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Zzap

The epic, space war sim Sword Of The Stars now comes as an ultimate collection compiled with both its expansion packs: Born of blood and Murder of Crows. This is turn based empire building and real-time battles of the intergalactic variey.

Rather than have a story driven campaign each game is played as highly customizable, lengthy multiplayer mode against computer AI. There are a number of scenarios with set goals and turn limits for those who prefer a bit of structure, but even so the complete lack of narrative might be a turn-off for some. Who says you have to have a narrative in a strategy? If you enjoy the freeform skirmish games and a sandbox approach to playing levels you might find something you like here.

The map is a truly 3D formation of twinkling stars each of which must be reached to identify if it's suitable for terraforming and colonizing. Properties of planets are displayed in a few vital statistics where it would have been nice if they were fleshed out a little with some graphics. The scale of the map can mean identifying and keeping track your ships and settlements a bit of a chore, something not helped by the interface. Orientating your viewpoint and judging distances between stars can also be fiddly. An unavoidable side-effect of using an ambitious spherical playing space perhaps?

Once into battle simple RTS controls are used to direct ship movement on a 2D plane and issue attack orders. Specific areas on enemy ships can be targeted to maximise effect and damage is represented on the vessels in real time. An air of realism has been attempted with regards to the ships movement which sees them unable to turn it tight circles and ships will move out of the 2D plane automatically to avoid collisions. Battles have an adjustable pre-set time limit which can end in a stalemate and if certain battles are a formality you can automatically generate results to save time. The large array of customization options will appease the control freaks out there and certainly adds to the replayability.

Presentation throughout the game is never flashy. In battles, ship models have a level of detail that make them easily identifiable and the various laser effects make it clear to who is exchanging fire and with what success. When in the map mode, ships are represented by a monochrome symbol and can only be identified by using the text aids. More visual feedback and less words would be preferable to me. The interface system uses bold colours and seems to have been inspired by Star Trek; keeping track of events involves switching between a number of different screens to find the information you need and could have been designed better.