When it comes to 4x strategy, I’m a hard guy to please. I got into the Galactic Civilization series after being impressed by the artificial intelligence, and I now and then follow the Civilization series mostly to see how hot they can make Catherine the Great and Cleopatra. (Pretty hot, for those curious.) It can be fun to build an empire, to pursue a strategy rather than a tactic – and 4x is one of the few genres that really encourages that “thinking of the big picture” thing that’s so often spoken highly of. On the flipside, amateurs like me – and maybe you – require a fair amount of hand-holding, ease of interface and clarity of instruction to really enjoy such games. And more than anything else, that’s the standard I’ll be judging Sword of the Stars 2: Lords of Winter by: not just fun and innovation, but accessibility. So does it meet that standard? Click your way into this review to find out!
Now for the long answer, which includes some of what Paradox Interactive did right with Sword of the Stars 2. Graphically, it’s an impressive game – the 3D maps are particularly well done, but the ships are what really stood out to me. Many of these ships are loaded up with gorgeous detail and distinctive design, and seeing a gathering of them up close can actually be breathtaking. Clearly a lot of effort was dumped into making the ships and space easy on the eyes – effort well spent, considering how much time you can expect to be looking at these things.
Well, ideally you’ll be looking at the beautiful ship and environment. The reality may be a little more complicated, and that brings me to the first real problem with Sword of the Stars 2: the bugs. Frustrating, serious bugs – the kind of bugs that can cause you to lose a save, to say nothing of patience with the game. The experience of having the game crash out of me entirely, and in one case scrapping a save I had, quickly turned playing this game into a chore to be endured rather than something fun, or even very interesting. Now, I’ve heard Paradox Interactive can be counted on to fix the bugs afflicting this game – I don’t doubt that. I also realize that for some game fans, even severe bugs can be worth enduring to get at the rest of the game experience. But I think the sheer amount of planning, focus and concentration that goes into a typical 4x game makes this sort of thing far harder to forgive.
Now, about that planning and focus… Even when you’re not dealing with bugs, the game itself just isn’t pleasant to deal with thanks to a dodgy user interface. Few things are simple and straightforward to do, and “unintuitive” does a good job of summing up the interface’s design in general. Whether you’re building ships or just trying to get from point A to point B, you have to wrestle with menus and roundabout organizational methods to get most anything of importance done. Worse than that, there’s no in-game tutorial to speak of – and while Paradox has been hard at work supplying a wiki, a beginner’s guide and a video walkthrough, that lack of a tutorial in the game itself is almost as unforgivable as the bugs. Wikis and videos out of game should be supplements in addition to in-game teaching, not the teaching itself.
Beyond the interface and bugs, there’s one more area worth highlighting in the gameplay, and that’s the randomized tech trees. Now, this actually isn’t a complaint – for some 4x gamers, having one’s technology path be unpredictable with each game may actually be desirable. It’s certainly a good way to keep each game from being a static rush to particular technological milestones, which other 4x games have suffered from in the past. On the other hand, some people enjoy being able to plan their empires around what technology they think they’ll have when – so on this matter, your mileage may vary. But definitely keep it in mind if you’re new to the title.
I’ve been pretty hard on this game, and the score’s going to reflect that. But I’ll also stress that I write all this from the perspective of a gamer who needs his 4x delivered to him on a silver platter held by a devoted butler who can answer every question I have about the game while playing it. Diehard Sword of the Stars fans, or diehard 4x fans who crave a new 4x game may be made of sturdier stuff, and may even heed Paradox’s track record of continuing to work on their games until they’re what they were meant to be. If you fall into those categories, give this game a closer look. But if you’re a person who doesn’t want to wait around for patches and who likes a gaming experience you can glide into rather than struggle through, I sadly suggest either giving this one a pass or at least giving it time to get patched up in time for a steep Steam sale.