Sword of the Stars II Review (PC)

It's hard to talk about Sword of the Stars II as a game without talking about the circumstances surrounding it. As many of you will have heard, it's in a pretty dire state right now, with the dev team having to work round the clock to fix things. Out of respect for past achievements - both from Paradox and Kerberos themselves, we gave the development team two weeks to do what they could, at which point we'd give our review, and now here we are. You'll be pleased to know that, at the very least, the game is more or less stable and playable now. Whether or not it's enjoyable is another kettle of fish. Fish that we suspect are dead.

Credit where credit's due - the level of detail on ships is amazing...
If you remember from our preview coverage over the past year, there were several key changes to SOTS2 over it's predecessor. First and foremost was a complete engine overhaul, with the new engine (MARS 2.0) looking incredible. It wouldn't surprise us if most of the money and time went into getting the new graphics down and polished, because they really do look good, and really bring the Real-time battle portion of the game to life. At the time of writing, most of the content in this particular section is there, bar the odd ship behavioural tweak, graphics effects, and there are some ship design functions (that would impact on a ships performance in battle) that don't seem to be fully implemented either.

But there is a slight flaw with it that isn't to do with the game being buggy, rather a fundamental design choice that was also another 'major' change. Going with the 'Less is More' principle this time around, Kerberos decreased the maximum number of systems in any given map, but increased the amount of planets and objects within those systems, making them more true to reality. As such, battles take place in an entire system now, with the sun, planetary bodies, asteroid fields and whatever else is present all being there at once. The problem is that the ships move too slowly in order to traverse the whole space in one 'round', even if you set things so that you have the full 12 minutes available.

It's not so much of an issue for the smaller engagements, like for instance at the start of a game, but for larger battles, system with a lot in them, or certain random encounters that spawn mobs around each planet within a system, the new set-up basically means you're set to fighting one round per turn until either you or them are wiped out. On balance, (considering you can't pause real-time engagements), this stops you from getting drawn into anything too time-consuming, but it also kind of defeats the point of having a whole system to play with in the first place. But there is an extra strategic layer in place in the form of sectors that you can control. In-between rounds you can access the Defence Manager (which we think is being renamed the Battle Manager because it works both in offensive and defensive actions) to place your ships in sectors under your control. We guess the point of the strung out engagements is to slowly take ground form the enemy, and out-manoeuvre your opponents using the sectors.

This just brings us to another problem that the game has however, which is the lack of tool-tips and information to highlight these things. With the state that the code is in as well, the situation is merely exacerbated because it's hard to tell whether features are missing, or there's just something you need to figure out in order to get them to work. For example, the 'Trade' layer, which is similar to the trade sectors of the previous game, wasn't present until a couple of patches ago - however, there's still no obvious indication as to how they actually work, and how you service them (digging into the encyclopaedia and looking online helps, but it really shouldn't need to come to that).
Of course, as a testament to how sluggish the game is right now, even the main menu takes a while to load...
Stepping away from the issues SOTS2 faces, let's focus back on what the game plays like right now. In a typical match, you'll start off with a home planet and a handful of systems (to represent an arbitrary passage of time since the first game), and like the original you simply have to expand out into the game world explore, make friends and/or conquer. Setting up a game is highly customizable still, so you can chose what the map looks like, what races will be present, names and colours, certain management sliders and even how many random encounters and menaces there will be. There are supposed to be more lore/story-based scenarios to choose from as well, with custom objectives (what passes for a story mode in SOTS2), but as of writing none of them have been included in the game yet.

Early match will see you mainly searching, expanding and researching tech. Ships are now organised into more formal 'fleets' now, which have to have a command ship and an admiral (in the last game you could just group ships together as and how you pleased, and a command ship wasn't mandatory, but recommended). Fleets also have to be based at a Naval Base (one of many orbital structures you can build), and have a maximum area of operations based on Supply and the support range of the home base. Instead of just sending a fleet somewhere and performing contextual actions, you have to assign missions, which restricts flexibility of fleets. Unless they are based in a system, they can't simply sit there, so you would have to send a fleet on a 'Patrol' mission if you're worried about invasion. Similarly, things like Colonisation, Attacks and Invasions... they are all missions that can be assigned.

