Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter Review
By Simon Graves |
I was excited to try out Sword of the Stars II, the latest foray into exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating. Developed by Kerberos Studios and published by Paradox Interactive, it encourages you to colonize planets and dominate the galaxy with turn-based strategic decisions and real-time combat. Disappointingly, after just a few campaigns, the only thing I want to do is launch this game into the sun.
It's difficult to know where to begin with Sword of the Stars II's issues, but let's start with the patches. Since SotS2 released, there have been seven patches, including two on release day. If it was a matter of civilization- and ship-balancing, adding new interface tweaks, or providing better feedback, I could write it off as the development team, which is small, just trying to cram in some extra features. However, each iteration's long patch notes read like a beta tester's report. It's entirely possible that by the time you read this review, SotS2 will have changed again with different features fixed and broken. It's great that the developers care enough to keep at it, and in time, all the bugs may indeed get squashed and the game becomes worthy of your attention… but it's not right now.
Let's say you patch up and manage to actually get the game functional—which means cutting down the graphics quality, because having it anything beyond medium-low textures will freeze it on the menu screen. Other than browse an encyclopedia, which is also bugged and doesn't feature anything but game fiction, all you can do is create a new single- or multiplayer game. There are no tutorials, little documentation (none at all if you get the Steam version), and absolutely zero help for anyone just starting out. There's a "Scenarios" tab in the game creation screen that implies one-shot, specific scenarios, but clicking it literally does nothing. Whether the developers changed their mind about adding scenarios, or they simply haven't made any yet but left the option in for no reason, it shows they didn't give the game even the most basic layer of polish.
I've played enough 4X games that I was reasonably sure I could figure out the controls. The game is almost entirely mouse-driven, which is a good thing, but it features nebulous consistency about when to right-click and when to left-click. On most screens, there's a little question mark icon you can click on to view a panel of the control layout, but it's usually a clustered mess of text and graphics the first time you see it.
One "tutorial" panel per screen, meaning everything is smashed together. You'll probably need to read it a couple times before you absorb it.
Now, every 4X game features a rather steep learning curve; it's the nature of the beast. And within a couple campaigns, you'll begin to see what works and what doesn't, how to do basic things such as researching efficiently, and how to organize your ships. The problem lies in the fact that, if something doesn't work, you won't know whether it's because you missed a step, or because there's yet another bug stopping you from doing what you want.
During the real-time combat phase of play, your ships can be set to "stances," which are rules of engagement: you can set the ship to hold fire, to pursue wounded craft, to stand ground and not move, and so on. However, the stances are only represented by symbols without tool tips. (My first ship is set to "circle" and my second is set to "equilateral triangle pointing up"!) And it turns out, when you give a move order, the ships currently ignore the stance entirely and just follow the order with their default stance, thus making your original command useless. Thanks to a certain poster on the official forums, I know that to get my ships to actually use the stances, I have to 1) select all my ships; 2) set the stances; 3) order them to attack a target; 4) individually select one ship in the fleet; 5) order it to break formation and fly near the target but not actually at the target). Then that ship will actually listen to the stance I set. Now I just repeat that for each of the twelve ships in my fleet and it will finally work! That is, as long as the enemy doesn't, you know, move or something during all that.
I'm not being sarcastic when I say that the community for SotS2 is fantastic. Many of the posts in the official and Steam forums are complaints about this-or-that feature or the game itself, but there are many players who are diligently looking at workarounds and strategies, figuring out how X action produces Y result, and posting tutorials and advice to help others. If you're dead-set on playing SotS2—or you've already bought it before realizing its short-comings—know that the community has your back. Their dedication to documenting how the game works makes the lack of it from the game developers that much more maddening.
There is no in-game information about the advantages or disadvantages about any given technology, and the turn estimates for a given research project are often miscalculated.
And to be sure, there are a lot of systems to document here, from weapon fire patterns to the effects of the armor on a given class of ship. You can design your own ships, and the process is user-friendly enough once you get the clicking straight. It's just that none of it is explained in-game, and it's difficult to know why exactly a given ship won or lost combat without researching online and massive experimentation.
It's a pity, because the 4X genre can be among the most exciting and thoughtful games on the PC. Through your orders and decisions, you should watch your empire grow from a single colony on a single planet into a sprawling, massive empire that eats up planetary resources and commands large fleets of vessels that secure your power through their guns. You're not alone galaxy, and the way you ally or backstab rival civilizations should define both your empire's goal and you as a leader. But diplomacy, like every other major part of the game, is broken. You never know whether your relations with other races are actually contributing to your own agenda. It feels like a dice roll whenever you talk to them, rather than getting consistent results from consistent personalities.
SotS2 features basic trance music, perfectly fitting the game. Its sounds don't fare so well, especially not the voices of your ministers and admirals. In an effort to sound alien, the developers heavily mechanized the voices and threw a bunch of radio static on them, making all of it sound like Auto-Tune had a baby with an electric can opener. Combat sounds are uninspired, but they seem to function enough. It's just unlikely that you'll want to play the game enough to make combat or anything else a regular experience.