Sword of the Stars is a new strategy game from developer Kerberos Productions. An epic galaxy conquering affair, the game is split between RTS combat and turn based planet and resource management. Some of the Kerberos team worked on Homeworld: Cataclysm and this game feels like an expanded, deeper version.
The game is set in 2405 and the back-story sees mankind developing the ability to travel further than ever before and setting out to colonise the universe, of course we run into a bunch of aliens with the same idea and a big battle kicks off. You can choose to play as the other races and each has their own unique mode of transport and ideal environments. You can also choose the shape of galaxy you want which will affect how quickly you meet your opponents. Each player starts with one planet and the surrounding planets must be explored.
To start with you must build colonisers to go out and settle on other planets, fleets to protect them as they travel and tankers for transporting goods. Beyond the 3 basic spacecrafts you start with there is an option to design your own ships which is a nice idea and fairly easy to use. You also have a unique tech tree (apparently randomly generated each time you start) and so you can choose the technologies you want to develop.
Building ships, settling planets and the research all have to be managed carefully and it´s important to keep a close eye on your resources. Once you have set up all the actions you want to perform that turn, whether building, starting new research or sending a ship out to explore a new planet, you then hit end turn and wait to see what happens. If any of your ships come into contact with an enemy then a panel pops up and you enter into the RTS style phase of the game playing out a space battle in a large map.
The RTS battles are very reminiscent of Homeworld. You click on your ship, right click to tell it to move to a point or left click on an enemy to attack them. At the moment it plays a little awkwardly, it is easy to find your camera view zooming off behind an asteroid and frustratingly difficult to zoom back in on your ship. I also had a battle with some small zippy crafts and found targeting them was quite difficult. It looks lovely though and there are some interesting space craft designs. If you aren't interested in the battling part of the game you can auto-resolve your battles and stay in the turn based strategy galaxy screen.
As you begin to settle planets they improve each turn with the growing population and your civilisation gradually gets strong enough to research and build formidable weapons. You also encounter the other races and there is an interesting diplomacy option which allows you to form pacts and alliances. All races suffer from pirate attacks.
You can also play scenarios in the single player mode and there is a multiplayer option for LAN or online play in which you can battle with up to 7 other people.
The game has a fairly steep learning curve and there are lots of features to explore though it takes a while to understand exactly what each is doing. Sword of the Stars is very much like a sci-fi version of the Total War format, the same split between turn based map management and real time strategy battles. It's a winning combination that makes for a satisfying mix of game-play.
Although daunting at first the sheer scale of the game should keep you coming back for more and with the various choices and randomisations there is a lot of replay value in this. The one thing that seemed to be missing was the ability to build things other than ships on your planets; you have to rely on the colonisers to improve the planet over time.
Once you have settled a planet you can over harvest it and then abandon it when it becomes unprofitable. This allows for different tactics in your pursuit of galactic dominance. The economic system seems quite complex requiring you to find a good balance between a number of things.
The game is attractive and you can zoom from light years away into orbit of a planet on the galactic map. The battle maps are also pretty and the visual FX during battle look just right. The HUD and various user interfaces are a bit more mixed, some are pretty, some aren't, some are intuitive, and some aren't. The whole thing hangs together well though and the concept art used as loading screens is very nice. You can also select a commander and insignia for your chosen race at the start which adds a nice personal touch.
The sound and voiceover work are classic sci-fi, they add a nice bit of immersion. The intro voiceover once again reminded me strongly of Homeworld, and in turn of Battlestar Galactica.
Sword of the Stars seems a natural successor to Homeworld for people who enjoy sci-fi strategy games. Although there are similar games on the market such as the Galactic Civilizations series this looks to have more depth to it and you won't have long to wait to get your hands on it with release slated to be this summer.