The 4x genre is about to get a big kick from newly formed Kerberos studios, these guys did a lot of stuff back in the old Homeworld days with Homeworld: Cataclysm and they love their space games.
SotS plans to take the genre into full 3d and offer a solid gameplay experience familiar to those fans of the Homeworld series as well as the 4x genre in general.
We got our hands (or paws) on some early preview code of the game and spent a good few hours poking around the various options.
The GUI could do with a little polishing but on the whole it's quite workable and once you get used to it you can find what you're looking for fairly quickly. The game allows you to pick from a number of races and these offer substantially different technology trees compared to each other, we gave the Terrans a try out.
So far custom games were the only thing that really worked in the code we were sent so after setting one up, choosing an avatar and a logo plus some other options, all available on check-boxes or sliders we were presented with our first colony world.
The game takes place on the 3d colony strategic map which is replete with various stars, all rendered quite nicely by the game engine and planets. Unexplored worlds are indicated by a glowing coloured sphere and the first thing we had to do was fire up the Research tab, this took us to another screen where various technology could be ordered up, scrolling is done via mouse2 and you move the mouse left or right to circle around the tech wheel.
Ordering up tech is as simple as a left click and it's easy to see where the tech will lead. You can also adjust the budget slider on this screen to pump in more money and change the time to completion.
Once you have that tech you can order up a couple of ships, choosing a Tanker and a Colony vessel. Each item takes a set number of turns to build depending on where the slider for that world is set, construction or trade. I had it half way so construction of these simple vessels was quick enough.
There's also a custom ship designer, this is not as deep as the one found in GalCiv 2 but it's pretty good non-the-less.
2 turns later and I had my first 2 earth vessels ready to rock.
There is a fairly intuitive Fleet Management system that allows you to quickly set up fleets and switch ships back and forth, this is quick and easy to use and gets bonus marks from me right away.
Drag a line using the LMB to a sphere and you can see how far it will take, if you are wise you'll research a new drive tech allowing for further planets to be explored (which is what we did) and some better weapons over time. I sent my Tanker and Colony ship out into the wide black yonder and a couple of turns later I had a new planet appear where the sphere was.
Checking the environment slider I noticed it was far to the left and that meant the world was too hostile an environment to colonize, so it was off to search for a new world, finally one was found that supported life and the special command Colonize was all it took to make it one of my own.
I could then slide the Infrastructure bar all the way to the right and after a few more turns, I did the same for the Terraforming...the world would soon be a bustling and thriving metropolis. There is a point of note here that compared to GalCiv 2 there doesn't seem to be much in the way of world option adjustment (yet) in the game, such as actually building up Colonies and putting down buildings. We're not sure if that kind of feature is in the final game, but we'd like to see it.
So the basics of play continue like this, colonise more worlds and research more technology as you expand your empire. Eventually we came under attack from our one enemy and we were given the choice of fighting ourselves or letting the computer handle it.
The 3d battle interface is simple and there's a nice scan option that renders everything in wireframe for a quick battle assessment. You can select from a variety of orders, allowing your fleets to hold their ground, close on the enemy and pick targets akin to Homeworld and other games of the genre. It's a simple GUI and seems to work quite well.
You have a certain amount of time to fight the battle in 3d space and if you win you'll either find that you wiped out their fleet and sent them packing, or they sent in reinforcements that turn up on the turn following this one. The battles are fairly cool and they have a distinct Babylon 5 feel to them with the bigger warships.
We won the battle and spread our empire across the stars. There are obviously more features planned for the full version and this was only a taste to whet our appetite, but it's a nice taste and we're looking forwards to seeing how the game shapes up.
The graphics and lighting are of a suitable quality to the game, they could do with some polish and a few more animations for the bigger ships but I presume this is to come further down the line. Sword of the Stars has a distinct anime feel to the 2d graphics for the characters and the ships themselves draw heavily on various tech designs from books/TV/movies and the designers own imaginations.
There's some polish to be done on the voice work and the music, but overall the game is shaping up quite nicely and should be a good addition to the genre. It remains to be seen how the AI will be sharpened and tweaked, since at the moment it's fairly basic AI and tends to keep on throwing wave after wave against you wasting resources instead of thinking around the problem.
We at Games Xtreme are eagerly awaiting the final code of this or a more polished version, we'll keep you up to date as well as we can.