A First Look At: Sword Of The Stars II

By Jim Rossignol on May 9th, 2011 at 10:00 am.

Last week I got a chance to look at upcoming 4X sequel, Sword Of The Stars II. We’ve all seen the fruits of the overhauled 3D battle engine, but what what of the other aspects of this many tentacled space-beast? Read on for some thoughts.

My first impression from the starting menu screen onwards was: yes, this really is still Sword Of The Stars. The clean presentation and bold UI is unmistakable, even in the rather samey realm of space 4X games. Hit the game creation screen and we’re already giddy on the ether of options that the game is going to provide. A slider for the number of star systems is first up, and we drag it down to produce just a few, and then up into the hundreds. This slider is basically saying: “Does your game last a couple of hours? Or is this a 40-hour epic?” Add to this the options for average planet resources and such, and you have precise control over the scale and complexity of the game ahead of you.

That said, the galaxies are – I believe as in the previous game – all the same shape. Within that spread the planets and star systems are all mixed up every time you start a game. This means that you might face the same rough space-topography on a map, but one playthrough will still be different from another. This desire to make things different each time you play reaches deep into the game, and seems to be motivated by making the game replayable, but also unpredictable for players who have already mastered the basic game. Paradox seem to think this will help with multiplayer, since veteran players won’t have as much of an advantage from having learned where things are or how the unfold as the game plays out. For example, elements of the tech tree are randomised. You might research one type of weapon, but you can’t necessarily tell what tech will branch on from that. Nor can you tell precisely how long the research will take. It might take longer and demand more research, or your scientists might make a breakthrough and unlock a particular piece of hardware early. Needless to say, the tech trees are vast, too. We saw just a glimpse of it – a huge neon glowing wheel with a dozen or so options, each one opening into a large sub-tree of its own.

What this means for the level if skill that players are able to bring to the game is interesting. It’s a flattering off through randomisation that doesn’t seem to eat into the fairness of the game. No blasting your way through acutely learned tech-builds here, because there’s always going to be some room for things not going as planned. I really like this idea, and I’m surprised we don’t actually see more innovation in game standards like the tech-tree.

Anyway, real-time space combat is back, of course, and the ship-design system is suitable impressive. You can define the loadouts and specifications for all ship types, from tiny little scouts and interceptors, up through larger and more flexible cruisers, through the mighty dreadnoughts and up to leviathans, which are their own little deathstar. All these things are hugely customisable, dependent on where your civilisation is in the tech-tree, and it all feeds into the actual hands-on space combat events.

That 3D space combat engine is meticulously detailed, with the ship models all taking specific damage to whatever area is actually being hit. This is a space combat game where use of space is actually essential. Rolling your ship to take fire from a flank that hasn’t already been battered by the enemy becomes an key move, for example. The UI is interesting here, too, because every ship has its own little readout bubble of stats around it. Zoom out and this becomes little more than how their shields are holding up, but zoom in and you get an exact breakdown of all aspects of how that ship is doing, plus you get to look at its beautiful super-structure being scarred by enemy lasers. It’s neat design.

The rest of the game seems to operate largely as you’d expect from a 4X game, and just as you’d expect if you’ve played Sword Of The Stars. You explore, colonise, terraform, and have to balance how hard you harvest a world vs population growth, and how much you push its development versus climate damage. Kerberos do have a couple of susprises planned however. One of these is that ship range is not now limited simply by energy costs – they can’t just roam as far as they like – they are instead tied to a specific base. This means that while fleet X might be able to capture system Y, you’re going to have build another base – and another fleet – if you want to get to far away Z, which is out of the original fleet’s strike range. It’s a small change, but the kind of thing that alters strategy in an interesting way. I think it makes it rather more realistic, too, with fleets operating in their own region, as they do in naval operations in the real world.

The other surprise, which we’ve known about for a while, is that Kerberos plan to introduce a new race. All the races in Sword of the Stars play differently, although the key tenets for each are the same, but apparently this latest addition will play “unlike any other”, so I will be intrigued to learn what that actually entails. Hopefully the new race won’t be so different that everyone wants to play it in multiplayer, of course, because it’s the drop-in-drop-out campaign that sounds like the best bit of Sword of The Stars II. The games can be set up so that you can play a vast 150-star galaxy over the course of a series of weekends, with AI capable of taking over if and when anyone can’t be there to take their turns. I wonder how many people actually find time to play these vast campaigns, but I know it was the kind of thing I relished as a younger man, when I had more nerdy-needs, and a lot more spare time.

Whatever your time constraints, however, Sword Of The Stars II could be quite the thing. We’ll find out if it is in September.

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54 Comments »

  1. aldo_14 says:

    Oh crikey. I hope this is moddable.

    (crikey in a good way, I mean)

  2. Uglycat says:

    I really want to like SoTS but the ingame tutorial comprises of video tutorials which are not very helpful.

    • Garmr says:

      Yea, I had the same problem, the tutorials somehow managed to shun me away. I’ve been planning to get back to it though. Maybe this will be my incentive. Yes damn you autumn just hurry up already, I’ll be willing to trade of three months of puny sun for the great games of the coming autumn.

