by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
Golden age of 4x gaming?
With the success of Sid Meier's Civilization IV late last year and Galactic Civilizations II more recently, creators of turn based 4x games have seen the bar raised considerably. The quality of these two offerings is daunting indeed but that didn't deter Kerberos Productions. They're developing a game that may make 2006 a fantastic year for 4x gamers. Their game, Sword of the Stars, will offer some features that have never been implemented before or, at the very least, not implemented properly.
Exploring the galaxy
Mankind finally sets off to explore the stars. Just as the Captain of Earth's first ever manned star exploration ship is about to start his speech with "To boldly go...", an alien fleet discovers our star system, spots the ship and saves the Captain from saying something really embarrassing by shutting him up for good. So much for that.
Earth figures that peaceful exploration doesn't seem to work and goes for the 'shoot to kill' approach instead. SolForce, a military organization whose aim it is to take mankind to the stars in safety, is founded. With their guidance our efforts to colonize the universe are redoubled.
Obviously space wasn't as empty as we had hoped for but, then again, it would make a pretty poor 4x game if it had been. In addition to the Hiver race (the ones who destroyed our exploration ship) and the Humans, two other races vie for the supremacy over the universe: The Tarkans and the Liir. Each of these races is completely different from the others. While there is no overall campaign planned for the game, you'll be able to play through scenarios that will give you background information on each of the available races.
Choosing to play any of these races will pit you against the other three. You will have to live with the characteristics of your chosen race as there is no way to change them. Each race is truly unique and juggling around with the race stats would unhinge the game mechanics.
The above statement will undoubtedly lead you to wonder what is so different in this game that the racial stats need to be locked. Many of this game's peers let you distribute "points" to balance the racial abilities, but for Sword of the Stars the setting much more complex. A great example of just how different the races are is in the propulsion systems that each race uses. Humans, for instance, use node travel. All planets (nodes) are connected by space lanes but each will connect only to a few other planets. So Humans can quickly travel from system to system until they reach their final destination but have to follow a predetermined path. Traveling outside the nodes system is possible but the chances are that the technology of your ships will be obsolete by the time they arrive to their destination - it's that inefficient. Therefore, an enemy fleet blocking a strategically placed system can effectively stop a Human advance.
Hivers, on the other hand, can travel outside the nodes without any penalty. Instead, their method of crossing vast distances is to build stargates and the travel between these gates is instantaneous. At first, this sounds very powerful indeed, but a ship needs to be on a planet's orbit for two full turns if it wants to build a new gate. During this time, it may get destroyed by a fleet that's already present in the system or one that's about to arrive. The gateship will have to fend for itself while it's building the gate and although it can take a punch, it won't be able to handle a full scale attack. The Gate technology also progresses over time and the gates built in the early stages of the game may not be suitable for the larger ships you'll be flying around during the later stages. A side effect of the Gate technology is that the engines of an individual Hiver ship can be very small, leaving them extra room for armor and weaponry.
Sounds pretty cool, no? But it gets better. Nodes and gates are inconsequential for the Liir. They travel using a technology called stutterwarp which basically 'teleports' their ships forward millimeter by millimeter. Sounds pretty slow, but it really isn't since their ships are able to do this millions of times per second. During normal travel, this technology doesn't offer that many advantages other than not needing gates or lanes, but when in battle the ship can turn 360 degrees on a dime. It simply 'teleports' itself front to back.
Starting to see the balancing problem yet? In order to balance these propulsion systems (and many other truly unique abilities), the designers have to strengthen or weaken other characteristics. Giving the player the ability to play around with them would make it near impossible to keep things fair.