Sword of the Stars and its Horrifically Bad Sequel

By Seijin8Seijin8, on 22 Oct 2012 11:18
Last updated at 23 Oct 2012 02:30

I've been playing a lot of Sword of the Stars 2 lately. I am increasingly convinced that my only reason for doing so is my love of the original Sword of the Stars.

The Original Sword of the Stars

I highly recommend the original Sword of the Stars (SotS Prime) to anyone even slightly interested in the 4x strategy genre. It is like Total War in space, and it is by far my favorite game to have fully playable flying psychic space dolphins. Fuckin A.

One of the best things about SotS Prime was that it did away with the administration aspects of many strategy games. It was abstracted and streamlined enough so that nothing would keep you from the unmerciful slaughter and/or enslavement of your foes (whoever and whatever they may be). The designers made it a point to say that culture, diplomacy and trade are all well and good, but empires are founded on the bones of the losers. Their game reflected that perfectly.

Some of the highlights?

  • Mixed turn-based strategic and real-time tactical battles (much like Total War).
  • Six playable races, each with their own unique method of space travel, which hugely effects border tensions and how you play against them. Since a game may have all the races at once, this can significantly complicate matters, especially when some of them ally together. (Races detailed later.)
  • Randomized start positions with no guarantee of anything useful/inhabitable anywhere nearby.
  • Randomized links in the tech tree that could make your favorite technologies inaccessible, forcing you to take strange paths to reach them, assuming they can be reached at all.
  • Ships are constructed from one of three hull sizes (Destroyer, Cruiser, Dreadnought) using a mixture of three ship sections (Command, Mission, Engine). Many technologies on the research tree unlock new ship sections, and weapon systems, and the manner you mix and match them is largely unrestricted. Do you want fleets composed of primarily similar ships, or a mixed bag to keep the opponent on their toes? Totally up to you.
  • "Grand Menaces" roaming the stars might just pave over your beautiful empire for giggles, even as you are curb-stomping all the other "players". These menaces may force alliances or at least "cease-fire" situations to deal with them, right before hostilities erupt again.
  • Certain types of research are inherently hazardous. Want your civilization to be run by AI? You can do that (assuming the research links are in place). The definition of terror? Researching AI and finding that the next techs in line ("AI Slaves" and "AI Virus") which help deal with the predictable Hostile AI outbreak… well, those techs are missing. Hope you can win in the next 20 turns, because your days as a sovereign organic empire are numbered.
  • The good news: You have almost perfected the plague to use against your enemies, and it is 100% lethal. The bad news: The population of one of your planets has gone from 7 billion to… zero. But the infrastructure is fine, and you can probably go to the research lab and get their notes… you know, once the plague dies off.
  • Very reactive AI. If your first contact with them shows that you love lobbing missiles at them from far away, expect them to develop gruesomely effective point defense lasers, interceptor missiles, hardened hulls and electronic warfare to screen them as they close range and slaughter you with mass-driver broadsides. This may lead you to develop regional fleet designs to counter the local threats, or to rely on a single strategic doctrine to use against all foes.
  • Full 3D interface in the strategic map, so learning to deal with spherical borders and the intricacies of defending the spaces in between stars is critical. Of course, that lesson is different for every race, as are the correct answers depending on which races you are defending against. This feature is the #1 cause of people quitting the game. It takes a while to get used to visualizing a "campaign map" that way, since games have conditioned us into the classic grid/hex/2D style, even in space 4X games.
  • Most races, planets and enemies are an homage to classic science fiction, and it is clear that the designers at Kerberos Productions were first and foremost fans of the genre. There were many inside jokes that only geeks would get. I loved them.

