Forum Overview :: Gamerasutra
Coolness vs. Playability: Sword of the Stars First Impressions by pinback 10/08/2008, 6:01pm PDT
Sword of the Stars is a space 4X game, stripped of economic micromanagement, stripped of all but the most basic diplomacy, and stripped of any victory condition other than "you blowed up the rest of the galaxy". In this way it is more like a souped up Mayhem Intergalactic than a full-fledged, full-bodied micromanagement-fest like GalCiv 2. Having shifted into a lifestyle where I have plenty of free time to play 20-hour long computer games, provided that I am asleep and it is all actually happening in a dream, time-compressed to the hour and a half of smooth, interrupted sleep I get on any average night, I have warmed to the idea of a simpler, shorter version of the genre I like so much.

So that was one of the appeals of SotS. But the main appeal, I could sum up in two little words, one number, one uppercase letter, and a hyphen:

3-D galactic map.

I don't know why I find the idea so appealing, but clicking around the flat maps that virtually all 4X space games feature, I dunno, I always thought it would be so much cooler to be able to make my empires come to life in a shimmering, spinning, navigable 3-D map. And finally, this had been made available to me, so I bought the game off of Impulse, and spent about five good hours yesterday getting comfortable with the game.

This is the part where I shift gears:

On the GalCiv2 forums, a recent thread came up where someone was asking "what's the point of the 3D engine". One of GC2's upgrades over its predecessor was that a fully 3D engine was used. The galactic map (while all on a 2D plane) is zoomable all the way down to point where a single, rotating planet dotted with cities and with ships orbiting around it can fill the entire screen. But you can also zoom out to the point where the entire galaxy is on display -- every planet, every asteroid, every ship. At this point, the 3D graphics shift back into 2D mode, with little icons representing planets and ships and what have you.

The thing is, you're not losing any information by doing this. You can play the whole game in this mode. Some would say it's actually easier to play in this full-map 2D mode, because you don't have to scroll around and you can see everything you need to see all at once. So his question was, what's the point of the 3D?

And really, the only answer is, cuz it's cool. I may give up a slight convenience by having the camera zoomed down so I can see all the planets and ships and explosions, but to me, it's worth it for the immersion. I'm commanding a space empire, dammit, not playing Space Minesweeper.

So I can see my point, but I can see their point too. Hey, as long as you're free to make your choice, then, as Jigsaw would say, make your choice.

Now I shift back to SotS, and the 3-D galactic map which I'd pined for for so long:

The thing is, it is very cool, and it is just what I (thought I) wanted. The increased level of immersion is palpable. When you order your fleet out into the void and can see their plotted path zipping into and through a galaxy of glimmering stars toward their intended destination far, far away, you really feel like that's what you're doing, and not just watching a spaceship-shaped chess piece stair-stepping its way diagonally across the board. Zipping and rotating the camera around from planet to planet, star to star, god damn, I'm in fucking space here, man! The mechanics of the gameplay are no different from a 2D map, but I'm in fucking space.

Here's the thing, though. Turns out that it's a fucking bitch as a user interface. It's no mere minor inconvenience, friends. You are going to spend a large part of your game just fighting with the damn thing to figure out where the hell you are, where the hell your planets are, and if that one star is five feet from your home planet or 4288248 light years across the galaxy. Since it is 3D represented in a 2D surface, if the map is stationary, there's no way to tell how far anything is from anywhere else, so you basically have to rotate the map continuously to be able to determine what's going on. Continuously! Because if you stop rolling that mouse wheel for an instant, you'll lose perspective and forget where you are again. An auto-rotate would be nice (Star Control 1 did this) but no such option is available.

Basically, the 3D map is way cool, and a huge obstacle to the gameplay! But the rest of the game is like this, too. The tech screen, where you choose your research path, is by far the coolest tech screen ever. You're in a room, and podiums are projecting holograms showing your progress on whichever section of the tech tree the podium represents. Awesome! Except the podiums go all the way around the room, so once again, instead of getting information by "looking at the screen", you gotta be screwing with the mouse continuously to pan around the room to try to see what you want to see. Totally cool, and totally standing in the way of actually playing the game.

So the issue is, how much inconvenience are you, as a gamer, willing to give up for the sake of coolness? Sword of the Stars is the absolute extreme case of this, in almost every respect. Ironically, most of the other UI choices err on the other side, where information is hard to come by not because the UI is so overly adorned, but because it's been over-simplified. Big, bright buttons. Information panels that take up half the screen, with not that much info on them. But since one of the goals of the game was to strip down 4X to its basics, these choices are perhaps easier to excuse.

