- Can look beautiful
- ‘Build and Battle’ system is unique
- Interesting randomised tech tree
- No tutorial or explanation on fundamental functions
- Menu UI given little thought to usability
- Confusing options that are not explained
- Decision making yields unknown results
- Playing Sword Of The Stars II makes you want to cut yourself
A friend of mine has been in and out of hospitals for most of her life, there was a time whereby we would say “Oh look, she is broken again”. But she will be safe in the knowledge that her health is not as broken as Sword of the Stars II. With almost twenty patches to date and counting, I doubt that even a shot of morphine and a glass of JD could numb the pain. As open minded as I am about all things, this entry into the 4X space RTS may hopefully have some redeeming qualities after its 20th patch.
Regardless of whether you have played the original game to a sequel or not, a tutorial is always something I have come to expect, especially with strategy games. The understanding of units, construction, tech trees and so on need to be explained. In this case, the first half hour involves stumbling around blindly trying to find your way through. As a developer, if you don’t include a tutorial, it’s safe to assume that your user interface is so intuitive that everything will come naturally. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to navigate and the route to get to what you need to do is convoluted and long. It’s as though they created the game engine and the actions, but bolted on the menu system towards the end of their development time. Pure frustration sets in and it becomes a click-fest in a game of deduction. There is an encyclopaedia of sorts, but again it doesn’t necessarily tell you the right menu navigation. Ugh.
Learning curve on the UI aside, it’s graphically pleasing to the eye. Being able to spin and pan the universe on three axis works quite well and does enables you to see more. When zooming out, the number of planets to survey is astonishing. In fact, your entire time is spent sending fleets on recon missions to encounter other civilisations or planetary systems to colonise. Colonisation, an important part in the Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate from which 4X was coined, is somewhat haphazard. You will need a fleet and at least one colonisation transport vessel to do the actual colonising. Once you find a planet, this is where a Mr. Confused screen appears. When a planet is initially surveyed for the first time, a battle screen appears. There’s no list of ships that are attacking or being attacked, no buttons to press, no user input hints of any kind. It’s just a screen. At first I thought I was missing something fundamental, but with no obvious prompts or indeed any interaction available to you, all you can do is sit there and wait for this screen to “resolve” itself. I can only suggest that this is when you put the kettle on, which does have a button to press.
But the torment of the unknown is further entrenched into your consciousness after colonisation occurs. As some planets have toxic atmospheres, it takes a certain amount of cost incurred to colonise such planets. How much this cost actually is may not become immediately apparent until you are there. Upon looking at the stats on your new found colony, you are given an Economic rating, a list of security costs and Government expenditure…quite frankly the titles to these sections could be called Total Poo Cost and it would still mean nothing to the player. All these sections are accompanied by a slider which entrusts you with the powers of decision. Decisions to what exactly is again unknown, no amount of manual reading will save you here. Forums and Google is your friend and many searches will be needed to understand the effects. Personally, I love 4X complexity in terms of strategising your chess pieces, if only everything here made sense or at least gave you some kind of clue.
The tech tree however is a novel feature as it is completely randomised. Not only is the available tech research unknown, but even knowing about them presents another layer of uncertainty on whether it is feasible or not. There’s a plethora of tech branches waiting to be discovered, to enhance features such as for colonisation or weaponry. Experimentation is the name of the game, and since there is no great urgency to reveal a particular tech to advance your play, time is on your side to explore options. In terms of ship design, this has been quite well thought out; a blank canvas for you to create whatever you wish. A ship can be based on a specific class design, by adding or removing modules your dream machine can be prototyped. Again, the effects of changing your ship are not fully explained and a degree of trial and error is required which seems to be a recurring theme.
Space combat itself is in real-time and not turn based as per the main part of the game. It’s a fairly simple affair – point, click and shoot with retreat options should it get too heated for your liking. Graphically, this is the best part of the game and having a fairly good graphics card will yield eye candy rewards. There is little to no micro required for your ships, and ultimately it is a game of numbers on who has the better shields and fire power.
There is no doubt that the developers had grand designs on their 4X attempt in their sequel, but in general Sword Of The Stars II is just not much fun to play. The lack of information given to the player is puzzling and there are moments when you simply just don’t want to play anymore before you start gouging out your eyes with the mouse. If you want a 4X fix, Distant Worlds may be a better bet.