It’s been a little over a year since Paradox and Kerberos released Sword of the Stars II, the bigger-and-better sequel to the original cult-classic that merged Civ-like Empire management and epic tactical space battles. Unfortunately, when it was first released in 2011, it was terrible – and not just in a "oh this isn’t really a good game" kind of way, I mean there were entire sections of the game that were missing. You don’t often see screw-ups like that these days, and while I may have been a bit lenient on it during my review, I still understood that Sword of the Stars II was nowhere near where it should be.
Now, one year on, developer Kerberos has given the ‘All Clear’ sign – that is, the game is now in the state it should have been when it was launched. With this clean bill of health, the game has also been updated to an ‘Enhanced Edition’ that features additional content, including a new race.
To say that SOTS II is boring, whilst technically accurate to some degree, would actually be a little unfair. Even back when it was first released, one of the few things this game did well was make game space feel alive... and deadly. Science Fiction usually portrays a harsh, unforgiving universe, where the first aliens you meet are just as likely to kill you as befriend you, and in Sword of the Stars II it's no different. If it’s not meteors trying to pound your planets into dust, than slavers will be preying on your new colonies. If it's not swarms of space insects trying to make nests in your solar system, then pirate raiders will be tearing up your shipping lanes and of course every now and then a haunt of Spectres (Ghosts, essentially, that look like big coloured clouds) will rock up and try and vaporise everyone.
And that's not to mention the 'Grand' menaces... Von Neuman attacks, Planet Killers: for the first 300 odd turns my empire was plagued by a massive Leviathan-class Ghost ship (Biggest ship in the game - think Infinity from Halo 4) that would lay waste to everything it came across. Many a fleet was sent against it, and failed, but it wasn't until the valiant efforts of Battle Fleet Galactica (who were decimated in the process) that the Terran Alliance could finally rest a little easier at night.
But in the 500 odd turns I've been playing this particular play-through, there's been not a peep from the game's six other AI-controlled Empires. My borders have expanded to a point where all I can really do is take over someone else’s planet, but so far I haven't tried and no-one's tried to take anything from me either. AI behaviour is always a tricky thing to get right, and no one really has nailed it down perfectly - it's still a bit of a joke over at Creative Assembly (Firaxis' Civilization AI can be a bit frustrating at times, and even Paradox's internal titles aren’t without their oddities).
SOTS II's AI, even on 'Hard' difficulty, seems a little docile right now. Or is it? Somewhere between turn 300 & 400, the Holy Republic of Zion was destroyed. No-one knows how, or why, or even who did it... all we got was a simple, yet rather ominous, notice one turn, and that was that. The universe went on, but we're constantly seeing signs of combat in the far corners of the game-space, and even our immediate neighbours, The Advent Collective, have several combat orientated fleets on the border. There is something dark and terrible lurking out in deep space... Boring? Kind of, but it's a tense, rife-with-anticipation kind of boring.
Also, the lack of a decent war to fight means I’ve been able to take my time and explore everything else the game has to offer. One of the core strengths of SOTS II remains the tech tree: every race has certain biases towards particular kinds of tech, but even within that there's an element of randomisation, so that no two playthroughs with the same race are 100% predictable (even reloading earlier saves can cause the probability values to change). But the greatest thing about the tech tree is the new toys, mainly ship parts and weapons. There's something oddly satisfying about rolling out a new prototype design packed with new things, and then testing it out on whatever natural menace shows up next. This cycle of research, design and testing is probably one of the main, if not only, element that’s kept me going so far.
There were many features Kerberos promised that weren’t' actually ready for the release of the game, and it's gratifying to see that some of this has been fixed. Protectorates now work properly, and there are two “independent” races in the game to interact with this. Independent races are minor species that only inhabit one world, and there are many ways an empire can interact with them, from straight up extermination to study and incorporation. There were a lot of techs that weren’t implemented properly or weren’t having the desired effects, and most of these seem to have been fixed as well.
That's not to mention the general UI enhancements that have been made - The Empire management screen has been revamped, with the all the information that you need to know presented more clearly, and other sections of the game have also been given an uplift.
