Sins of a Solar Empire Review

By Nick Breckon, Feb 06, 2008 10:23am PST If you're confused about what exactly Sins of a Solar Empire is, you're not alone. Screenshots of giant spaceship armadas, widespread galactic maps, and RTS-style displays had me wondering what I was getting into a few months ago, when I first gave the beta a spin.

I've been playing Sins off-and-on since then, and now that I have some time with the final version of the game under my belt, I feel qualified to make the following statements:

Sins of a Solar Empire is not Homeworld. It is not Galactic Civilizations. It is not Supreme Commander in space. It's a little of each, but then something else entirely.

I'm going to knock this game around a bit, but it will be a fatherly sort of beating, tough love with well-meaning intentions underneath the gruff, abusive exterior. Because I really do love Sins. It's a well-rounded, mostly-polished hardcore space strategy game for the PC. How often do you see that on a store shelf anymore? If the concept at all piques your interest, you will likely not regret a buy.

Yes, it has no singleplayer campaign, but it makes up for it with a challenging skirmish mode, and endless multiplayer possibilities. True, it's a complicated game, but it does an admirable job of pointing out its own eccentricities. And alright, I get that this game is a tough sell. It doesn't have Star Destroyers, and you'll probably cry once or twice in the course of losing your first round to the brutal AI.

But being a veteran of strategy gaming, the question for me was whether Ironclad and Stardock's game hits that sweet spot of balance and unpredictability and refined presentation that lends itself to proper video game addiction. Is it a weekend's worth of gameplay, or does it stand the desktop shortcut test of time?

Real Time Waster
Central to this question is Sins' take on 4X--eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate--gameplay. Like other genre titles, Sins pits one team of world conquerers against the other--in this instance, a choice of three distinct races--each striving to capture resources and expand faster than the other. Planets are colonized, improved, and defended with massive fleets of fighters and capital ships. A truly epic sense of scale is conveyed, with the player able to zoom from the windshield of a single frigate all the way out to a vista comprising several solar systems.

The main objective of the game is to conquer planets, that being done by orbitally bombing them into oblivion Cylon-style, colonizing them under your own banner and adding their future population--and surrounding resources--to your fold.

But rather than employing instanced maps for battles, as in a game like Star Wars: Empire at War, Sins throws all the action onto a real-time, organically-evolving map, with every decision and skirmish taking place on a single plane from start to finish. It seamlessly combines the burden of tactical command and solar system administration with a cursor-based, Supreme Commander-style zoom, allowing effortless camera changes and unit orders.

Each planetary zone acts as a circular boxing ring, serving as a base-building area for the owner and a massive target for his enemies. Ships fly from point to point in the gravitational radius, and warp from planet to planet--zone to zone--along set corridors. Fierce battles can take place at any moment as armadas emerge from hyperspace. Allies are gained and lost in seconds. Your decisions must be made on the fly, and the ramifications of each will unfold slowly before your eyes.

Because of this, Sins retains the interesting elements of turn-based management, but also accomplishes something that few turn-based games manage to do: it protects itself from the blame of defeat. If you fail to stop an assault on your homeworld, it won't be because you accidentally sent your fleet to Mars on the last turn. If a battle doesn't go your way, it's not going to be the result of some silly auto-skirmish mathematics screwing you over. Everything is on the board for you to see at any moment, and anything missed will be the result of your own galactic ineptitude.

Point and Shoot
Though the stars are turning in real-time, this is is not typically a fast-moving game. Players will need to keep track of their ship building, planetary upgrades, resource management, tech upgrades, diplomacy opportunities, and other responsibilities, and so the focus is squarely placed on measured macromanagement over the microscopic, reflex-based combat of an RTS. However, while this deliberate pacing is necessary, it unexpectedly cuts into other areas of the game.

One byproduct of this focus on the big picture is the resultant dulling of combat. In order to ease the effort of closely observing fleets and issuing second-to-second commands, battles progress as ponderous stand-off affairs, with slow-to-die ships sitting still and pew-pewing away until one side founders. Weapon effects leave a little to be desired, and fighters--the only thing spicing up fights with a little animation--are barely visible unless zoomed to the maximum level. Movement in three dimensions is technically possible, but the game is geared toward a 2D plane, making it largely unnecessary. Homeworld this is not.

