It's sometimes good to get back to the basics. That seems to have been the philosophy at Kerberos Productions with Sword of the Stars, a slightly flawed though highly likable space strategy game that trashes much of the micromanagement seen in the genre and distills the core gameplay down to a highly sleek and streamlined form. The result is a strategy game with little fat, which makes it all the easier to focus on your goal of conquering the galaxy.
Sword of the Stars is an interesting take on the traditional space strategy game. Your goal is to explore the galaxy, expand on new worlds, exploit them to build a larger economy to support scientific research and huge navies, and then use those navies to exterminate the enemy. The game features four playable alien races, each of which has a fundamentally different approach to the game. For instance, humans can zip quickly between stars using special space lanes, while the insectlike hivers must slowly fly to different stars, but once there, they can build interdimensional gateways that let the civilization instantaneously travel to any other gateway. This can affect your strategy, as you might be able to exploit your knowledge of the human space lanes to blockade key planets to contain them or use the dimensional gate system to rush reinforcements around the galaxy.
There are some old-school elements in Sword of the Stars, which goes to show you than even old ideas still have merit. For instance, the economic system doesn't burden your construction of various buildings on planets or require you to carefully eek every dime out of your budget. Instead, the game uses a slider system that's similar to the one seen in 1993's Master of Orion, or even 1992's Spaceward Ho. You'll use a handful of sliders to determine how much you want to spend on research, terraforming, infrastructure development, and shipbuilding. Planets are rated by size (which determines the population they can support), as well as the amount of resources on them. The game then calculates the math behind the scenes, and you're presented with only the important information you need to know, such as how many turns it will take to complete a dreadnought under construction.
The rest of the game is laid out in a very logical manner. The more planets that you settle, the larger your economy, which means you can dump more into researching the fairly sizable tech tree. New technologies unlock more powerful weapons, larger ship classes, and different components that can be designed into your ships. Once you've designed a ship class, the shipyards can then crank them out. There's very much a rock-paper-scissors balancing with the technologies, and the artificial intelligence is good at the tougher difficulty levels of countering whatever tactic you've devised. For instance, if you find yourself relying heavily on massed missile attacks, don't be surprised if the enemy suddenly shows up with point defenses that nullify most of your missiles. At which point it's back to the drawing board to come up with a new design. And Sword of the Stars has a cool feature that slightly randomizes the tech tree each game, so you're not quite sure which technologies you'll have at your disposal.
The sheer number of different ship designs translates into a lot of depth to the game, but Sword of the Stars offers even more depth when it comes to fleet composition. One good aspect about the game is that it's not possible to come up with a jack-of-all-trades ship design. Instead, you need to build a mix of different vessels. You might have your primary front-line warships, but you'll need tanker support to help move them over vast distances, as well as command ships to allow for larger numbers of vessels in battle, assault ships to land troops on planets, and more. Fleet management itself is a bit cumbersome but otherwise nicely thought out. You can quickly organize your dozens of vessels into fleets.
Combat is both the strong and weak point of the game. Battles take place in real time, and it's very hands off for the most part. You can issue your fleet a basic command, such as standard attack, standoff attack, or close-range attack, and the ships will carry out the orders. Being able to sit back and watch the ensuing battle can be both exhilarating and frustrating, as you might sometimes wish for more control, but the system is designed to make it feel like you're a real commander. At some point, real commanders can no longer influence events and must hope that their strategies work out.
Unfortunately, combat has other, larger issues that hobble the game. You have the option of playing each battle or having the computer automatically generate the results, but it's far too easy to accidentally end up watching battles that you don't need to watch. Each battle can take up to several minutes to resolve, so the pace of the game can quickly slow to a crawl. Far too often, there's nothing happening onscreen for a minute or two, and there's no way to speed up the action. Or, a planet might come under attack from a mysterious threat. If you're lucky, it's a real threat such as slavers, but if you're unlucky, you have to sit through dreaded meteor storms. These are dreaded not so much because they're particularly dangerous, but more because they're incredibly boring, as you have to sit and watch giant space rocks slowly being blown apart. There's no way to exit out of these combat situations early and let the computer resolve them, though this is promised in an upcoming patch. Hopefully, the patch might address some stability issues that we saw, as well, particularly with the game locking up on numerous occasions.
Epic turn-based strategy games tend to be best played in single-player due to the huge time constraints involved, though Sword of the Stars does offer multiplayer support for up to eight players. Be prepared to invest a large amount of time in multiplayer, though, as even with time limits on turns, a game can take a formidable amount of time to resolve. The good news is that the AI can take over for you if you drop out, and you can give it basic orders, such as to expand your empire, while you're away. Still, the pace of the game is such that only the most diehard will likely participate.
Sword of the Stars has a very unconventional look to it that works in its favor. The art design is a mix of 3D elements and old-fashioned line art, and while it might strike some as incongruous, we found it stylish and an interesting change of pace from the predominately CG look of most games. The galactic map is presented in a nifty 3D form that can be rotated and zoomed in and out of at will. It's a slick piece of work, and one that's reminiscent of 1995's Ascendancy. On the other hand, the audio effects are rather weak, as they're mainly limited to the whoosh of missile launches or the little plink of lasers firing.
Admittedly, we don't get to see many space strategy games these days, but regardless, Sword of the Stars feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that has been veering toward complexity for far too long. The game has its quirks, but if you can get over them, you'll find a rather deep and enjoyable game about galactic genocide.