Sword of the Stars (PC)

Developed By: Kerberos Productions
Published By: Formerly Lighthouse Interactive, now Paradox Interactive
Release Date: August 29th, 2006
Available On: PC
Genre: Turn-based Strategy with some Real Time Tactics
Number of Players: 1-8, LAN or Internet
Pros: Turn based strategy with real time battles; randomized tech tree so no 2 games are exactly the same; four races that really are different; Simplified interface so that most adjustables are controlled with sliders
Cons: Interface is pretty sparse at times; Story progression is mostly through written manual; diplomacy is rather limited, music and sound is mostly lame
ESRB Rating: E10+ for Fantasy Violence
Moral Warnings: None to speak of; there is ship to ship violence

System Requirements:
* Microsoft Windows 2000/XP
* 1 GHz Pentium/compatible CPU
* 512 MB RAM system memory
* 128 MB DirectX8 class video card
* 4x CD-ROM/DVD-ROM drive
* 56-Kbps modem
Version Reviewed: 1.2.2

We really appreciate it that Paradox Interactive and GamersGate supplied us Sword of the Stars for review.

In the early 22nd century, Humanity gives its best to develop the giant ring-shaped node drive, which allows them to travel at many times the speed of light towards the nearest star. They take years to create the first colony ship, into which they put their hope of peaceful exploration and expansion into the galaxy. Unfortunately, the Hivers show up to spoil the party, and the colony ship is destroyed. Humanity is forced to build more powerful ships, with bigger weapons. They also encounter other enemy races, like the Tarka and the Liir, which gives humanity no choice but to expand and conquer. Thus, they have to wield the Sword of the Stars.

Sword of the Stars is a turn based strategy game where you and up to seven others explore the galaxy, expand your empire, exploit resources, and exterminate your enemies. This is sometimes called a \'4X\' game. Each turn, you manage each star system by choosing what to build, and how to allocate its resources. There is also the ability to research new technologies, design your own ships, manage fleets, join or break alliances, trade with other factions, or other actions depending on what ships are at a location. You can also issue commands for ship movement. If ships from non allied factions meet, at the beginning of the turn there begins a combat phase, which takes place in a real time, pseudo-3D tactical view.

When you go to start a game, and choose single player or multiplayer, it offers you custom or scenario maps. Scenario maps are one of six maps included with the game that offers storyline progression when you play. Custom maps are ones you define with specific parameters, like galaxy shape, star density, number of players, and so on. On scenario maps, some allow you to choose any faction to play, while on others there may be factions that only the AI can play. The number of players are also predetermined. The storyline progression takes the form of specific objectives for each faction, as well as events that occur throughout the mission. Some missions have you pursuing a hidden objective, others have special restrictions, while others have your performance in constant review by your superiors. It\'s interesting, and provides some insight as to how each faction is put together, by helping you get to know their societal structure somewhat.

When it comes to the four races, this game does a much better job than many in truly differentiating them. While much of the base tech tree, and the general game experience, is similar, the weapon and armor configurations, and most especially the movement, is much different. Humans have the node drive, which is very unique. As hinted at before, they travel between star systems by following node lines, which allows them to travel very quickly between them; faster than any other race for direct star to star movement. However ? and this is significant - they can only travel that quickly in between nodes with a node line connecting them. If there is no node line, there is no faster than light travel. This can mean that some planets are not reachable by node travel, or others that are physically close are many turns away because there is no direct node path. If a planet is not reachable by node travel, it can take many, many turns to arrive, as only slower than light travel is available, which is painfully slow. Otherwise, Humans are average in their armament, ship armor, and technology tree progression.

The Tarka have the simplest form of travel familiar to many Star Trek fans: the Warp Drive. They travel in a straight line, at constant speed, to their target. It\'s not particularly fast, but not slow either. It\'s probably the best beginner\'s race, especially since they are also average in ship armor and above average in weapon loadouts.

