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Sword of the Stars Born of Blood Review

Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood pack shot
Developer:Kerberos Productions
Publisher:Lighthouse Interactive
Genre:4X turn based strategy
Platform:PC
Official Site:http://bornofblood.swordofthestars.com/
Release Date:July 20th, 2007 (UK)
Reviewer:Mike Jennings
 

Ask anyone who does regular exercise - so, that's not me then - and they'll tell you that you need to work at it for a long time before you see results. You'll only be rewarded with a few lost pounds (or, if you're really unlucky, mere ounces) if you put in the effort over a long period of time. Of course, when you reach the hallowed goal, I'm sure it's worth it - after all, I wouldn't know. The only thing I have to compare it to is playing through Born of Blood, the first expansion pack to well-received space strategy title Sword of the Stars, from Kerberos Productions.

It is, to put it lightly, one hell of a slog. But, as regular exercisers know; there's ways to make your ritual workouts more entertaining. Gyms have televisions hanging off the ceilings, and many body-worshippers slip an mp3 player into the mix, too. This approach also makes me think of Born of Blood - because it's also what Kerberos Productions have done with their game.

It's a turn-based strategy title set in the near future - 2045, to be accurate - where humans have recently begun to properly explore space. And, coincidentally, so have a whole raft of other folk - just a lot better than we have been. Space is populated by several other races, like the bug-resembling Hivers, reptilian Tarkas, and the aquatic Liir. New for the Born of Blood expansion are the fearsome, enigmatic Zuul, known throughout the galaxy as being purveyors of the finest, ferocious attacks on other races and for keeping lots and lots of slaves. They sound pretty bad - until you realise that they're a race of space-hopping Marsupials. Evil Kangaroos. It's at this point that you realise Born of Blood and, in fact, parent game Sword of the Stars shouldn't be taken entirely seriously.

Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 1 Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 2 Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 4 Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 4

I began this review by outlining how Kerberos's latest is merely an endless slog through space, and I suppose I should qualify that by explaining some of the gameplay. Typically, you'll begin a scenario in charge of one or a cluster of planets and, depending on your race, a variety of options open to you. The crux of the game, at least initially, is exploration. You can design and construct a range of ships with which to launch out into space, and each has their purpose - colonisers to explore and inhabit other planets, armour ships to defend your fledgling empire, tankers to refuel and extended range vessels to reach the furthest areas of the galaxy. In short, it's a relatively simple process: explore and colonise other planets with your ships. Research better technology. Build more ships. Colonise more planets. Meet the enemy. Beat the enemy. Humans (or whoever else you've chosen to be) FTW!

But that's not all. The beauty of Born of Blood's relentless slog is in how it's disguised, and the beauty of that is in the vast amount of customisation options you're presented with throughout the game. I'm sure you're used to both turn-based and real-time strategy games presenting the well-worn idea of a tech tree to the player - a structure whereby you research all the available technologies and advancements available to your particular faction in order to make your units and buildings stronger and more efficient. This familiar system has been implemented, again, here, but with a difference: it's flexible. The unique conditions of whatever scenario you're presented with - whether it's one of the creative pre-built levels or a random map game - alters the options you're presented with. Different races of aliens will, obviously, limit what you're able to research, but so will your home planet and its environmental and economic conditions, the other planets in your young empire, the other players in your game, and what you've already discovered and researched yourself. This provides you with an interesting and new experience every time you play Born of Blood, because the tech tree impacts on every other facet of the title. There's also a wealth of different parts to use to build your star-crossing spaceships, so none of them will ever look the same. And, of course, everything costs a different amount - financial considerations are important. When you're really into the meat of the game, there's so much going on across the breadth of your empire that you're almost diverted from the endless slog for territory that the game has become. Almost.

Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 5 Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 6 Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 7 Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 8

Of course, occasionally, you'll run into other players competing for the same planets - and, thereby, resources and technology - as you are. This allows Born in Blood to showcase its graphical muscle with 3-D, real-time battles that are, as you'd expect, very attractive. You're able to control your various ships on-the-fly, allowing your fine tactical nous - or not, in my case - to win or lose the battle. You're also able to let the game's AI handle the combat turns if you'd like, but that takes some of the fun out of it. There's no satisfaction in taking credit for someone else's victory, and even less when it's a computer your cheating out of a free drink down at the interstellar tavern.

Born of Blood is, of course, an add-on pack first and foremost, meant for the players who have already exhausted the extensive options that were served up with the original Sword of the Stars - so what new features does it bring to the table? There's the aforementioned new race, the Zuul - evil, slave-keeping Marsupial creatures who the late, great Steve Irwin might even have had problems with - who bring with them eighty new ship sections to play with and 40 new weapons and technologies. Then there's new diplomacy and communications systems, more intelligence technologies to let you spy on your enemies even quieter than before, as well as a deepened trade route system for economic gain, detailed combat graphs to let you analyse your performance, and a host of features that are sure to please fans of Sword of the Stars multiplayer - more tactical combat options, scenarios, galaxy types, and further enhancements. As you can tell by now, it's quite a mouthful and relatively good value. You may scoff at the seemingly paltry 2 scenarios - especially when other strategy games offer whole new campaigns for expansion packs - but this is a game where every scenario is different, right down to the mechanics of what makes it tick - and so offers replay-ability like none other. The absorbing nature of the game isn't down to how many scripted events are packed into a pre-written campaign - it's about writing a new space opera every time your fleet blasts off into space from your innocent little planet, hoping to conquer everything before it.

Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 9 Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 10 Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 11 Sword of the Stars: Born of Blood screenshot 12

Talking of space, it's a very empty place. The graphics of Born of Blood do little to help, because they're something of a hit-and-miss affair. You'll spend most of your time in the strategy screen, plotting your next move between planets, and it can get quite depressing. Planets look like marbles, only more lifeless, and blur with dodgy textures if you zoom in far enough. Your ships take on the single colour of your faction during this screen, and there's not much else to speak of. The camera's also annoying, not allowing you to move freely. You have to click on either a planet or a fleet and manipulate the 3-D world around that instead - which can be quite infuriating if you're just trying to find your next destination and are trying to position the camera just so it can be seen over the shoulder of your home-world. Because that's the only place it can be seen from. It's a fully 3-D game, so it's disappointing that the camera has been so hamstrung like this. That's the miss, then, I was talking about. What about the hits? The real-time combat section of the game is exciting; full of lasers and explosions, and the whole game is lathered with a cartoon graphical style that lends a whimsical sense of humour to the game, taking it about as seriously as the original Star Trek television series is taken today. Talking of Shatner et al, the in-game menus draw obvious inspiration from Roddenberry's sci-fi classic, as does the voice acting, which is excellent. Scottish engineers? Very original.

I recently reviewed Blitzkrieg 2: Liberation, and it's easy to draw a couple of comparisons despite the obvious differences between the two games. Born of Blood, like its predecessor, requires commitment to get the most of it. It's not too much fun at the beginning when you're colonising planets and researching new technologies in a treadmill of progress that's showing few results. But when you get deeper into the game, encounter enemies, and start to interact with other races of the universe (who've all been furnished with lovingly crafted back stories, as the manual and appendix included on the disc will testify), when the game begins to entertain. It's how I imagine Space: Total War will eventually turn out like with its tongue firmly in its cheek: tactical, intriguing and absorbing - when you're a while into the game, but lacking a little polish. It's at its best when you've got a burgeoning empire and there are rebellions and trade federations to deal with at every end of it, rather than dealing with franchising out onto unknown planets in your first few turns. Born of Blood just needs a bit of investment before you start to see some results. But, like that six-pack you're hoping for, it'll be worth it in the end, right?

Summary

Born of Blood is an expansion pack to sci-fi turn-based strategy title Sword of the Stars and introduces a new race as well as a raft of new technology and weapons into the malleable tech tree. It requires a lot of time to get the best of it, but it's entertaining enough - no game will ever be the same thanks to the ever-changing nature of its customisable content - and the graphics and sound are entertaining in a gently humorous kind of way. Just be prepared to sit down and wade through a bit of boredom before you really start to see results from your empire.

The bottom line
6.0 / 10

Good stuff

  • Customisable ships and research
  • Exciting real-time battles
  • Rewarding in the long-term
  • The thinking man's multiplayer

Not so good stuff

  • Horrific camera control
  • Takes an age to get going
  • Portrays the vacuum of space really well


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