Review by Orgulo
"Not another space game..."
It took me a while to get into Sins of a Solar Empire, mainly because any game with (what seems like) a heavy interface tends to be immediately off-putting. If there are too many screens and keys and commands to learn this will turn people away if all they really want is to jump into the action. Sins is actually not tough to get a hold of, it's really unusually easy, so persevere and your reward will be a nice little space RTS game with plenty of strategy and excitement but just not quite enough depth or character.
Like a lot of space games these days, Sins has elements of Homeworld, which itself had elements of Freespace 2, and so on back to Orion. It also closely resembles Imperium Galactica, though without the planetary battles. There's only so much you can do to make a new space game stand out, and what makes Sins stand out is the way it allows you to manage your planets and fleets. Other games are a mess of interface screens and different submenus and flowcharts, but Sins keeps it all pretty simple - if you have a middle mouse button you're laughing, and if you can learn to recognise the various tiny icons which represent your empire and your fleet you can flick around the entire galaxy in seconds just by zooming in and out and clicking in the innovative but hard to read fleet management column which is always pinned to the left of the screen. This can become a bit of a problem in huge maps, since the computer is having to handle every unit in every system all at once, and lag can get heavy even at medium settings, but I was prepared to put up with this because of how easy Sins makes things for people like me who just don't have the patience to learn complex interfaces.
Otherwise, Sins is a pretty typical space RTS. Build fleets, capture and develop new planets and resources, defend yourself from your enemies (using combat or iffy diplomacy), and work all the while to be the ultimate victor by being the last one standing. Sins has a pretty typical approach to strategy involving trying to collect as many resources as you can while simultaneously limiting your opponents' access to the same resources. You earn money through trade and taxes, and earn metal and crystal by simply mining planets and asteroids. You can use the market to sell one thing in order to gain more of another, and in this way you can continue your researches and construction to further boost your income and therefore your armies' potency and strength. Nothing really new here.
What is pretty novel is the way the planets and systems are laid out. Each planet stands alone until a civilization sends in a colony ship to grab it. Having done so they can then begin to develop it and gain more strength to allow them to push through to the next planet. Planets are only accessible via certain other planets, however, like a join-the-dots puzzle - you can't just skip from this planet to that one far at the other side of the map that contains resources you really want. You have to go past certain other planets first, and it's in this way that Sins asks you to plan and scheme against your enemies. So, for example, imagine your starting planet is linked to only one other planet, which is then linked to three more planets in different directions - it should be obvious that this second planet should be more heavily guarded than your starting planet, as it can be accessed from more directions and is therefore more vulnerable. Or maybe there's a really valuable planet with lots of resources and in an excellent strategic position, but maybe it's only one jump away from the system's only pirate base, so is it worth the extra hassle right now, or should you let an opponent take it early and then try to pay the pirates to keep attacking them, thereby weakening them in other areas you plan to exploit? Decisions...
By taking more planets for their resources you invite your enemies to use other routes to hit you where you're weak, and even if you develop three or four big planets along your front lines, what about that tiny route past that dust cloud which leads right to your homeworld? What about that wormhole two steps away from your main trading centre? On the other hand you need resources and you'll never get anywhere unless you expand slowly but surely. It's all about plotting and counter-plotting and not spreading yourself too thin or packing yourself in too tight, controlling the bottlenecks and chokepoints your enemies have to move through, and finding out where these are and how best to defend them. You might spend a long time amassing three giant armies at three different sites, only to suddenly spot a huge armada of enemies winging their sneaky way along that route you meant to guard more carefully earlier but hoped your enemy wouldn't notice. And because Sins is such a leisurely game in terms of pace it could take your ships a long time to get home to help out - will they be in time to save your favourite planet or will your enemies grab and hold an important strategic point, ruining all your plans for advancement? Sins pulls this sort of thing all the time, and it's only on the easiest settings that you can just build and advance with no headaches. To be honest, the computer is a less than clever strategist, and it's often enough to have two big defense fleets placed at certain points on your borders, as even on big maps the computer will mostly attack along predictable routes. Multiplayer would be a riot though, and only the most careful Machiavellian will find it an easy task to outwit and dominate several opponents at once, or even one by one.