The Races and their strategic drive systems (effecting all movement)

  • Tarka (lizard-ape-klingon-thingies) use a basic warp drive. It is moderately quick and straightforward. They are the "starter" race, without any unexpected complicating factors. That the warlike savage hunters of the dark are the "standard" says a lot about the devs' philosophy on what the game should be.
  • SolForce (humans) use a node drive that travels on preset connections between stars in a "string of pearls" fashion. The node drives are insanely fast, but limited in that some worlds that are technically nearby have no nodes linking them. Actual straight-line distances are meaningless for human node travel. Though they can cross vast distances rapidly, those crossings can be reliably (and often unavoidably) blockaded by a savvy foe.
  • The Liir (psychic space dolphins FTW!) use a "stutterwarp" system. Since their ships are heavy (filled with liquid medium) they use short-range teleportation systems to fractionally jump their ships several thousand times per second instead of actually moving them with thrust. This is harder to do near gravity wells, so their speeds are limited by distance to gravity. This means in tactical combat they can turn on a dime (while all others are skewing around with Newtonian physics), and accelerate rapidly to top speed (which is slower than most, so sharp angle turns are needed to remain evasive). In strategic combat, they are able to swiftly traverse the depths of space, but become slower near systems. They are phenomenal deep-space interceptors (but have trouble dealing with node travel because it cannot be intercepted in this fashion).
  • The Hivers (space bugs, yo) lack FTL travel (until very late in the game), and so their movement is plodding in the extreme. Until they get to somewhere new. Then they establish a gateway, and can teleport to and from any other gateway. These guys are horrific to assault against. Essentially, you must assault on numerous fronts and prioritize the destruction of the gates, because their entire freaking navy can defend any given system. This also means that you cannot raid their commerce, since it is point to point.
  • The Morrigi (Quetzacoatl) are an ancient race of feathered dragons. Their ships use a "gravitational flock drive" which gains power with all other similar drives nearby. A single ship is very slow while a Morrigi armada moves like lightning. Logistics and trade are their forte, and many planets have ancient artifacts of their species which can be activated. (These are traps for other races.)
  • The Zuul… badass parasitic psionic-brainmelting werewolf things. They devour worlds (so expansion is a must), come in large packs (can innately command more vessels at once), and if they make a planetary landing, will start converting your populace into them. They like making planetary landings because they also take slaves to drive their production. Zuul are immune to biowarfare, and must be fought toe-to-toe or ship-to-ship. They also use node travel, but would rather rip the universe a new one (using bore ships) than use existing node corridoors, so their node network is different from the nodes humans use. If a human and Zuul node path is identical, they can intercept one another in transdimensional space, which is hazardous in the extreme, since the denizens of the inbetween places abhor sapient life.
  • Each race has a "hazard rating" for the worlds they prefer to inhabit. This rating is randomly generated at the start of each game. In one instance, Liir and Tarka may get along famously since their desired worlds are so different, and in another, they are nearly identical and are direct competitors. An interesting property of the game is that your terraforming process shifts the world's hazard rating, as does the use of certain weapons against a world. There are instances where a player might leave a world to be colonized by a particular race, wait until the terraforming is nearly complete, and then assault it with nuclear fire. The net result: a world that was previously uninhabitable has been turned into a viable candidate through the biological effects of another species being incinerated. Each species has a range of possible values for climate, with some races (Zuul) having a huge range while others (Liir) have a small one. (Conversely, Liir have a greater facility with research, and biological research in particular, so they can learn to adapt or to improve terraforming methods… maybe… if the random-tech-tree-link-deities favor them.)

I could gush unendingly about this game. And that is why I find SotS 2 so gorram puzzling.

Sword of the Stars 2: The Lords of Winter

The design decisions and overall playability are… not just a huge step backwards, but completely counter to what made the original game fun.

