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The combat will also take some getting used to. With so many ships covering quite large distances, this isn’t a game of tank-rush tactics or complex manoeuvres; more a question of ensuring that you deploy balanced forces in sensibly structured waves and understanding how and when to move fleets from one flashpoint to another. Building reinforcements can take time, and phasing in from one planet to another takes time, and going from planet A to planet C will involve two legs in the journey (stopping via planet B) not just one. As a result, you need to keep travel times between planets in mind and avoid sending reinforcements one by one; if you’re already losing the battle, you’ll just send more ships to their demise. Sheer numbers of capital ships can win the day, but you’ll do better if you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your various craft and deploy a balanced selection of all types. What’s more, you also need to protect and make the most of your capital ships. Like the hero units in some RTS games, these gain experience in combat and, through that experience, develop new offensive and defensive capabilities. Grooming super units will make things a lot easier later in the game, but the downside is that there’s nothing more depressing than losing the capital ship you’ve spent hours beefing up in a hasty attack against overwhelming odds. Save often is my advice.
Sins of a Solar Empire is not a game for everyone. It’s very demanding on both your time and your concentration – even a short game can take several hours to complete, and you’ll need several of those before you really understand the various game mechanics. On top of that, it has a tendency to over-prolong the end game, though a) this is a common fault of strategy games and b) there are plans to address this with an upcoming patch. And while the sound of the multiplayer game sounds appealing, will you ever find someone with the time to play through a whole game?
That said, Sins is still a hell of a lot more streamlined and accessible than its standard 4x rivals, most of which look about as much fun as, say, debugging Visual Basic scripts in a complex Excel spreadsheet. Best of all, it reminds me of the Battlefield games, in that it manages to make something powerful and cinematic out of unscripted moments of gameplay. One minute you’re weeping as enemy frigates wipe out your capital ship’s shields, the next you’re cheering as a cluster of your own attack ships arrive and blast the foe to kingdom come. At the same time, it has the depth and obsessive qualities you just don’t get from your regular RTS. Provided you have time, brains and patience, buy it. The effort you put in will be richly rewarded, and it’s all the strategy game you’ll need to last you out the year.
Sins effortlessly combines the depth of the 4x strategy genre with the more straightforward appeal of the RTS. It still hasn’t got the mainstream appeal of, say, World in Conflict or Homeworld, but settle in for the long haul and you’ll find this a very worthy game.