Because I have such an affinity for the 3-D map, and the whole immersive experience which SotS offers, I think I am able to work with the punishing UI to peel its shell and dig out the moist, delicious goodness underneath. At least, I have been for five hours. No matter how exasperated I got over trying to decipher what the hell was going on, the coolness factor always seemed to keep me pressing "next turn". And as the initial blush of coolness began to wear off, my familiarity with the UI grew, so coolness was always just that one step ahead.

But just barely. So far I can say that this is the game I've liked the most that I've wanted to recommend to others the least.

(Author's Note: SotS now has a couple of expansion packs, one just released this week, which apparently feature upgrades to the UI, so some of the above criticisms may not apply to later versions of the game.)

(But they probably do.)
Coolness vs. Playability: Sword of the Stars First Impressions by pinback 10/08/2008, 6:01pm PDT
    just make it so you hold one button and then move the mouse a little NT by Weyoun Voidbringer 10/08/2008, 7:23pm PDT
    oh and theres other ways to fix those issues and keep the full 3d map by Weyoun Voidbringer 10/08/2008, 7:27pm PDT
    Re: Coolness vs. Playability: Sword of the Stars First Impressions by Ice Cream Jonsey 10/09/2008, 1:42am PDT
        It's about immersion... by pinback 10/09/2008, 1:47pm PDT
    I like the differences between the races locomotion LORE/GAMEPLAY by Ethan Steele 10/09/2008, 7:15am PDT
        It's the game. It becomes a complete mess if you expand too much. NT by Fortinberet 10/09/2008, 11:23am PDT
            Apparently some of the other galaxy shapes are easier to deal with by pinback 10/09/2008, 1:26pm PDT
                It's not an issue of the map, it's an issue of the dumb-ass CNN ticker status re by Fortinberet 10/09/2008, 2:43pm PDT
                    The expansions fix the ticker thing, but you are right by pinback 10/09/2008, 3:20pm PDT
                        I haven't picked up SOTS: The Crow but it was still in there in Born of Blood by Fortinberet 10/09/2008, 3:53pm PDT
                            I saw a screenshot that had news updates in a news window or something NT by pinback 10/09/2008, 4:08pm PDT
                                Those came default, if you click on the ticker it opens up a window in the top r by Fortinberet 10/09/2008, 4:29pm PDT
                                    No, I mean I saw a news window which listed all of the events chronologically NT by pinback 10/09/2008, 5:41pm PDT
                        All the "slight irritations" were design decisions by Fortinberet 10/09/2008, 4:28pm PDT
    I declare this thread a Who's Who of terrible posters by bombMexico 10/09/2008, 8:09pm PDT
        Curses, will I never be clean?! NT by Ethan Steele 10/09/2008, 8:27pm PDT
        4x is a difficult genre to talk about. There are three things I don't tell chick by Ice Cream Jonsey 10/09/2008, 9:55pm PDT
            And when you do spill the beans, don't call it a "Bulletin Board", gramps. NT by Fussbett 10/09/2008, 11:27pm PDT
                SPILL THE BEANS YOU BEAN FACTORY WORKER WITH PARKINSON'S NT by Creexuls, a monster >:3 10/10/2008, 2:09am PDT
            "Heh, I ever tell you about Umberto? Whoo boy" NT by ICJ to his ladyfriend 10/10/2008, 9:20am PDT
        bombLackies NT by Weyoun Voidbringer 10/10/2008, 12:20am PDT
    Okay I take it back by pinback 10/10/2008, 12:45pm PDT
        Out of desperation for a sci-fi game I bought the ultimate collection off Steam by Fortinbras 05/14/2009, 10:51pm PDT
            Questions about this series by Mischief Maker 05/18/2009, 12:33pm PDT
                Re: Questions about this series by Fortinbras 05/18/2009, 1:24pm PDT
                An update to my Born of Blood-era bitching, mostly positive! by Fortinbras 05/18/2009, 2:00pm PDT
                    Also I figured out the trick to a successful start-up by Fortinbras 05/18/2009, 3:06pm PDT
    Final expansion releases in June: Argos Naval Yard by Fortinbras 05/28/2009, 1:11pm PDT
        Nope! by Mischief Maker 05/30/2009, 7:39am PDT
            Re: Nope! by Fortinbras 05/30/2009, 7:35pm PDT
                Re: Nope! by N 06/04/2009, 11:08pm PDT
                    Argos Naval Yard is out, and you can get EVERYTHING for 16$ on Steam by Fortinbras 06/17/2009, 6:43pm PDT
                        Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu by N 06/19/2009, 10:41pm PDT
                            Whoa whoa WHOA I'm not taking the fall for this shit! NT by Fortinbras 06/20/2009, 12:38am PDT
                            Fufufufufufu *helicopter* NT by Creexuls, a monster >:3 06/20/2009, 1:58am PDT
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