In the last decade, fans of sci-fi strategy have divided into two basic groups. One group has stuck with the old-school 4x genre (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) through thick and thin, preferring the turn-based games that have sprung up in the wake of Master of Orion, Ascendancy and Alpha Centauri, more recent examples being the Space Empires and Galactic Civilizations series. The other group has embraced the RTS genre, adopting the starship combat of Homeworld and its imitators, or the ground-based tactics of StarCraft and Supreme Commander.
In a lot of ways, the chasm only seems to be widening. While the big-league publishers push for the mainstream audience with more action-oriented RTS games like Command and Conquer 3 or Universe at War, the smaller developers involved in the 4x category seem to be making games that are ever more complex, convoluted and inaccessible. Surely there’s room for something that sits in the middle, harnessing the long-term depth of the 4x style to the more exciting pace and visual spectacle of the RTS?
It appears so, because Sins of a Solar Empire is currently looking like the PC sleeper hit of the season. Currently only downloadable from publisher Stardock (annoyingly you’ll have to install and use Stardock’s own client, which didn’t work flawlessly on my machine) if you live in the UK, it’s a sprawling strategy epic that seamlessly combines the 4x and RTS traditions. Note the word seamlessly – this isn’t an RTS with the campaign structured around a political/economic map, nor is it a 4x game where the action switches from turn-based fleet manoeuvres to RTS combat whenever two forces collide. It’s a game where the 4x stuff and the RTS stuff is happening at the same time, all of the time, on the same map.
The secret is the way the game handles scale. Zoom all the way out and you can see the whole of the current planetary system, each star or planet linked to its neighbours by a network of ‘phase lanes’ – essentially hyperspace motorways that enable high-speed travel across the map. Zoom in using the scroll wheel and you can see the planets and the various military and logistic installations orbiting around them. Zoom in further and you can home in on the battleships and frigates in the vicinity, right down to the smallest individual fighter. It’s fast, and gives you a breathtaking sense of the game’s epic scale.
While zoomed out, you can still make out facilities and fleets from the reasonably intuitive icons. While zoomed in, you can admire the graphics in all their glory. Those hoping for a next-generation Homeworld with Unreal 3 engine levels of detail may be disappointed, not least because some of the smaller animations that made Ritual’s debut so lovable are missing. All the same, Ironclad’s own Iron engine does a nice line in bump mapping, plasma effects and specular lighting, all of which help to make the game’s space battles look suitably cinematic when seen up close.
Enjoy the sight of grand battlecruisers exploding, because it’s one you’ll become familiar with the more the game goes on. This is a galaxy at war. The Trader Emergency Coalition is already locked in battle with the cruel Vasari Empire when the Advent, a bunch of religious outcasts, forced from their homeworld years before, come looking for revenge. Not only are the TEC, Vasari and Advent factions scrapping over every system, but the galaxy is infested with gangs of space pirates to boot. There’s no need to get too caught up in the story; with no formal story-based campaign it’s little more than a framework for a whole bunch of skirmish scenarios, but this isn’t a game of gentle colonisation and exploration. It’s a resource grabbing, arms race running festival of destruction, and while alliances, diplomacy and trade have their place, building and using a mighty starfleet is the most crucial aspect of the game.
Doing so involves a lot of work. First, you’ll need money, and that means a) taxes and b) trade. Colonising planets and improving the civilian infrastructure means more happy taxpayers, and therefore more cash in the bank. Secondly, you’ll need facilities; not just frigate factories and capital ship factories to build the ‘bread and butter’ units and commanding capital ships, but defensive structures and military and cultural research facilities. The last bit is important, because Sins of a Solar Empire relies heavily on research in order to optimise the offensive and defensive capabilities of your ships, but also to raise the cap on the number of frigates and capital ships you can command, or give you the skills you’ll need to colonise more hostile worlds. Finally you’ll need metal and crystal resources in order to build your facilities and fleet. All these things are connected by a number of fairly complex game mechanics, but your task is reasonably simple: build and upgrade your fleet then explore, colonise and defend new planets from aggression, while mining resources and boosting civilian facilities to keep the credits flowing. And don’t forget to chip away at your rival factions and deal with the space pirates while you’re at it.
If this sounds like a lot to be getting on with then rest assured: it is. Luckily, the guys at Ironclad have done everything they can to stop it feeling like hard work. For a start, everything in your budding galactic empire is available at a click from the Empire Tree on the left of the screen. This collapsible, tree-structured list means you can click on a single ship or an entire fleet and send it off to battle in some far flung corner of the galaxy, then click on the frigate factory orbiting your home planet and order up some reinforcements, then find a construction frigate and order a new missile platform to be built around your latest acquisition, all without having to scroll around the map or click through a succession of menu screens. What’s more, you can reorganise your ships into separate fleets or ‘pin’ specific fleets or structures if you need to find them quickly, making an initially daunting display surprisingly easy to navigate.
In addition, a lot of things are quite sensibly handled automatically. Ships that ‘phase space’ to a new planet will automatically be added to the fleet surrounding that planet unless you command otherwise. That fleet will automatically attack hostile forces as they phase in, with individual ships picking targets appropriate to their own offensive strengths and defensive weaknesses. Units with special powers, like colonisation or heavy attacks, will use them automatically unless you decree otherwise. In other words, you don’t have to micro-manage every single little aspect of the game – you can keep your head on the big picture, moving the fleet that’s just attacked planet X to defend planet Y when necessary, without having to worry whether every last unit will know what it’s doing. Even construction isn’t a chore. Select a builder unit and ask it to build a metal or crystal refinery and it will pick out the nearest available resource, not sit their dumbly while you specify where to go.
Admittedly, not everything comes easy. The initial tutorials take you through the basics of construction, combat and resource management, but you’re well advised to start off with a short game against a single, easy AI to give you breathing space while you learn the ropes. Pick one without pirates while you’re at it. One thing the initial tutorials don’t make clear is that the pirates in the galaxy operate on a bounty system. Pay them off and they’ll attack your rivals. Don’t bother, and they’ll attack you, sending larger and larger waves of ships the higher the bounty goes up. This can be infuriating, because just as you’re preparing your grand offensive or recovering from a heroic defence, the blasted pirate fleet will show up and knock your right back to square one. Trust me; you’ll have enough to deal with in your first games without dealing with the pirate menace (though note that in games with more than one enemy faction you can make a little cash on the side by attacking the faction with the highest bounty and claiming the prize for yourself).
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.