In terms of the more management aspects, there's more feedback and interaction in terms of budgets, and how much money is spent where and what for. Sliders galore! Groups of planets can also be grouped into provinces, which we heard about at preview stage although their actual impact has yet to be determined, and as far as research goes it's much the same as the last game, except technology has moved on, and you now have to conduct 'Feasibility Studies' for any techs that are available to you, but not something your empire would be naturally pre-disposed to researching. There has also been a change to the design portion of the game, whereby you can now enter a limited version of the RTS-screen and conduct 'weapons tests', and the first of each new design is considered a prototype. At the moment though, there could be more feedback as to what everything actually does and what the pros and cons are, and the prototypes are almost prohibitively expensive.

Perhaps calling the game 'dire' is a bit harsh, perhaps not - as we've said, it IS playable. It's also sluggish, half-finished, it still crashes from time to time, and overall, it's just kind of uninspiring right now. CEO and front man Martin Cirulis himself said the game was just a pile of "shot up code". No matter how humble or apologetic they are, we suspect they knew full well what the game was going to turn out like, and decided not to tell anyone. Or they didn't, which in a way is even worse. Paradox knew as well, but after physically talking to some of them, you get the impression those guys are trying to take the bullets, or jump on the grenade.
Each races distinctive visual style really come through as well...

History tells us that, eventually, Sword of the Stars II is going to be great - possibly even amazing. Play the original game now and you'll find it a wonderful sci-fi strategy romp... although legend tells us that it's own release wasn't fantastic either. At the moment, SOTS2 is playable, but not really enjoyable - some tech-trees aren't fully implemented, features are incomplete or turned off (we don't anything is out-right missing but... at the moment, it's really hard to tell) and it's just a little bit boring right now. If you want to show Paradox and Kerberos your support, then by all means go buy it, but regardless of whether you pick it up now or not, it'll probably take a couple of months of patches to be the game it was meant to be.

Top Game Moment: The new engine makes space battles all the more engaging, and when all of the features are working properly, they will easily be the best bit of the game.

Game advertisements by <a href="" target="_blank">Game Advertising Online</a> require iframes.



By nocutius (SI Elite) on Nov 15, 2011
A sad but expected score.

I'm absolutely positive that this game will turn out fantastic eventually but i have no intention of getting it as it is now. I will wait until the game is properly finished, maybe even until the first expansion. This game will be a gem and i have no intention of spoiling things by playing it in it's current state.
By Evrett (SI Newbie) on Nov 15, 2011
"In the mean time, we have to wonder why lessons weren't learned the first time around..."

Where is Strategy Informer's apology to its readers who bought the game ? SI was told -months- in advance that the release would be a buggy train wreck and refused to follow up on that say they were too busy to research their articles.

If your reporter would have actually done some legwork instead of being a PR machine for publisher advertisement dollars perhaps this tragedy of a release would not have occurred. The reason lessons werent learned is because you people didnt do your job and threw, and keep throwing softballs.

SI has no right to judge Kerberos since their poor Pr-hype based journalism failed fans of this game just as badly as the devs did.
By Mordachai (I just got here) on Nov 15, 2011
Paradox and Kerberos participated in a form of fraud with the release of Sots ][. The basic definition of a finished software game is that it basically works and provides the features listed in the various official press releases and advertisements.

Everyone accepts a certain amount of glitches, bugs, etc., with any new release. That is not the case here. It's more like "we've been asked to accept a certain amount of almost working features, but mostly bugs, CTDs, and missing segments of the game."

Whatever contract was drawn up between Kerberos and Paradox clearly was inadequate to the ambition of this game. Further, it was foolishly inflexible to handle the sorts of hiccups that can happen with an ambitious project. Either Kerberos or Paradox (or both) refused to acknowledge the reality of their predicament, and instead tossed the whole unfinished steaming heap over the wall into the laps of their customers, with a "gosh, we're real sorry, but suck it and be happy because someday we promise we'll make this work right..."

