Sword of the Stars II: Enhanced Edition

Here’s a fun experiment: hop over to Metacritic, select any reasonably prominent PC game from the last two years, say, Diablo 3 or Civilization 5, and open up the user reviews section for those games. Here’s your objective: comb through the negative reviews you see and count how many times you find comparisons to Call of Duty, specifically in reference to Game X’s efforts to streamline its learning curve. You’ll find more than you’d think.

For whatever reason, CoD seems to be the great defiler of every storied PC genre; a shadow school of game design that has infected the minds of developers with a desire to “dumb things down” in order to reach the widest possible audience. The comparison, of course, is quite often nonsense, and the people invoking it are just using CoD as a shorthand for simpler, more intuitive game designs that they happen to hate. To the layman, PC games can often be complex enough with or without any alleged “Cod-ification,” yet I’m willing to bet that even the greenest PC gamer and the most hardcore enthusiast can find common ground when it comes to Kerberos’ 4X Space Simulation Sword of the Stars II: this game should’ve had a lot more CoD thrown in.

There can be no overstating how player-hostile Sword of the Stars II is on a basic, functional level. I spent four hours with the game, and for three of them I was struggling to identify what my objectives were, what my abilities were; how to navigate the map, the tech trees, resource gathering, ship construction, turn limits, enemy moves, government structuring, repairs, factions, weapons, trade, targets, negotiations, colonization, telepathy, research, allies, chat, squads, frigates, environments, atmospheres, gravity, inertia, materials, fuel, genealogy, bureaucracy, politics, history, modifications, probability, strategy, economy, hegemony, religion, culture, volume, aerodynamics, protection, life, the universe, and just how exactly the right-mouse button figures into everything.

Here’s what’s mercifully obvious: when you start a new game of SotS, you choose one of seven alien races, from the insect-like Hivers to the avian Morrigi, and a galaxy to conquer. With a few ships and some space-bucks to get your empire off the ground (so to speak) you begin your journey as a would-be ruler of the stars. It’s a thrilling proposition, and when the scope of all the options and stratagems dawns on you it feels almost as expansive as the universe itself. This is where the game lives and dies. There is perhaps no other 4X game as granular and intricate as Sword of the Stars II, and yet, with no tutorial whatsoever, and an aggressively un-intuitive menu system, the infectious promise of space-for-the-taking collapses into enervating drudgery.

In no uncertain terms, the potential that’s wasted by SotS’ impenetrable interface just sucks. A comprehensive tutorial, explaining each of the game’s mechanics in simple detail, would have worked wonders to help the game deliver on its promise. Instead, the only resources available for new players are a detailed (but irrelevant to gameplay) encyclopedia of the game’s assorted minutiae, and a global chat function that lets you talk to other players in their own single-player games. The chat quickly proves invaluable, yet risky. In my time with the game, I was more often likely to speak with folks who didn’t want to give advice on how to play, and given the very basic nature of the questions I was asking (“How do I choose what to do when I click on something?”), I couldn’t blame them.

The one element of the game that’s done the largest disservice by its density is the ship-to-ship combat. The game progresses in turns, but engaging in combat brings up an RTS interface that allows direct control of your fleet. With enough resources, the fighters and cruisers at your disposal can be perfectly tailored to your every whim, giving you both aesthetic and martial control of your ships. Unfortunately, the pride that comes with guiding your personal fleet to cosmic victory is also undercut by mystifying controls and enemy AI that puts up little-to-no fight. Those might sound like offsetting penalties, but the fact that the encounters are so easy and the inputs so confusing (the same button handles both ship and camera control) means that the game’s greatest enemy is suspension of disbelief.

Sword of the Stars II is exhausting. It has a genius to its depth of strategy, customization, and lore, and its ambition is unmatched by perhaps any other 4X title out there, but trying to reach the fruit of any of those qualities leaves one fastened to the sappy bark of labyrinthine menus and a glacial pace. Amidst the high pedigree of the 4X genre, there simply is no reason to play this.