They are perfect for any kind of arm-chair space general or player that likes to take their time in a non-rushed atmosphere. SotS is a very competent entry to the genre that stands by the side of other entries such as Galactic Civilisations 2: The Dread Lords and does a decent job of adding nice touches.
It's a lot simpler than the other 4x fare and that doesn't mean it's a bad game.
The story is a fairly decent one and revolves around mankind's usual expansion into the vast reaches of space, when out there they discover that there's a lot more than just stars and nebulae. They discover hostile alien species and they must learn to utilise the weapons and tech at their disposal, wiping out any kind of threat before they are wiped out.
Mankind must learn to wield the Sword of the Stars, as the intro states.
When it comes down to it the gameplay is pretty much the standard fare that we've come to expect from a 4x game, there's the 3d tactical map of space that's packed with static information and icons to represent fleet movements and explored/unexplored worlds.
You issue orders here and can build fleets. It's wise to note that each of the races, from the Humans to the Lizardy Tarka, or the Liir to the Hive, have different styles of tech and ship and can colonise different planet types.
I really did like the way the game allows a large amount of customisation via sliders, when you start a new game. You can alter every kind of feature about your new game including the kinds of tech and research (Note: the tech tree is shuffled around at the start of a new game, so you might not get the same tech twice) available to the various players - you can set up for games that can be blasted through in a single night or take months and months to complete.
There are also specific set scenarios that tell the story of the game, some of these would be great for online cooperative or adversarial gaming.
Fuel consumption is a concern in the game so it's advisable to build tanker ships and make sure that your fleets have enough resources in that respect to move through space. Human fleets move via the Node Jump drive, whilst the other alien races all have various different modes of transport - knowledge of these travel modes is essential to planning an effective strategy as that race.
In the turn-based planning and colony building stages the game plays like many of the others in the genre, it does lack a lot of useful feedback for the player and you will spend time trawling through windows looking for certain things. I hope the developers increase the amount of player feedback from certain events and actions, as of now it is good but a little bit more work on the interface wouldn't have gone amiss.
Minor feedback and interface gripes aside, which could be a personal issue. The game has a tech and research tree that is full of nice options, personal cloaking and bigger and better guns. The problem for me is that while the tech's good, it feels little more than a collection of 'Blast'R'Us' ship parts and technology, there's very little in the way of 'cool' tech here.
The ship designer is a nice feature; it works really well and allows you to custom build your own ships and designs. These are not just cosmetic features but they actually impact the ship's performance and you'll be able to see from successful (or unsuccessful) battles, what works and what doesn't.
You should spend a lot of time researching and re-tooling your ship designs since the AI will be doing just that, they'll be upgrading their fleets and trying to counter your weapons with their own new technology.
I can see why Kerberos made some of the decisions they did, they streamlined the genre for this game and removed an in-depth colony management and build system - you won't be fiddling with base construction or making much of your planets apart from building new ships and defences there. This does lead the game into feeling a little flat in places, since it wouldn't have damaged SotS to have those extra features since they are integral to the genre.
This works for and against the game though. On one hand it makes the experience relatively easy to learn and allows you to concentrate on the eXtermination aspect of the game, but on the other hand it almost penalises the player that likes to take their time and eXplore.
The 3d tactical part of the game is an interesting addition to the genre though. It takes its cues from the likes of Homeworld and adds a Newtonian Physics model to the space combat, with ships sliding and drifting around their opponents thanks to inertia.
Your ships are set to hold fire at first, which is an interesting decision but seems to be a relatively odd one. I haven't really been meeting anyone out in space with a view to ask them about their ship's paint-job or invite them over for a friendly cup of tea and a fireside chat.
A quick change of setting later and my ships were blasting away at the enemy fleet (they start of small in the early stages of the game) and making short work of some of them. There are no health bars here so you're going to have to learn how to recognise that a ship is in trouble from the detailed damage model that's applied to it.
You will also want to increase the battle timer slider upwards especially when you have bigger fleets, just over two minutes isn't enough time to make an explosive statement to your enemy and early battles will seem small. Later on when you have large fleets you can appreciate the battle system much more.
The control is RTS in style; you can also target specific parts of the ship you're attacking. This is simple to do, just issue a fire order on the ship and what ever part you mouse over with the cursor will be attacked. This does open up a nice set of tactics, since you could aim for a small part of the ship and stand a chance of missing or aim for a larger part, where if you miss that module or weapon, you could still hit the hull and cause some damage.
There is no end of battle summary however. This is a bit of a glaring error especially when you have used the auto-resolve feature, since it means you have to hunt down your fleet on the map screen and check the damage yourself. This could have been avoided with the addition of a battle summary pop up.
The same happens with the technology tree, you have to manually select a new project when the first one is done. There could have been additional feedback that prompted a player to select a new technology, but this something that's not too hard to add in with a patch.
There's also no way (yet) to issue a build order from the 3d strategic map, so you'll be diving into the build menu and back out again to requisition more ships and resources.
The more I play the game the more I have come to realise that this is definitely weighted towards the eXterminator compared to the eXplorer. It is definitely a game where you're going to be amassing huge fleets and watching them duke it out with enemy forces turn after turn, refining your tech tree and setting forth to get more worlds for more money to rinse and repeat.
If we put the gameplay aside, SotS has a slick high technology look to it. It reminds me of a cross between Babylon 5 and Japanese Anime for some of the ship designs and characters. It's slick and polished in the graphics department with the damage model being highly detailed and fairly thorough.
The graphics and lighting in the game are excellent, moody and atmospheric with some nice special effects. It's a little dark in regards to the weapon effects though, some of the shots seem to be a bit on the blurry side and it's hard to get a clear view of who's blasting who at times. They could have also beefed up the explosions for when a ship dies - it suffers in that way from X3 syndrome - except SotS explosions are more satisfying than the ones in X3.
We've seen other games do it better of course, but SotS has a consistent if quirky design and aesthetic that can't be ignored, furthermore this design actually lends itself to the game universe the developers have created and matches it.
As for sound and voice, SotS has a good flowing musical score, some thumping good weapon sounds and effects as well as some genuinely spooky/creepy/disturbing alien voices for the various races. The voice acting is good and at least one of the voices sounds akin to Sulu from Star Trek: TOS.
Sword of the Stars allows for multiplayer (LAN or online) games and supports adversarial play for up to 8 players (mix of human and AI). It also allows cooperative games as well as other scenarios.
We had a couple of games of cooperative play across the LAN and found the game to be just as fun and enjoyable as the offline experience was. It would help if there were a few more interface options at the time of play, but again this is a personal observation and doesn't overly detract from the enjoyment of the game.
Finally SotS deserves praise for attempting to fill the 4x niche in the wake of other titles. It suffers a little from being overly aimed at the build for war crowd of gamers rather than being targeted between the two. I feel as though it could put off some of the more tactically minded strategic eXploration style gamers.
At the time of this review the game's patch was not applied, but the developers have added some more interface functionality - however since this was unmodified code the observations made within the review still stand.
It does some things well and it could have done others a lot better, the bottom line for me is that it's playable and fun, it's not too frustrating and it has the scope to grow after a patch as well as a possible sequel.