Sword of the Stars II: Review
7.0our score

No review of this game, I’m afraid, can really start until you deal with one major topic. Is it acceptable for a developer or publisher to release a game to launch if it’s broken?

Utterly not, is my opinion. I’d qualify that by immediately adding that it depends a lot on how broken a game is, and obviously there are lots of factors at work here. Financial pressure on the dev team, manpower and time issues, the impossibility of knowing exactly how a game will run on every jerry-rigged PC across the world, how many quantum butterflies recently flapped their wings, price of tea in China, etc etc etc. At heart, however, the answer must be no – it just isn’t fair on customers to release a game at full price if you know it has severe issues. And it certainly isn’t even remotely fair if you know it has severe issues, don’t mention it to anyone and then hope you can get away with it, as seemed to be the case with Kerberos and Paradox’s launch of Sword of the Stars II.

Combat looks great, really great. Much better than it currently plays.

On it’s launch almost a month ago, the game was broken to the point of incomprehensible. Random crashing, faulty UI, graphics errors and text and gameplay placeholders everywhere, many of which made playing the game impossible. There was lots of public browbeating from the developers, who claimed some kind of mystery crash meant the wrong game code was released whilst the real game code was wiped out. That seems a little incredible to me, indicating careless stupidity at best and woeful incompetence at worst. But as well as public apologising from the devs and the publishers, there were grovelling offers of free DLC and continuous round-the-clock efforts to patch (at least three a week) until everything is fixed.

I followed the subsequent broo-ha-ha on the forums, fairly entranced, as two very angry groups screamed at each other over the thorny morality of a broken release. Most people were furious, they’d spent money on something that simply didn’t work at all. Something this bust, they argued, should have been flagged up in advance. They wanted refunds, apologies and various levels of retribution on those responsible. I agree, for the record, I just don’t believe this was some super-error on the release day, and everyone would have been a lot more forgiving if the errors were made apparent up front

Oh god the combat behind the title screen looks cool and sexy. It's sadly still sometimes better to watch this than play in-game.

On the other side, a hard core of apologists for the dev team fought hard to stop people asking for their money back. Kerberos has an excellent track history for tech support, they said – pull out now, and the whole game could be left without funds or hope. Sword of the Stars I, something of a classic, had similar problems and was patched over time to be a superb game. Which it is, I’ve played it, detailed, fun, fast and absorbing 4X gameplay, well worth a look. So the team can clearly pull this off, but at the same time, wait, what, they’ve got a track history of releasing broken games? That take months to fix? That’s just inexcusable. Sorry, but it is. Nobody buys broken cars for full price. Nobody releases drugs without testing them. Charging for a broken game is just fundamentally stupid and dishonest, no two ways about it.

That’s more than enough preaching from my soapbox, though. If you want more trollish tales of woe and horror, check out the forums on Steam or elsewhere, they’re very… lively, I guess, is the polite word. Now for the game itself.

Every race has its own ship designs. Hiver ships look like flies. Their freighters are maggots. That says something about commerce, I think.

I’m playing about a month on from that god-awful release, and there have indeed been extensive patches, two to three a week. There are still issues, but this is shaping up incredibly well. However idiotic (or horribly stressed to the point of idiocy, I suppose) they were to let it out broken, the devs are definitely making good on their promises. Free DLC for those who’d pre-ordered, and a continuing raft of changes and bug fixes in operation. Do not, my fellow gamers, give up on this title. Don’t buy it right now, necessarily, but keep an eye on it.

4X gameplay is set on an epic level of space exploration and empire building. You must eXplore, eXpand, eXterminate and, errr… the other one, eXresearch new technologies, something like that, as you guide your nascent race of spacefarers into the dark void. From a tiny clutch of homeworlds, you must conquer an entire galaxy either before your opponents get there first, or before some nameless horror descends from the depths of space to wipe all of you out. Okay, the nameless horrors usually have names, but they’re cool ones. And they’re optional, you don’t need to have them in if you don’t want them. Your campaign is very adjustable to your own preferences.

The detail and scope in SOTS2 is impressive. There’s a huge research tree of hundreds of different options, most of which link to ship and weapon design. Will you go for a trade empire, full of powerful space stations and freighter chains? Or super-fast dreadnoughts, bristling with giant laser beams? Diplomacy or death, which will you deal most of? Your agents can infiltrate enemy empires to steal research or hinder. Your giant broadcast ships can bombard them with propaganda. Enslave worlds with a mind-control virus, or use psychic battlecruisers to drive enemy crews mad. Or make friends with everyone and ally against the galaxy-spanning threats (if you opted for them) later in the game.

This is the auto-resolve screen. It's just as entertaining as it looks.

Ship design is particularly engaging, as you can name not just broad designs but also individual ships, an ability I’ve always wanted to see in Total War games. Once you’ve decked out your new designs with the latest in massive plasma cannons, send them off to raid, invade, scan and build across your growing network of worlds. Each fleet will have an individual admiral, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and what a fleet is capable of depends entirely on what ships are in it. Survey teams to find new worlds, constructor fleets to create defence networks or stellar shopping malls, enormous invasion fleets, carriers with swarms of tiny fighters or larger gunships – the choice is yours. Combat plays out in real time with very shiny graphics, and the potential for enormous tactical cunning and flexibility.

