Retro Review – Sword of the Stars
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Sword of the Stars is more of an attempt to bring together a decade’s worth of strategy-game components into a single gameplay experience rather than a true capital-G Game. Eschewing a story and instead relying heavily on player customization, Sword of the Stars presents a variable experience that will truly be different for each player. While the game cannot be called unique – it borrows far too blatantly from well-known titles for that – it is an interesting and successful addition to any enthusiast’s strategy collection.
One of the biggest problems with Sword is its interface; designers seem to have gone out of their way to make the user interface as unhelpful and non-intuitive as possible. Navigating the main map can only be done by double clicking on a planet to center the camera on that location, and there’s no way to strafe the camera around the map either by mouse or keyboard control. All in all, it makes the main map screen –in which you spend the majority of the game either rearranging fleets or managing colonies and home planets – frustrating to navigate, especially later in a campaign when you have to keep track of a sprawling space-empire and dozens of both your own fleets and colonies as well as those of your enemies. To add to this rather disorganized approach, there’s really no direction provided (aside from watching too-long tutorial videos). A player is dropped in-system and expected to understand the features enough to jump into the action, despite the complex and not-very-helpful user interface.
That said, Sword has a lot going for it. The sheer number of different ways in which a player can navigate the stars – not even considering the different races or factions available to choose from – allows for quite a few directions that a player can take. Even within the framework of a militaristic approach, there are various unique ways to manifest a player’s style rather than being confined by a handful of strategies. The ship design feature, for example, provides players with the option to customize their fleets and make their empire conform to their own ideas rather than using the prefab designs. The impact of these designs becomes of paramount importance in later stages of the game when huge battleships with several customizable levels and armament packages become available, and a player’s ship design can easily dictate offensive or defensive battle strategies. One of the more clever elements is the addition of fuel consumption for FTL travel; a fleet is only able to travel a limited distance before running out of fuel, thus necessitating fuel tankers and reasonably built-up colonies to facilitate exploration or invasion.
The battles, once a player gets to them, are definitely a welcome change of pace. The game moves faster, the interface is smoother and much more traversable, and the variability of the campaign makes each battle totally unique. Depending on the endless sliding-bar selections a player can make before the campaign even begins, small skirmish-level battles might be common, or it might be a mad dash for colonization and fleet development before entering into a hundred-ship slugfest that can make or break your colonial efforts. Adding to the challenges that battles against AI-controlled or human opponents bring (one interesting feature is the ability to switch any game from single to multi-player or vice versa on the fly), are the neutral random-encounter enemies you must periodically fight. The Swarm, in particular, likes to hang around resource-rich planets and ambush unprotected colony ships, resulting in the need for a fairly burly fleet to escort and protect the expensive colony ships.
As engrossing as the battles can be, it’s not all smooth sailing. There’s no clear way to direct your ships in battle, and, aside from giving sweeping directional or targeting commands, your ships largely handle themselves. While that can be handy for larger battles, it begs the question as to why there needs to be real-time battles at all. The game places the importance on the pre-battle build-up (the fleet construction, tech research and what-have-you), and the battles themselves don’t allow a player enough wiggle room to alter the outcome (meaning that eventually a player can simply let the computer fight the battles). Sword really missed the boat by not allowing a smooth or clear enough interface for player micromanagement to really impact the course of the game.
Sword is a game that treads close to being derivative with its incorporation of elements from nearly every type of real-time and turn-based strategy game; and unfortunately, it doesn’t always successfully fuse its many inspirations together. Although it is understandable that in a genre so dizzyingly varied, similarities to other games of its class are bound to pop up, Sword doesn’t exactly make these features its own. However, Sword attempts to distance itself from other titles by allowing the player to customize just about everything that can be modified: the level of credits available at the beginning of a campaign, the number of explorable planets, the shape of the star system, the A.I. behavior of your opponents, and even a slick swap between single and multiplayer can be altered.
Despite this detailed level of customization that should be able to whet any fan’s appetite, Sword of the Stars isn’t going to fool an experienced strategy-game fan. The game functions more like a meta-strategy exploration of disparate elements than a cohesive playable experience and, sadly, the inspirations are not very well incorporated (even including some sort of tongue-in-cheek acknowledgements toward its more apparent forerunners that would help increase its appeal). Luckily for Sword of the Stars, there’s something infinitely intriguing about seeing all of the strategy specializations – aggressive colonization, economy development, diplomatic negotiation or military build-up – included in one game instead of taking the more oft-tread route focusing specifically on one single aspect. All in all, aside from some simple oversights – like the incredibly and frustratingly wonky user interface – many people will find this to be an enjoyable strategy game to play.
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