  • You know what was missing? Administration and empire management using boring sliding scales! NOT! The simple interface of the first game was a bonus, not something to be fixed…
  • You can no longer simply give orders to ships/fleets. Now you must have admirals, they must have command ships, and fleets cannot perform missions without an admiral in charge. These admirals, which are a pain in the ass, lack all the flexible play style of the first game. Once issued, missions can only be cancelled, not modified. So I now have middle management to deal with, and they are less capable than when I ran things myself? Where's the upside? Much of the tactical flexibility of the first game has been eliminated in favor of this clunky mission-fleet mechanism which adds nothing to the game.
  • In SotS Prime, if you wanted to move a ship somewhere you clicked the ship (or fleet), pressed the move button and clicked where you wanted them to move. A travel line showing distance would be green if they had the fuel to make the trip, red at the point of no fuel if not. It was possible to send a fleet into space without adequate fuel and have a supply ship meet them partway to finish the voyage. No longer. Now, you have to arrange them into a fleet, click the destination, select the operation you wish to use (survey, colonize, invade, etc), go to a fleet management screen, select the fleet you want from a list (grayed out if they lack something to accomplish the goal, though it won't say what is missing) and if the stars align, confirm the order. This order cannot be modified, only cancelled, which sends them back to the originating planet. Once the mission is done, they return to the originating planet.
  • In SotS Prime, a fleet (with colonization ships) could be sent to a world, told to colonize, and the fleet could stand guard over the new colony. Now, the fleet is told to colonize, the fleet then runs back and forth to the new colony to support it, leaving nothing guarding it. There is no way to split the fleet. To do this, it must be two separate fleets — one for protection and the other for colonization — and both sets of orders must be implimented through multiple separate screens for each "mission type". Who the hell thought that was a good change to make? I understand that some automated aspects of this may have (on a drawing board) looked more convenient. Tell the admiral to colonize and his fleet will manage the development of the colony until it is self-sufficient, making as many return trips as needed to keep them stocked. If SotS Prime had been overcomplicated in this way, this change would have been valuable. But SotS Prime was simple. Colony ships were expended on use. Need more? Send more. The old system might have been slightly cumbersome for major colonization efforts, but the new system is cumbersome for everything. Not a positive change.
  • Research lines no longer cross different fields of study. In Sots Prime, technologies like cloaking could be achieved through multiple possible branches of study, from field sciences to FTL communications and sensors to energy weapons. Now all research branches go only within their own narrowly-defined fields, and many have no obvious future outlets. I have no idea where cloaking is found now.
  • In SotS Prime, every "system" was represented by a single star and one viable planet for everyone to fight over. The tactical map was simply the planet, any nearby asteroids or moons, staellites, stations, etc, and the ships fighting over it. The tactical battles were fought in flattened 3D (really 2D with some overlap possibilities). While this was unrealistic, it was also simple and conducive to gameplay. In SotS 2, there are multiple-planet systems, some with inhabitable moons as well. Each planet/moon has a type and hazard rating (if it is a viable candidate for colonization). While this is more realistic, the planets do not move within the system, and battles in systems now take far longer, as different sections need to be conquered independently. Unfortunately, the new mission system offers no way to accurately reflect this, to target specific worlds, or to react to circumstances within those places. While you can play the real-time element normally, there are major obstacles to be overcome. In many ways, this is a more realistic approach to system-wide warfare, and when announced, many players found it a welcome challenge. Unfortunately, with the new mission-fleet system, it is a very difficult challenge for a whole different reason. Planetary invasion now borders on the impossible, and not because of lack of forces.

And the worst thing? The game is still in beta. It was released to the public (and I pre-ordered it) a year ago. Many features are still not working properly. When it was actually released, the game was barely in alpha stage. 12 months later, it is mostly playable, but it isn't fun. The rapid, frenzied battles for planetary dominance have slowed to a crawl. (An administratively burdened, mission-fleet with no flexibility crawl.)

And Kerberos have just begun crowdsourcing for a roguelike set in the SotS universe.

Fuck you guys. Finish the damn game I already paid full price for.

To their (grudging) credit, there have been regular patches that fix issues and add content. Most showstoppers have been eliminated. But to release a game that was still more than a year from completion… I just don't get it. Almost all of the stuff that got added is… junk that destroys or dilutes the core gameplay that made the first game enjoyable. I would happily have just gotten an expansion that added another race, or some new world features.

In Summation

Sword of the Stars (original + expansions Born of Blood, A Murder of Crows, Argus Naval Yard, etc.) is AWESOME! and can be found for dirt cheap. The interface is hard to wrap your head around, but it really is simple once you understand it. And the game doesn't play fair. Which is also awesome!

Sword of the Stars 2 is a fine game to give to someone you wish to vex incessantly. Better yet, don't even touch it. It is distinctly un-awesome. I am about 15 hours into my most recent playthrough, and while the game hasn't crashed… that's about all I can say for it. I am waiting for a spark of brilliance or for the interface to finally stop annoying me… still waiting.

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