It’s true: diving into the realm of PC strategy is a daunting prospect, for even the most hardy of console gamers. Console strategy games, when they exist, tend to be designed with the limitations of the console in mind—just look at the overly simplified RTS action that Halo Wars, the most bought console strategy game in quite some time, brought to the table. On one hand, there’s the button set. There simply aren’t enough buttons to make manipulating a huge set of options feasible, and nobody wants to navigate through menu upon menu. On the other hand, there just aren’t all that many strategy games available for the consoles, which leads to a kind of shortened attention span on the part of console gamers; used to the instant gratification of first-person shooters, sports titles, and adventure titles, the slow-burn of a strategy game almost feels like too much of a commitment.
For its part, Sword of the Stars hit the PC 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”) space strategy scene in 2006, billed as an entry point to the world of PC 4X games. While stalwarts in the genre like the Master of Orion series prided themselves on their ever-expanding complexity and the options that they allowed their players to have, Sword of the Stars was billed as more of a back-to-basics model.
That’s exactly what it is, too. After the initial period of trepidation that comes with figuring out the interface for the game (a certain-sized learning curve is pretty much required for this type of game), which included figuring out the controls and processes for researching technology, designing ships, and particularly the navigation of the three-dimensional starmap (which started out as terribly confusing but now seems pretty nifty), it’s actually surprising just how basic the gameplay is. Research is actually a matter of opening up the research window, looking for the tech that’s going to help the most toward your goal, clicking on it, and closing the window. That’s it. You can help the research along a bit by throwing money at it, but it’s almost shocking how easy it is to grasp.
Just as easy is the combat, which basically takes care of itself. You’re given the option to take part in the battle, but it’s almost not worth it given that combat is basically limited to picking a target and telling your ships to shoot at it. It tends to be worth letting the computer run the simulation, given that it saves a little time and tends to be less frustrating.
Building ships, again, is a matter of clicking on the ship you want to build and clicking the “add to queue” button. The GUI then tells you when it’s going to be ready, and you’re free to go and do whatever else you need to. As a newbie to this sort of thing, it took me a few plays to realize that each planet that’s under your control has its own build queue, and when you send ships to go attack a rival world, you’d better send more than one planet’s force. But once you get the hang of that, it’s all pretty simple. There’s no “story mode”, per se, but there are scenarios for single-player play, with goals that range from simplistic “blow away all of your rivals” to “capture these planets and blow away your rivals but maintain relations with this other race and, oh, make sure you don’t lose this one important planet or else you’re done.” Because, you know, some people like headaches.
Perhaps the only really deep options in the basic game are the aspects of ship design it offers and that gets big only because there are a number of different parts that you can create your ships out of. Building the ships is actually incredibly easy as well given that it’s just a matter of combining three parts and hoping they work together. Individually, every aspect of this game is relatively easy to pick up, and the play is almost board game-like in its simplicity. There are only three races of creatures to master, each of whom has a different way of traversing that aforementioned starmap, and the interaction is so minimal as to be necessary but unobtrusive. If you’ve played Risk for any length of time and enjoyed it, chances are Sword of the Stars would float your boat just fine.
A funny thing started to happen when the first expansion to the game, called Born of Blood arrived: the complexity level increased a bit. There’s much more to negotiating with other races. There’s a new, fun, identifiably evil race to play as. Combat is beefed up a bit. For the most part, it’s the same game as Sword of the Stars but with a few new tricks up its sleeve. Fine, right?
Well, late last year, the second expansion for Sword of the Stars was released, this one called A Murder of Crows. Here we have new weapons, new technology, another new race with another new way of navigating the galaxies, the addition of civilian population classes for your worlds, new parts for your ships, and all of it is placed on top of the features that have already existed for the previous two years of existence for the franchise.
You see what’s happening here, right? With the release of A Murder of Crows, Sword of the Stars may well have crossed the line from “entry point” to “devoted fans only” given that population control (which largely involves making sure the population classes remain well-proportioned) is a process that you must monitor for each individual planet one at a time. This addition can be terribly tedious if you don’t long for that sort of control. For beginning players, the number of ship parts may have crossed the line from pleasantly numerous to oppressively unwieldy. And the minute you start trying to activate the (human-exclusive) node drive with the Liir, you’ll realize that maybe, just maybe, there are too many different races of creatures to keep track of. Sword of the Stars is suddenly for the hardcore far more than it is for the beginner.
This sort of progression in strategy is almost inevitable—as the diehards master the options available to them, they long for more, and it’s in the best interest of game developers to answer their most loyal players. Unfortunately, when you try to package everything together in a collection like the Sword of the Stars Ultimate Collection, it’s difficult to tell which audience it’s for.
Mercifully, the download method offered for the Ultimate Collection skirts this issue by offering separate downloads for the original game and the two expansions. To the new players: start slow. Download the original first and leave the expansions for later, once you’ve mastered the mechanic and style of the original. To the 4X veterans or the Sword of the Stars audience who will be buying this primarily for the second expansion, go ahead and get the whole thing right off the bat, which allows you to play the entire original scenario set with the new options and features attached. While it’s unfortunate that the game has lost its identity a bit in its move toward the advanced side of 4X gameplay in any incarnation it is a solid, difficult, and incredibly time consuming (which most strategy gamers would consider a plus) game that will keep you up far later at night than you have any right to be awake.
If that’s not an endorsement for this type of game, I don’t know what is.