The Liir are an interesting race, in that their transportation method is the Stutterwarp. How this works is that their ships repeatedly teleport small distances over and over at high speed until they reach their destination.
This has a few implications. The first is that they travel in a straight line to their destination, similar to the Tarka. Another is that they don\'t have to worry about momentum. You see, in battle, all other races have to obey the laws of Newtonian physics, so if a ship is moving in a certain direction, they have to slow down before they stop or turn around; they can\'t change direction or stop on a dime. Since Stutterwarp does not actually move, but instantly transport, they can turn around almost instantly, which can help a lot when avoiding fire or trying to catch a target. One of the interesting side effects of this on the strategy view is that their movement is slowed down by gravity wells, or planets. But in empty space, it\'s extremely fast. This means that they are fast to travel long distances, though shorter ones are not necessarily any faster than the Tarka, and it\'s hard to sneak up on your enemy since their sensors are likely to see you since you\'re close. Their armor is the weakest of the bunch, so care needs to be taken in battle. On the flip side, their research rate is faster than all other races, and they are more likely to get advanced technology than anyone else.

The most unique race is the Hivers. These guys\' societies are structured similarly to a bee or ant colony on Earth. Their unique transportation mechanism is that they have never invented faster than light travel. As a result, their early game is slow starting, since they have to travel really slowly to any planet they have to travel to. However, if they get a strong foothold in a sector, watch out. They have a special ship that they can bring with them called a gate. Once this gate is deployed at a planet, all ships at another planet with a deployed gate can travel instantly through the gate to any other planet with a deployed gate. And, the more deployed gates, the larger the fleet which can travel through gates that turn. This can lead to some unexpected defenses when a Hiver planet is attacked! Another bonus to the Hivers is that they are armed to the teeth, and have the most armor of any race. They also have a bonus to colonizing planets. So while getting started can be quite challenging, in the end game, if played well, they are often a force to be reckoned with.

With that background in place, let\'s look at how the game plays. There are two main portions of any turn, the strategy view and the tactical, or combat view. The strategy view is where you plan your movements between turns. What you order here takes place once the turn ends. This is where all of the research and fleet management takes place as well. The main view in this mode is the planetary view. You get a 3D, fully rotatable and zoomable view of the galaxy. You can zoom out such that all planets are barely visible, or you can zoom in so you can see only one planet on the screen. The mouse scroll wheel performs this zoom, and double click or middle click recenters your view on another planet. It can be pretty tricky to do as you have to have your mouse cursor positioned exactly on the planet in order for it to register. You can also rotate your view by holding the right mouse button. You can double click on an already selected planet or fleet to zoom in on them. From this view you can give your fleets orders, adjust budgets for a selected planet, get a good overview of your empire, and access many other important subscreens, like advanced fleet management, diplomacy, the ship designer and builder, the research screen, and others.

Other than the planetary view, the views you\'ll see the most are the research, design, and ship building views. The research view is a cylindrical view where you rotate left and right to find whatever you want to research. The areas that you can research include Industrial, Biological, Drive technology, Power technology, Shield technology, C3 (communications), and weapons including Warheads, Torpedoes, Energy, and Ballistic weapons. There are many items in each area, and as more is researched in one area or another, more items that were dependent on that also appear for future research. One of the real draws of this game is that the technology tree is randomly generated each time a game is started. While certain technologies are guaranteed to a player, like cruiser and dreadnought construction, most others, including the tech paths to get to that research item, are mixed up between games. When this game says that no two games are identical, it means it! It\'s also interesting that unlike many games, there is not a lot of balance/counterbalance going on. While there are some things that counter certain kinds of weapons, the game designers focused less on balance issues since you are not guaranteed your favorite weapon type in any game. Nor are you guaranteed a certain type of defense, so it balances out real well. It also means you are forced to become familiar with more of the tech tree since your favorite tech might not be there next time, so you\'ll have to find a suitable replacement. You can also influence how quickly you can research something by moving a slider that helps determine how much of your empire\'s total surplus income goes to savings, or research & development.

The design and ship building views are equally important. You start with a handful of premade destroyer ship designs, and the rest you must design on your own. You also start with a few basic hull types, like Extended Range, Armor, Tanker, and Colonizer. There are three sections of each ship: the command, mission, and engine sections. As you research through the tech tree, you unlock more types of each section. Each section also has a certain amount of weapon locations of various sizes, including small, medium, large, and other special mount points. Depending on the weapons you have researched, you can assign each and every mount point as well as ship section to make ships of your own choosing that meets the needs you have in mind for it. Ship design is really well done, and enjoyable. Once you make a design you like, you save that design and give it a name. If you leave the default, it will name it with the mission type with a \'Mk #\' afterwards, if you are lazy or uncreative (like me). The ship building view simply lists your previously designed ships, and allows you to build them at the currently selected planet. When you build, it uses the resources of that planet as well as whatever money you have in savings in your empire to pay for the cost of building it. You can adjust how much of the planet\'s resources go into construction or trade, which affects how much savings you accrue from that planet that turn, or how quickly your ship build order gets completed. You can also switch planets with the tab key, to get a quick survey of what\'s building right now.

