Sword of the Star 2: Lords of WinterESRB:
Platform: PC Games
Category: Space Sims, Strategy
This is a review that tries to be fair. But to be fair, we have to explain why we're making the extra effort here. On the one hand, Kerberos are known to support their games to their graves and beyond. On the other, Sword of the Stars 2 was, due to a number of factors, released in a state best described as “alpha” on release, and is still incomplete at the time of reviewing. So before this review even begins, consider: This game will not be finished for a while, maybe months. Until then, if you buy it, you'll effectively be supporting the devs to make sure they carry on their tradition of supporting their games, testing and helping them out. With that out of the way, let's take a look at what SotS2 gives us now.
Sword of the Stars 2 is a much prettier game than its last incarnation. The ships (often the main focus of the game) look shiny and are all consistent in their racial themes. This is good. The UI is also fitting, although small text size on higher resolutions may mean a bit of eye-strain for those of us who happen to like large resolutions. The universe map has improved, the avatar pictures are not as bad as the last time around, and, while this isn't (except for the ships) eye-candy galore, it's still solid, visually.
Sound has not seen a huge improvement over the last game, being the usual collection of beeps, boops, and soundbites in most of the screens and menus, although some of the races no longer sound as silly when they're going through their stock phrases as they used to, being voiced slightly better. Hivers still sound ridiculous, but then, nobody plays hivers for the voice, they play it for the turtling.
As far as space combat and music goes, the music is unintrusive, but still cool to listen to, while space combat is filled with the same space-opera pew-pew as the last game, slightly remastered to sound better. I'll take that improvement and like it, because, among other things, mass cannons sound meatier this time around when they hit, and this can only be a good thing. Like visuals, the sound isn't groundbreaking, but it's solid, and it works.
Ah. Now we come to the meat of it. See, Sword of the Stars 2, like many 4X (eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate) games, relies on what's under the hood. And here's where the problem lies at the moment. The bare bones (basic combat, basic diplomacy, construction, colonisation) are there, but everything else is, at best, glitchy at the moment. For example, with space combat, invading a world (sort of necessary in 4X games) is a pain in the arse on manual. You will, I repeat, will, be spending 90% of the combat timer flying to the planet, and then have maybe 30 seconds to exchange blows. Whereas, if you put yourself on automatic, somehow everyone magically gets to their targets properly. It's thus a shame that, on automatic, I have yet to see a way to zoom into closeup view to see the action how it's meant to be seen. I know it happens automatically in manual under conditions like getting close to the enemy, but on automatic? Nothing. And the manual isn't all that helpful, itself being in the same state as the game.
The thing is, you can see, for the most part, what they changed from the first game, what they wanted to improve, and what they took out. For example, the game's ship scales now start at Cruisers, and get bigger from there on in, which is an interesting and useful choice. The idea of requiring diplomatic stations for anything except war, that's interesting too. The balance choices are good, like Hivers being able to get FarCasters (basically, your ships can teleport anywhere, but with a margin of error that may or may not screw them over) earlier, and the stations themselves are a good mechanic that often only turned up mid to late game in the previous outing. The problem with these good choices, of course, is that many of them aren't implemented fully yet. Diplomacy is still almost nonexistent, battle runs into the problems of the previous paragraph, along with some control issues, and the encyclopedia meant to help explain all these features is, perhaps unsurprisingly, as incomplete as the rest.
But it is improving. For example, trade is now getting somewhere, and the basic system for diplomacy is now in place (still almost nonexistent, but there, at least). This game is a very different beast from SotS 1, in that forward planning is a lot more important now. Instead of sending ships willy nilly, you have a number of fleets, commanded by admirals, and you send them on missions to systems instead of “Durr hurr, I move the ships here”. It means slightly less micro, although in late game, I'd imagine there'd be a lot to do. Diplomacy is handled by diplomatic points, which means that, until you've met a species, built a diplomatic station, exchanged diplomats, and generally gotten to know them, you can't make peace with them or trade. You can declare war, but everything else takes time and effort. And that's the key thing here. Everything takes some effort to do, so you can't just divide your attention wherever you want. You have to focus.
Just like Skyrim, what SotS2 gives with one hand, it takes with the other. Stations, for example, are easier to build and sort, but space combat is fiddly, and there's no budget ledger. This, as you might expect, leads to problems. Good example? I'm in a game as I write this, and, without warning, I've gone from 800,000 odd credits to -700K, and I can't remember what I'm meant to have built that costs so much. I suspect it was stations, but there's no way to check right now.
Otherwise, the management is alright. Things have filters, the province system (while not fully working yet) makes a lot of sense, and the game definitely has potential. Of course, some basic things haven't changed, and they do still introduce some fun challenges to the game. For example, different races have different travel methods, and it totally changes their game. Humans, for example, use a natural network of Nodespace lines (think wormholes), which means they can move quickly along those routes, but those routes may not get them anywhere faster than say, the Tarka, who have a bog-standard warp drive. Meanwhile, the Hivers are slow to get anywhere, but once they get there, they usually drop a teleport gate that, even without its early upgrade, allows instantaneous teleport of fleets throughout the network, and with it, allows them to hurl their ships up to 5 Light Years away (give or take a LY or two... coff). Each race takes a bit of getting used to, and newbies would be recommended to play the Tarka, but each is fun to play, and has their own tactics and styles. It also helps they finally have a beginner's guide, which is at least semi-useful.
On the one hand, the bare bones of the game are there, the potential is there, and I wouldn't trust many devs outside of Kerberos to patch this to a decent state. On the other, regardless, it's going to take at least a few months to patch it to a state where it's not just “sort of playable”, it's actually enjoyable. But if you feel like helping nurture a game to completion, by all means fork out. Those of you who are more cautious, hang back a few months, it should be cool by then.