Brad's Sins of a Solar Empire Beta 4 Preview
Our story so far
Developed by Ironclad, a start-up game developer whose founders worked on Homeworld: Cataclysm and published by Stardock Entertainment, best known for developing Galactic Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire is a space-based RTS that aims to combine the depth of 4X strategy games with the pacing and multiplayer goodness of real-time strategy games.
Beta 4 of Sins of a Solar Empire was just released to the beta team and this is a brief preview of what's in it and what still needs to be done between now and it's February 2008 release.
Note that I work at Stardock which publishes the game. But I'm also an avid gamer and game developer. So I'm biased but I suspect that you'll care about the same kinds of things I care about in these games.
The Core Goal
Sins of a Solar Empire is a game full of innovations. Nearly all those innovations surround a particular goal: To allow an RTS to have unprecedented scale. Most of the innovations fall into the area of reducing micro management and delivering new ways to manage large empires without any fear of it devolving into a "click fest".
Multiplayer in Beta 4
You know the drill - big name RTS comes out. Multiplayer doesn't work for people behind a fireewall or even behind a router. Patch is released that fixes it kind of. Another patch is released that fixes it further.
Sins of a Solar Empire is no different except in terms of when these problems occurred: A huge public beta months prior to release. Beta 3 users got to enjoy huge lag, connection problems, router issues, etc. So a patch was made called Beta 3a which kind of fixed it. Beta 4 largely (but not completely) resolves multiplayer connection issues. Kudos to the beta testers who suffered through and reported the issues so that people who buy the game won't have (knock on wood) problems getting multiplayer going.
I will admit, I'm pretty geeked about the ability to SAVE MULTIPLAYER GAMES! It's obvious in hindsight but but the technical hurdles to smoothly and reliably allow people in a multiplayer game to save their game in progress and pick it up a week later aren't trivial.
Being able to save in a multiplayer setting is a big deal from a game design standpoint. It means you can have maps and scenarios that one can expect to finish in an hour or so as well as maps and scenarios that can take months to play depending on the user's choice. And the game plays very differently depending on how you set things up.
Imagine being able to get together with friends on weekends to continue an epic tournament of Sins of a Solar Empire. That's the kind of thing that multiplayer saved games makes possible.
Playing Beta 4
The user interface is still in flux. I am hoping that the late November beta update will get the finalized user interface in. It's not so much that the current UI is bad (though the research screen needs love), it just needs polish.
The star of Sins of a Solar Empire remains the overall experience though. The scale of the universe, the incredible battles (seriously, it's like watching a Babylon 5 battle except you control the ships), and the exquisite game mechanics that really make the game feel like a 4X game in an RTS engine.
Scale Scale Scale
|Zoomed in on a construction frigate |
|Zoom out just a bit.|
|Zoom out further, now I see a planet, ships become icons. |
|Keep zooming, now I see the planets in the star system... |
|Zooming further, now I see two star systems, one with lots of planets! |
|And finally I can see 5 star systems. Now THAT is scale.|
The Game Mechanics
Beta 4 is the first beta where the game mechanics are starting to really show their promise. Pacing still needs work but it's getting better and better.
The game mechanics are pretty straight forward but also provide immense strategic choices:
You have planets. Planets provide money through taxes. There are also planetoids (i.e. large asteroids) which aren't as good as planets but tend to be surrounded by more asteroids. Asteroids have either metal or crystal which players extract. They provide infinite resources (i.e. they don't run out).
With those 3 resources (money, metal, crystal) you can do all kinds of interesting things. But you can't do all of those interesting things at once. You can only build so many different things around planets based on your logistics capability. The player has to make some tough choices as to what they want to build around those planets. Building research labs helps them get new technologies. But there are also orbital stations for trade, culture, defense, ship construction, etc.
The net result is players take the route of having lots of cheap ships or go the route of having fewer awesome ships. The ships, however, come in many sizes and shapes and capabilities which we'll talk about in a bit.
