Yes, we're looking forward to the next Total War as much as anyone, but why do we have to march over the same medieval territory when there are countless futures to explore? Come on, deep down you've often wondered if Total War could work in space. I know I have, and after playing Sword Of The Stars, I now know it does. Really rather well, in fact.
Not that SOTS displays any obvious similarities. In fact, apart from a mind meld of turn-based strategy and real-time battlefield tactics, the two games couldn't be more different if one included some Hypersports-infused button-mashing. Instead of developing each of your provinces, or, rather, star systems, progression here is dominated almost entirely by a technological arms race and the worry over the sustainability of an ageing fleet in the face of mounting costs.
Now, that may not sound very exciting over a bowl of Corn Flakes, but here in deepest space such things add invariably to the tension. I'll even admit, that as my insectoid neighbours started moving into my territory, and in realising their dreadnoughts would soon be ripping through my piddly fleet unless I could quickly negotiate some breathing space, I did an inky-piss squirt in my pants.
A CHANGE OF PACE
Not that every civilisation will survive long enough to worry about such things. Smaller games set across dozens of planets rather than hundreds will have you fighting for survival from the get-go, siphoning funds away from research to reinforce the homeworld. That's the beauty of the game; that despite any kind of narrative or recognisable campaign, the variety afforded by the various set-up options makes for games that range from frenetic to pedestrian. The whole base-building aspect is entirely abstracted and the game is all the better for it, for in the latter stages, when in more pedantic games you might end up frustrated at having to micromanage an empire of 50-plus systems, here you'll still be happily building fleets and not feeling at all overwhelmed.
Some people are going to hate the lack of minute micro-management, but one beneficial side effect of such streamlining is that the game works so well in multiplayer. Turns are simultaneous, and since there's little to physically do apart from move fleets, set research and manufacturing queues and scout around the 3D map, they pass relatively quickly. If two or more fleets meet up, a 3D battle ensues, which can be set to last for just a couple of minutes, which, if ending in stalemate, will simply continue on the next turn.
The real-time battles offer more evidence of Total War's significance, where organisation, placement and timing (and overwhelming firepower - if possible), are the key tactical ingredients. Which brings us back to research and technology, and how it opens up the game the longer it goes on and the more weapons become available.
The problem with Sword Of The Stars is universal in all games where galactic domination is the focus; for depending on whether you ambitiously effect a sprawling universe, or a small one, to begin with you'll either be bored or quickly trounced. There's a distinct lack of visual feedback in the battles which seems to be purposeful, and the interface can be fiddly to navigate. But despite these minor irritations, in much the same way that Total War proved that the war game could be stunning to look at, accessible and fun, SOTS is almost as impressive in its own low-budget way.
A heavenly body
- Effective technology options
- A breeze to learn
- Easily customisable ships
- Superb multiplayer mode
- Lacks any narrative drive
- Some UI issues