here, and the newly birthed Born of Blood expansion kicks it up yet another notch in masochistic entertainment. Not only can each scenario stretch out for hours and hours, but the challenge and learning curve may also seem outright unfair to the uninitiated. By the time I got done butting heads with series newcomers the Zuul, I was left beaten and whimpering in the corner. It's truly an expansion for hardcore fans of the original who laugh at a firing squad and jump from planes without parachutes.
Neither the original nor the expansion is by any means a bad game. They're quite good in their own way. Simply be aware that with this genre, and this series in particular, you have to read the manual cover to cover and play cautiously to avoid spreading yourself too thin. With that said, if you can scale the steep learning curve, there's even more noggin-busting 4X (explore, exploit, expand, exterminate) gameplay to be had, with a heaping helping of big and small improvements and polish in this expansion.
Like many other strategy game add-ons, one of the biggest additions in Born of Blood is a new race, the Zuul ("Ghostbusters" will be expecting its royalty check), and they're just as awful as the demon-dogs of the same name from the Ivan Reitman classic. They growl and drool, are generally unpleasant to be near and have no regard for safety, sanctity of life or property on their conquest to avenge the god who left them hanging. They have a demonically organic and completely asymmetrical style to their ships, not unlike the Chaos Marines from the Warhammer 40k universe.
That organic look isn't a coincidence, either, as their vessels and civilizations are built on the backs of their enemies — and sometimes of the backs of their enemies. The skeletons of their ships could very well be the bones collected and pieces salvaged from their last unfriendly encounter. Then again, with their blatantly wicked disposition, I can't imagine any meeting with them would work out otherwise.
Their blind hatred of everything around them comes out not only in their deliciously gravelly voices, but also in their approach to travel. Rather than use something elegant or fancy, they crudely bore a hole straight through Node Space to get to their next object of interest, typically a planet about to be sucked dry, or at least harvested of some of its population who are summarily enslaved and put to work reaping the resources of Zuul-controlled worlds. They even have the ability to board and overtake enemy ships in combat, turning them against their makers in the process. Nasty business, those Zuul.
The universe doesn't take kindly to being ripped open and will start to "heal," causing instability and an eventual collapse on all the tunnels bored through the galaxy, taking any and all ships traveling through them to the grave as the tunnel implodes. Plan carefully, and always have another Rip Bore handy to plow a new path.
Zuul-controlled planets also take a constant degradation of total resources, meaning that any given planet is only useful to them for a certain amount of turns, though that number could reach the hundreds. This puts a bit more pressure on the Zuul to keep moving and take new ground before they run dry of assets.
Random encounters in SotS: Born of Blood have been beefed up as well, to the point of again seeming unfair in the grand scheme of things. How can you possibly prepare to be randomly chosen for attack by the Locusts, an alien menace that can destroy an entire world in a matter of a few turns? A swift strike of Von Neumann ships can decimate any fleet with little recourse but to roll over and die. Don't bank on holding your territories comfortably anymore, for tragedy can strike and tip the balance in favor of everyone but you (or vice versa) quite quickly.
There are a few new elements on the strategic HUD, giving you toggles for political area of effect (what each faction controls) and a trade feature. The political area lets you get a ballpark feel for how much of the area is being held by which empire. A colored blob covers all of the planets held by each race, showing you in pie-chart fashion about how much you have compared to everyone else. It's helpful for knowing just how big of a fight you're facing in the turns to come, and from where that fight will most likely be coming. This also helps you set up alliances if you see a particularly and mutually advantageous setup for two or more groups.
The trade button organizes the galaxy into cubes, where the planets in each sector can set up largely automated trade routes with one another to spread the wealth. Build freighters and secure an area, and let the profits roll in. These features are mostly for the pre-existing races, as the Zuul don't bargain or play nice with anyone. If they want your goods, they will take them by force.
The single-player scenarios have been increased to nine from the original six, adding Lords of a Broken Empire, The End of Flesh and His Master's Voice. In Lords of a Broken Empire, the emperor has died, and all races are vying for supremacy in the newly chaotic universe, as well as having to contend with upstart races and fringe rebellions along the way. The End of Flesh pits the organic races against an uprising of oppressive artificial intelligence. His Master's Voice is the Zuul-specific campaign, where your goal is to reunite with the Great Masters who abandoned their race some time ago. Zuul encounters in the new campaigns are unavoidable, but you don't necessarily have to play as them to get your hands dirty with the new expansion missions.
New galaxy arrangements for custom scenarios are here as well, including a 2D layout, which is what I really needed to get my head around colonizing in such a wide-open arena. Years of conquesting on level terra firma didn't prepare me for this, but it's a bit like adjusting to playing Descent after countless hours of not being able to look or travel up or down in Doom. Other new galaxy shapes include Hollow Sphere, Globular Clusters, Galactic Collision, Tube, Ring, Stellar Nursery, Barred and random, more than doubling the total number of star layouts.
You can still stretch your game to span anywhere from 16 to 350 worlds for the conquering, but new here are sliders for how much room, in light-years, is between the worlds, tendency for planets to be large or small and increasing or decreasing the base quantity of resources each planet has. Last but not least, where previously you could only turn random encounters on or off, now you can adjust just how often they happen, from 0 to 200 percent. The wealth of new customization options are welcome and add a good deal of replayability to the title.
A few notes on installation and getting the game up and running. SotS: Born of Blood requires the base game; this isn't a standalone expansion. The expansion disc automatically sniffs out your current installation and will apply any and all official patches that have come out so far. This can take a while, and the game warns you of this before it starts the updating, in case you want to go make lunch or are pressed for time. Also, for anyone using unauthorized patches (i.e., no-CD fixes or trainers), you may need to reinstall the base game clean to get the expansion to affix properly.
The biggest problem I ran into was that the game requires an even more updated version of DirectX 9.0c. I just updated a few months ago, and it already needed a newer version. Running it with just what's on the install disc, I got a blank screen, and upon Ctrl-Alt-Del-ing, two new buttons were on my taskbar, and clicking either just re-froze the screen. Right-clicking the one that doesn't say "Mars" on it and choosing "Close" finally got it unstuck. In any case, if nothing's happening or you get crazy error messages when you fire it up, update to the Feb. 2007 version of DirectX. It was supposedly on the install disc, but I had to get it elsewhere before things started working. There's also a thread in the Kerberos forums about the issue with links to the latest DX web install and full redistributable versions.
However, the new visual flourishes and details in SotS: Born of Blood are worth the extra time to update the underlying software. Ship explosions and damage are more attractive and detailed, and the backdrops have fiery nebulas and glowy alpha effects galore rather than the static starscape of the original. These aren't just pretty pictures, either; one of the new types of explosions has an area of effect, damaging all ships — friend or foe — caught within the blast radius.
The game imports all your old save files from the original, as well as settings, profiles, etc., and it replaces the SotS shortcuts, too. In other words, once you apply the expansion, you're a Born of Blood player, and there's no going back. However, installing the expansion made the game no longer require any CD for play, which is a plus in my book.
Combine new weapons, ship types, the wonderfully realized debut of the Zuul race, deeper gameplay, more scenarios and new ways to play, and you've got a solid, if unforgiving, title for hardcore turn-based fans to set their sights on. Kerberos definitely put enough into this to make it more than just a mission pack but not quite a full sequel. Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood expands and improves on an already good title; just remember that it can be aggravatingly difficult at times. Keeping the focus on expansion and conquest rather than the resource gathering, micromanagement and other fluff typical of the genre is fine with me. This is one I'll still be playing months from now.
More articles about Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood