Sword of the Stars Preview
|Release Date:||June 1st, 2006 (UK)|
|Reviewer:||James Barlow (Malis)|
Early in the 22nd century, humanity developed something called the 'node drive' allowing travel above light speed. However this technology comes with a price, and as the player you will be charged with defending humanity from the various hostile species encountered in your bid to explore the universe. Hot on the heels of the warmly received Galactic Civilizations 2 comes another turn based strategy set in space: Sword of the Stars. However I'll stop the comparisons here, as the two games end up walking very different paths.
The most striking feature of Sword of the Stars is its graphical style. Menus and character portraits are heavily stylized with a cartoon element, which look fresh and fun: It's clear Kerberos are trying to distinguish it from other similar games on the market, and for the most part it works. Most of the game is controlled from the strategy screen, which while pretty (the stars do look good), is little more than a zoom-able map. There are no 3d representations of fleets or outposts. Instead ships are represented by a simple icon next to a planet. When a battle commences the game switches to real-time combat, and we get our first full taste of fully 3d ships moving and blasting each other. The graphics in this mode are passable, certainly not amazing but it looks good enough for the genre. Ship designs are great, with each race having a distinctive style, from the rough and ready humans to the elegant ghostly phantom ships of the Liir.
This preview-build only has the sandbox custom game mode ready, so I'll jump straight into the meat of the game. Game-play wise Sword of the Stars is streamlined and compact. There are no arrays of menus and buttons, no complicated screens of economic data: quite the opposite. The game is controlled through the strategy screen mainly, which provides a full overview of the Universe you're competing in. There are literally only 6 or 7 buttons for you to worry about, with research and build ships being the 2 most used. It's strange that for such a streamlined game, the UI seems to be a little confusing at times, with buttons in strange places. It's hard to say exactly what's wrong with it, but it doesn't feel quite right at the moment, once all the tool-tips are in place I imagine it will be much better.
Once the game has got going it's only a matter of time before enemies start to attack. When they do the game visibly pumps itself up, with a huge cartoon 'vs.' screen appearing, more reminiscent of a beat-em-up than a turn-based strategy. You're then dropped into a real-time combat situation. Suddenly all those ships you've been building appear in full 3d before you, and you get to order them into battle. Combat looks good, often starting off in mediaeval jousting style, with 2 fleets crashing head-on into each other and trading close-range fire before bursting out the other side, each fleet frantically attempting to re-maneuver. Zoomed in close it could almost be a scene from any sci-fi film, it certainly looks convincing. The controls can be a little frustrating but this is a fairly early build and I'd hope they will improve greatly before release in June.
So what do we have? From the preview I've played Sword of the Stars certainly has the potential to be a cracking sleeper hit. The game offers a mix of turn-based and real-time strategy that might appeal to gamers who don't normally go for full turn-based game-play. The stylized art style looks good, and the game feels fresh and fun. However I'm a little concerned about the UI and some of the game controls but I suspect that concern is misplaced. I look forward to playing the full game - it has a lot of potential and I believe there's a good chance Sword of the Stars will live up to it's promise.