Weíve seen something of a drought of 4x Space Strategy in the last year or so, with no Homeworlds or Haegemonias or even another Master of Orion (though that last one is probably just as well). The only stand out title in recent memory is the fantastic Galactic Civilizations II, a resoundingly successful game that has gone quite a way to rejuvenating what is becoming a stale genre. It is currently the best game of its type on the market, and it is against this and its imitators that Sword of the Stars (SotS) will ultimately be judged.
Based on the preview code I received thereís no doubt that the gameís designers are certainly ambitious. For a start SotS is set to feature four playable races, each one with a unique way of shunting their ships across the stars. Human fleets must jump from system to system using special Node drives, often taking very roundabout routes to avoid crossing gulfs of space, while the alien Hivers can set up giant Gate ships capable of instantly zapping fleets from one end of the galaxy to the other. It certainly makes a change from simply researching faster forms of hyperdrive.
The research aspect has been given a twist too. While a standard technology tree will be present in each game, it will also have randomly generated branches that will vary each time you play. Itís a handy little innovation, preventing players from becoming overly reliant on a certain type of super weapon or tech by occasionally removing it. As new technologies are discovered new ship modules become available to swap for existing ones, and the ability to design and customise your ships is another feature the developers are boasting about.
The game itself is split into two parts, with space combat being handled in real time while you manage your growing empire in turn-based mode. The galaxy you play on is represented in the full three dimensions (reminiscent of the classic Star Control), rather than the more traditional isometric. From here you can issue orders to your ships in various systems, manage research and construction via the side bar interface and generally enjoy romping through the universe destroying all in your path. Fleets of ships are pleasing easy to organise and controlled by a couple of clicks and a drag ní drop, while a lot of planet micromanagement appears to have been cut out, streamlining the game and lending itself to faster play. Instead of directing the construction and placement of buildings on each world (a la GalCiv) research and production allocations are controlled by a series of sliders. At first glance itís quick and simple, but I suspect subtleties will emerge within the complete game.
Proper real time ship combat is something that GalCiv didnít have, and SotS manages this well and with a minimum of flair in faux-3D. Ships look slick and very detailed, while their guns have plenty of oomph with weapon impacts lighting up targets and making plenty of satisfying noise, but on the whole I was a little unimpressed by the experience. The controls within engagements feel a tad limited at this stage, and I often found it difficult to keep track of my ships and there respective targets. Engagements are timed too, and while on the one hand this prevents battles dragging on it does frustrate when you are achingly close to a final kill and the game kicks you back to the tactical screen.
Being as this is only a preview Iím loathe to criticise a game with so much promise, but there are some glaring annoyances even with SotS so late into development. For one, the tutorial provided in the game is utter, utter rubbish. It consists of text-based articles on aspects of the game presented in a window on the right of the screen, but they are neither organised in a logical order nor tied to anything you might be doing in game. On top of that they are rather brief, give you no information on control specifics and the articles as a whole fail to explain half the game. Considering the copy I received came without a manual, this makes things twice as vexing. Tutorials are supposed to teach you everything you need to play the game. This one doesn't.
Secondly; the voice acting. Now, while it may seem that I give too much consideration to voiceovers in games, I would disagree on the basis that when it's done badly (and this is usually the case when I bring it up) it can completely ruin a gaming experience through the level of sheer annoyance it generates. Good voice acting in games is like the air you breathe. No problem when it's plentiful (hell, you even forget it's there) but lose it and you have a big problem. In the preview I encountered a few terrible offenders, the first that comes to mind being the (presumably) engineering-type chap who pipes up whenever you put a ship into production. Lines like "Shipyards gearing up!" don't seem so bad on paper, but now imagine the person saying it sounds like an American stand-up comedian's imitation of Mr. Scot from Star Trek crossed with the "Welshie" parody of the aforementioned chief engineer featured in Futurama.
A couple of other niggles are present, but itís nothing that canít be remedied before the game is launched. I still have worries about the camera controls (You can zoom, and pan, but you canít actually scroll. At least, I never found that control, it certainly wasnít mentioned in the ďtutorialĒ) Orientating yourself in the star map can be confusing at first, and this isnít helped by the poor labelling of planets, but over all I think Sword of the Stars is looking good. Iíll be looking out for this one.