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Sword of the Stars: Ultimate Collection (PC) artwork

Sword of the Stars: Ultimate Collection (PC) review

"Sword of the Stars: Ultimate Collection brings in some wonderfully fresh ideas, but stays true to the 4X formula. This is a game with a lot of depth and a lot to learn, and you aren't likely to master it in a weekend."

Here's a little test for you: Master of Orion.

Those of you now grinning like an idiot will fondly recall the father of the 4X genre. For you, if you can shake off the trip down memory lane I have only this to say: Sword of the Stars: Ultimate Collection is what MoO3 should have been.

But for the rest of you, let's take it from the beginning. There is a subspecies of the strategy game known as "4X", much praised for its inherent depth and immersion, and much loathed for its learning curves. The term 4X, first coined by gaming journalist Alan Emrich, is an attempt to explain the core gameplay of the genre by breaking it down into four concepts;

* EXplore!
There's a big game world out there. Start looking around!
* EXpand!
Spread your influence, forge an empire. That sort of thing.
* EXploit!
Gather resources, build armies/fleets, and otherwise make use of the territory under your control.
* EXterminate!
Just like the Dalek says. Eventually you run out of neutral territory to grab, and have to start grabbing from the other players.

Naturally, any 4X game will cast you into the role of emperor of...something...and charge you with guiding your people to greatness along these lines. Now that we're all on the same page, Sword of the Stars is exactly this sort of game (to the delight of armchair emperors everywhere who've been lacking a decent one for years).

Each of the game's six races is unique in some way, and requires a different approach to how to achieve the four X's of the genre. The reptilian Tarkas, with their combat-oriented ships and poor technology advancement, are better suited to an imperialist policy of military expansion, while the Morrigi's paper-thin armor makes them poorly suited to combat in the early game, but can fund their research and expansion with a prosperous trade empire. Our own human cousins have potentially the fastest start, catapulting their ships along "Node lines" between stars at frightening speed, but these same Node lines also restrict travel to a static network, sometimes requiring several jumps to travel between stars next door to one another. Conversely, the insectoid Hivers have no faster-than-light travel in the conventional sense. Instead, they must hurl fleets of starships across the interstellar void using sublight engines, journeys that can take several years to complete. But once at their destination, they construct hyperspace gates that transport ships to any other gate in the blink of an eye; a powerful technology, but one that requires a slow, careful, methodical approach to expansion.

Thankfully, though, developing colonies into industrial powerhouses is not a slow and tedious process. In fact the process is mostly automated, your only role is to adjust sliders depending on your preferences and notions (if any) of development strategy; a budding colony can, at your discretion, direct its production capabilities towards terraforming, ship construction, interplanetary trade to generate revenue, or more infrastructure to further boost production. It's simple enough that, like any self-respecting galactic emperor, you don't have to constantly babysit and guide by hand your settlements at every turn, but can step in and make changes if you feel the need. The most direct involvement you'll have with colony production is constructing fleets to crush your enemies.

Said crushing can just as easily be resolved automatically, but it's much more fun to take direct command of your armada and lead them to victory. Tactical combat is conducted in real time on a semi-three-dimensional battlefield - movement commands are in two dimensions, but ships are free to make combat maneuvers in three. Sometimes ships end up at odd angles to one another, and should it be necessary can be ordered to roll to bring guns to bear. The number of warships for each empire on the battlefield is determined by the "command points" available, which are provided by ships with special "Command and Control" sections - never leave home without one, as the default command pool is dreadfully small - only twelve points. Destroyers take a meager two points, cruisers six, and dreadnoughts eighteen, and command ships of a given class can bring the point total up to 20, 36, and 58 respectively. Any excess ships are kept in reserve, to be called in when those on the front line are lost or forced to retreat. Research increases the pool slightly, but only one command ship counts at a time. Still, the clever player will bring along an extra or two as command ships are extremely high-priority targets on the battlefield; lose yours, and your command pool goes back to twelve and reinforcements are brought in at random, rather than your carefully planned deployment pattern. Further research in command technology also unlocks the Flagship, a fearsome dreadnought section bristling with weapons and armor plating that supports a startling 70 command points - the downside being, you only get to have one at a time, and it's costly to replace.