It's one thing to release software with some unforeseen major bugs at release day which are resolved quickly. It's quite another, and is very likely legally indefensible, to release something and collect money for it without disclosure as to the abject broken nature of the project. The fact is that they'll be lucky to have something "playable" by Christmas. This review is being extreme loose with the term, and generous to Kerberos/Paradox (and cruel to the unsuspecting reader who might think that the game is in fact playable when it is not, unless you just enjoy repeating the first 40-50 turns over & over again forever).
By Kres (SI Elite) on Nov 15, 2011
Evrett, no body really expected something like this to happen. I don't see why you're blaming us. Almost all preview codes will have bugs, CTDs and other issues. We gave the game an unbuyable score. 5.5/10.

I love SotS and I hope that one day they're going to sort it out. Until then, I surely wont buy it. Even as a major fan. Bah a real shame...
By Evrett (SI Newbie) on Nov 15, 2011
Kerberos has a CLEAR history of not making release dates and then releasing early. Anyone who did their homework and actually went through and read past release notes and dev apologies could have predicted that based on past behavior and lack of any apparent change SOTS II was going to be another buggy release. SI's review of Civ 5 is also sans mention of community pre-release concern. SI, and many other "gaming journalists" were made aware that there was a concern with this product month in advance of release and like Joe Paterno, choose to not look into it.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Nov 16, 2011
Evrett, everybody expected a solid game (at least a 0.95v). SotS1 was great. It's not our fault that devs didn't lived up to everyones expectations. They had a good course/direction but they seem to have stayed in place and couldn't deliver. That's why previews are previews, and reviews are reviews. But sorry if we made you buy the game on the basis of our previews.
By Evrett (SI Newbie) on Nov 16, 2011
First - you are misusing "everybody" and "nobody". I am a person, a "body", as are the people who beta test the game. So not "everybody" had stars in their eyes like you. You should instead try "no one in my close circle of friends" or something to that effect. Further when you say "they had a good coarse/direction" you are implying knowledge (source?) which you do not have. Unless you were given access the rest of us werent you got the same PR press kit and walkthrough and whatnot. Anyone with a brain knows that information is tailored and cherry picked to portray the game in the best possible light. Thats where the journalist is suppose to come out and do their job and dig into the details to find a story.

Basically the Sots II preview consisted of advertisement hand fed to SI from the publisher. There was no journalism or research involved. And if that is where you set your bar for "professionalism" I guess you need to live with that. Where I take offense is that SI employees then collect a paycheck to pass on to our fellow gamers what you know is not a fully vetted and researched story. That basically screwing over your readers for money. Anyone who bought the game based on the glowing "previews" it got should hold SI accountable for its negligence. That would not be me though because I took my own advice and didnt preorder the game. Nor would I trust anything I read out of the established gaming media. However I know lots of kids that read gaming mags like they were bibles. Thats who you end up being paid to scam dude - the kids.
By nocutius (SI Elite) on Nov 16, 2011
Evrett, you're probably a bit too harsh, all a preview can do is give some general information.

Everyone knows (or should know) that preview versions of games are not yet finished. They're usually missing features, have bugs and crash, the graphics are not finalized... But you expect those things to get ironed out in the coming months before launch, that is the premise all reviews usually stand on.
In this case it didn't happen, they didnt manage to put in the missing features (SI mentioned those in the preview), but how could SI have known for a fact that this is going to happen 4 months in advance?
By Kres (SI Elite) on Nov 16, 2011
Conspiracy theorist Evrett? Sorry, you lost me there. Spend your time in a more constructive fashion. Cause you're wrong. But you can believe what you like of course.

Quote from the opening paragraph in our last preview of the game 12th May 2011:

Despite the impressive tech demos, the talks, the wish-lists and the dreams, you can never really get a 'feel' for a game without getting a complete build in your hands. As amazing as Kerberos has made Sword of the Stars II sound, do this kind of thing for long enough and you'll soon learn that keeping a "believe it when we see it" mentality is key.
By Evrett (SI Newbie) on Nov 16, 2011
There is no "conspiracy" in the ugly truth that people all over the world choose getting paid over fulfilling their moral responsibility everyday. At the end of the day SI reviewers got paid, Kerberos devs got paid, and gamers got crapped on. People will choose non-engagement every time when issues crop up because its "easier". It doesnt make them evil, just negligent and irresponsible.

