Explore, expand, exploit and exterminate – I’ve always had a deep love for 4X strategy games, ever since the likes of MOO bled onto my screen. Sword of the Stars 2: Lords of Winter, from Paradox Interactive and Kerberos Productions, takes the whole 4X thing, throws it into the middle of deep space without any sign of a tutorial and expects you to build an empire worthy of tackling some of the universe’s nastiest of nasties.
SotS2 is quite a work of art, sure it looks magnificent with gloriously coloured space backdrops, streaming nebulae, highly detailed stars, planets, asteroid fields, it’s all there in a superb mouse controlled environment. Upon starting the game, you are given the choice, amongst other things, to personalise your faction and space faring race, the state of economy and available resources then you’re off – in space and looking at your home colony, now what?
Indeed, you really are pretty much left well alone, apart from the most basic of hints and tooltips to help when your eye eventually catches sight of the research screen. For me, personally, I didn’t mind that too much, and I imagine that for many other lovers of 4X, space-themed games, this wouldn’t be all bad, but for the new comer? They could very well be left adrift in a universe of hurt.
However, one you get to grips with the basics of building, research and exploring then the game begins to come together and you start to become less of the little lost boy, and more like the general in charge of space command. It’s usually around this time that the game AI decides to throw in your first encounter. Without a doubt, the first encounter will be one of a sudden and violent nature, mine was the Hive, who had fitted out a giant asteroid and were in the process of swarming all over my small fleet of ships. From here you can have the game auto-resolve the conflict for you, but in doing so you’ll miss out on another selection of beautifully drawn graphics. This early in the game the ships you use are pretty useless, although the AI does take this into consideration and you fight like for like ships, so commanding them to converge on the enemy, outflank them and then unleash a nuclear hell can, and inevitably will, go horribly wrong, so you’ll find yourself drawing with your enemy more times than actually winning. Progress a little further, research more powerful weapons and build some of the big leviathan class star-ships and that seemingly annoying combat suddenly turns into a massive, several hundred strong, galactic battle.
The tech-tree you have available to dip into is both varied and open, the game may do some level of hand-holding to begin with, but the tech-tree is essentially yours to intelligently manipulate and do with as you see fit. Although, again, it’s down to good strategy. Sure the photon lasers sound cool, but pretty useless if you haven’t already researched the ability to fly faster and have a better power source, so have a think about what your doing.
One of the best elements of SotS2 is undoubtedly the ship design function. You could quite easily spend several hours on this alone, deciding on the placement of weapons and so on. I never played the original Sword of the Stars, so I can’t comment on whether this is an improvement or a new element to the series, but I had fun making a ship that would never in a million years be able to fly, let alone go into combat. Again, though, the ship design section is without any kind of tutorial, so you were left to your own devices and good old trial and error.
Be patient and don’t spread yourself too thinly across the galaxy, is a tip that I took to heart from a particular forum, and one that has worked very well when playing SotS2. This, I believe, is a problem that other players, and reviewers, have when testing a game like this. We’ve been spoiled recently with games that allow us to charge into combat and expand beyond our capabilities, whereas SotS2 needs you to take your gameplay down several gears and sit back to think about your next move.
Bugs. Unfortunately, there are quite a few, and while they did make the game crash a couple of times, they didn’t kill the save game, or the affect the empire I had spent many hours to build. Thankfully, the developers are well aware of the problems, and even in the few days I started playing there were none other than three major updates that fixed the issues I had, as well as other that I hadn’t encountered. To me, this shows a level of commitment on the part of the developers, they agree that the bugs exist but rather than brush them under the carpet they are attempting to hit the nail on the head and deal with them.
SotS2 is enormous, as big as the universe as described by the legendary Douglas Adams. I can’t possibly go into the finer details with the limited space I have here. Although it has it’s problems, and isn’t for the faint of heart, this is a game that strategy lovers could sink their teeth into and not be seen for several weeks’ after. It’s the lack of a decent tutorial that would have otherwise helped you to get into the game faster and the initial amount of bugs that knocks a few points off the score, but I think a much deserved 8 out 10 is reasonable. Look out for more DLC, updates and other goodies.
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