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Sword of the Stars II Review

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Updated Thu, Nov 10, 2011 by Stow

I’ve been wondering where all of the strategy games have been this year, and in the same month we got Stronghold 3, Heroes of Might and Magic VI, and Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter. The first one had one of the worst releases ever and is still being fixed, ol’ HOMM VI has broken critical features two patches in with Ubisoft not caring, and thus, my hopes rested on going into space for the returning 4X strategy series. The developers are a small house called Kerberos, and they had a hell of a problem getting their first game into a playable state, but eventually after a few expansions and patches, it has found its way into the hearts of the strategy gamers that gave it a try.

I gave you guys the benefit of the doubt last time, Kerberos. You guys were the new kids on the block and you let your wide vision combined with lack of focus destroy your initial offering.

Unfortunately, I don’t even know if I can call this a sequel in its current state.

Cautions

This game should be rated M for Mature. Only people that have incredible patience and understanding will have any clue how to even build a ship in this.

Gameplay

23Pitiful

At its core, SOTS 2 is deep space strategy, and the designs of greatness are all there.   Your typical process for one of these games goes something like this

- Engage in diplomacy.  Establish profitable trade

- Commence expansion and research

- Scout opponents, design fleet that will win handily

- Take hands off keyboard and watch the resulting light show once the fleets engage!

- Repeat until all other races are trampled underfoot.

Hell yeah!  I’m going to get my Star Wars on, and kick some ass like Sins of a Solar Empire!  No, hold your horses.  This game is purely turn based for the strategy section, which means you’re not doing a game in ten minutes, or even 60 minutes.  A game of SOTS 2 will take you 6 hours, but to be blunt, it’s going to be more like 60 hours.

Each aspect of your ship is under your control during the design process, from the turret types to several chassis assortments.  I've always wanted to play Battleship Barbie.

Most games have 60 hours of gameplay maximum these days, hell, console releases are more like six, so what’s not to like here?  The game hates you.  That’s about the best way to describe every concept and aspect of SOTS 2.  We’re going to start right here and now and get one thing clear about this game.

You are alone.  You have no help, no manual, and a tutorial overlay that might point you in the right direction if you get lucky.  Everything you do in this game is learned first hand.  Even veterans of the first game will spend their first hour or two looking around dumbfounded, and then you’ll sink into your first 20 turns and get stomped by a scouting party.  Then you’ll do it again and again and

Haha, who the hell am I kidding?  The first time I fired this game up, I went straight to the encyclopedia in-game to brief myself on new concepts.  The game crashed about 3 topics in.  I fumbled around with the game for another hour, pulled up the encyclopedia again, and no matter what topic I clicked, I was locked on a page.  Half of the pages seemed to come up with nothing to begin with.  Look, if you’re going to create a deep strategy game, people need to understand what the hell the stuff they’re doing does.  Okay, fine, so the encyclopedia isn’t where the learning will be done.  Time to field test my warfleet.

Even designing a ship is a mess.  You’ll feel like you need a degree in quantum physics just to comprehend the weapon stat sheets at first glance, and this is before you even researched anything!  I understand that the idea of this is to make designing of your battlefleet incredibly deep and full of decisions to make, but the real decision most players are going to pick is the one that looks best during the test fire (a cool feature!)

So after issuing your orders and ending your turn, eventually you have to decide to attack.  You then get a little tactical game of sorts, where your ships AI bugs out, mass drivers miss 80% of their shots while stationary drawing a bead, and a whole slew of other fun things that are seemingly dedicated to making ship battles suck, like having to play hide and seek in a star system with a time limit.   When the combat is done, good luck figuring out what other missions completed.  You basically have to micromanage every one of your constructors each turn, since you have no idea who finishes when unless you’re running a big line of sticky notes on your monitor.

“But Stow, there’s an incredibly deep game here and you just don’t get it”

I wish.  There’s a difference between being unable to understand the product, and being unable to play the product.  So many basic things are broken and lacking in this game that it’s mindboggling.  I’m going to throw you for a loop here; the die-hard fans of this game have put together a laundry list of what is broken, missing, not working, or just flat out wrong, and it's enough to make anyone sick.

That’s right folks.  No wonder the game is so deep.  A third of the damn research and respective weapons do nothing!

Graphics

50Poor

I’m not going to lie, zooming in on a fleet as it is unloading shots from turrets and cannons all over its surface is badass and will never get old.  But the planetary overviews and menus are ugly, and have terrible transitions.  The art for the factions and captains has improved tenfold over the first game, but it’s still not going to win any awards.  For as much time as you spend managing your star systems, they could have done a better job at making critical things more visible—normally this would be a gameplay concern, but when graphics hinder gameplay, well, that’s SOTS 2 for you.

The best shot you'll ever see from this game.  Half of those shots miss their mark, but space battles aren't about winning or losing, but looking fabulous and making for mediocre sci-fi shows.

I mean you launch the game, go into gameplay options, and there’s a resolution box.  Not a drop down menu, forget all of that, an input for the resolution of your dreams, as well as some checkboxes for graphical flair you probably won’t manage to see before your game crashes.  The game is windowed by default, although you can make it full screen.   It’s like they know you need a wiki out or their forums simultaneously—whether it be to look up information or troll them for refunds.

Sound

40LousySeemingly random voice clips will announce things throughout your empire, and you’ll get some badass weapon sounds firing off if your game stays stable long enough to make it into combat. Music is surprisingly ambient though, consisting of little more than what I’d call space elevator music. Games like these really need decent soundtracks to keep that 'one more turn' feeling going.

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