Review: Sword of the Stars Ultimate Collection (PC)

Sword of the Stars: Ultimate Collection
Genre:4X Strategy
Developer: Kerberos Productions
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release Date:4/17/2009

The original Sword of the Stars was released back in August 2006 as a unique blend of classic 4X strategy gameplay and real time space battles. It was sort of a mix between Master of Orion and Homeworld. Alas, the game was overshadowed by the more successful (and more traditional) Galactic Civilizations II.

With the demise of the game’s previous publisher, Paradox has picked up the game and released it along with its two expansions in a single collection. Is it worth buying over its main competitor, Sins of a Solar Empire?

1. Story /Modes

Sword of the Stars doesn’t feature a story mode of any kind, which is a damn shame considering they fashioned an in-depth backstory for the universe along with all the in-game factions. Everything you ever wanted to know about Tarkas sexual rituals or Liiran language details are included either in the game or within the included documentation. So, to forgo a story or campaign mode seems like a complete waste of all the effort used to build the universe you play in.

To compensate there are several scenarios which chart different mini-stories.These include Earth colonies rebelling to form their own nation or re-uniting the Tarkasian Empire after the death of the last emperor. However they don’t quite fill the void of a campaign story mode.

Skirmishes against the AI or online are also included and feature the unique ability to start a single player game and have it become multiplayer by taking it online. People can drop in and out of the game at will and you also have the possibility of making the game single player again once every is gone. You can even set how the AI that controls your faction will behave when you quit the game! I haven’t really seen a 4X game with such a robust online integration system.

Finally, a good tutorial is also included that will get you up to speed on the basics of the game quite quickly through a series of videos that explain nearly everything you need to know to get started.

Story/Modes Rating: Good

2. Graphics

While I realize that this game was made on a budget by an independent developer, the graphics leave much to be desired. The turn based strategy map is simply a bunch of colored dots on a blackish background. I thought space was supposed to look beautiful? Throw in some nebulas, asteroid belts, black holes – anything to break up the monotony. While the map may not impress visually, it is at least well designed and clutter free. With the help of the overlays you should be able to keep a clear view of your empire and enemies throughout your conquests. Avatars in the game do not animate like in GalCiv II. This is understandable, as each race has about two dozen avatars and it would be too much work to animate them all. Still, it does detract from the visual impact of Sword of the Stars.

The real time battle graphics fail to impress as well. They’re not bad per se but it looks comparable to Homeworld 2 which was released back in 2003. When we look at rival games such as Sins of a Solar Empire (which was also developed by an indie studio), the graphical gap is pretty apparant.

Overall, the visuals in Sword of the Stars aren’t the best in its genre, but they look good enough not to detract from the overall quality of the game. If you’re a true 4X nerd though, I doubt you’d care about the graphics.

Graphics Rating: Decent

3. Sound

Sword of the Stars doesn’t offer much in the way of music. I liked the third expansion’s main menu music (the third expansion being A Murder of Crows), but most of the time you’ll be listening to the same sort of stock ambient music they put in all “space” games (Seriously? Do all these companies share the same music?).

The Born in Blood expansion received a voice acting award from Gamespot and I can’t really see why. Most of the voice work consists of different characters informing you of certain events (such as a tech advisor informing you a tech is complete…ect) and 90% of them are annoying as hell, especially the Hivers (Though what do expect from an insect race?) so I usually just turn them off.

In battle, the sound effects are again more stock sci-fi space battle sounds. Everything is present: lasers, missiles, explosions and thrusters. Pretty standard stuff.

Sound Rating: Below Average

4. Control/Gameplay

Kerberos stated that they wanted to go back to the basics of the 4X genre and stripped most of the so called “fat” that has accumulated over the years. This will either make or break the game for you.

On the upside, the game progresses quite quickly in terms of turn length. You’re usually finished your turn within two or three minutes for a medium sized empire (After you gain a little experience in how to play.) and even the real time battles have a set time limit (You can vary it but the average time is five minutes.) so that everything moves smoothly.

The downside is a relative lack of depth compared to other 4X games. There are no buildings of any kind in SotS and once a planet is fully terraformed and developed, that’s it. It simply becomes a ship factory and provides income to further research and build more ship. There really isn’t anything you can do to escape this cycle.

Basically it’s like comparing Hearts of Iron II to Europa Univeralis III. One game is completely focused on combat while the other is much more strategic. It all comes down to a matter of taste.

The real time battle sections are also simplified versions of other games. Battles take place on a horizontal 2-D plane, though ships can move up or down automatically in battle to avoid collisions and the like.

The best part of the real time battles actually takes place before you enter the battlefield! You design ships in a similar way to Galactic Civilizations II , but the difference is that placement of weapons is important. Sword of the Stars incorporates fields of fire, which means that putting a huge gun on the front of a ship will give you the ability to fire it only about 120 degrees to the front. If the enemy swings in behind you, that gun is useless unless you’ve placed some missile interception guns on your backside and so on. This gives you some serious incentive to play around in the ship designer and figure out that “perfect” design for your own custom strategy and is really engrossing.

