When The World Is Not Enough
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine how much fun a turn-based strategy game can be if it could be played in real time. Of course that would defeat the function of the turn-based system. But what if a game were able to combine real-time strategy with the feel of turn-based combat? The result is Sins of a Solar Empire, an amalgam of real-time strategy and an empire building economic sim. It does get deep, but it starts out easily enough to get players of virtually any skill level hooked.
Although the game does have a single-player mode, there is no campaign. It’s more free style. It’s possible to get your kicks with this game and never have to deal with another human player. But that would be foolish since Sins of a Solar Empire literally comes alive in the multiplayer components. There are two different multiplayer modes. One will throw you into head-to-head challenges that will typically last an hour or so. The other component is similar to a massive online multiplayer mode that could last months.
With new content being offered by the developers on an ongoing basis, the replay value has huge potential. As you will notice on the developer’s site, they listen to the players’ gripes and groans, and seem intent on refining the game with patches and new downloadable content. As you can well imagine, it’s not easy creating a hybrid game like this from scratch since there is no template to compare it to. There are some bugs with the game such as latency and faulty pathfinding, but patches are available for download that will address most of these problems. Forget trying to learn the shortcut keys, they just don’t feel right and they aren’t that important. The game moves slow enough to give you plenty of time to make decisions. You can call up the Empire tree, which is an interface that will appear on the side of the screen. It gives you access to virtually everything that you need to control. It’s easier than returning to the main interface to make adjustments. Focus your efforts on using it, and you’ll be well rewarded.
There is plenty of back history, but it’s not very deep. Not that it needs to be as sometimes too much of that kind of info just bogs the game down with too much detail. Suffice to say there are three factions, and they aren’t old drinking buddies. There is the Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC), a race of humans that are intent on using their incredible powers for peace and commerce. A race of aggressive aliens known as the Vasari are fierce, fast, and furious. They are looking to reclaim their hold of the galaxy by force. A somewhat mutated race of humans, the Advent is bent on revenge against the TEC. They have assimilated mysticism and technology into their evolutionary process and have become a new specie.
You can play as any of these three factions. Each have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, but they are very well balanced. Having chatted to some players that have been with the game since day one, they were unable to convince me that any one faction is secretly more powerful. Everyone seems to have his or her favorite, but that’s personal taste. You can play as the aggressor with powerful weapons and space ships reminiscent of the Empire from Star Wars. Or play a more cerebral and peaceful game as you attempt to control the galaxy through commerce and good relations.
Conquering and controlling the galaxy is your ultimate objective whether you play as part of a faction or as an entire faction in a head-to-head match with one other player. You will begin with a planet and ultimately exploit it as a source of revenue, as well as a base from which to build your arsenal and launch your missions. Planets are a good source of resources, as are asteroids. These resources will give you the means to build more ships and acquire more weapons, and ultimately more planets. Planets can also be colonized, which will generate revenue for you in the form of taxes. Exploring the galaxy, you will discover new planets that you can exploit. Manufacturing plants erected on these planets will help build your fleet, which is a requirement for exploring, defending, and attacking.
Planets can be taken by force. That means that you’re going to need a fleet of spaceships. A variety of ships can be amassed including motherships, frigates, transports, fighters, bombers, cargo, and capital ships. Various ships need to be deployed around each of your planets for defense. Each planet has a gravity well that acts as a protective barrier which precludes enemy ships from direct attacks.
Fleets can also be transported to other planets for the purpose of attacking. This can be a relatively slow process, so jump lanes have been introduced to streamline things. It’s not an instant warp, as the path must be followed in a linear process. Once you arrive at your destination, you can opt to enter into battle automatically or manually. The CPU tallies your relative strength and positioning, and plays the battle out accordingly, similar to that of a turn-based battle. If you’re severely overwhelmed by enemy forces, manually controlling the battle won’t help you at all. It only feels as though you have the ability to do something.
So convincing is the A.I. that you will be hard pressed to differentiate between a real player. Not only does the enemy put up a good fight, but the other races that you interact with form dynamic relationships with you. If you piss them off, you’re going to get burned down the line. On the other hand, if you help them out, either by assisting them in battle or giving them technologies, you can count on them to repay the debt, often without prompting. But unpredictability is also a part of human nature and the A.I. can form an alliance with another race and turn on you when you least expect it. It’s all part of the game.
Space pirates are a non-playable race, but that doesn’t mean they won’t play you. These pirates will attack you randomly and can really do some damage to your fleet as well as your finances. The black market plays a large role for revenue sourcing. Surplus resources and commodities can be turned into cash which can be used to replenish the coffers from the pirate attacks, or used to pay for the bounty that you put on the other factions. This will cause the pirates to attack them instead, hopefully weakening them for an attack from you.
Even the smaller galaxies are huge, or maybe it just seems that way as it takes your fleet a long time to cross it. The planets are large and filled with detail. You are able to zoom in to the planet’s surface to keep an eye on your colony and its industries. There isn’t a lot of excess micromanagement, but it’s nice to be able to focus on something specific and be allowed to tweak it. The menus and interface are relatively easy to use, although I suggest getting used to the Empire tree interface. It’s collapsible, so interference with the graphics is minimal. The ships are well detailed and highlight each of the race’s distinct attributes. The voiceovers may be a little trite, but the sound effects are realistic and powerful. The music is ambient and conveys a sense of majestic boundlessness.
Combining elements from different genres is a risky proposition, but Ironclad has managed to create a truly unique hybrid with Sins of a Solar Empire. It may leave purists of either genre confused, but it will undoubtedly cultivate a following of its own.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.8 Graphics
Epic alien worlds. Lots of detail when zooming in. 3.4 Control
The hotkeys will leave you cold. Use the onscreen collapsible interface for commands. 3.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Voice acting is trite. Music is rich, majestic, and appropriate. 4.7 Play Value
Addicting gameplay. It’s a different game each time. 4.8 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.