I’m a regular at Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3). It’s amazing how many games have the “E3 effect,” where they look positively awesome on display there… but lackluster at best once I get them on my home computer.
Swords of the Stars 2: Lords of Winter (LoW) may have the strongest E3 effect I’ve ever seen. The game looked awesome at E3. LoW is a “4x” game, a turn-based science fiction strategy game where you eXplore, eXploit, eXpand, and eXterminate all that stand in the way of the first three goals. Master of Orion 2 put this genre on the map, with addictively easy gameplay. In recent years, 4x games have become ever more complicated, making merely learning such games, much less playing them, a big investment in time, so big that I haven’t played many recent titles in this genre.
LoW’s demo at E3, however, looked great enough to motivate me to commit to learning this type of game again. LoW promised viable diplomacy, a huge universe to explore, a vast tech tree, and real-time space combat that was at least somewhat three-dimensional.
When it finally launched last November, I was stoked enough to ask for a review copy. Alas, the launch was disastrous, the game wasn’t really playable, and their PR asked me to wait a bit before giving a review. No problem; I was also pretty excited to play Skryim, which launched about the same time.
All good things come to an end, and, after my third play-through of Skyrim, it was time to give LoW a whirl—two months is plenty of time to fix some bugs, right? So I read through the massive manual, and I honestly didn’t have a clue how to play. Most of my time in attempting to play was me clicking randomly hoping to get a clue. I looked on YouTube, and it was funny how many of the “let’s play” videos for LoW featured the host clicking randomly, trying to get even a clue what to do. I read through the “Beginner’s Guide” from Paradox (dozens of pages), and finally had an inkling, sort of, of what I needed to do. Honestly, though, on a scale of user-friendly, where “10” is “Holds your hand through everything so that there’s no way to ever get confused,” and “1” is “Grabs you by the shirt and punches you in the face repeatedly until you promise to stop playing,” I’d put LoW at about 3, which is dangerously low for something that’s supposed to be fun. The learning curve is brutally steep, and if the game really worked, I suspect many of the mistakes I’m making would be fatal, meriting a lower score. For what it’s worth, Skryim would rate around a 9.5, and Dwarf Fortress is a 1.5 (I did play a game that merited a 1, but it is so deservedly obscure that I intend to keep it that way). Of course, Dwarf Fortess is a perpetually in beta game that you can get for free, which means I can give it some slack for such a user-hostile interface.
“The game is buggier than Starship Troopers…”
So, back to LoW. Did you catch that “if the game really worked” line? The game is buggier than Starship Troopers, and I consistently got corrupted save games, forcing complete restarts; the developers, to their credit, have been patching maniacally for the last two months, and the game is certainly better than it used to be. I pity the fools that purchased this game at release, as each patch comes with a recommendation not to use old save files.
My apologies if this review rambles so much, but it’s hard to review a game with so many programming issues; I can’t draw the line between bad game design and bad programming here. That said, I’ll try to focus on the game as it is now.
The basic premise of the game has you leading a stellar travel-capable race to universal domination. What sets this game apart from similar titles is each race has their own special way of space travel. Humans, for example, can only travel along nodes between stars – fast, but sometimes you can’t get to near stars as easily as distant ones. Other races use jump gates – even faster, but setting up the initial gates can be problematic. It’s a neat enough premise, but it’s brutally hard to defend, as most races can attack any star system with impunity (there is no combat in the spaces between star systems). The starting ships are vastly superior to planetary defenses, and your initial fleets can wreak incredible havoc on enemy home worlds as well as obliterate colonies with one salvo.
All system defenses are currently bugged and not working, so the only means of defense is to dedicate fleets of starships for defense. These are led by admirals that have special abilities, loyalties, and age (although I’ve yet to play a game that lasts long enough for such to matter, as the game really only works on small maps). Combat can be handled in real time, but that can be time consuming (even with the five-minute limit on such battles, much of that time is sitting around doing nothing, as there doesn’t seem to be a way for the player to accelerate time). The auto-combat is much quicker, but the AI is a bit buggy. Often your defending fleet will simply sit around and watch as enemy fleets depopulate your colonies… only the ease with which you can do the same to your enemies makes this a little tolerable. Generally, you’ll just destroy enemy populations; there’s an “invade” option, but after many such invasions with many types of ships, I don’t know if you can actually take over an enemy world (the enemy AI has obliterated many of my worlds, and never captured any, even with fleets named “Invasion Fleet”).
There’s an extensive tech tree, well over 100 things to research. The game randomly assigns what is available each time you play, so that you can’t always count on having any particular technology. Unfortunately, some technologies (e.g., shields for your space ships) are not yet implemented, and others don’t seem to work as advertised, so it’s hard to appreciate this and other aspects of research.
You can, and must, design your own ships, placing various weapon technologies that you research onto your ships. I don’t know if new research automatically upgrades onto your old ships; as there doesn’t seem to be a way to trash/decommission old ships, I presume as much, although naturally it makes sense to design ships based around your newest technology. New ship designs don’t come out automatically; you must first build a prototype before “regular” ships can be cranked out. There is a huge variety of such ships you can design, from drone-carrying support ships to specialized colony ships to vessels that can repair your ships during combat (those might not work, however). The enemy AI doesn’t seem to exploit many of these build options, and as “fast combat” goes way too fast to see much of what is happening, very little of it means anything.
There apparently is a deep economic system, and you can build freighters and stations to maximize your empire’s economy; much of this doesn’t seem to work, or if it does it works invisibly. Similarly, you can build scientific stations to maximize or focus research, or to aid in diplomacy (although, with small maps, there’s really not much option for diplomacy, not that you’ll be much interested in it after the AI casually smashes one of your worlds with a roving scout ship).
Bottom line is that on paper, this is an incredibly deep and varied game, but time and again, the reach of the programmers vastly exceeds their grasp. Even months after release, there’s so little in this game that’s working as intended, that only the most desperate die-hard fan of the genre should even consider this game. Everyone else should wait at least another six months, and even then I’m probably being over optimistic.