Sins of a Solar Empire (PC)
Developer: Ironclad Games
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Release Date: 02/04/2008
By Allen 'Delsyn' Rausch | Feb. 5, 2008
If all strategy games sinned this much, the world would be a much better place.
Initial Verdict: Promising
There's a bit of a learning curve but Ironclad's brilliant new "4XRTS" lets players sin as much as they want and still go to strategy game Heaven.
Full review to be posted after further testing!
Editor's Note: It's GameSpy's review policy to test all online-enabled games in real-world multiplayer conditions before posting a final review score. A full review of this game will be posted shortly, once it has undergone testing in the same conditions that you'll play it in. Below you'll find our first impressions of the game.
Every hardcore gamer has had that "is it morning already?" moment. It's getting so caught up in a game that sitting down to play for "just a few minutes" ends with looking up at the clock and realizing the sun's coming up. A while back the team at Ironclad Games took on an absolutely awesome challenge: to create a game with the scope and strategic depth of a turn-based 4X conquer-the-universe game and the immediacy and excitement of a real-time strategy title. We've been playing with the resulting product, Sins of a Solar Empire, for some time now and while we've got more multiplayer testing to do, we're willing to bet that players of Ironclad's amazing new "4XRTS" are going to have plenty of "is it morning?" moments.
The "sins" of Sins of a Solar Empire are the unsavory actions of the game's three warring races that are coming back to haunt them. The Trader's Emergency Coalition is a rigid capitalistic oligarchy that makes up of most the human race. They're at war with the Vasari, a tiny but powerful remnant of an alien empire that once ruled the galaxy but are now on the run from an enemy of their creation that's now stalking them from the Galactic Core. Finally, the Advent is a fanatical quasi-religious sect of altered humans exiled from TEC space 1,000 years ago and now looking for payback. The resulting conflict, while hardly the most original storyline going, provides a nice fictional backdrop for the real meat of the game -- glorious spaceship combat with three diverse but well-balanced sides along with planetary conquests, cultural imperialism, rapacious trade wars and plenty of devious diplomatic wheeling and dealing.
The basic gameplay won't be unfamiliar to anyone who's spent time in Sid Meier's Civilization series, Master of Orion, Galactic Civilizations or any of the genre's "4X" brethren. Planets act as tax sources as well as bases and production facilities. Each planet sports certain characteristics that determine how many and what sorts of facilities they can build and how many of each resource they provide. Planets also have gravity wells where all this building takes place. The only way to travel from world to world is via a series of pre-defined "jump paths" that offer a variety of strategic challenges by creating a sort of "space terrain" that players need to consider when moving fleets of starships around in order to conquer the universe.
The kicker is that all of these gigantic strategic decisions need to be made in real time. Fleet control, combat and movement as well as the building and production are conducted in the manner of a real-time strategy title. Click on the capital ship factory and it takes approximately 30 seconds for the ship to be produced. Put together a fleet of a dozen or so ships and send them on a three-jump trip to an enemy world and it'll take them eight or so minutes to get there. Once in combat, battle is decided by spaceship strengths and weaknesses, proper positioning and the use of player-controlled special abilities in the manner of a classic RTS -- all of it rendered in stunning graphical splendor.
The beauty of Sins of a Solar Empire is that each style of gameplay is brilliantly executed when considered on its own. As a "4X" game, Sins sports plenty of the "guns or butter?" decisions strategy gamers love. Do I sink some of my precious resources into a research upgrade that provides a global improvement or build another Gauss cannon to defend my primary ship-building planet? Is it worth sending a fleet to that planet or is its loyalty low enough that a broadcast station in the right place will make it switch allegiance? Do I offer an alliance to that player or will he stab me in the back?
As an RTS the game is just as much fun. Spaceships are designed in such a way that any real-time strategy player who ever drooled at the words "combined arms" will love putting together purpose-designed task forces. We learned this early in one of our games when we tried to zerg a diversified enemy fleet with a capital ship designed for planetary bombardment and a whole lot of cheap light frigates. One large collection of space debris later, we had learned that there's a lot more to winning a SoaSE space battle than merely outnumbering an opponent.
What really makes Sins of a Solar Empire special is the seamless way the Ironclad team has melded together these two distinct styles of strategy gaming. The game can easily be controlled via an innovative "empire tree," a sort of mother-of-all-minimaps. This collapsible tree along the left side of the screen displays the current state of the universe in symbolic form. While there's a learning curve involved in learning to use the empire tree, once the player learns to sort out all those little squiggles and dots it becomes an amazingly powerful way to track what's going on. Even better, players can give any order to a ship, planet or production facility that they could in the main screen. Indeed, it's entirely possible to play the entire game this way, allowing the more-than-competent unit AI to handle individual battles.
In practice, what seems to happen is that players develop a sense of their empire's zeitgeist and become able to focus in on key areas and ignore extraneous or routine information. The pace is stately and the strategic model defensively-biased enough that planets won't fall to hastily assembled strike forces. This allows players to zoom in to problem areas and make adjustments without worrying that half the empire will collapse while they're micromanaging an important battle. The game also sports plenty of information and control screens as well as hot keys that allow quick access to vital functions. These might be arranged a bit better (the Pirate/bounty screen and the Black Market screen, for example, shouldn't be on the same tab) and some of hotkey functionality is poorly thought out, but those are minor complaints.
One of the few serious complaints against the game so far is the baffling lack of a single-player campaign. The Ironclad team went to a lot of trouble to create an elaborate backstory for its fictional universe. It sure would be nice to get a little more in-depth with these three fascinating races and learn what makes them tick -- perhaps even what "sins" they've committed that brought them to this pass and what's going to happen to them now. That's not to say that there isn't plenty to do in single-player. Sins of a Solar Empire has a large collection of custom-designed sandbox maps as well as a very powerful map editor players can use to create their own. Even if players never venture into multiplayer, there's plenty of gameplay inside the box.
The game's multiplayer is run through "Ironclad Online," a proprietary service launched with the game. The front end of the system is serviceable, though somewhat barebones. Unfortunately, while the service has been quite stable once we've joined a game, making connections to a game from the lobby has been more hit-and-miss. This is really our only major complaint so far, but it's enough because multiplayer is where this game shines. The game's "bounty" and diplomatic systems create enough treachery to make the U.N. look like a model of integrity and big battles are just sheer fun. We'll be posting our final review after further testing. Hopefully by then the connection issues will have cleared up because it'd be a shame for a technical issue to mar the strategic triumph of Sins of a Solar Empire.