All the factions in Sword of the Stars are different. I don’t mean something small like, “Hivers get 10%+ to population” or “Liir get 20%+ bonus to biotech research.” I’m talking about significant differences in the way each faction plays. Remember when Starcraft came out and popularized the idea of completely different races in RTS games? Sword of the Stars doesn’t go quite that far, but each faction moves across the map in different ways and that affects how you play each faction. The Tarkas have your standard warp drive to get them from planet to planet pretty much the same as in any other game, but the humans use something called “Node Drives”. When you play as the humans you’ll see lines connecting stars together, any of your ships can move between any two of these stars (called nodes) at incredibly fast speeds; much faster than any other faction. However you can’t control where the lines connect, so you might be cut off from certain planets or have to take the long way around several nodes to get to a nearby planet that doesn’t have a direct connection. This is only one example of how the game’s idea of movement is central to the gameplay philosophy. It’s executed quite ncely, so you’ll need different strategies to play as or against different races.

The tech tree is also very robust and well organized. Most games these days have huge tech trees that are a pain to navigate (Galactic Civilization II comes to mind) and SotS solves this by making the tech tree itself into a 3D rotating tube divided into sections for each different type of tech ( Xenotech, Ballistic Weapons,..ect. ). Kerberos also decided to throw in a little spice by randomizing the tree for every game. All the core technologies will be there every game but the “branches” will always be different so you’re going to have to plan ahead if a favorite technology doesn’t come your way.

Frankly, I’m more of an in-depth 4X fan rather than a speed demon 4X fan but SotS surprised me with some well thought out features that other space 4X games could do well to emulate.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Great

5. Replayability

An involved single player mode is not included in the game so that’s a bit of a hit in the replayability department

Sword of the Stars makes up for it with its skirmish, scenario and multiplayer modes. There are dozens of map types to play with such as a hollowed sphere or hourglass shape which effects how you should approach your movement within this space. New maps are being released all the time and you can alter the size of the galaxy, number of stars, average distance between stars, playable races, and starting resources amongst other factors that will give you a completely different game each time you play.

Replayability Rating: Great

6. Balance

Designed from the start to be a competitive multiplayer battleground, Kerberos put a lot of work in making sure all the different factions worked perfectly and it paid off. All the unique movement types for the varied factions have disadvantages that offset their strengths and since ships are designed by the player, any weakness is the player’s fault (though slight statistical mods for each race effect your designs they aren’t too significant).

Balance Rating: Incredible

7. Originality

Space 4X games aren’t exactly a new genre in PC gaming. The early ones were being released during the 1980’s. Kerberos has attempted to include some new innovations such as real time battles and 3-D space, but the design brief was to go back to the basics and strip away any unnecessary features.

All the races have interesting back stories and histories but some do fall into gaming stereotypes. Humans are the quintessential “Space Marines”, Tarkas are the “Lizard Aliens”, Hivers are the obligatory giant insect aliens and so on.

Originality Rating: Poor

8. Addictiveness

4X games are naturally endowed with the “one more turn” syndrome and Sword of the Stars is no different. The added ability of a robust multiplayer mode adds onto this addictive quality, especially since you can “drop in and out” of any multiplayer game at will making it easy to find a game to play without any hassle.

However, Sword of the Stars’ relative lack of depth decreases the amount of time you’re playing the game. Matches in SotS can proceed at a frantic pace and quickly conclude in comparison to other 4X games where you stay long periods of time engrossed in a single lengthy campaign.

Addictiveness Rating: Decent

9. Appeal Factor

Sci-Fi games in general attract a niche audience of nerds and 4X games attract a niche audience of nerds, so put them together and you can see they appeal to a limited demographic. Kerberos is also an indie company and Paradox is also an indie publisher (though a very established one) so that limits its market exposure.

On the plus side, Kerberos has done everything they could to make the learning curve as smooth as possible and eliminate much of clutter and complexity of the space 4X genre.

Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

I received this game from and was surprised to see that the game did not come in a single easy download. Rather, it was three separate downloads and three separate installs. I accidently installed A Murder of Crows before Born in Blood which caused a problem when I tried to install BiB. Is there any reason not to put all the files in a single download and install?

Miscellaneous Rating: Poor

The Scores
Story/modes: Good
Graphics: Decent
Sound: Below Average
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Great
Balance: Incredible
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Decent
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Poor

FINAL SCORE: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

Sword of the Stars is a solid 4X space strategy game well worth picking up if you are a fan of the genre. It is also a great entry point into the 4X scene for any strategy newbies out there. However, if you like to spend hours managing corruption in your far-off colonies by lowering tax values and increasing the supply of luxury goods to get that +2 morale bonus compounded by the giant bazaar in your capital, then perhaps SotS will leave you unfulfilled.



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