Holy Crap! 4X Sci-Fi Gameplay at it's best?!
The latest foray into the space-based genre of RTS games takes its form in Sins of a Solar Empire, the first and rather highly anticipated title from Ironclad Games. On the surface, Sins appears to be no more than a Homeworld or Hegemonia clone, but a closer inspection of the title unveils a simplified yet altogether brilliantly constructed 4X game. For those not familiar with the term 4X stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate, describing games along the lines of the Civilization and Master of Orion franchises, which incorporate the four mechanics into solid gameplay. Sins incorporates these traits in a streamlined way, finding a graceful balance between the complexity of Master of Orion and the oversimplification of Hegemonia.
The story of Sins is simply a prologue for the game, providing a relatively tiny amount of back-story for each of the three factions that players are able to partake in. I use the word prologue here pretty much because that’s essentially all it is, as Sins features no single player campaign. At all. While this might be off-putting to some (and was to me initially), the gameplay of Sins isn’t one in which a single player story would be easy (or even efficient) to tell. The flow of the game is such that any serious attempt at storytelling would be limited to the speed at which the player could effectively expand through each level, and considering how a simple skirmish game against a single CPU opponent can easily take six hours or more, the potential for telling a story isn’t great. As it is, the player is provided with the option of playing as one of three races against the computer or other human players. The TEC (Trade Emergency Coaltion) is an interstellar alliance of human colony worlds. Their ships tend to be heavily armored and focus greatly on ballistic weaponry, and look very similar to the warships of the human Imperium from Warhammer 40,000. The Advent are a crusading human army of exiled religious zealots, returning to TEC space to wage war on their oppressors. Their technology is extremely advanced, producing cheap ships with weak armor that flaunt powerful laser and plasma weapons. Finally, the Vasari are an alien race of conquering nomads, whom have been fleeing a pursuing, unknown force of devastating power for decades. Vasari ships tend to be more expensive but are also heavily armored and fire phase missile technology which has a chance of ignoring enemy shields altogether.
ach new game of Sins sees the players (up to 10 of them on included large maps) start with a single controlled planet, from which the player must quickly expand from to increase available resources. After establishing themselves in their home system by building extraction structures to collect crystal and metal from orbiting asteroids, the player will soon need to send out small contingents of frigates and colony ships in a Sci-Fi “land-grab” to quickly establish themselves on neighboring planets and asteroids. There are four types of colonizable planets: desert, terran (Earth-like), ice, and volcanic. Each presents their own challenges to tame, and may not even by colonizable at all without specific research. There are also colonizable asteroid settlements, which cannot support a large population but are useful as outposts. Each asteroid and planet is situated as a node in a vast network of connected “space-lanes” which a player’s units must travel along to traverse the map.
The game is driven by the necessity to collect massive amounts of the three resources the economy of Sins is based upon: Crystal, Metal, and Credits. Crystal and Metal can be extracted from small asteroids found throughout the map. Credits can be attained two ways: By having a large established population on colony worlds and asteroids, which taxes their populations, and by building trade stations, which are orbiting ports which send and receive interplanetary (and interstellar) trading craft throughout the map. As a result, most of the game’s important structures and units (specifically capital ships) require a large amount of all three resources before the player can build them. This is definitely a good thing, as the capital ships are powerful in the extreme when compared to standard frigates, and the last thing this game needs is a cap-rush in the beginning of the match. Also of note is the game’s incredible number of technologies and abilities that are available to research. Each race has 6 individual research trees that are eventually fully explored, covering weapons and ship technologies, social and planetary development, defense technology and more.
Diplomacy also plays a part in Sins, as even your most hated opponent can become your friends relatively quickly. CPU players will often issue human players various missions, the completion of which will raise the player’s standing with the CPU, allowing for cease fires, trading alliances, shared vision, and more. These missions can range from destroying the ships or structures of another opponent to simple extortion by demanding a donation of a certain amount of resources. What the relationships with the CPU ultimately culminate in, however, is a protection racket. If you want to remain the CPU’s friend, you better damn well do as they ask or risk falling into disfavor, thus becoming their enemy once again.
If diplomacy fails, there’s always a less scrupulous option: pirates! Every map of the game has at least one Pirate base, which is home to a massive fleet of terrible ships. Pirates are a third party, controlled by neither a player nor the CPU opponents, and they can be set upon your enemies like dogs of war, given the right price. Every ten minutes or so a pirate raid commences, and a bidding war begins, with players dropping cash on their opponents, enticing the pirate forces to raid a random asteroid or planet of the player who’s had the most cash placed on their bounty. Additionally, the more money placed on a bounty, the larger the pirate attack will be, and even if you lose the bid, the money you spend on a bounty is not refundable. While an interesting mechanic, unfortunately it comes down to each player having to babysit the bidding process every time, which detracts from the game’s flow and keeps the players from focusing on more important things that require their attention.
If the game has one major flaw, it would be the sheer amount of time it takes to play most games. There is no such thing as a “quick” match of Sins, as even the smaller maps against a single CPU opponent can take hours. Larger games involving multiple players are simply impossible to resolve in a single sitting, requiring the saving and loading of the game whenever all the same people can come together for another 10 hour stretch. Many people had serious issues with Supreme Commander due to the amount of time a match takes, and those same people should stay well away from Sins of a Solar Empire. It takes, above all else, patience.
So, basically what we have here is one of the best 4X RTS games released in years. It has a robust economy, several very interesting mechanics to keep it interesting, beautiful graphics and an aptly epic musical score. The gameplay is fun if you have the patience for drawn out conflict, and the combat truly enters the epic stage later in the game, when there are hundreds of ships engaged in battle. The lack of a single player campaign and the many hours it takes to get anything meaningful out of it hold it back a bit, but if you’re looking for a new RTS experience, look no further than Sins of a Solar Empire.