Sword of the Stars 2 adds a couple of extra Xs to the traditional 4X grand strategy formula. The familiar explore, expand, exploit and exterminate are joined by their ugly siblings excruciating and extended-periods-of -crashing, making for a misjudged and painful sojourn in this poorly served genre.
With no tutorials and only the most basic tooltip screens, you're thrown into a star system to do battle with a fragmented and bemusing interface, and if you're lucky, accidentally conquer a few alien races along the way. You have a handful of planets in the corner of the system, and use each turn to scout and colonise new worlds, fill your empire's coffers and fund your next wave of battleships. As your influence spreads, you can do business with the other races, befriending them with diplomacy or obliterating them with lasers and orbital bombardments.
The 3D system maps are lovely. I was itching to spread my race of space lizards to every corner of each floating nebula, but found it took ages to order the simplest tasks. The act of moving a fleet from one star to another should be a matter of selecting that fleet and selecting a destination. In Sword of the Stars 2 I had to create an abstract mission, then work my way through a series of screens and dropdown menus to assign a fleet to that mission and finally give the order.
Buying vessels means compiling a poorly explained collection of ship designs into invoices that must be labelled and submitted. Precise information on different components, weapon systems and technologies was nowhere to be found, and I often found myself angry and lost in completely superfluous empty menu screens and system views.
Building an empire is a game of guesswork, as epitomised by the dreadful randomised tech tree. The items on each branch are decided by dice rolls, so that deadly X-ray laser tech you were shooting for simply might never appear if the behindthe- scenes number crunching goes the wrong way.
It's all made worse by the fact that there's an interesting strategy game buried somewhere under the halfbaked menu screens. When two armies meet you're thrown into a five minute real-time skirmish: that's when the new Mars 2 engine shines. But while the space battles are pretty enough, they never offer a strategic challenge. They mostly involve keeping your ships' weak points away from enemy lasers.
It's a dangerously unstable game, too. I reviewed it after a couple of patches, but still had hours of progress erased by a crash on the way to the saving screen. Even when the bugs are exorcised, you'll have to wrestle with that terrible interface. Better to consider this one lost in space. Try the Sword of the Stars Complete Edition instead.