The other main view you\'ll be spending a lot of time is the tactical, or combat view. After you choose to end your turn, your orders are executed, and any conflicts need to be resolved before the next turn begins. Before any battle, there is a battle resolution grid. This is where you choose how you want to deal with this conflict. If there are more than one conflicts to deal with this turn, they will be listed here in order. You can choose to avoid battle peacefully, have the AI auto resolve the battle, auto resolve if your opponent decides to, or manually enter combat. Unfortunately, there is no \'run\' option; to do this you must enter combat and manually avoid your opponent.

The combat view is a 2.5D view, specified as such because the graphics are all 3D, and ships will move up and down to avoid objects, but battle generally takes place on a flat 2D plane, as you can only order them to move that way. When battle begins, a timer starts counting down from a specified length of time; the default is four minutes. If you did not arrange your fleet with the fleet management screen, your ships fly into battle in a straight line; command is given to you, and the battle begins. The number of ships you can control at once is determined by various research technologies, and whether or not your fleet has a C&C (Command and Control) ship available. C&C ships not only increase your manageable fleet size, but allow you to customize the order for reinforcements. The larger your fleet, the more reinforcements you have available. It is a natural target for your opponent to help remove these capabilities, however, so having more than one C&C ship is vital for long term usefulness of the fleet.

When you first engage an unknown fleet, all of your ships default to holding fire. This is good, because sometimes, if you don\'t want to fight them now, you can get out of a hairy situation. Unfortunately, the diplomatic options, especially on the tactical screen, are virtually non existent, so you have to wait out the battle. Fortunately, there is a battle speed keystroke, ctrl+page up, which can speed up an encounter by up to 8x. Thirty seconds can still feel like a while when you are trying to run away, however. Once you first engage a fleet, the default from then on, with all subsequent battles, is to attack on sight, and that\'s mostly what the tactical view is all about anyway.

While in combat you can choose one of several attack modes. The default is Normal, where you give each ship in your fleet every command. This includes where to move to, and who to make their primary target. Ships tend to fly in perfectly straight lines in this mode, though they will avoid objects in their path. The other modes use some form of artificial intelligence (AI) to help you manage them. Stand Off is a mode where your ship engages in the battle, but keeps their distance. I didn\'t find myself using this mode much, though playing with it it seems to be useful for ships with a lot of longer range weapons. Close to Attack is a mode where the AI takes over and aggressively engages the enemy. The nearest enemy is automatically targeted, and the ships move in as close as possible and circle the enemy until they are defeated. Both Stand Off and Close to Attack are useful in that your ships automatically move to engage the enemy; ships set to Normal do not move unless explicitly commanded. For those looking to direct each action, the Pause key on the keyboard can be used to pause the battle momentarily and you can input orders during this time. One thing to note is that any ship will automatically attack a nearby enemy, even on Normal mode.

During battle, damage is noted down to the very section that the weapon impact hits. What this means is that the Command, Mission, and Engine sections can be individually targeted, though it\'s even more fine grained than this: you can target individual turrets, and they can be shot off that way as well. Since it takes some pretty advanced targeting research as well as accurate weapons for this, it\'s more likely that during most of the game you\'ll be targeting ship sections. But it\'s important to note that each shot\'s damage is registered upon impact; it\'s not calculated ahead of time. So what you see is what happens. One of the side effects of this design decision is that they did not put in health bars on ships. You need to pay attention to various damage and fire effects to know the status of any one ship in battle. One side effect of this is that unless you are very involved in the process of keeping your ships moving, you may find that using an AI supported attack mode may help your ships live longer since they have to be hit before damage is done, and it\'s always harder to hit a moving target.

