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Sword of the Stars capsule review

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  • Sword of the Stars capsule review

    I came across a recently-released 4X game by virtue of a discussion in the CivFanatics MOO forums. It's entitled Sword of the Stars and it's by a group of people who were involved with the creation of Homeworld: Cataclysm. So, despite the fact that they are a very new, small firm, they have something of a proven track record.

    Here's some links, FYI.
    Official site:
    http://www.swordofthestars.com/
    Official forums:
    http://www.kerberos-productions.com/forum/index.php
    Wiki:
    http://sots.rorschach.net/Main_Page
    http://sots.rorschach.net/Starter_Pages
    Demo:
    http://solforce.swordofthestars.com/2006/sots-demo/

    My take:
    If you enjoyed MOO1 and/or the Homeworld series, you should check out the demo. The strategic level of the game is quite abstracted in a similar fashion to MOO, upon which it draws heavily for inspiration. Only 30% of the techs are guaranteed to be there (the remainder being randomly available,) each system as at most one habitable planet, which is managed with a series of simple sliders, and the feel is in many respects reminiscent of MOO. At the tactical level, you're playing a simplified version of Homeworld, where tactical combat mostly takes place on a flat plane with ships of your own design. Your ship design options are more limited than in MOO, but in many respects your design choices matter more. The tactical combat is much deeper than MOO's tactical combat; not only is weapon selection important, but also formation layout and maneuver play important roles as well. One of the most promising aspects of the game is the fact that each race has a completely different drive technology that very much influences how that race goes about expansion and conquest. In some respects this makes the game like 4 games in one, and seems very nice from a replayability point of view.

    There are some differences as well, of course. Colonies are much more vulnerable in some respects than they were in MOO. However, oftentimes if you lose a colony but can regain space superiority in the system, it can be easy to re-found the colony. (In MOO terms, factories are left behind after the population has been killed a lot more often than they were in MOO.) There are no ground invasions or large-scale population transfers, there is no espionage other than military surveillance, and diplomacy is even more simplistic than in MOO. There currently are no victory conditions other than conquest or alliance conquest. The AI seems about as competent as the MOO AI -- a cakewalk for me on normal, whereas on Hard it's capable of giving a bit more challenge. If you want a stiffer challenge than the AI will provide, the game supports multiplayer with up to 8 players. Additionally, the designers are still in patching mode, so there is hope for improvements to address AI flaws. Plus they are talking about plans for expansion packs and sequels; they intend this to be the first game in a series.

    The game is out in the United States and also available for download via GamersGate (mainly for outside NA) and Direct2Drive (mainly for North America.) However the game has not yet reached store shelves in Canada and there have been reports of certain problems with the Direct2Drive version due to their encryption copy protection, so I don't have a copy of the full game yet. I have been playing the demo for a couple weeks now; at first I had some hangups with the interface, the relatively unchallenging AI (on normal) and a couple other design decisions, but it's grown on me over time. The tipping point for me was when I'd been playing as humans for a while and played my first serious game as Tarka, and realized just how different their expansion model was. Also, many of the interface problems I had with the demo have been fixed in the most recent patch of the full game.

    I plan to pick up the full version of the game as soon as it becomes available in stores in Canada. In the meantime, I encourage anyone who is interested in the 4X genre to take a look at the demo.
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