There are also plenty of researches to keep you going, though if you have the money you can buy them all, which means that if you wait around long enough you will have every upgrade, which kind of makes each game on the easy setting the same. OK, there are three different races, but this wears thin quickly when you realise that at least half the researches are generic. I think it would have been a better game if the player blocked off some researches by choosing others, as this would make each player put much more consideration into what their gameplan would be; but at least in harder games you don't have the resources to go nuts on research, so you are forced to put some thought into it. There's not much strategy involved in just throwing money at your research tree anyway, especially since almost everything is either a planet upgrade or a ship upgrade. Almost all the abilites and upgrades are passive too - buy this and the effects will take place immediately and you won't have to worry about them again - this limits your interest in what you're buying, since you won't ever be asked to manually use it, though it does let you tailor your fleet depending on what researches you can afford at the time. Concentrating on things which help defend your planets won't let you expand quickly, but it will let you turtle up and hang back while all the other players take it out of each other. Then again, buying those snazzy new missiles for your frigates won't do your planets any favours, but it might allow you to push on and quickly bag another planet through sheer force, which will help your overall economy. A new research is often just another slight stat boost to ship damage or something, but since each of the three races has different strengths and weaknesses, one single upgrade can make a big difference to battles or influence in the galaxies.
Combat comes from the Settlers school of conflict - place your fleet in the same system as an enemy fleet and hope you win through more numbers and upgrades. There is little or no strategy involved in actual battles, especially since there are so few ship types. The ships themselves have almost no AI - it seems to involve automatically targetting the nearest ship, rather than picking on ships most vulnerable to their own abilities. There are formations while moving outwith combat, but these are useless since combat is the whole point of formations. And when it comes to combat every ship simply stops and fires mindlessly; the only time any of them move is to get within range of a new target or to beat a retreat. No fluid Homeworld-style ballet to be found here, just stationary face-offs. This is less than gripping.
The game would have been a trillion times deeper if it had twice the researches and lots more variety in planet and ship types. At least diplomacy can play an important part in making the to-ing and fro-ing feel less predictable - it's in your best interests to suck up to one of your opponents early in order to convince them to ally with you. If you can do this (either through buying them off or helping them defend themselves against their enemies) you can safeguard your civilization's future where it might not otherwise have had one. Your enemies will be much more reluctant to pick on you if you have an ally who likes you so much they station some of their ships in your sectors, though once you wipe out everyone else in the galaxy you'd better be sure you are stronger than your ally, since they will then automatically declare war on you. Diplomacy is poorly done but necessary in this game, and it's well worth keeping an eye on who is friends with whom.
I mentioned the lack of character earlier - this is obvious pretty early, once you've heard the same tunes come up again and again, and you've heard the voices of each type of ship captain (Homeworld style again). With so many ships in each fleet and so few types of ship, there is little or no individuality or personality to anything. No characters anywhere and therefore little to really care about except logistics. Planets are always one of four types - volcanic, ice, terran, desert. There is no humour or depth, even to the diplomacy screen, the closest the game comes to having a personality, and even this is just a simple click-to-select-this-option thing, like in Civilization. Once you realise that the game is basically a case of building up armies and moving them around in the most simple RTS tradition, the main enjoyment comes from the planning of your civilizations and the fun which comes from putting the odd dent in the enemies' plans.
One other good thing I should mention is the scale of the biggest maps, which can take place over several systems linked by wormholes. Conquer one galaxy (which might literally take you days) and then you start to realise there are four more out there which you haven't even entered yet. Your enemies' homeworlds lurk somewhere in there and you have to conquer every planet to win. Games are loooooong and it's the biggest maps which bring the most entertainment. That said, random maps are pretty much all the same, and you're far better choosing one of the custom-made maps which are infinitely more entertaining (if not exactly numerous), as in all RTS games where you're playing skirmishes. There is no single-player campaign to speak of, though it's hard to see how they could have made one work when each game is so similar to the last.
Anyway, the point is that the game is pretty simple at heart - a space RTS with one or two novel features which strategy fans will like, but also a fair bit missing which most gamers will wish had been included. I can't help thinking that if you married Sins of a Solar Empire to Homeworld you might have the universe's best strategy / space game, but Sins lacks all of Homeworld's style and character. I hope there's a sequel to this with a lot more variety and depth, but as it is this is a great effort and a fun and addictive game which will eat up hours of your day at a time. All space game fans should definitely own it; I just doubt they'll still be playing (at least offline) in six months' time.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 07/08/08
Game Release: Sins of a Solar Empire (EU, 06/20/08)
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