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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Doomsday Machine

My blogging buddy Tom has remarked from time to time that he would have finished graduate school a year sooner if it hadn't been for the allure of Civilization- a videogame so addictive that it's spawned a term.* I don't know how serious Tom is about this claim but I have little trouble believing it- I am, myself, something of an addict with good turn-based strategy games. Unfortunately, this means that I have to face the possibility of an even more devastating "Graduate Student Killer" than Civilization. I refer, of course, to Sword of the Stars.

What is Sword of the Stars (SoTS)? Well, first and foremost, it's essentially "Civilization" in space. A game that focuses on expanding territory, technology, resources, and eventually military forces. It also weds turn-based strategy to a real-time tactical combat system in a way that seems artificial at first and then makes perfect sense. Perhaps more importantly, however, SoTS is the logical successor** to Master of Orion 2, one of the best games of this type ever produced. Now, it goes without saying that Sword of the Stars has fancy graphics. This has become a prerequisite for modern games and SoTS is no exception:

The graphics are not its main strong point, however. Its real strengths fall into two categories: gameplay and feel. In terms of gameplay, SoTS is one of the most varied strategy games to come out in a long time. It has an easy user interface that permits immense customizability. The technologies available to a player are randomly varied each game to prevent a single build list from predominating. Each of the species in the game has unique strengths including totally different forms of FTL travel- which compel significant changes in strategy and tactics both playing as them and playing against them. Additionally options like galaxy size, galaxy shape, galaxy type, time limits, resource limits, and so on, allow a considerable diversity of game dynamics. It's safe to say that the number of possible combinations vastly exceeds any one person's endurance. If there's any one area SoTS falls down it's in the limited diplomacy options. The only treaties possible are non-aggression pacts and alliances, and it's not clear how one goes about sucking up to one's rivals. Even here, though, there is a solution (more on that later).

The second major strength, feel, is particularly impressive. SoTS is not a game with a weak backstory. Instead, each species is given a lovingly crafted history, psychology, and biology. The game itself is obviously informed by a knowledge of science fiction as it contains realistic drive systems like pulsed fission, fusion, antimatter, and so on. Additionally, while many games have random encounters, SoTS is one of the few to use an advanced idea like a von Neumann probe instead of the classic, but cliched, "space amoeba." This gives SoTS an unusually strong sense of richness and depth. This isn't hurt at all by the producers' efforts to sell the game on its story rather than simply "we have more pixels than anyone else! 0wn3d!!!" For example, how many companies produce and release cinematic trailers for the sheer hell of it?***

In short, it's a flexible, fun game with enough depth to keep an intelligent gamer interested. Frighteningly enough, however, that isn't what makes this such an efficient grad student killer. The true danger is that it has- and I'm totally serious- a very slick and functional multiplayer. Yes, that's right: you can play your friends online, save the game, and then all come back to it at a later time. It all works beautifully with a sort of simplicity we don't often get in gaming. It's even clear that the game was designed with multiplay in mind since, while the diplomatic options are limited, there's a superb chat engine**** built into the game to facillitate complex negotiations between human players. It's not just that the game is addictive, it's that it can addict multiple grad students at once. And with a pricetag of around $20.00, it's affordable for those of us on a somewhat limited income.

So, in summation: we're all doomed.

* The "civ effect," which is when you tell yourself "Just one more turn..." and then don't surface for five hours.

** Some might argue that the logical successor to Master of Orion 2 is, in fact, Master of Orion 3. My response is that those who claim MOOIII is the successor to MOOII obviously haven't played Master of Orion III. It's more or less a spreadsheet tutorial with fancy graphics.

*** Okay, really, they produced it in the hopes of selling games. I get that. Still, it's nice to see them emphasizing the depth and story rather than that there are a billion ways to blow other ships up.

**** Easy to use and chock full of actual depth. Members of two different species can't chat until they've researched the technology to provide translations. Until then, any chat messages they send will be rendered as gibberish. Now THAT'S attention to detail.

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Blogger Tom Bozzo said...

I am totally serious, though the Civ effect is confounded with details of my end-stage research and the start of work with my present employer. (As a non-academic, having a PhD has benefits but is not mandatory.)

I'd just note that Civ I could addict multiple grad students simultaneously by the old skool technology of having a bunch of dorks crowding around the computer, arguing over which Babylonian cities to attack while frustrated significant others occasionally remind, "you know, the Babylonians aren't real."

Right now, I'm insulated from SoTS by virtue of not yet owning Parallels Desktop 3, which offers the DirectX support required to render those spaceships. But I'm definitely going to use some of the SoTS vehicles as LEGO building inspiration.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 9:55:00 AM  
Blogger Practicing Idealist said...

I've been suffering from the Civ effect lately. I really want Civ IV, but it really would doom me.

Tom, my best friend and I used to crowd around the computer while playing SimCity, which definitely wasn't multiplayer back in the day. I have no doubt that the same kind of backseat playing could occur with Civ.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 4:16:00 PM  
Blogger SARA said...

"A game that focuses on expanding territory, technology, resources, and eventually military forces"- geeee,sounds promising, just what's needed, an expansion of military forces on play in the mental processes!(sorry,but had to say that :) )

I'm not a "gamer" nor do I know anything about video games but from an artists perspective, I'm fascinated by the graphics -they get better all the time- life like/amazing 3D.

"the game was designed with multiplay" "a superb chat engine**** built into the game to facillitate complex negotiations between human players."

It's great to see some "real" social interaction connected into a video game. Read Blue Monsters blog "Crackberry Addict"
( on the addiction of diff devices and how it's taken away from the social interaction of this game has a bonus attached to it...I can just see a group of students though..may take them 2 years longer to finish as opposed to one.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 5:19:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Bozzo said...

Both Civ and SimCity are complex enough that they benefit from a "two heads are better than one" approach, and unlike shooters or most real-time strategy games, rivalry for the controls isn't a big factor.

I sometimes think the proliferation of 3D graphics (and related eye-candy) is part of a computer industry conspiracy to force the upgrade cycle, or at least high-end graphics card sales. Part of me thinks it's all been style-over-substance since Seven Cities of Gold and M.U.L.E. (the latter remains the Best Economics Game, Ever -- though the Mac-centric Spaceward Ho! comes a close second for forcing players to manage a non-renewable resource), though I'm sure someone complained that the first video display compromised the purity of games that played out on line printers.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 10:27:00 AM  

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