E3 2011: Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter Preview Impressions

At E3 2011, we spread our might across the galaxy in this upcoming space strategy sequel.


Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter

Fans of the 4X strategy genre have too few places to turn nowadays. Oh wait--have you heard about 4X games? If you're new to the acronym, here's what you need to know: e(x)plore, e(x)pand, e(x)ploit, and e(x)terminate. Master of Orion is considered the granddaddy of 4X games, and the Sword of the Stars series has done a fine job of continuing the tradition of space-based conquest. The upcoming sequel is called Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter. We met with designer Chris Stewart from developer Kerberos Productions at E3 2011 to see how this spacefaring strategy game was coming together.

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Who's Making It: Kerberos is the creative team behind the Sword of the Stars series. While the developer has several edutainment games in its portfolio, the warmly received Sword of the Stars and its expansions are its crowning achievement.

What It Looks Like: Like in the Total War series (a correlation drawn by Stewart himself), gameplay is divided into turn-based tactical phases and real-time combat phases. The 3D star map lets you zoom in and out. Here you manage your fleets of space vessels and choose actions to take during your turn (colonize, purchase technological advances, and so on). In the combat phase, you get to see your fighter frigates and capital ships in action.

Lords of Winter's ships look spectacular. They are loaded with detail, and you can customize them to the nth degree. In the past, vessel coloring was somewhat harsh, as players had to choose color schemes that matched the color associated with their empire. Now, ship coloring is much more flexible. In addition, you choose where on your ships you wish important objects like turrets to appear.

What You Do: You choose to play as one of seven races, one of which is new to the sequel. During tactical play, you maintain your fleets, colonize planets, research technology, and issue other orders from the star map. Lords of Winter isn't as micromanagement-heavy as Galactic Civilizations, but there are still loads of statistics and information to sort through. You can get detailed information, but Kerberos doesn't want things to feel super fiddly.

On the combat side of things, you control your fleet in a way similar to standard real-time strategy games. You click to move, shoot, and so on. The game features polygonal targeting; in other words, if an enemy hits your engines, it is your engines that take damage. This phase doesn't necessarily have to last for long. Battles might take four or five minutes; any longer, and other players in the match might tire of waiting for battles to play out. But at the end of the next turn, depending on how the turn plays out, battle might again resume where it left off.

How It Plays: Kerberos wants to strike a good balance between old features that players are comfortable with and new ones that expand upon the original's base. Features retained include map randomization and randomized tech trees. This keeps the game fresh by making sure there is always an element of surprise. This includes revealing the full tech tree only as you progress so that players don't quit the match if they feel the tree doesn't meet their needs from the moment they begin. As you tech up, new paths are revealed.

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What's new is just as important as what's old, however. Scaling has been improved. Now, the game can be customized to meet your particular needs, whether you want to play a two-hour game on a small map or get together every week with a group. The strategic battles also get new features. Now, battle occurs across three planes rather than one, so you will be able to roll ships so that their strongest sides face enemy fire. (That's just one example of how three-planed battles change combat.) Other new features include randomized stars, randomized solar systems, and more.

What They Say: Kerberos wants you to feel attached to your fleet and make every ship count. They aren't meant for onetime skirmishes, but should be protected and maintained through proper tactical play. You can even name every ship in your fleet if you want to.

What We Say: Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter looks deep enough to appeal to players who like to micromanage every aspect of their civilization--but friendly enough to give top-level tacticians plenty to chew on as well. The game is due for release on August 16, 2011.

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