Sword of the Stars Ultimate Edition Review: Why Simple Isn't Always Better
Sometimes, simple is better. This is often true in games, where complex game rules which look interesting on paper end up overly complex and confusing in reality. It is possible to over-simplify, however, and Sword of the Stars is proof.
Two Games in One
What is Sword of the Stars?
That isn't an easy question to answer when judging the game from afar. When the original version came out in 2006 it wasn't easy to figure out what the game was meant to be, and having played the Ultimate Edition, which includes the game's two expansions since 2006, I have to say that it is still hard to summarize the game. That is because Sword of the Stars is really two games in one. It is partly a 4X space strategy game with the typical turn based expand and conquer philosophy. But during battles it turns into a real time space strategy game somewhat reminiscent of Homeworld.
Because this is essentially two games in one, I'm going to review each in turn, and then review how Sword of the Stars meshes them together.
Jumping into the turn-based portion of Sword of the Stars is a rather baffling experience. Not because of its complexity, but because of its simplicity. Turn-based empire building games, be they set in space or on solid ground, have always involved complex colonization and construction gameplay elements.
Sword of the Stars does not. That isn't to say it is easy, but it certainly isn't as involved as Galactic Civilizations. The big choices revolve around what planets to colonize, how quickly to develop them, and how to defend them. There are just a few simple sliders to adjust, and that is it. This approach was so baffling to me at first that I thought I was missing a part of the game, but it just wasn't there.
Is that a problem? I think so. Cutting building and construction out of a turn-based empire building game is like cutting the shooting elements out of a FPS. It does keep the game moving, and it helps prevent things from bogging down towards the end-game. If you get there, anyway - I find empire managing to be so boring in Sword of the Stars that I don't think I'd ever bother trying a game in a large galaxy.
Still, there are a few good ideas. The ship design is top-notch, and should be included in more games of this type. The location and type of weapons and equipment used can make a big difference in battle, and building designs that counter enemy ships is extremely important to the game's strategy. The research is also stellar. The trees are not linear, yet are interconnected, and the techs are unique and have a lot of flavor. I don't recall a better research system in any recent turn-based game.
And then there is flavor text. If making games doesn't work out for the developers, I think they have a strong future in writing science fiction novels. There isn't anything that unique at a basic level about the mythology in Sword of the Stars. There are human, bugs, savages, and some race that has been around for a really long time. However, Sword of the Stars presents the races in a believable fashion. Better yet, this lore also has an effect on the gameplay. For example, each race has its own unique means of propulsion, which has a significant impact on how the different races play throughout the turn-based game.
Real Time Gameplay
Like the turn-based portion of the game, the real time battles in Sword of the Stars also seem rather simplified. While the style is somewhat reminiscent of Homeworld, there doesn't seem to be the same level of tactical depth. Basic orders can be given, and positioning can actually be very important, as can factors like range and speed. The real time battles are not just for show, and the outcome of a battle can be effected by the player to a significant degree.
The problem, however, is that the interface ends up being the player's largest enemy. This was a comment against Sword of the Stars back in 2006, and though I heard that some steps were taken to resolve it, I don't see the results. I found the camera controls to be impossible until I thoroughly consulted the manual. Even then, there simply isn't enough feedback given during combat, and it feels obscure even when you're zoomed in up close and personal.
Worse still, ships don't seem to be particularly responsive. There were times at which I simply quit out of frustration because my vessels didn't want to response to my commands. Or rather, I quit after the game allowed me to, because I could not find a way to end a combat early.
Screwing it Together
So, Sword of the Stars has a real time strategy game and a turn based strategy game. How does it all come together?
To put it simply, it doesn't.
I don't know what else to say. The only element which links the two parts of the game together are the ship designs, which are produced in the turn-based portion and have a significant impact on the real-time battles. Having just played Gratuitous Space Battles, however, even that does not impress. The two portions of the game have very little to do with each other, and worse, neither portion is that good.
At this point, I think my verdict should be obvious. I'm not that hot for the turn based elements, and I hate the real time strategy portion of the game. Sword of the Stars simply feels lazy, as if the developers couldn't be bothered to make a deep game and instead decided to dress the sin of sloth in the disguise of simplicity. Simplicity only works, however, if the elements cut out were getting in the way. Instead, Sword of the Stars cuts many of the most important elements of both turn-based and real-time strategy and does nothing to replace them.
That isn't to say that the game is a total wash. Sword of the Stars nails the ship design and research elements, and it also does a better job of creating unique asymmetrical races than any other turn-based strategy game in recent memory. If these elements could be used in a game with better core gameplay, Sword of the Stars would be excellent. But as it stands, Sword of the Stars is simply an also-ran, a game with a few bright ideas which stumbles because it forgets to make sure the core gameplay is fun.