Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Publisher: Lighthouse Interactive
Developer: Kerberos Productions
Release Date: October 3, 2008
The community seems very divided on what to make of the Sword of the Stars franchise. Some see it as a welcome stripping away of excess micromanagement and tedium from other 4X games, purifying the experience by making it as simple as can be while retaining a reasonable amount of complexity, should you choose to indulge in it. The other half looks at it as a bastardization — a dumbing-down, if you will — of a genre that prides itself on being endlessly complex. They might say that if you're having fun, you're not playing a proper 4X game, that the only "fun" is derived from looking back from the end of the experience, seeing just how much tangled cognitive chaos they created and/or successfully navigated. Don't get me wrong; every genre needs its hardcore fans. However, it also needs to accept variety and people trying new things. Today's 4X noob could be tomorrow's armchair emperor, having initially cut his or her teeth here.
Obviously, there were enough fans of SotS' approach to 4X that it warranted a second expansion, which certainly brings enough to the table to be worthwhile to fans and newcomers alike, though it doesn't fundamentally alter gameplay enough to deter stalwarts or be inviting those who haven't been turned on by the established formula before. As with previous add-on Born of Blood, A Murder of Crows brings a new race into the fold, the bird-like Morrigi. As one of the oldest races in the galaxy, they've sat back and watched the other, younger races expand and exploit for quite some time, only acting against them now as they encroach upon the Morrigi's own territory, defacing relics and artifacts that are sacred to them.
In contrast to the rough and ugly nature of the last expansion's Zuul race, the Morrigi exhibit a more elegant, organic aesthetic to their ship designs and such. They also apply "flock" logic to their means of travel, offering faster movement speeds the larger your fleet is. This also has the opposite effect on enemies, causing them to slow down when Morrigi fleets are nearby.
Being able to move more ships further and faster could make the Morrigi an overwhelming force, except that excessive fleet size and occupancy have a corollary downside brought on by a new feature with this expansion: population morale events. If you have a thousand warships just hovering over your planet, crowding the skies, intimidating the populace, and inhibiting their growth and expansion, the less happy they will become, even to the point of rebelling against you, becoming independent, or even siding with a nearby former enemy, forcing you to slaughter your own people to retake a planet.
Populations are now divided between imperials and civilians, who have different needs, but still don't bog you down with micromanagement. Put simply, the imperials rarely complain about anything, so long as the 4X-ing is going in your favor. Civilians are a fussier bunch, losing morale if they reach their adjustable population cap (viewed as limiting their "freedom") or if they become spread too thin among worlds. You can raise the cap to appease them, but not without financial and resource overharvesting consequences. It somewhat alters how you play the game by making you decide whether focusing on researching weapons for defense or atmospheric adaptation for population growth is really the best thing to have at your disposal. The only problem here is there isn't a clearly evident way to monitor overall morale without going to each planet, one by one.
In addition, aggression isn't your only route now. You can learn different languages to engage in more advanced diplomacy, going so far as to learn specifically why someone doesn't want to be allied with you, beyond the simple good/bad indications from previous installments. This makes it so you can form a stable galaxy with other inhabitants, rather than just wiping everyone out.
To this end comes one of the new scenarios in the game, called The Gathering. While the Morrigi don't have their own campaign, per se, the way the Zuul did last time, this new setup has you trying specifically to strike a harmony with everyone else around you instead of waging war. In fact, if any civilization is wiped out, the game instantly ends. It's an interesting twist on an otherwise typically warlike genre.
Another way that cooperation is encouraged over competition is in the ability to trade certain technologies with other races to learn things your race couldn't on its own, from weapons to language to shielding systems, and so on. However, there are limits to what can be traded, and how much, which is a good thing, as it prevents players in multiplayer games from dumping garbage low-level tech out there just to get a quick morale boost.
Further, the development and deployment of spies can help you gain the upper hand in a match. Spies can steal tech trees and event notifications from enemies so you know what they're up to, and they'll also help you track their movements and research effective countermeasures to whatever tech tricks they thought they had hidden firmly up their sleeves. With the right combination of research and morale, it's even possible to take an enemy planet without firing a single shot.
There are also new galaxy arrangements in this expansion, including Barbell, Clouds, Disk, Real Space and Custom. Custom galaxy design had me psyched, but for some reason, it doesn't let you change the number of stars in the galaxy, though it looks like it meant to. This may just be a bug that can be easily remedied, but it's too bad it was broken to start.
The other new scenario here is called Progression Wars, and is essentially a sort of gauntlet allowing you to develop and expand in one galaxy, take it over, then take what you've learned on to another galaxy of increasing difficulty, and so on until you're eventually defeated. It's an interesting mode that gets more demanding the more you play, not unlike Call of Duty: World at War's Nazi Zombie mode, and it should provide a stiff challenge for even seasoned veterans.
In custom scenario games, you can also adjust the frequency of random encounters, so if you really hate Von Neumanns or alien bug swarms, you don't have to see them if you don't want to. The race selection screen now tells you more about each one, offering a history and motivation for their expansion out into space, as well as revealing some of their technologies, strengths, weaknesses and so on. You can also determine AI difficulty, initial treasury amounts, how many colonies you start out with, and starting tech for each opponent individually, rather than one for all. About the only thing missing is the ability to play as all sides by yourself in a scenario; you can only play one player and the rest are always AI, as far as I've found.
Some have bemoaned the series' controls and interface for being too minimal and not intuitive enough. I spent a minute or two studying the hotkeys in the Options menu, and it was all pretty straightforward from there. I'm really not sure what the problem is for others, as I had little trouble finding which screen I needed when I needed it. They're largely unchanged from previous games, too.
In terms of visuals and sounds, not a lot has changed since last time, meaning much of the game has a smooth but minimalist approach to graphics, and the voice acting is still consistently good (Zuul) or bad (Human, Morrigi), depending on which races you like to play with.
As far as installation and technical playability is concerned, this version is 1.5.2; my previous Born of Blood installation was version 1.3.6 and wouldn't directly accept the installation of A Murder of Crows, for some reason. Starting with a clean install and then moving profiles and saved games seemed to do the trick, and some patches were applied during the installation of the new content. When all is said and done, I was able to drag and drop my installation from one drive to another, and it ran fine — even without the disc in the drive! It can be run in full screen or in a window, and it's light on resource usage, making it possible to drag the window around with ease, mouse out of it to do other tasks, or alt-tab in and out if you need to use the full-screen view. However, a series trademark is that a single copy can't be played MP on a LAN, which is still true here. Bummer.
All in all, Sword of the Stars: A Murder of Crows is a worthwhile expansion to those who are already infatuated with the series, but it doesn't alter things enough to convert non-believers. The changes to the formula are more subtle than in the last expansion, but they do open up more options in terms of how you can play the game, though it's enough of the same as before that if you don't want to delve into the new features, it's not really required. On the other hand, A Murder of Crows is coming out in a world where GalCiv II has seen more expansions, Sins of a Solar Empire has pushed things in new directions, and when compared to where these other franchises are headed, AMoC may not be fresh enough to catch the eyes of passersby. If you love SotS, jump right in because you're bound to have a good time. If you've never played the series before, this isn't a bad place to start, but it hasn't exactly kept up with the Joneses either.
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