February 12, 2008
Gaming Steve Review: Sins of a Solar Empire
Sins of a Solar Empire
A really simple, two-word summary of Sins of a Solar Empire would be "ridiculously epic". If you think spending 2 hours playing a single RTS game is long, then I'll tell you right now, this is not your game. My shortest game on the smallest map with one enemy clocked in at over 3 hours. But for those who love their gigantic games of galactic conquest to span multiple solar systems and hours, then this truly is a gift from the strategy-game gods.
Sins of a Solar Empire is in the simplest description an RTS set in space. You build space stations, take over planets, and command massive fleets of frigates and cruisers. But where this game differentiates itself from other space strategy games, like say Homeworld 2 , is the addition of 4X turn based strategy mainstays, like culture, trade, and long term tactics.
You begin a game of Sins of a Solar Empire with a single planet and a couple of construction ships. This planet (and all other planets, stars, large asteroids, and various other space oddities) is surrounded by a "gravity well" where your buildings, spaceships, and resources (crystal and metal asteroids) are located. Your spaceships travel through warp lanes that connect these gravity wells, which makes the maps focused and strategic. By making a majority of the map that would ordinarily be empty space actually empty space the maps end up very concise and goal oriented. Claiming a resource rich planet or the only route into another solar system creates true tactical points worth fighting over. Resources are harvested in much the same way as Company of Heroes or Dawn of War – once you have built your harvesting buildings resources will automatically be gathered. The last resource, money, is gathered through taxes collected on your planets or trade routes you can set up between your colonies.
Like most RTS games a detailed research tree is included, though here it's split into two distinct trees: the resource, culture, and building upgrade-oriented "civic tree" and the spaceship upgrade-oriented "military tree". Diplomacy is also included, though with a few interesting additions: bounty missions and tribute are demanded by your opponents which gives you the chance to build up allies and resources. Another interesting addition is pirate bounties: through an auction-like bidding menu, civilizations can place a bounty on enemies (or allies!) to encourage a pirate raid. This interesting wrinkle in strategy allows an economically oriented player to keep their enemies at bay while they build up their economy.
The game includes 3 different civilizations: the Vasari (the aliens), and the TEC (the humans), and the Advent (the freaky humans). There's some fairly generic science fiction lore behind them, but without an actual story driven campaign, it's not that important. All that I've described so far is effectively universal to each race as their largest differences is in their combat abilities. As far as I can tell after playing each is that the TEC appear to have brute force on their side, utilizing powerful planet destroying bombs, armored capital ships, and nuclear missiles. The Advent focus more on lasers and shields, along with their telepathic special powers to turn battles in their favor. Finally, the Vasari are perhaps the least focused on direct combat, opting to use nanotechnologies to "poison" enemies and repair their own vessels, and using their advanced manipulation of "phase-space" to zip around the map. Each civilization is distinct enough to make for varied strategies, but don't expect Starcraft levels of variety.
Sins of a Solar Empire's combat effectively takes place on a 2D plane with 3D space, though ships can pile over each other automatically. The games combat relies on the classic "rock-paper-scissors" style countering with frigates, cruisers, and support ships all taking part in the epic battles. The more interesting feature in the combat is how the game handles capital ships. Each capitol ship has various power-ups and fight/bomber fleets that are upgraded through experience in battle, much like heroes in Warcraft III. These powers range from super powerful planet bombs to powerful reflective shields.
Together, all these things wrap together to make Sins of a Solar Empire a refreshing, deep, and above all fun tactical experience. What I found really amazing is how well the developers integrated 4X turn-based strategy into an RTS experience. The games pacing gives you free range to actually create tactics and analyze the situation, something most "rush" oriented RTS simply don't allow. If you love turn based games, but find most RTSs to be to twitchy, I highly recommend this as a first step into the genre, and vice versa. If you find the game to be too slow, you can increase the games speed as well as resource gathering and researching.
Despite the very intricate nature of the game, the interface is surprisingly elegant and user friendly. A search option allows you to quickly find that rouge colony ship of yours or figure out just where your scouts are exploring. A useful "Empire Tree" sits on the left side of the screen, giving instant access to all your ships and buildings. The game also has a Supreme Commander like mega-zoom feature where you can zoom right up to an individual fighter all the way out to an icon represented view of you multi-solar-system galaxy. With all these incredibly useful interface innovations, I do find it odd that simple double clicking isn't in the game. This is partly remedied by the fact that you are more "fleet" oriented with your ships and assign fleets to all ten of your numerical keys with a quick Ctrl-Number, but when was the last game you played that didn't have double clicking?
Not only does the interface look great, but the game as a whole is beautiful. I'm running the game on a 2.2 Ghz Core2Duo, with 2 gigs of ram and 128 MB of video ram to fantastic effect. I only have the settings on high, but the glowing stars, the pulsing quasars, and the intense hundred plus ship battles all look fantastic and almost never stutter. The game is also purported to sun fine and even look fairly acceptable on older machines. The game is purported to run on four to five year old machines, and even some laptops.
Lovers of deep strategy games should definitely consider this game, especially if they're fans of Galactic Civilizations as the game seems highly influenced by it. The game doesn't include a campaign mode, so if you enjoy this aspect of strategy games it could be a minus for you. Right now I'll say this is easily recommendable to hardcore strategy fans, and a great gateway for turn-based strategy fans to try out an RTS.
PLUSES: Incredibly deep and strategic. Deftly combines RTS and 4X Turn-based elements. Beautiful graphics, art direction, and user interface. Some unique tactical elements (pirate bidding, intricate warp lanes). Suprisingly easy to grasp, considering how complex the game is. A passionate developer that promises and delivers extra content (and no need to have the DVD in order to play). Well thought out multiplayer. The Novalith Cannon!
MINUSES: No Story driven campaign (though I know many who never bother with these anyway). The 3 races aren't all that unique, save their art direction. The huge levels also means it takes a long time to cross the map. The combat seems just a little shallow. No double-click?
FINAL VERDICT: 9.0 BUY IT!