If you were keeping an eye on the space RTS genre in 2011 you might have seen the controversy surrounding Sword of the Stars II. Released twice in barely working condition and visibly half finished, the fan reaction was unimpressed to say the least. You were lucky to get the game to work, let alone play long enough to appreciate any improvements over the previous title. Thankfully, Kerebros Productions proceeded to work around the clock, near constantly releasing patches and upgrades to make the title playable. The end result of this was Sword of the Stars II: Enhanced Edition, supposedly the condition in which the game was supposed to be released along with the added bonus of the End of Flesh expansion. Is it all we were hoping it to be? Well, yes and no.
Everything that was great in the first title is still present here—All the masses of micromanaging across a multitude of worlds, fleet battles, and copious amounts of colonies to build. There’s still the sense of scale, still all the planets to make into protectorates; managing to keep that sense of mystery and size you want in a 4X, turn based strategy.
Helping with the sense of scale is an intuitive development of almost everything you’re involved in. From designing individual ship classes and prototypes to an extremely well made tech tree, both of which contain enough random elements to prevent you from completely sticking to a single play style. You can’t just stick to quickly building powerful shields every game with one faction because random issues can develop which makes on part of your favourite tech tree not viable. It’s that small added difficulty which gives further replay value.
Random factors will constantly arise to keep you on your toes, ranging from sudden attacks by grand theft auto’d super-warships to systems guarded by ancient defence grids adding a sense of unknown. You could run into practically anything and encounter, well, every science fiction cliché known to man. It’s the sort of thing you’d want for a title on as vast a setting as this one.
It’s still also a Sword of the Stars sequel, so each faction visibly has its own unique traits and factors from initial advantages to FTL capabilities but a few elements changed up to give the series new blood. The most obvious of these is the inclusion of the Loa, the AI civilisation created from all the rebellions. Such as two factions merging into one and another gaining the power to summon space cthuhlu.
It’s unfortunately that last point which really begins to cause problems within the game. Much of the hype and promotional material surrounding the game emphasised the Lords of Winter, when really they’re only a small part of the game. There’s no story mode campaign, so the races of the galaxy teaming up to take them down it’s not something that will happen, nor is there any big finale to take them out even as a scenario. With even the game named after them and containing a huge poster of what one will look like, learning they’re not so much a final boss as one faction’s superweapon is a really big disappointment. It’s inclusion would be like Homeworld 2, upon its release, hyping up the inclusion of the battlecruisers. Coming up with a huge background of them being star destroying gods, then doing next to nothing with them. But that’s only the lore and promotion, the game has bigger flaws when it comes to actually playing it.
The chief problem, besides the few remaining glitches, are a number of awkward design choices which do hamstring what should have been a far better experience. While the most obvious of these are things like the game having a twelve minute time limit placed upon all battles—causing many to end in a draw or become dragged out meatgrinders as both sides pile in ships—and the game visibly lacks polish on every level.
This is clear in the distinct lack of information provided to new beginners. While having a steep difficulty curve is unavoidable for many games with this scope and level of detail, giving little to no information on how to play or even how each mechanic works simply feels cheap. This problem is only further emphasised by a very limited user interface that feels bare bones and doesn’t offer the immersion or level of control you would want for a game like this. The often awkward positioning and lack of obvious use of many buttons means that any newcomers to the series can only learn through continuous trial and error. There’s no playable tutorial present, an addition which was desperately needed in SOTS2, and most of the time you’re guessing what does what. Even then there are other functions and details that will take you the better part of an age to figure out, or leave you continuously searching on the game’s wiki to find out what’s gone wrong. A very obvious example of this is the small numbers of X/100 listed below each planet you’ve colonised. After some trial and error it can become clear that it lists the number of ships you have defending each world but there’s no direct way the game tells you that as you start playing. People might criticise Civilisation V’s use of pop-up tutorials, but at least they always made it clear what you were doing and were backed by a very easy to navigate interface.
Even once you can get past this there are some very big problems in terms of control. Much of the time you’re not even entirely clear on why you’d want to do something, or why it is happening. This is distinctly clear with the diplomacy. As something which was supposed to allow another dimension to the game and give you the opportunity to make use of a classic element of empire building titles, it’s half baked. Often out of the blue your allies will make demands of you with little to no clear reason. The schizophrenic AI will demand cash from you, or demand information on some backwater system which you’ve barely looked at on the other side of the galaxy from them. For all the treaty options, espionage abilities and your bog standard gift/demand options, you constantly feel like you’re stuck in a barren galaxy where you can only answer “Yes” or “No” to everything.
The immersion breaking factor of this is only made worse by the fact that the empire or world making the demands doesn’t even have dialogue. At best you’re just given a simple statement of how much they want/what they want, which is about five or six words in total. This doesn’t change depending on the strength of your relationship, and there’s no personal touch to distinguish each group from one another. This means that talking with the imperialist Tarka is the same experience as trying to communicate with the robotic Loa. This becomes all the more clear when you can take hours trying to improve relations with a faction, achieve a non-aggressive pact or even an outright alliance, and for no reason your relationship with them will be indicated as being worse off. Why? There’s no clear way to find out.
Aside from the temperamental AI, the lack of clear feedback can make it hard to become invested in the game. It’s next to impossible to keep track of every basic detail—from where your strongest fleets are to why you chose not to colonise that system next to you— and lacks even the options to take notes. Considering the sheer amount of time a single one-on-one match can consume with hundreds of systems available, there needed to be some sort of notes system to record your data or even just streamline the experience.
Ultimately, the Enhanced Edition fixes enough to make you play the game, but fails to add enough to keep you interested for long. The game I wanted to love is somewhere in here but it’s buried beneath a multitude of problems. For all the fun you’ll have creating prototypes for unique ship classes, finding out how to make anti-matter weapons, and building orbital facilities, you’ll constantly be frustrated at the basic gameplay elements. If there was a clear events log added, better explanations of what did what, and more personal touches created to vary the diplomacy system this might be an interesting title. If you can withstand the difficulty curve and general feel of Sins of s Solar Empire, then this might be worth your time, but otherwise, find something else to play.