Another possible target of your fire may be the population on the planet in which the battle is taking place. The faction owning the planet is always given an advantage, since they can do two things that the attackers cannot: add Defense Platforms, and the population of the planet itself attacks the enemies with missiles. As your fleet gets closer to a planet, your ships will bombard the planet with damage from above. If all population of a planet dies, no matter the victor of the battle, the enemy loses the planet and has to recolonize it. This can be quite costly. On the other hand, if you manage to spare the planet of most damage but defeat the enemy, you can take over the planet while having a lot less infrastructure to build; this can significantly speed up planet colonization.

Colonizing planets is a vital process to expanding an empire. Without good, mature planet populations, you will never earn enough money to be able to do much of anything, including settling on new planets. Colonization costs money, and lots of it. Depending on the climate hazard level of a planet, it can cost a lot up front and even more over time as you try to build up enough population and infrastructure to make a planet self sustaining, or profitable. The end goal is to have as many planets populated as possible, but early on some planets are simply too expensive to settle right away. There are several ways to somewhat mitigate the sometimes very long time between acquiring a colony and when it starts to positively impact your bottom line. Probably the most important way is to pick carefully. In the early game, you really should avoid planets with a climate hazard much above 200-300, max. There might be a few reasons that you would want a planet near 300 early on; that might be because of a large planet size, which allows a higher maximum population, or a lot of resources, which will mean that it will eventually produce a large amount of income. But be careful. Another important way to improve the speed of production is to throw more colonizer ships at the problem. Sending five colony ships, instead of one, makes a huge difference in how quickly a colony can become profitable. An incredibly important way to improve things is by adjusting the planetary budget. If a planet is still being developed, it\'s more important most of the time that they get to their full potential before focusing on the empire\'s bottom line, so move that budget slider all the way to Construction (vs. Trade). You can also help them focus on Terraforming, which fixes the climate hazard of a planet, or Infrastructure. My advice is to focus on Terraforming, until all the money left goes right to Infrastructure. One last way, which has some downsides, is to utilize the Overharvest feature on a planet to more quickly get them heading towards a usable planet. This is in effect costing you more money long term for more money now. Often, though, it\'s a worthy trade off. A good rule of thumb is to never waste more than ten percent of the planet\'s total natural resources on colonization. It greatly increases the speed of making it useful, so early on in an empire it can really help turn the tide.

Even with all of this, there are some more wrenches that can be thrown in for good measure. If you chose to enable Random Encounters in the game setup screen, you can often find yourself being attacked by a Random Menace, especially as you explore new systems. Some of these menaces are fairly easy to handle, but many can be quite challenging, or even devastating. The only saving grace is that your opponents have to deal with them too.. and they can be turned off when creating a game, which is recommended for new players.

The multiplayer mode of Sword of the Stars works remarkably well for a turn based game. At the beginning of a game, the host chooses various turn time limits to keep things moving along. The host can also adjust them at times throughout play. There can be a maximum of eight players in any one game, and teams are available, if the host chooses. Each player\'s turn takes place simultaneously, and there is a status pane where you can see what each player is doing, whether playing their turn or waiting for the other players. There is also a special beep heard when a player ends their turn. After a turn, if there is a battle, every player has to wait for all battles to complete, but other players can design and save designs in the ship designer during this time, which can help keep the wait from being too boring. Fortunately, many players are courteous enough to utilize the auto resolve battle feature unless a particular battle is really important, or with another player. If alliances are allowed in the game, you can form non-aggression pacts, or even alliances. You can also send savings or research money to aid another player. There is also basic chat support in the game. While most internet games are with players utilizing the latest versions with most or all of the expansion packs, I was pleased to see the occasional game running just Sword of the Stars version 1.2.2, which is the final version without any expansion packs. You can also host your own game, hoping for others to join.

One of the really neat things about this game is that single player saves and multiplayer saves are interchangeable. If you are playing a single player game, and you want a friend to take over a faction, simply save and load the game as multiplayer, and have him join you. If you are playing and you want to see how the enemy factions are doing, you can also load the game and change who the computer controlled factions are. If you are playing an online multiplayer game, and the host leaves, you get on your hard drive a save with the last state of the game before he left. You can resume with another single or mutliplayer game, and either another player, some of the same players, or AI can take over in either the hosts or another player\'s absence. As a matter of fact, you can leave at any time, and have the AI take over. It\'s a really amazing feature that I\'m glad to see in place here. The flexibility afforded by allowing the AI to take over at any time is just great. It does need at least one human player, or the game will end, though it can be loaded again at any time.

