The sequel to Sword of the Stars is as pretty as its strategic battles are complex.
After three expansions, a sequel updates Sword of the Stars with space eye-candy (via the new MARS 2 engine), a new faction (The Suul 'ka) and features that fans have been clamoring for on developer Kerberos Productions' forum. The original SotS was a passion project by six guys in Vancouver, but with over double the staff and 16 months of development Kerberos has been able to make the sequel they could only dream of back in 2006.
Beyond Galactic Civilization II and Sins of a Solar Empire, there haven't been many games of this ilk since the original SotS's release. Despite a lack of competition, Kerberos seem to be self-motivated in their efforts to improve its 4X space strategy game. Those unfamiliar with the 4X sub-genre: That's explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. SotS is best understood as Total War in space with planets to conquer through epic space battles. The latter of which has undergone some significant upgrades made possible with the new MARS 2 engine.
The detail on the new ship models is immediately apparent when jumping into one of the game's real-time battles. Customizing a ship's paint job and features is nice, but it's how it all factors into gameplay that matters. Taking down an opponent's ship in the original SotS was as simple as destroying two parts of it, but now players must factor in how individual sections power a ship. This makes formations and rolling all the more important in this sequel.
With improved rolls, formations based around a new three-dimensional playing field, and a tweaked targeting system, the combat system will incorporate updated features of expansions while including some exclusive to this sequel. The developer promised annoying cat-and-mouse matches with an enemy's command ship will be a thing of the past, this time out. While the strategic depth of this sequel might scare away newcomers, Kerberos are doing their best to streamline combat (now most encounters last 4-5 minutes) and the game's interface.
The original was made by just a couple guys and it showed. The interface catered to the hardcore while scaring those new to the genre. The sequel cuts off the fat by hiding unnecessary info and smartly organizing the numbers that do matter. The game's menus and art assets have also undergone a makeover. Everything from character avatars to the returning randomized tech tree have undergone visual improvements, making for a professional looking game made by a modestly sized team.
With an emphasis on streamlining combat and exploration (troop orders now take one command and turn), Lords of Winter walks a fine line between appeasing fans of the original while beautifying what's there for a new crowd. Kerberos is transparent about their efforts to broaden the 4X genre - if this demo is any indication, they could have the next Civilization V on their hands.
We'll have to wait until August 18 to know for sure.