Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Swords of the Stars 2 : Lords of Winter

KupaRizu here, bringing you a review for Swords of the Stars II: Lords of Winter, Kerberos’s second venture into the Space 4X genre, the next in the Sword of the Stars series, which for anyone who played it was an absolute classic in the X4 genre, bringing great and fluent controls, a smooth yet demanding learning curve and an overall great game. While similar in some ways, this iteration of the Sword of the Stars system is a terrible mutation of the beautiful formula of the original.

From the beginning this game was shaky, Kerberos admitted that its release was a ‘Release or Die’ situation, if they didn’t release when they did, the game would be scrapped. This led to a very rushed, almost Beta like, release where models, scripts and even entire levels were missing from the game files, however Kerberos managed to fix most of these problems with a series of first week patches. So now that the game is playable, let’s get on with how playable it really is.

Upon launching you are given a splash screen with the Paradox and Kerberos logos side by side, now this is usual launching procedure for most games, right? Not in Sword of the Stars II, this is the loading screen, however you don’t know this until around 12 minutes later when the game roars at you and then 3 minutes later actually kicks itself into the main menu. So, fifteen minutes of loading time, so the main menu, at a minimum, should be loaded right? Nope. You are given the game logo, and the menu options, however none of these do anything for a good minute until the background of the menu is loaded. Okay, my boredom and irritation levels rising I look for a tutorial so I can learn the controls and aspects of the game only to find there isn’t one. For new players of the Swords of the Stars series this is going to pose a big problem, as it’s manual is also not informative enough to be used as a tutorial or in some cases it’s not even good enough to be reference material in the middle of battle, which is a not good.

Okay, so it’s approximately been 15 minutes since I launched the game and I still haven’t even got past the main menu, let’s fix that, shall we. I start a new game, choose a level from its over-complicated map select screen and then get onto the customisation of my team. Then I finally see something good about the game, the graphics. While the graphics in the first Sword of the Stars where brilliant for their time they have aged and aren’t as amazing in today’s world, however Sword of the Stars II brings in updated graphics that look beautiful. I choose my cartoony hand drawn avatar, choose my team colours and Colony ‘NewFoundKupaLand’ is ready to go! …or at least it would be if I knew what the hell was going on.

I move the camera around, exploring the galaxy around me, and boy is it beautiful, stars glimmer and my colonies are easily identifiable against the dark background of space. I click my homeworld, and using my knowledge and experience from the first Sword of the Stars I start researching and building new ships. As the ‘Civilisation’ stage is turn based I take a while to peruse the new features and try to get used to the new and laggy interface.

Before I continue I want to make one point: Sword of the Stars II is stupidly over complicated, the level of micro-management, mission control, lack of good tutorials or guides and abundance of new useless features means that it has lost something its original had from the start: the Fun factor. The original, while it could take a week to learn all the features featured tutorials and tips on how to play the game, and these kept you interested as you knew what you were doing.

4X games are complicated affairs in themselves but usually soften this with ease-of-use and good communication and feedback from the game of things that require your attention, a great example of this the ‘Civilization’ series, where the player has access to numerous systems from micro-management to making choices that affected your entire civilisation, however it does a brilliant job of automating what needs to be automated and alerting the player to what needs to be decided or items of the players attention. Complicated, but easy to play.

Okay, so now I’ve got that off my chest and finally start to do something: design some new ships. In the original all of the ships parts were given ratings and brief descriptions so you knew what you were doing, however for some reason in Sword of the Stars II neither the game nor the manual tell you what ANY of the parts do, so you have to put everything together and hope for the best. However a new feature which I quite like is the fact that ships are built by creating invoices which allows the player to save and re-order the same invoice in the future, making the construction of ships a little bit easier the second time around.

Another annoying feature is the expansions to the government spending options, an area where the original game specifically tried to avoid, these new options allow the player to spend different amounts of different things such as research or construction which the leads to different types of governments. Once again none of this is actually explained so I have no idea what the different government types do or what benefits you gain from actually changing from the default.

So, I’ve managed to somehow build a fleet and sent them out into the cold, heartless void of space to explore when I come across a fleet of enemy ships, sparking a fight. Right, I can do this, real time strategy is my speciality! Or at least it should be, but, as with nearly every other part of the game, the combat system has also been ‘revamped’ into a much less intuitive form. The combat now runs on three vertical planes instead if one, but I haven’t figured out what difference being on a certain plane makes, so I’m throwing that into the ‘new and useless’ pile of features. The whole interface has been changed from the one that made sense in Sword of the Stars into a mash of unlabelled buttons, meaning that while in the original it was easy to select your ships and throw them straight into explosive laser death combat, this new system is a lot more tiresome and confusing. Plus, most of the combat time is spent actually finding your opponent, so most of the time there won’t be any actual combat before the timer is up.

Most of the new features in Sword of the Stars II are neat little ideas on their own, but because they are so difficult to access or understand they make the game more complex and frustrating to play, leading to an overwhelming, over-complex and unenjoyable game. If Kerberos had figured out a more graceful way to introduce the player to the plethora of new features then maybe this game could be good, but as it currently is the game fails to deliver the information the player needs and ends up that most of these features get ignored, misunderstood or abandoned completely during gameplay.

It seems that the ‘Release or Die’ situation would’ve produced better results if Kerberos went with the second option instead of delivering this buggy, over-complex Frankenstein’s monster of a game.



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