    • mwoody says:

      I got as far as discovering that a) I couldn’t pan the map around because of a purposeful design decision by the devs, and b) I couldn’t find a way to turn off the horrible voice acknowledgement whenever I did anything – including simply ending a turn. That, combined with a heaping handful of other UI annoyances, just drained all the desire to continue out of me.

    • Torgen says:

      Hmm, that sounds like a big red flag for the hearing-impaired like myself.

    • Vinraith says:

      The best resource for learning the game is, as is almost always the case with grand strategy games, the wiki and forums:

      http://sots.rorschach.net/

      http://sots.rorschach.net/Beginner%27s_Guide

      http://www.kerberos-productions.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=8117

    • QuantaCat says:

      It had some silliness, agreed, but most of that was worked out with the later versions and expansions.

      Unless you mean it was still there after the patches and so on..

  3. Dlarit says:

    Wow this sounds very interesting! It’s on my radar!

  4. Bluebreaker says:

    the picture at middle is from SotS1

  5. Antsy says:

    Oh will you just hurry up, September. Come on now!

    • Archonsod says:

      I think this might be my most anticipated game of the year …

    • Quine says:

      I think this might be my most anticipated Year of the Game…

    • westyfield says:

      Now that Mass Effect 3 has been delayed to 2012 this is my ‘most frenziedly excited about game’ of 2011.
      Chop chop, September, come along now!

  6. DrazharLn says:

    The complete edition of the first game has different galaxy types at least. I don’t know if that was in from the start or added in an expansion.

    Excited.

    • ZedF says:

      It was there from the start and will certainly be in SotS2, but they may not have put it in the build they are showing to the media yet since the game is still in alpha.

  7. Dana says:

    But if you cant transfer fleet from base to base. This will be, meh.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      This. It seems a bit daft to make it so you can never transfer a fleet to a new base. You should definitely be able to, at a cost of course. That way you could still use one fleet to conquer a string of systems, but you’d have to deal with the logistical aspect of the war (at least a little bit), something which I wish more strategy games used.

    • ZedF says:

      I’m pretty confident that SotS2 will allow you to re-designate a fleet’s home base to another base. Mind you, you’ll still likely want to make sure your supply lines are guarded… ;)

  8. karry says:

    “Within that spread the planets and star systems are all mixed up every time you start a game. This means that you might face the same rough space-topography on a map, but one playthrough will still be different from another.”

    “The rest of the game seems to operate largely as you’d expect from a 4X game”

    Uh…what ? Was this piece written by two completely separate authors without comparing their notes ?

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Not sure what you mean? Despite the cool stuff it *is* still a 4x game! With those four xs…

    • Dominic White says:

      I think he means ‘here is standard 4x feature’ followed by ‘the rest of the game operates largely as you’d expect for a 4x game’ sounds very weird in that order.

    • Chris D says:

      That doesn’t sound particularly standard to me. I thought completely random distribution was usually the norm.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Oh I see! No, it seems to be that the galaxy shapes the same or fixed, but planet/star types are different within that. In my head 4x is either entirely randomly, or prefabbed, not this hybrid.

    • Baboonanza says:

      And also I’m pretty certain that SotS 1 had numerous different galaxy shapes to choose from: Spiral, Cluster, Rift etc.

    • karry says:

      If the star number slider can be ranged from a few to a few hundreds – i’m not quite sure why would anyone specifically arrange the stars for every number inbetween. Common sense tells me that its 99% chance that its random placement anyway. So theres only galaxy shape left, and we had that in quite a number of games, like, Space Empires had that option…i’m not really sure when, but it was in place a decade ago in the third game for sure.

      So i had this dissonance where you first sound like you try to explain 4x to 5 year olds, and then say “aaaand the rest is usual 4x stuff”.

  9. Dominic White says:

    I just hope that Kerberos have hired some coders since the unholy clusterfuck that was the launch of Fort Zombie. The original SoTS can bring PCs that didn’t even exist when it first came out to their knees, due to it being hideously unoptimized. Fort Zombie barely ran at all, and if you filed bug reports (especially regarding performance) the developers actually called you a troll and ran you off the boards.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love SoTS – it’s my favourite 4x since MOO2 – but they seem to have some Derek Smart-esque egos there, and they can never, EVER admit anything is wrong.

    That said, if it’s confirmed that it’s not completely broken at launch, I’m buying SOTS2 as soon as is reasonable.

    • ZedF says:

      I ran SotS1 at release on a computer that was several years old at the time, and it was definitely playable. The only time I had severe problems was when using mines, but those are known performance hogs. Something about having hundreds or thousands of independent seeking projectiles active in play at the same time… ;)

      I couldn’t tell you about Fort Zombie performance issues, as I don’t play that game, but I understand it was released as a $10 game because the devs knew they wouldn’t be able to fully polish it in the time they had available to work on it. Besides, Kerb is big on post-release support, and I imagine most of the performance issues have been cleared up by now. Certainly SotS1 is a far cry now from where it was at release. :)

    • Dreamhacker says:

      I made some suggestions on UI improvements to SOTS 1 and was pleasantly surprised to see they appeared in the next patch.

