Sins of a Solar Empire Review
Ironclad Games' space strategy game Sins of a Solar Empire was released well over a year ago now, but it's only recently that I got a chance to give this well-received game a shot. I had heard that it did a fantastic job of combining the scale of a turn-based game, which most space strategy titles are, with the pace of real-time base building, economy, and combat. They were right - at least, once I fiddled with the game's many checkboxes and sliders.
Playing on a LAN together in cooperative mode, we quickly learned that Sins tasks you with exploring new planets, finding the best way to your enemy, and taking strategic points as planets that orbit a star system are linked in arbitrary ways. Your ships can "jump" across these lines from one planet to another, and on the bigger maps, go to the star you're orbiting and jump to another star full of planets. But I'm getting ahead of myself, because before you do that you'll have to fight.
In Sins, you'll control fleets of ships ranging from tiny fighters up through frigates, larger cruisers, and to the powerful capital ships that are the cornerstone of any good offensive. On the enemy's side, he may have his own fleet of similar ships in orbit as well, and depending on whether you're attacking or defending, may also have to deal with an array of planetary defenses as well. These defenses include hangar bays full of fighters waiting to swarm around attackers, stationary gauss defense cannons, planet-enveloping shields, and if you've also bought the $10 Entrenchment mini-expansion, mine fields and even massive starbases with powerful weaponry and configurable slots to either beef up its firepower, thicken its hull, assist in ship-building, or increase trade output.
Like with most strategy games, in Sins you've got a few elements to your economy you'll have to keep an eye on. Credits are your money, and metal and crystal are extracted from mines that surround your colonizable planets or other neutral spots on the map that cannot be colonized. Most of the civilization research, planetary upgrades, defense structures, and ships you build all require a combination of cash, metal, and crystal. But unlike with many strategy games, you don't need a degree in micromanagement in order to have a decent economy flowing. That's because if you're making too much of one thing and too little of another, you can always perform a few single clicks to trade for what you need on the black market. It does help to keep some semblance of balance since selling a resource only gets you half the price of buying it from the black market, but overall there's not some tricky balancing act required to get a working economy going in Sins.
It might seem a bit rudimentary at first, but you'll be thankful for having a simplistic economy system once you get into a larger map and find yourself staring at hundreds of ships, a dozen-plus planets to still upgrade, and multiple research trees which you'll be required to juggle simultaneously. The game tries to boil down info on your fleet into a scrolling iconic representation of everything you own near the left side of the screen, but it's sorted by planet and you'll quickly find that it's useful for some things and a complete exercise in futility in other ways. For example, locating your main fleet of ships is easy - unless they're on the move and happen to be jumping in between planets, as not all ships move at the same speed so your stragglers will show up under one planet's set of icons and the quicker-moving ones will be at the next. In addition, once you get a lot of things moving around between planets and systems, clicking to select anything on this scrolling list is maddening, as it's constantly bouncing around up and down as ships move into and out of orbits. And don't even try to scroll the thing with your mousewheel unless every ship in the damned galaxy is sitting perfectly still.
It's unfortunate that Sins is only partially able to make sense of its own scale, because the player has to make up for it by hotkeying their fleets, memorizing the icons that each ship is depicted by, deciphering what those little hash marks around a planet's icon actually mean, and keeping track of who owns what even as the intel from your scouting ships is often old info and highly inaccurate. The game burdens the player with a weight that many casual gamers will be simply unwilling to carry, but for those of us who don't immediately balk at the idea of a rousing five-hour game of little spaceships pew-pewing at each other, Sins is blissfully entertaining. Some of the maps take a while to really get going, though, and even if turn up the speed before you get a game going, you'll often still get a rather slow start where you don't even meet up with an enemy for a good half-hour or more.
Sometimes the drudgery of building up planet populations and researching stuff like improved metal mining can get dull, but I find that it's all worth it when your enemy brashly jumps to a planet you've just beefed up the defenses on. The beam weapons of your fully operational starbase immediately kick in, melting his precious level 7 Kol Battleship before he can even get the thing turned around to jump back out. Meanwhile, he's routed siege frigates around behind your planet to start bombardment so he can eventually wipe out the population and take it over for himself, but your overwhelming number of fighters have already scrambled to make short work of them. Your minefield softens up his support carriers and frigates while the starbase's secondary weapons pound them down to the bottom half of their hull strength, and the capital ships you ordered to bolster your own front line just showed up - you use them to destroy whatever's not running at this point. Then the enemy breaks, sends everything to retreat back the way he came, and that's when you use the capital ships to follow him down the phase lane and finish off what's left in the gravity well of the next planet over.
What makes all of this even more compelling is the host of multiplayer options that can get up to ten players in a game, all with a high unit cap and dozens of planets all feeding players the credits required for impressively large fleets of ships. Between multiple AI players and two of us playing on a LAN, we did see a bit of slowdown, but it wasn't too bad - overall Sins has relatively low system requirements for a modern real-time strategy game, and while it does not take even the slightest advantage of a dual- or quad-core CPU, on most of today's computers it performs very well. But it was the impressive network performance of the game that impressed me, and the no-compromises style of war on a large scale kept us coming back.
Sins of a Solar Empire includes three races: the stereotypical human-like TEC, the religious sect called the Advent, and the game's alien race, the Vasari Empire. Each race has a very similar array of ships and structures, but each has specific strengths on certain planet types and fairly unique research trees as well. Many of the research abilities are shared between the three races, but each one can get specific upgrades earlier in the tree or may have to wait longer for other ones, and the prerequisites and such can change. The cost of your ships, defenses, and planetary upgrades also vary, and each race has an entirely different look, sound, and feel once you head into combat. The Advent and Vasari use more high-tech weaponry that often costs a bit more to make, while the TEC build cheaper equipment that uses ballistic weapons. Overall, there's not quite the level of differentiation that I expected, considering all races each have an analogue for every single ship or piece of defense, but there are a few subtle differences here and there. The Entrenchment expansion's configurable starbases also do a better job of making each of the races a little more unique.
While Sins of a Solar Empire probably isn't a big deal to those who have already played the hell out of a large-scale, turn-based space strategy game, those of us who never got too far into those games will find the RTS action of Sins to offer something with a little more action and excitement. The graphics aren't exactly stellar, the game can often start off a little slow, and some of the interface is awkward, but Sins still offers many hours of fantastic space battles and surprises among the dozens of maps and solid online and LAN play. If you're sick of waiting for the next big strategy game and still haven't managed to try out Sins yet, do give it a shot. It's a very reasonable $20 from several online retailers, and then you can buy a download-only edition of Entrenchment from the Impulse Driven store for another $10.