On the technical front, most of the bugs and crashes that plagued the original release seem to have been fixed, although as always there's still room for improvement. We observed two CTD's during our playthrough, and some AI behavioural oddities in several tactical battles, but nothing we'd consider game-breaking. There’s also still some missing description and text, no scenarios have been made yet, and multiplayer still needs optimising. Kerberos still have a lot of work ahead of them.
Of course, it’s not all been about getting the game to the state it should have been upon release - Kerberos has even added new content as part of their post-release commitment. Gamers now get to try their hand at playing the Loa, a fairly unique machine race that have a very unique playing style. Anyone who played the first game will remember that, if you go down a particular tech path, you could be faced with a rebellion by your Empire's AI population. The Loa are the evolution of those original AI's: cast out from their parent empires, they collected together and formed their own machine collective. Playing as the Loa is really only for people who are familiar with the other weird and wonderful ways each race play differently.
Being machines, Loa can settle on any planet and don't have a population to manage per say, as each planet becomes its own separate being. Also, their fleets are based around a central Megalith unit that spits out differing combinations of ships depending on what the mission is. Along with the Loa (and all the race specific content to go with that), there's new tech and ship parts, an entire new tech tree, and some other bits and bobs.
So, while Kerberos has given the all clear signal - do we? The game still isn't 100% perfect, but if it had been in this state when it was initially released, then there probably wouldn’t have been as much backlash as there was. It might not have scored any better either, but then I’ve already fessed up to being lenient. I’d like to say my patience has been rewarded, but a year is a long time to wait for a game I was looking forward to so much.
TLDR: If you’re looking for some bottom line summaries, here are some bullet points to help you:
* Most of the launch-promised content is now implemented, with only some things likes scripted scenarios etc… still missing. More independent races need to be added as well. * On the technical side, the game is pretty solid now. Little-to-no CTD’s or bugs, some AI quirkiness on both the tactical and strategic level but other than that fine. The game starts to run a little sluggish whilst clicking through turns the further you go on though. *Lots of genuinely new content – The Loa Race (and all of the tech, ships, mechanics etc… to go with them), who are truly unique. New techs and parts etc... for all the other races as well, and lots of UI improvements. * Weak areas remain in the AI – both Strategic and Tactical when not being controlled directly. The diplomacy part of the game also seems a bit pointless at the moment – everything is generally better in multiplayer if you can get a good game going. * Strong areas are the atmosphere, the freedom and creativity, and of course playing with new “toys”.
* On the technical side, the game is pretty solid now. Little-to-no CTD’s or bugs, some AI quirkiness on both the tactical and strategic level but other than that fine. The game starts to run a little sluggish whilst clicking through turns the further you go on though.
*Lots of genuinely new content – The Loa Race (and all of the tech, ships, mechanics etc… to go with them), who are truly unique. New techs and parts etc... for all the other races as well, and lots of UI improvements.
* Weak areas remain in the AI – both Strategic and Tactical when not being controlled directly. The diplomacy part of the game also seems a bit pointless at the moment – everything is generally better in multiplayer if you can get a good game going.
* Strong areas are the atmosphere, the freedom and creativity, and of course playing with new “toys”.
Some games are games of the imagination, where you sometimes have to fill in the blanks with internal narratives you create in your head. Sword of the Stars II is a strong example of this, and it requires a lot of patience, and a willingness to find your own fun. Whether this is a failing on the game's part is up to you - for me personally, despite not a lot happening for 500 turns, I haven’t really wanted to stop playing. Now of course I'm taking matters into my own hands - having reached Anti-Matter tech and built several powerful battle fleets (with my first Leviathan on the way) it's time to take this Sword off the shelf and cause some mischief.
Anyone who bought this game initially and didn't ask for a refund should get upgraded to the "Enhanced Edition" for free, so you'll have all this new content instantly. For those who got their money back or just avoided buying it, we'd say now is a good a time as any to get on board. The Enhanced Edition (titled End of Flesh to celebrate the Loa) is the same price as the original version was, and the game's only going to get better from here on out.
Old score: 6.5 (lenient)
New score: 7
Purchase recommendation: If you can get it cheap, all the better, but this wouldn't be the worst thing to spend 25 on.