Space…. a place of silence and death, an occasionally big explosions and sinister aliens.
We all wish we could explore and colonize it, but only games let us facilitate this petty dream.
Sword of the Stars: Ultimate Collection
It’s been three years since we first graced the cosmic wastes and astral plateaus of Sword of the Stars; three years since the first simplistic version of the game was released to a gaming audience that was largely starved of space-based strategy games. Of course, three years is a long time in the gaming world, especially with the constant advances in processing power and graphics cards. Indeed, it’s just this fact that may belie the real reason that two add-on packs later, we’re still eager to see more of Kerberus’ epic space title. It works.
It’s a simple enough concept – choose a space-faring race and conquer all before you – and given the sombre and vaguely morbid tone of the intro sequence, as humanity is blasted to shreds yet inexplicably survive, it’s clear that this is not about Star Trek style, touchy-feely sentiment. It’s also easy to see that the generic introduction is simply not a part of the game proper. Much like other space strategy titles, it’s all scene setting and as such bears little effect on the actual gameplay and is more to do with the trappings of the genre, which begs the question of there is a need to include it at all.
Despite some improvements brought in through the expansions and patches, the fundamental gameplay in Sword of the Stars has remained thankfully unchanged. For those who are yet to visit the series (you’ve missed out!), the game plays out through a series of stars and planetary bodies that are strewn across a 3D star field. It’s up to you to colonise new worlds and defend your civilisation from attack. The volume of the planets and the size of the map are dependent upon the map and type of game selected, which can either be chosen or literally built, star by star. The ability to build your own galaxy will probably only appeal to off-duty NASA technicians and people with far too much free time, as the scenario-based missions have capably constructed star-maps for each situation and the open-ended games have more than enough options to satisfy the vast majority of players.
Play takes place in a turn-based system, where you are given full control over the worlds you own. The expansions have helped to fill out these systems by adding in morals and the ability to plunder planets until they have barely any resources left. Naturally, such activities are often best avoided, but having the option makes for a cunningly vindictive way to enjoy the spoils of power. There is also the newly factored in population to take account of while playing; your people have a nasty tendency to react badly to disasters and if you can’t keep them happy then expect to face revolutions around every corner. As well as minding the particulars of your planets, you can also invest cash into building new technologies from a system of randomly chosen trees, giving you boosts to all aspects of the game except interstellar travel. You can also outfit new designs of spacecraft and weapon platforms and organise grand building schemes. The system for doing so is ludicrously simple and yet effective; it’s a literal chop shop of machine parts, allowing you to stick the engine of choice onto the mission-appropriate body; throw in a command style and you’re laughing. The option to choose how to arm the craft is equally appealing, as it can make all the difference in combat.
As previously mentioned, one aspect of SotS that keeps the gameplay varied and greatly adds to the replayability is the asymmetrical nature of the competing travel technologies held by the various races. The six races on offer all vary between both style and their manifest cultural identity. The Humans are naturally present and their style and form of craft is pleasantly generic enough to satisfy the most xenophobic of players. The rest of the races comprise a variety of species-based cultures to choose from and, unlike some examples of the genre, there is more on offer here than a simple avatar choice and a few different ship models; each race has a unique form of interstellar travel that cannot be used by any of the other races. For example, whilst the Humans utilise a space-lane form of interstellar motorway, the marsupial Zuul have massive wormhole bore-craft, which leave a slowly fading wormhole that makes short work of the interstellar leagues. Conversely, the Insectoid Hivers must first slowly construct massive warp-gates before they can send fleets across the galaxy. This makes for a massive difference in the tactics chosen for any given game, as the benefits of one form of travel might mean a quick method of getting to distant systems, yet woe betide you should a colony be attacked nearby and you need those forces turned back quickly.
Despite this, there are little real differences between the playable races, which is both a blessing and a curse to the game, because the rest of the experience is ultimately similar. Whilst there are several scenarios in place for the single player to follow something resembling a story, there are no campaigns or story-based continuations to pursue; instead there is merely the variety of options to construct or manipulate the in-game world – and if it weren’t such a compulsive experience then it’d be likely that many would simply grow tired of it.
The other mainstay of Sword of the Stars is the combat, which is quite separate from the ‘map and menu’ look of the rest of experience. At the point you enter into the optional combat sequences, the game turns into something akin to Homeworld, as you enter a 3D view of the planet with your ships lovingly rendered around the system, waiting for point and click orders to attack the encroaching foe. It’s such a system shock when this happens that it isn’t surprising that all combat can be allowed to pass automatically, relying upon the computer to decide the outcome and saving you having to bother with it. The only problem here is that you don’t get to see the outcome; should you lose, your ships simply vanish, meaning that at times you’ll attack an enemy then come back to check on the battle and find that all your ships are gone yet mysteriously the planet now belongs to you. Pyrrus would be proud.
If you do choose to play out the battles then it’s a jolly wheeze, if a somewhat unsatisfactory one. The ships are controlled by simple clicking, with a bank of selectable weapons that can be fired at any particular point on an enemy vessel. While that makes for some tactical fighting, it isn’t helped that you can’t actually tell if you’re doing much damage and this presentation also means that if you’ve got a hefty fleet up against another large force it’s a struggle to keep tabs on all the ships as they whiz about. Often you’re better off opting out of a fight, perhaps even forging an alliance or going for a simple standoff, proving the old adage true that in space every war is a cold one.
Despite its huge, open-ended nature, the variety of races and compulsive moreishness, Sword of the Stars is far from a perfect experience. Time has been fairly unkind to the game and in a period when graphical prowess is a key factor in gaming, its slightly worn and simplistic nature is all too obvious. Comparative to other newer games such as Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations II, Sword of the Stars looks rudimentary and – for lack of a better word – low budget. Even upon first release it was admittedly not the best-looking space game to have graced the humble PC, and while the supplementary expansion packs have helped with some additional detail and animations worked into the frame, this does little to alter the fact that Sword is a simplistic looking game that by modern standards isn’t quite up to scratch. The sound on the other hand is brilliant, as the haunting, ghostly echoes of music give a real sense of the unknown and the race-defined voicework borders on comedy genius. There’s a winking nod to every over the top B-movie alien race in the throaty and guttural utterances, which never become tiresome, while the continual bleeps and pings hark back to the old Flash Gordon days and again bring a smile to the face.
Having stood the tests of time pretty well overall, and with a further add-on pack recently released, it’s clear that Sword of the Stars isn’t going to go down without a fight. As a pack, the Ultimate Collection is a bargain for the price and, given the wealth of possibilities at hand, it would be madness for any enthusiast of the space strategy genre to pass up a game like this; it might not be the prettiest of its ilk, but it’s certainly one of the most compelling and enjoyable.