I didn't get to review the original “Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter” release. It could be that this was because my editor took pity on me, or perhaps I was a good person in a previous life. Hard to say. Either way it was a lucky break as the original launch was a disaster. The game was so buggy that even the publisher, Paradox Interactive, apologized for it. Paradox has released so many games with so many bugs that they should be immune to criticism by now, so for them to call a game “buggy” is newsworthy.
On the bright side, Paradox is also pretty responsive in terms of getting bug patches out early and often. The game was eventually brought into a playable state and some more content was added. Thus resulted the game we have today: “Sword of the Stars II: Enhanced Edition: End of Flesh” (SotS2). You know you're in trouble when even your title is bloated.
I like complicated games. In general, the more complicated the mechanics are, the more involved I get. The “Europa Universalis” series is an excellent case in point: lots of knobs and sliders, a grand scope, and long time periods make for an engaging game. Paradox in particular is known for putting out these sorts of mega-games, where the learning curve is tougher than quantum physics and just playing the game is an accomplishment.
The point of complexity, however, is to provide the player with meaningful decisions appropriate to their position in the game. SotS2 is a failure at almost every level in terms of making complexity fun. One can play this game for hours and simply have no idea what is going on. Let's look at the two parts of making complexity fun and see how SotS2 fails at it.
The first idea is that the decisions you make should be appropriate to your position in the game. By “position in the game” I mean the role in the game's world the player is supposed to occupy. You could be a single soldier, the captain of a ship, or the UberMind of a galaxy-spanning empire – complexity is about detail, not scale – the point is that the decisions you make should be the sorts of decisions that are appropriate to that role. For example, a ship's captain makes decisions about ship load-out (how much fuel to carry, what types of cargo, weaponry, ammunition, etc.) itinerary (ports of call, fight/flee), ship economics (bulk cargo/luxury items, long/short haul) and other ship-captain-y type things. Having your UberMind do this sort of thing ruins the fiction – UberMinds have other things (war/peace, expansion/consolidation, guns/butter) to worry about. SotS2 sets up the player as an UberMind, then loads him down with all sorts of minutiae: setting up trade routes, individual ship missions, details of fleet composition, even ship facing during tactical battle. As a result, relatively unimportant decisions about where to place guns on new ship designs take up time that should be spent planning strategic advances. The player quickly loses the forest for the trees.
The second idea is that your decisions should be meaningful. You should know you are making a decision, be clearly presented with all the relevant information, know what your options are, and understand how your decision will impact the game. SotS2 ruins any possibility of making meaningful decisions by completely confusing the player.
It's hard to tell when a decision is being made in the first place. To a large extent this is synergistic with the first problem: there are so many decisions to be made that it unclear when you are making an important decision and when you're not.
When you do try to make a decision it is not clear what information is relevant. For example: should I invest in beam weapons or psionic tech? There is some info about beam weapon effectiveness laying around somewhere, but the game manual is so scatter-brained and incomplete it could easily be in there yet impossible to locate. As for psionics, I had a number on the over-burdened main screen that that gave me some sort of “psionic power” value that supposedly represented some sort of psionic potential that would add itself to my overall productivity or something. This number was constantly red (meaning it was decreasing) yet every turn the number was bigger. How was I supposed to make an informed decision about what to research when I couldn't even be sure what the numbers that looked relevant meant?
The tech tree itself is misleading. Every game you get a different selection of techs, and even among those certain (random) techs will not be available to research this game. For example, you can start out deciding you want to specialize in missiles, then find out several crucial missile techs that looked like they would be available are not. What's the point of evaluating options that turn out to be illusory?
And once you make a decision it can be difficult to determine how it affected the world. For example, you can organize your planets into “provinces”; three or more systems to a province (yes, there are techs that allow you to increase the number of systems in a province and the distance between the systems). The manual says that organizing you systems into provinces gets you all sorts of benefits in trade and stuff, but it's impossible to know. It's one of innumerable things you just do because you're supposed to, without any idea whether you're having an effect or not. This is also another of those things an UberMind should not have to worry about – shouldn't there be planetary governors to handle this sort of thing?
So the game closes off all possibilities of making a meaningful decision. What else could go wrong? Well, there are some very questionable design choices that make just playing the game a pain. The 3D star map is confusing and misleading. The distances between systems are difficult to determine – is the target star close and on the same plane, or distant but looks close due to the viewing angle? Rotating the display around to get a better idea of things is headache-inducing and leaves the player lost. Star maps should just stick to being 2D until 3D displays work.
Also, could we just stick to one planet per star? Multiple planets per star sounds great until you actually play the game, at which point it ends up just playing like a crummy one planet per star game.
The litany of bad design goes on: randomized tech trees; too many/too deep menus; information overload on the main screen; time limits on tactical battles (even in single-player); I could go on. This is all compounded by a constant trend of too-much-ness. There are too many planets, fleets, star bases, star base modules, ship layouts, weapons mounts, modifiers (to everything), game mechanics, and really just about everything. The interface can't handle it and the player can't handle it. This game is a good example of the “second-system effect”.
Is there anything good about this game? Well, the ships look cool. And the backstory is awesome. When I read the background material and skimmed the intro material (there is a nice set of tutorial videos on YouTube) this looked like such a cool game. I really, really wanted this to be good. But it's not.
In summary, “Sword of the Stars 2: Enhanced Edition: End of Flesh” is a confused, sprawling mess of a game. The user will spend most their time confusedly clicking on buttons and crying. But at least it's not buggy.