By Etienne Vlok
In a day and age where good science-fiction entertainment – be it in book, movie, TV show or game format – is few and far between, there exists a temptation to call anything halfway decent the second coming of sci-fi. If you’re a sci-fi nut like myself, you tend to get very excited when a game like Sins of a Solar Empire is announced, because the last true RTS in space was released way back in 2003 – this being, of course, the seminal Homeworld 2. (On that note – c’mon, THQ! You’ve bought the license, announce Homeworld 3, for crying out loud!) There have been various turn based or spaced based strategy games released since, but few have encompassed true three dimensional combat. Enter Sins of a Solar Empire.
Let me say right off the bat: this is one seriously addictive, highly enjoyable and, in many ways, original game. It’s a welcome addition to any strategy fans’ collection, and doubly so if you like games like Civilization, or the granddaddy of the space-based empire games, Master of Orion. The basic concept combines the best parts of a good real-time strategy game with the â€˜just one more turn’ style gameplay of Civilization, with the exception that everything takes place in real-time. It’s a classic 4X game – Explore, Exploit, Expand, Exterminate, with the big real-time change-up to the mix.
While it sounds daunting to combine these two gameplay elements in a real time fashion, Sins manages to do so in a very intuitive way, largely due to an awesome user interface. The other reason Sins works so well, despite the seemingly high micromanagement required, is that the game unfolds at stately pace, owing to the absolutely overwhelming scale introduced. I’ll discuss both these issues in more detail later.
The story takes place in the distant future, where humanity has spread out through the galaxy under the banner of a trading empire. When two threats emerge, they reform into the TEC, or Trader Emergency Coalition, to face them: the Advent, an offshoot of humanity that adopted an alien religion and are out to spread the good word with big guns; and the Vasari, a menacing alien race that seeks to be the sole survivor of this struggle.
One of the few problems I have with the game, actually comes from the above setting – more specifically, that it remains only a setting, and never turns into a proper plot. It’s presented with a lot of depth and offers a wide canvas to tell a sweeping story, but it never develops into one. As such, the single player portion of the game has no campaign to speak of. Don’t get me wrong, the single player portion of the game is amazing, but I think it’s a lost opportunity to let the intriguing set-up never evolve to more than background detail.
The game starts you off with a single planet under your control. You have a little of each resource, and a shipyard. From there, the direction the game takes is entirely up to you. The three factions aren’t as diverse and different from each other as in, say, Starcraft. The differences between them are a lot more subtle, and will take you some time to catch on to, but it’s well worth it when you start seeing results in your galactic conquests. From fighter craft all the way up to the massive capital ships, Sins offers a lot of variety in terms of how your fleet will look, and subsequently, what tactics you’ll use.
One of the many innovations the game has is how capital ships are handled. Massive and expensive, they will represent a significant investment, and you’ll only be able to sustain a few at a time. As such, the capital ships are handled much like hero characters in any standard RTS game – they gain experience and abilities over time and with combat. Properly managed, they become the focal point of your fleets. High level capital ships can easily tip the tide of any battle simply by arriving in-system.
Another unique aspect – one would say, the main innovation – is the way in which the game integrates its real-time elements with the overarching empire-building component. Many games have both these segments, but they are contained in separate modules, if you will. The Total War series is a good example of this style of gameplay: the birds’ eye view, in which you build structures and logistically coordinate your empire, with a separate mode for battles. Sins does away with the above distinction, and allows you to do both at the same time, simply taking place at a different level of zoom. While juggling so many balls simultaneously sounds patently impossible, it’s very effectively implemented, due to the amazing UI I mentioned earlier. Specifically, the game features a collapsible menu, called the Empire Tree, on the left hand side of your screen. From this, you can instantly access or jump to any fleet or planet, and even select specific ships in orbit around those planets, all without shifting your focus away from where you are currently engaged.
Resources are generated by collecting them via mining operations on asteroids, or taxing your population. However, you’re virtually guaranteed to always be short of at least one resource, owing to the fact that there is a plethora of research options to advance your empire, and to get to the really neat stuff is a major investment. As such, the game forces you to make big decisions on how and where you invest your scarce resources – always a mark of a well thought out strategy game, in my books.
Another major innovation the game has, comes in the form of the piracy and black market systems. Like death and taxes, pirates are a certainty in this game (unless you manually switch them to â€˜off’ in the pre-game setup,) and you have several options on how to deal with them. While the standard reaction would be to eradicate them, the game makes a brilliant move by starting off a bidding process, where you can place a bounty on a rival empire, and vice versa. The winner of the bidding, as it were, convinces the pirates to harass the rival empire for the next 15 minutes of game time. Considering that each planetary system features a pirates stronghold loaded for bear, with capital ships and a huge fleet, this becomes an innovative way to wage war by proxy, since your foes can’t see who placed the original bounty on them – especially useful in multiplayer games.
Diplomacy also features, although Sins makes you work – literally accepting and completing missions – for the concessions you aim to obtain from your fellow empires.
The scale of this game is absolutely enormous. The action takes place from battles around planets, with each system containing around 10 planets, and a large map featuring up to 5 systems. Owing to the fact that the game accurately depicts scale – no warships the size of quarter of the planet it’s defending, for instance – the game turns into something akin to a game of intergalactic chess, especially when you consider that you can only travel between planets using designated space lanes. The game allows for some truly deep strategy and tactical planning. You will constantly be involved and making decisions, but the pace rarely becomes overwhelming.
A special mention has to go out to the ship AI in this game, which does the best job I’ve seen of prioritizing and managing battles in your absence. While the rival AI for the empire-building makes some questionable decisions every now and again, I’ve yet to find a cheap tactic that works on a ship to ship level. On harder difficulty settings, the enemy AI is brutal, both at tactical and strategic level.
The game experience translates very well to the multiplayer aspect. The only downside is that larger maps can take upwards of 12 hours to complete, and as such you’re unlikely to complete a game in one sitting. Multiplayer games can be saved and resumed later, however, and a future patch aims to address this issue by offering options to speed up a lot of the gameplay options – patch 1.3 already does this in a limited fashion.
Finally, I’d like to make mention of how technically adept this game is. The graphics are beautiful, and the blackness of space can become a beautiful kaleidoscope of shifting colours during pitched battle. Textures are crisp and the ship design innovative. Overall, it’s a joy to look at. Likewise, the music is very good, immediately setting the scene with dynamic changes as the situation demands: from epic orchestral symphonies for battles, to quiet, almost wistful music for the calmer portions of the game. Strangely, the latter music really conveyed the feeling of the emptiness of space and the inherent solidarity thereof really well – to me, at least. Finally, the game scales really well on your PC, not requiring a monster machine to run well.
Thus, in summation, a top notch, highly original, beautiful strategy game. It’s easy to learn, but hard to master, and as addictive as crack. If you enjoy empire-building games, it’s definitely worth a spin, if only to see how it moves the genre forward with its combination with real-time elements. The game has tremendous replay-value, with a single session sometimes being longer than the full campaign for other games.
Unfortunately, it’s only been released in the US thus far, and our review copy was imported. However, I can categorically state that it’s worth importing it, if you even think you’ll like the game. One of our local online retailers offers the game as an import, but if you have a lot of bandwidth, the game can also be bought and downloaded via the official website.
Graphics: 90 %
Originality: 95 %
Tilt: 90 %
Overall: 90 % (masterfully done.)
As a footnote, for anyone still keen on Homeworld 2, you owe it to yourself to check this out: http://battlestarmod.com/
Last Updated: April 7, 2008