Tacking on a vague caviot to the end of the preview does not justify the writer not doing any legwork into the story.
By nocutius (SI Elite) on Nov 16, 2011
There was no "story" at the time of the preview Evrett, the story started at launch.

This is a screw up from Kerberos, Paradox to some extent (we don't know exactly how much for a fact), but i still don't see how you can blame SI.

You obviously have a beef with Kerberos for whatever reason, but you're barking up the wrong tree here.
SI mentioned the missiong features in their preview and then trashed the game in the review. What else can you expect?

Those that preordered the game without waiting for the reviews did so at their own risk, and Paradox issued refunds to those that requested them. As far as i'm concerned the story is settled.
By Evrett (SI Newbie) on Nov 16, 2011
Anyone who isnt miffed at Kerberos at this point needs to have their head examined. If you are so apathetic or so wealthy you dont care when someone wrongs you or your community you prob should take a look at that.

The story is that SI was made aware of concerns about Sots II months prior to release and neither made mention of these concerns nor followed them up. There was a story out that wasnt properly researched and it wasnt properly reseachered because the advertisers are not paying SI to report the truth. Instead they are only report on the carefully vetted fan kit provided. Can you say sell out?

So what its just game -agreed but big picture these poor journalistic behaviors will lead to less accountability and a lower quality of games and that hurts everyone. Releases like Civ 5 and Sots II will become the norm. And taken to its absolute extreme not properly reporting or researching claims caused a lot of suffering over at PennState of recent..
By Kres (SI Elite) on Nov 16, 2011
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Nov 17, 2011
I for one have always found SI's reviews to be the most honest and forthcoming, and I don't make this statement lightly nor as a simple supporter (I read reviews from muliple sources).
PI has accepted partial responsibilty for the state this game released in, and have offered a free copy of "SotS" by means of compensation.
This year 2011 will go down as alandmark year for shoddy, incomplete and bug-ridden game releases. The hype, the pre-release information, press kits, previews...theyhave for the first time been misleading in an overwhelming number.
The gaming journalism that does not acknowledge this, or simply leaves out the faults and problems is on the increase as well. Hence the implication of "paid reviews".
This is my opinion, yet I have been reading games reviews since around 1987 (imported magazines, as Australia had none back then). Stil have the first issue of "PC Gamer".
So when I state that I find SI's reviews as the only ones I actually put stock in these days, there is some history.
By anguille (SI Newbie) on Nov 17, 2011
I guess the review is spot on.

Please, make a review of Armada 2526 Supernova as well as Distant Worlds Legends...great games deserve reviews even if they are from indies.

By bosnian_dragon (SI Core) on Nov 18, 2011
I can understand Evrett's point of view, but I don't agree on everything he wrote. First, I don't think that SI is a part of some global trend of concealing the reality of gaming industry. As a matter of fact, SI and its members (including myself) have always been the biggest critics about almost every title out there. You won't find many games previewed or reviewed on SI without some discussions in the comment section. I personally believe that comments can influence people's opinion as much as a preview or review can. I had experiences where I read shiny reviews for games graded 8/10 or more, but the comments below discouraged me from buying the game, only to find out later that the people who wrote the comments were right.

Pardon my messy English, but I think I made a point - No one should pre-order the game these days. That's why we - the customers - must train the industry to obey us, not the opposite. They wouldn't be able to sell ANYTHING if there were no gamers. Since we pay lots of money for their games, we should not be like mindless bots waiting in rows for 10 days just to get a damn copy. There is always patience and wisdom - two values which many gamers don't possess unfortunatelly.
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Nov 18, 2011
Evrett's looking like the kind og guy that just has a certain opinion, which he feels strongly about and also feels that everyone should be converted to that opinion.

Keep preaching and ignore the rebuttals.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Nov 18, 2011
Evrett was ranting on other places too. As long as it's constructive we shouldn't mind...
By lichlord (SI Core) on Nov 22, 2011
SOTS 1 was also known for a "bad" release and look how the game turned out im confident they will get it good

ofc yes its not a good strategy to get it out on stores this low quality but at least unlike companies as EA they don't abandon the game just like that