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In space, no-one can hear you sneak up on them in a massive space juggernaut.

In the inky blackness of deep space, it’s traditional to travel around in massive, metal space cruisers bristling with weapons. You know where you are with a star cruiser. But what if space was like the sea, filled with blooming great star beasts and ships which made your massive battleship look like a peanut?

Good question. And one which, in Sword of the Stars 2, you’re all too likely to have answered.

Paradox’s brand-new space strategy game features a new playable civilization over the original game, which specialises in bringing really, really big chums into the fray. Star systems have been significantly embiggened as well, featuring a number of planets and astral bodies – or perhaps even none at all – orbiting around each of the many stars.

But I’m making it sound like I’m some kind of expert. Truth is, I came to Sword of the Stars 2 without any experience of the original game, so I wasn’t looking for innovations on a theme. All I was looking for was a fun, playable strategy game – something we know Paradox make a habit of.

And I sort of found it. The guiding principle is one of ‘replayability through randomisation’, which is certainly a laudable goal for any strategy game (if not a desperately catchy phrase). One of the things that really highlights this random aspect is through the tech tree.

So you’ve got all these different civilizations of oddball space buggers, and as you’d expect each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Technology-wise, this means that some civs are better suited to certain of the many available technology trees – for example, political science or energy weapons. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to always excel at this type of research – whenever a new game is created the weightings of each faction toward each technology tree are generated, with a modifier based on the faction’s traditional strengths and weaknesses. Now, on top of this, every time you start development of a new tech, you’re given the amount of time it’ll take, but this is just an estimate: sometimes it’ll happen much quicker, sometimes much slower. So it’s always a bit of a crap-shoot. FURTHERMORE AGAIN, certain non-core techs that appear as options at certain points on the tree begin play not as solid research goals, but as possibilities dreamt up by your more imaginative scientists. Before you can research these, you’ll need to conduct a feasibility study for a couple of turns, at the end of which your science team will give you a percentage chance that this goal is even possible. Then it’s up to you whether you want to fund the actual research. All of which means that you can’t just mindlessly beeline your favourite tech each and every game.

Despite some thought-provoking backstory and plenty of lore for each of the factions, this is essentially a strategy game where goals and challenges are defined at the outset, like Civilization V. In fact, certain things can be tweaked at any time, including – strangely – what team you’re on. You can deal other human players in or out at any time, and even change sides yourself onto one of the AI teams if that’s what you’d like. This open approach, trying to get as much player freedom into the mix as possible, is pretty unique in my experience.

So in terms of game design decisions, there’s some really original stuff here. Ships have distinctive graphical styles, meaning you can recognise another faction’s ships pretty well with a little practice. The game generally follows a pattern of exploration, colonisation, expansion, research, diplomacy and conquest which is detailed and engrossing.

BUT – it’s very slow. Perhaps it’s just the maps or factions I chose, but I played the game twice, both times to at least turn 120, and I never really got my hands dirty in the diplomatic or combat arenas, despite my best efforts. Not only is the actual gameplay deliberately ponderous but pretty early on, waiting for the AI to take its turn takes a really, really long time. Now, as I’ve made you all aware recently, the Game Debate test machine is a mean machine, and gobbles up games like Battlefield 3 without any fuss whatsoever. But this strategy game, which graphically consisted usually of little more than a star map and a couple of spinning icons, caused slowdown pretty much any time the view changed. A lot has been said about the alarmingly high Sword of the Stars 2 system requirements, and I couldn’t help but feel that there had to be ways in which the game could have been better optimised.

Not only that, but I seemed to spend a lot of my time clicking ‘End Turn’ as soon as my turn started. Not that this would be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that it takes ages for the AI to have its turn.

I can say this without any hesitation: Sword of the Stars 2 is not one for the casual gamer. Like many of the other Paradox titles, it asks a lot of the player in terms of time. The learning curve is fairly steep, amplified significantly by certain obvious tooltips being overlooked and lots of key features simply not being adequately explained, even in the manual (freighters and heavy freighters are required for trade routes to yield economic returns; I don’t think the manual has anything on freighters at all). If you’re the kind of player who loves to sink his teeth into a deep, rich strategy game and isn’t afraid to experiment and feel through the game with very little hand-holding, there is sufficient game here for months, if not years. For me, though, the horrible number of bugs (Paradox have been scrambling with patches since release, and with good effect, but it doesn’t change the fact that SOTS2 was put out too early), the lack of necessary information and the slow pace bumped it down from greatness to just-above-mediocrity.

Written by: Damien Brailey

The 3D star map is beautiful but occasionally confusing.