Graphically, this game is competent for when it was released, but nothing spectacular. It\'s an interesting mix of cartoony art, and somewhat more realistic but still cartoony ship designs. It\'s not a bad look, but it didn\'t grab any awards for graphics in 2006 when it was first released, and it isn\'t getting any more now. The best part is that the animations between weapons, and what each turret does is clearly viewable, and really reflects what\'s going on.

The sound and music is a real case of almost but not quite annoying. The music is very ambient. If you heard the music from the strategic view, you\'d immediately think “Oh, that\'s the quiet, ambient sounds of space.” Except there really is no sound in space.. but that\'s besides the point. The battle music is slightly better, but it tends to get repetitive and drones on a bit. The most telling comment about the music has to be this: I often play games after my kids go to bed. When playing this game, I would often find myself staring at the star system, thinking about the next step, and.. nodding off. It\'s not that the game is bad, it\'s just that the music had that sleepy ocean wave effect on me. Honestly, after a while the battle music wasn\'t much better. One game I turned on turn time limits, and that helped me a lot in staying focused because I had a limit to keep. It was something. As for the sound effects, the weapon shots and blasts were satisfying, and sounded as I would expect them to. The voices are somewhat annoying at times, though not enough for me to turn them off. Some races have special sound effects applied to the voices that I found a little annoying, in particular for the Liir.

The interface for this game was intended to be much simplified from the spreadsheet simulators that many 4X games had devolved into. As a result, there is only one resource, and all money allocations are done via sliders. For someone like me who is not too hardcore with simulation or strategy games, I think it\'s great. So in that sense, mission accomplished. At other times though, it seems a little sparse. It\'s not always clear what certain things do, or how to use them. I also had a real hard time succeeding until I read a strategy guide online, in which I picked up a few really important details, like the colonization information I posted above, that totally changed how I went about expanding my empire. Without that I felt a bit lost, though. It\'s also not clear how some of the diplomacy stuff works. The interface is mostly discoverable, but there are a few rough edges, and there are still a few techs for which I don\'t know how they work.

Fortunately, stability is very good. I even had the game survive a sleep/resume cycle in Windows Vista. The only complaint I have is that if you start a game full screen, at say 1920x1200, and press alt+enter to go to a window, and then restore full screen mode, the resolution changes, but the blurriness that you expect when expanding a lower resolution onto a higher one remains. I\'m not sure what the cause is, but it\'s the only thing even close to a bug that I experienced. I tried resetting my resolution again, and several other things. It takes a save/quit/restart game/load cycle for everything to return to normal. Strange, but certainly no deal breaker. Also, the game will not run at less than 1024x768.

When it comes to appropriateness, this game is pretty much squeaky clean. There is some ship to ship animated violence. If you read the supplemental material that comes with the game, you\'ll see that most races have some rather unique relationships between the sexes, but this is more a description of them than anything that effects game play. For the most part, I agree with the ESRB\'s E10+ appropriateness estimation.

Sword of the Stars is a fun, engaging entry into the 4X genre that tries to keep many things simple, and still offer depth, and I think it mostly succeeds. There are some interface quirks, weak diplomatic options, and the music and sound are not all that inspiring, but the developer has shown some excellent support over the years, and has, at the time of this writing, released three expansion packs. As of this writing, GamersGate and Paradox Interactive have given us two of them for review. I really look forward to trying them and seeing what has kept this good game, with much potential and room for improvement, going for all of these years. This game is available as a bundle with its expansion packs, or alone, on at least GamersGate and Steam for a reasonable price. If you enjoy turn based strategy, or 4X games, give Sword of the Stars a serious look.

Appropriateness Score:

Violence 7.5/10
Language 10/10
Sexual Content/Nudity 10/10
Occult/Supernatural 10/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical 9/10

Appropriateness Total: 46.5/50

Game Score:

Game Play 14/20
Graphics 8/10
Sound/Music 6/10
Stability/Polish 4/5
Controls/Interface 4/5

Game Score Total: 36/50

About the Author

Cheryl Gress

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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