In any other 4X game, the research mechanic amounts to a rush to reach the "all-powerful" technology, all intermediate advances being nothing more than stepping stones. Here, Sword of the Stars turns convention on its head by implementing a randomized tech tree; aside from a few core technologies common to everyone, each race has a percent chance of "rolling" a given tech item. At the beginning of each game, each player's tech tree is randomized (or "rolled" in game lingo) according to these percentages. Much simplified example: the Liir, a race of telepathic cetaceans, have a 40% chance of Photonic Torpedoes appearing on their tech tree. If, in a given game, a Liir player successfully rolls Photonics, there is then a 50% chance of the higher-level Gluonic Torpedoes appearing on the tree. If that is successfully rolled, there's an 30% chance of Mesonic Torpedoes, and so on. This means that, while there are a few "ultimate" techs, there's nothing to guarantee you'll be able to research one of them, let alone all of them, and in fact there's no way to know exactly what your tech tree looks like until you start researching things and find branches that end abruptly, so very often you'll have to damn your preferred weapons and make due with what you do have - and hope it's more than pitiful pulse lasers.

Whatever you end up with, you still need to go and design warships yourself, through a relatively painless and quite enjoyable Design screen. Tabs allow you to switch between different hull sizes and view previously saved designs, and creating a new one is as simple as adjusting anything on the schematic front and center. Each ship is made up of a Command, Mission and Engine section, all of which unlocked by various research items. Command tends to be specialty equipment, like Deep Scanners or Shields, or armed-to-the-teeth Battle Bridge and Assault. Engines are self-explanatory, and while FTL drives differ between races each uses successive Fission, Fusion and Antimatter propulsion for sublight travel. Mission sections, true to their name, do the most to define a ship's role, ranging from Colony pods to Tankers to Refineries and Miners, to Armored, Barrage, and War sections most likely to be seen on the battlefields, to heavily specialized Point Defense, Assault Shuttle, and the aforementioned Command and Control. Sections are swapped through a simple drop-down menu over each, and weapon hardpoints can then be armed and customized to your exact specifications.

If you're stuck with underwhelming techs, you can also attempt to scavenge things outside your tree with the Repair and Salvage cruiser, a special mission section that allows you to patch up your fleets in deep space and root through the wreckage of a battle. Should you defeat an enemy armada with one of these in the system, you have a chance of uncovering a tech item not found on your own tree. There's a small chance of success (the Zerg-like Zuul have an inherent bonus), and the tech uncovered has to have been used on one of the destroyed ships (bombing a colony, however, can yield any technology in its former occupant's empire), but should you find something you need only fund a special research project (that runs concurrently with traditional research) and the item will appear on your tech tree, along with the normal rolls for derivative technology. In fact it's possible to salvage a low-level item you missed and then suddenly have access to an entire new research branch.

But space isn't all colonies and fleet battles. As your explorer ships hurl themselves further and further into uncharted space, they will discover not only new worlds for exploitation, but other things, ancient things. Derelicts from forgotten empires, asteroid bases defending long-dead planets, automated attack drones that lie in wait to spring on unwary colony ships. Further expansion may also draw the attention of things that move between stars; Von Neumann machines still fighting wars long over, colossal constructs that devour entire planets, and countless other wondrous hazards. Space is not safe, so you'd best keep on your toes, but these ancient life forms and machines are just as likely to be stumbled on your opponents as they are on you. Some are so frighteningly powerful that bitter enemies may find themselves making an uneasy alliance against a far greater threat.

Sword of the Stars: Ultimate Collection brings in some wonderfully fresh ideas, but stays true to the 4X formula. This is a game with a lot of depth and a lot to learn, and you aren't likely to master it in a weekend. Still, despite the learning curve it's easy to pick up and start having fun with, even if you get creamed by the Easy AI before you can reach Fusion technology, or lose your homeworld to a wandering Von Neumann berserker.


WilltheGreat's avatar
Freelance review by Will Roy (May 25, 2009)

Will is grumpy, sarcastic and Canadian. He occasionally crawls out of his igloo to cover sci-fi and strategy games. Has a love-hate relationship with cats. And the colour purple.

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Lewis posted May 25, 2009:

Fascinating. Years after original release, this is still splitting critical opinion something rotten.

At Reso we gave this 69%. Shows what we know. :)

An excellent review, Will.
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WilltheGreat posted May 25, 2009:

I could see it getting a mediocre score, actually, if the three individual titles (well, one and two expansions) were looked at seperately, but I think this is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its expansion packs. I fired up vanillia SotS while grabbing the other two and it was a wee bit...well, vanillia. The game really needs those other expansions to give it the kind of depth and diversity, especially with the randomized research system.

Or maybe I'm just an old 4X junkie who wishes people still played MoO. As always, Lewis, thanks for the feedback. :D

Addendum: Do you (or anyone else that happens to be reading) think SotS is "obscure" enough to qualify for the MOTO tourny? It's an industry underdog to be sure but I've no idea how well known (or not) it is.

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