      The optimization remained pretty bad all through the expasions though, but I’m okay with that knowing that advanced graphic optimizations are pretty difficult to do.

    • Dominic White says:

      @ZedF Being a $10 game (some of the most polished and professional games I’ve played have cost that, new) isn’t an excuse for looking like a first-gen PS2 game and running at an average of 6fps on a machine that can handle Crysis on max detail quite reasonably. I also never managed to complete a single campaign of it due to crashes *everywhere*.

      Apparently they were using Fort Zombie as an engine test for their upcoming RPG project, too. Not heard anything about it since. I’ve got a good dual-core processor, 4gb of RAM and a DX11 video card with 1gb of VRAM. I’m not sure how, but some battles in the original SoTS take several minutes just to load, and then slow to a crawl once ships really start firing.

    • Cugel says:

      Yeah, it ran fine on my old laptop until maybe midway through a game when each turn would literally take minutes to calculate. It fares better on my current 2,2 ghz quad core, but calculating the next the turn is still unreasonably slow in my view.

  10. Kaltano says:

    Is the smaller ship underneath the SFS Minsk the SFS Boo?

  11. Scroll says:

    I do wonder if the Ship range constraint is tied to one race or all?

    Considering how previously many of the races followed their own set of rules for travel and other things then maybe ship range is also effected by this?

    Anyway I’m really excited for this and I’m pretty sure I’ll turn random events down a few notches given a choice since I found some of the weird alien invasions a bit frustrating to deal with in the first game.

  12. Commander Gun says:

    I missed the 1st game of these series (hadn’t that much time too game when it came out), but is this game a bit like Masters of Orion or, (if you guys can remember it), Ascendency? Especially the last game i was very fond of, even considering the fact that is was much too easy.
    Sort of a ‘Civilazation’ in space?

    • MrMud says:

      The micromanagement of individual worlds is greatly paired down (makes it easier to play multiplayer) and there is a pretty big emphasis on the real time combat (what with the actually pretty cool combat system) and ship design.

  13. Balm says:

    On second picture: is that some sort of mad big-eyed armored space bear wearing japanese hat?

    • Stranglove says:

      It’ll be a relaese day purchase from me if it is…

    • DK says:

      It’s a Hiver ship and they do model them after their leaders. Like flying into space in giant spaceship shaped like Stalin.

    • Stranglove says:

      The Stalin-ship would be interesting…

      So these hivers have a massive japanese space bear in command, eh? sounds most excellent!

  14. mR.Waffles says:

    I stopped playing the first game immediately when I realized I had to micro manage fuel tankers. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Like the grand ruler of the galaxy gives a damn about fuel tankers. Good lawrd.

    • Rich says:

      “Like the grand ruler of the galaxy gives a damn about fuel tankers.”
      He’d better if he doesn’t want his fleets to drift powerlessly through the void of space.

  15. vastad says:

    Does anybody here remember Pax Imperia? Because that’s what this reminds me of. Especially the mix of managing planets and setting up loadouts on ships of all classes.

    • JiminyJickers says:

      Yeah, I loved Pax Imperia. My friend and I played that for a long time, still have the disk lying around somewhere.

  16. ZedF says:

    Northstar got postponed as a result of SotS2 getting bumped up the priority list. Kerbhas said they will be developing a new engine for it since FZ’s engine will be obsolete by the time they get to full time work on Northstar.

    Slow loading battles in SotS are usually a result of one of two things: running in windowed mode, especially on a 64-bit OS, IIRC due to some directX wonkiness, or just playing on big maps with huge fleets and tons of designs to load, since each ship design and model has to be loaded separately. Problems with AI turn slowdown are also usually a result of playing with node using races on large maps, due to pathing.

    In general, if you are having performance problems in SotS, turning down the star count is a good solution. Kerb has said if they had another chance to release SotS, one thing they would do is reduce the max star count.

  17. Pijama says:

    The first did not quite capture my attention, but this one seems good enough. Consider me interested. :)

  18. kennycrown says:

    I’ll be willing to trade of three months of puny sun for the great games of the coming autumn.

    • Peggle20 says:

      Thanks for turning me onto this series, RPS. This has suddenly become one of my most anticipated games of 2011.

      edit: Bah, failure. Didn’t mean to reply.

  19. Josh W says:

    I hope they change the way they randomise their tech tree though; in the original game it’s based on following all the lines of tech development and cutting off the rest on a random chance. In other words instead of changing the order of your tech tree, or it’s shape, they just trim the edges off it randomly, meaning you might get to the late game and find you’ve been wrecked.

    I’d rather see them have multiple redundent links, and randomly select 30% of those links each time, ignoring links to techs you already have links to. That way the tech tree would be roughly the same size for everyone, just wired up differently.

    Think of it like picking 20 cards from a shuffled deck rather than picking a card and then rolling to see if you can pick another.

  20. cairbre says:

    Never played the first game but is it just me or is the pc bak in a big way over the last 24 months. I can’t even turn on my console anymore.

    This game sounds like it is something that i will lose hours to bring it on