Here's where the game mechanics in Beta 4 really start to be neat. So you have planets, they provide your money. Research Labs determine how far up the tech tree you can get. Each race gets its own tech tree. And these techs are very important. So building multiple labs is important (but on the other hand, you can only build so many labs around a given planet).
|The Research screen UI still needs some work. |
Most RTS's have very little diplomacy. Sins of a Solar Empire has considerably more than the typical RTS.
|The Diplomacy isn't quite done but bounties work nicely already|
The new diplomacy system isn't in Beta 4. But what is in there has some cool stuff (we'll talk about the new diplomacy system in beta 5). The bounty is my favorite part of Diplomacy. The game has NPC units known as pirates who are effectively like Barbarians from Civilization but more lethal. But you can passively pay them to attack other races by putting a bounty on that race. Best of all, nobody knows who is putting the bounties on people. Trust me, in a FFA this is totally awesome.
You have three classes of ships: Frigates (cheap ships), Cruisers (medium ships), and Capital Ships (incredibly powerful ships).
You start out able to crank out Frigates and you also start out with a capital ship (think of the capital ship as being like the Commander in Total Annihilation, don't bother to rush someone unless you really know what you're doing and your opponent doesn't).
The capital ships are very rare because not only are they expensive but they require specialized crews that you have to train (basically you research a technology which increases the # of capital ships you can control).
The whole point of battles in Sins is that mobbing someone with lots of ships isn't going to get you very far if your opponent has a good counter to it. I.e. You send a mob of fighters at your opponent and it only takes a very small number of flak batteries on a cruiser to wipe them all out.
In a really epic sized game, you will get a lot of ships. But on the more typical multiplayer maps where there's only a few planets, those capital ships and how they're armed will matter. Capital ships remind me a bit of the heroes from Warcraft 3 in that they gain experience that allows you to upgrade them in interesting ways. I like being able to visually see the results of my upgrades (the first time you see fighters coming out of your upgraded battle cruiser is a real sight).
The ships in Sins of a Solar Empire work together almost like a single unit. All you have to do is group them and from there, the fleet will act as an intelligent fleet.
The battles in Sins of a Solar Empire are pretty incredible as others have reported. As more and more finalized graphics get in, the battles just look more incredible. They seriously remind me of Babylon 5 style battles.
|Not a mockup, that's a real battle in-game|
|Epic battles, even in beta 4|
The Empire Tree
So how do you have an RTS that has epic 4X empire building and not have it become a micro-management nightmare? How do you keep it from being a click-fest? Honestly, my answer would have been you can't and that anyone claiming you can is just full of hype.
Look at the screenshot below and behold a UI that is going to be stolen over and over (I know I'll be stealing it for Society). This is an innovation whose credit belongs purely to Ironclad. And I've watched this thing in beta for the past 18 months and the Empire Tree UI has been there from the beginning as it is now (which is probably why the icons are so fugly still and need to be improved IMO).
|The Empire Tree on the left is a key innovation|
Look very closely at it.
|The Empire Tree is what really makes Sins of a Solar Empire stand out.|
One only needs to read through the forums (it's a public beta) to see the reception of the Empire Tree. It really is a key breakthru for RTS's. It is a BIG deal. A really hard core player could literally play the entire game from this UI. It's that powerful. Yet it can be folded up too, just click on the arrows to roll up a particular planet or star.
So what's left?
Lots. It's going to be a busy couple of months for Ironclad and Stardock to finish this up. There's a lot of polish that still needs to be done. There is an entire third race that isn't in the game yet. The new UI is needed, the diplomacy still needs improvement, the computer AI still needs work, and there's still pacing needed (the balance looks pretty good though the Vasari and the unreleased Advent still need work).
But with two months left to polish (the stability is very good), I think Ironclad will make their date though I wouldn't want to answer to their spouses this holiday season...
Title: Sins of a Solar Empire
Platform: PC (Windows XP, Windows Vista)
Release Date: February 2008
Developer: Ironclad Games
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment