Sword of the Stars Reader Review
Sword of the Stars is a strategy game - a melding of a turn-based space "4X" ala GalCiv/MoO with real-time space tactical battles ala Homeworld. One interesting way to look at a strategy game is as an assembly of two equal halves: an interesting mathematical universe, and the user interface - a utility for helping you interact with that universe quickly and powerfully.
At this point, sir, I have some good news and some bad news. Which would you like first? Very well.
If you've played the demo or read about the game at all, I really do need to address the user interface first. It hurts to use. If you choose to buy Sword of the Stars, you're going to be fighting all by your lonesome (the tutorial is worthless) to learn to navigate its quirks. It's what happens when a bunch of hardcore, experienced strategy gamers try to imagine a "newbie-friendly" interface without reference to real-world utilities. Intended to prevent information overload and speed entry to the game, it's wound up lobotomised, difficult to learn and obstructive to those who've learned it. Instead of organising information carefully, it scatters some, obfuscates more and simply discards the rest in the name of "simplicity". It is woefully inconsistent, with plenty of important cryptically- or even un-labelled buttons that don't look "pushable". Shortcuts are lacking, mouse mileage is high, information is sparse - and all that assumes that you've installed the (in the neighbourhood of) release-day 1.1.1 patch, which fixed and added vital features and improves things drastically over the demo and boxed game. Odds are that if you game enough to read Eurogamer, you'll be cursing the interface and imagining better skins for your first ten hours or so of SotS.
That's the bad news out of the way, then. Well, not quite. The voices range from innocuous to tooth-grinding. So, quite standard there.
Phew. Now, why in the world would anyone fight this monstrous pile of buttons? Why don't I feel more cheated? Simple. The good news is that if you're willing to spend the time and stress of learning how to do things - look at it as an add-on to the price, if you can - then SotS is a carefully balanced and polished wargame with parsecs of depth and the wonderful, elusive and addictive quality of "flow". The game behind those buttons is some of the best fun you can have with little computer starships.
This review's already too long, so I'm not going to run down too many mechanical details you can find elsewhere, but these are some of the design elements most likely to bring people up short.
First, there are no meaningful diplomatic or economic victories. This is, by design, a streamlined 4X wargame. It is dedicated wholly to conquest and xenocide. Second, the combat, while it includes a meaningful physical third dimension, locks command and most movement to a single plane to avoid the reverse-bearing and camera issues inherent in more ambitious games like Homeworld. This works well. Finally, most controversially, Command and Control is tracked and determines how many ships of what sizes you can have on the "field" at once. CnC research and ships can "unrealistically" allow a twenty-ship fleet to "outnumber" a sixty-ship fleet on the field. This allows them to inflict much greater damamge than in a numerically equal matchup, though the sixty-ship fleet is still likely to gain a decisive victory through simple attrition.
If you can live with those provisos, there's a lot to love here. The game revolves around battles, which in turn are fought with your customised ships in highly satisfying storms of laser beams, missiles and thumping mass drivers. Each of the four races moves, fights and researches differently, there are various "environmental" enemies in the galaxy, and the technology tree scrambles itself slightly with each new game - all of which leads to a succession of genuinely new and interesting permutations. SotS is also notable for an often tidy and satisfying endgame. Thanks to an excellently designed interdependence between a player's economy and power, players tend to end with a bang as strings of well-orchestrated attacks cause their fleets' support to implode. That is, assuming they aren't simply taken out by the gleeful stomping of one of the endgame's "dreadnought" class starships, hulking piles of planet-killing weaponry and armour.
If you simply can't stand shoddiness, pass this by. If you're willing to dig a bit to find goodness and like either space war or strategy, this is a game you shouldn't do without; it'll give you months or years of entertainment. Keeping in mind that a ten's not perfect, for me it would have been a ten with a good interface - so the serious interface problems are enough to knock it down to the center of "almost brilliant".
More information and help getting started is available at a fanmade wiki, sots.rorschach.net .
8 / 10