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.