The ships themselves are specific in their roles and to each race, but a little bland in terms of visual design, lacking any real character. The artists did not have the leisure of ripping already-iconic designs, and the various hulks they produced do not compare with the distinctive, bright-colored craft of a game like Homeworld. I never felt particularly excited to build a capital ship--in fact, one is given to you free right off the bat. Each race has a superweapon at the end of its tech tree, but in general, only the gradual accumulation of larger and larger fleets serves as a motivation, and the thrill of combat is directly proportional to the amount of lasers being thrown around.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_ That being said, every graphical feature and texture in the game is notable for being clean and unobtrusive. When viewed from above, the vastness of space is rendered with a satisfying blend of abstract colors. Planets in particular are well done, and all the more satisfying to nuke because of it.

The statistics and roles of each ship are clearly listed amongst the various menus, but it's a steep curve on the way to understanding when to build which, and where to position them across the void. Unlike an RTS with giant trolls or established ship designs, it can be difficult to immediately grasp the relationship between various craft--a decision made less painful by the option of building two of everything.

Speaking of an RTS, capital ships in Sins feature Warcraft 3-style, unit-specific upgrades. While this might indicate a micromanagement aspect, they can thankfully be set to auto-cast their abilities, leaving you free to handle more pressing orders of retreat.

In fact, there are plenty of smart features that free you up from making smaller choices. For instance, specific ships can be designated as a fleet leader, and will then automatically add any individual ships in the area. Ship-building factories can be set to rally on a fleet leader, entirely automating the generation of fleets. Your armadas are managed by the empire tree, a bar on the left side of the screen that automatically tracks and displays every unit in an expandable list. If you're unsure of what to research, clicking on a unit you can't yet use will highlight the requisite upgrade in the technology tree. It's all a little overwhelming at first, and most of it sails over your head until the fourth or fifth match.

Knowledge Aggregation
On the research side of things, a decent amount of tech upgrades and options are made available for your developing civilization, split into civilian and military divisions. The lists are unique to each race, and offer boosts to weapon power, ship building capability, trade, and other insidious, entertaining advantages. It's a wide range for an RTS game, and a somewhat-limiting one for a 4X game, falling somewhere in the middle. You won't be creating your own ships, but you'll be able to specialize your forces to a high degree.

A minor point, but these upgrades unfortunately follow the fantasy convention of being branded with goofy, unintuitive titles. In lieu of a singleplayer story, a set of race-specific research upgrades isn't doing much to immerse me in the world. After playing for so long, I still had trouble remembering exactly what "Homeworld Prophecy" and "Knowledge Aggregation" did without pausing to read the description. "Superior Wave Cannons" may sound self-descriptive, but as the upgrades aren't ordered by a specific ship class, I still have to read a blurb in order to see which ships actually use wave cannons before deciding on it. Facing a full table of elements, I prefer self-descriptive titles. Just give me "Crystal Mining 3" over "Shockwave Pulverization."

Speaking of crystals, the resource game is a matter of securing stationary mining points scattered around the planet zones, with each increasing the rate at which you gather either ore or crystal. Planet upgrades boost the amount of credits you pull in based on civilian tax. A black market menu offers you the choice of converting each resource into another at a premium, giving you the option of artificially balancing your coffers. Trade routes can be opened. Paid bounties can be placed on the heads of enemies. It's a nice mix of inter-dependent economic systems, allowing for some interesting strategies.

While all of this is going on, the game's musical score provides a decent variety of lilting spacey tunes and snare-based war marches. It's a dynamic, situational soundtrack, and effective enough at providing a wide range of background track for hours of star scrolling. On the battlefield, sound effects vary in quality--from clear, bassy explosions to some oddly low-budget voice recordings.

Multiplayer is handled through IP/LAN or over Ironclad Online, a serviceable matchmaking hub. Like any good strategy game, Sins shines in multiplayer, and with the added feature of being able to save and resume games, there's no worry of having to bust your bladder in order to triumph. Mod support is built into the game, so there should be no want for extra content in the coming months.

Who Cares?
It's a question that subconsciously runs through every gamer's brain at some point. When Sins crashed on me in the middle of a multiplayer match, I had to make a choice. Is the game good enough to warrant loading back up? Does it really matter that combat isn't as exciting as it could be? Do I want to jump back in and nuke the living hell out of some planets anyway? Who cares if it's flawed?

Like all good strategy games, Sins is about options. Hard, or easy? Online, or offline? Invasion, or cultivation? Capital ships, or frigates? Ally, or enemy? Buy, or avoid?

For strategy fans with patience, the answer to that last one is a no-brainer.

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