There’s also an impressive choice of different races, six in all, each of which plays very differently thanks to the imaginative differences their space travel works. Militaristic Tarka ships are the most straight-forward, able to fly their living metal ships anywhere at reasonable speeds. The Sol Force humans are generalists, and are stuck with using random, pre-existing node lines between galaxies for fast travel in limited directions. The insectile Hivers creep slowly to new systems, then build teleport gates for instant access later. Travelling flocks of Morrigi traders move faster across space the more of them there are; the whale-like super-technologist Liir-Zuul Alliance are fastest in the freedom of deep space and slower near planets. The horrific Suulka hoard rip their own own node lines using bore ships, carrying them on to devastate new worlds with their parasitic tendencies. Each race comes with different music and sounds, and feels very individual, both in terms of their appearance and what tactics and technologies work best.

Fully 3D, the universe map is where you spend most of your time, so it's lucky it looks pretty amazing.

I played a bit of SOTS 1, late in the day, and very much enjoyed it. It was intuitive and fun, with such a wealth of options that you never had the same game twice. Civilisations is the nearest in terms of gameplay, really, it’s a slow pace with plenty of intrigue as you decide what to build and who to ally with, as well as when to plunge into the inevitable war. SOTS 2 takes itself a bit too seriously compared to the original, which is good in places. Your galaxies are fully-realised gems, studded with gas giants and asteroid belts, often littered with relics or surprise enemies, even tiny civilisations that can be brought into your fold. The attention to realism (crazy space future style) is impressive. But it’s also brought some irritating, if intelligently intended, ideas. Research trees, for example, have a random element. Many new techs need to have a feasibility study done on them before you can even research them fully, and there’s a random chance you can’t get them, or have to risk putting the money in for no results. Personally, I quite like this, it adds to the thought and planning and stops games devolving into a race for the same old game-winners every time. But I can see how it’s annoying. Similarly, the first copy of a new ship you design is an expensive prototype that costs way more than later builds. Fine, very realistic. But annoying if the only change I’ve made to the design is a new set of guns. I’m sure this is being worked on, though, the mechanics are frequently changing as the patches go up.

Combat is disappointing – it feels like you start too far away from enemies, and there’s a lot of flapping about pointlessly in space, looking for things to kill. The title screen shows you the kind of combat you want and expect, all glistening rays and missiles tearing up floating death palaces.  By the time you’ve found someone, there’s usually not enough time left to blow them up, so you end up chipping away at them over several frustrating turns. And the ship AI is hopeless right now. Clicking on an enemy ship tells your boys to shoot at it, but they make no effort to steer or stay near, they only fly to where you told them. You have to micro-manage on an irritating level. Auto-resolve has some very odd path-finding issues going on, so you get a radar display of Benny Hill dots jumbling frenetically around. It’s quite funny, at least. All the re-patching means things are constantly breaking anew – save games particularly – and the diplomacy, trade and general UI still suffer from bugs, placeholders and generally being a bit ropey. Crash to desktop is a regular irritation.

Ships can be fitted out with an amazing variety of guns, sections and abilities. Then sent to die in the cold vastness of space. Heh.

All that said, though, I think this game will live up to its promise. It’s big, clever, detailed and exciting. It also looks great (when it works), glossy and impressive. Give it a couple of months, perhaps, but don’t ignore this one, it is a worthy successor to its (currently cheap and easier to play) original. Once everything works as it should, this will have excellent gameplay and replayability scores, but they let it down at the moment while it’s still being mended. Keep an eye on it, though, this is going places.

the author

Used to be a Doctor (Dr). Now is an actor (Ar), writer (Wr) and gamer (Gr), and would like to get all these abbreviations into general usage, because GrArWr is a much more interesting title to have on your bank card.

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    I’m quite interested in this, but like you said: after a couple of patches. Pity though as I had incredibly high hopes after seeing some really early footage. It just doesn’t seem to have evolved much from there.

  • SolForce

    LV Tarkas vs LV Morrigi, and vs LV Humans. Late Game

  • Kraken Wakes

    Interesting video, that, SolForce – I’d be willing to bet it’s more fun to watch than it might have been to play? Unless you’re one of the chosen few who doesn’t struggle with the monstrous tide of bugs and gets crash-free gameplay. But at the same time, it does showcase what this game is capable of, and it’s pretty impressive. Help us, Kerberos Dev Team, you’re our only hope.

  • Kraken Wakes

    Anyone who’s still watching this – the devs have just decided that one year after release, the game is now at the place they originally wanted it to be at. I’ve played it again, and could add a point to the score above. The UI is still clunky, the game is idiosyncratic at best, but under those problems is a complex, involved and well-designed 4X space game. Plus it’s dirt cheap now, all the bad reviews really hurt the price. Woo!

  • http://www.shadow1980.co.uk Evil Tactician

    Does that mean they’re stopping active development or will the continue to support it for some time?

    The game has been sitting in my Library on Steam but I’ve been reluctant to play it in fear I will be disappointed with yet another 4x sci-fi game. And this one seemed pretty damned interesting when I looked through the feature list.

    I’ll have to give it a go soon :)

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