Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion|
ďAhem. Hi, my name is Matthew Houghton and Iím a Sinner. Itís been 24 hours since I last conquered the known galaxy. . . .Ē
You know the theory from there. I talk about my addiction, get some words of support and then we break for some coffee. Fortunately for me Iím a very bad Sinner so I donít find myself inevitably drawn back into my destructive ways. I can return to the real world, such as it is, but once I click that start button? Well, write off the weekend. I wish I were kidding about that, but a medium sized game took approximately 10 hours to finish, and this was me against three easy opponents. I shudder to think what kind of mired war of attrition would have happened . . . actually who am I kidding, they would have steamrolled me and it probably would have only taken five.
Anyway, personal musings aside, Sins of a Solar Empire is the latest in a long line of conquest games, the great granddaddy being Sid Meierís Civilization series, and Stardock and Ironclad are no strangers to the genre. The insidious brilliance of Sins though is unlike other strategy games, this one has no turns. There is no button to advance to the next round. It just runs, and runs, and runs. There is some genius in this in terms of how the game manages to run all of the various AIs at the same time AND still render some impressive graphics on a widely sliding scale. But be careful, for like all things clever and beautiful this game is also deadly. Not just in terms of what your enemies will do to you, but that 10 hours mentioned above? All in one sitting and I never even noticed it passing. (Yes, hard core guys out there I realize this is nothing on your scale, but it was shocking that it flitted off without so much as a goodbye.)
Iím rambling all over the place at the moment, but thatís pretty much what it felt like playing the game. There are a LOT of things to keep track of (especially if you leave the pirates turned on -- hint: donít do this), itís all advancing with the clock and the action never really stops. So Iím going to try and break this down some but understand gameplay boils down to something like trying to juggle chainsaws while walking a tightrope. Youíre balanced precariously and any wrong move can bring everything to a sudden, grisly end.
First there is building. Every planet you have gets infrastructure, some is strictly determining population, taxes and loyalty of the populace, while others limit how many orbital structures, and what kinds (logistics or defensive), can be built around the planet. Logistics structures include Capital or Frigate shipyards, trading posts, research stations for military or cultural advancements and broadcast posts for spreading your culture. You can also explore the planet to see if there are any hidden resources or artifacts to be found. So, thereís one chainsaw fired and spinning into the air above our heads.
I mentioned resources, and Sins has three to concern yourself with: credits, crystal and metal. Credits come from collecting taxes from all your planets and from selling crystal or metal should you have excess of either. Crystal is both mined from asteroids and can be bought. Wizzzzzz, and there goes chainsaw number two. So youíve built some infrastructure around a planet and have some spare resources just burning their way through your space pockets and what do you spend them on? Well, youíve only got access to so many ships right now, and that ice planet over there looks like it can be colonized once youíve learned how. Yes, the inevitable tech trees, and there are a six big headings for military, cultural, defensive, fleet size, diplomacy, etc. Even more intricate, some trees are broken down further to weapons upgrades or armor upgrades or better resource gathering or different ship types. And we now have three chainsaws.
The fourth chainsaw comes from that fleet of pretty ships you want to build, because itís not a simple as just small ship with some guns to bigger ship with more armor and more guns to biggest ship with biggest guns. There are carriers and gunships and planetary bombardment ships and minelayers and support ships, and though Iím sure I havenít found it yet Iím betting thereís a partridge in a pear tree somewhere. The different types of ships are of course better at some tasks than others so there is a complex interaction of rock-paper-planetary bombardment to engage in.
Now in addition to all this, there is diplomacy to engage in, culture to spread and rebellions to suppress. Not to mention randomly discovered pirate dens and those aforementioned pirates that can be turned on. And youíre doing this all on the clock with other civilizations breathing down your throat. The tightrope. If you can manage all this, I salute you. I can usually barely keep all the research/infrastructure developments straight, let alone effectively planning or preparing for the inevitable destruction waiting patiently at the edges of the gravity well. Fortunately, Sins does a stellar job making all of that mess spread out above into a fairly digestible information stream and an easily navigable interface. You still constantly feel like youíre cresting the edge of your ability to keep pace with a computer intelligence, but once you get used to the layout you arenít going to get lost doing it.
Speaking of which, itís a big, beautiful universe waiting for you out there. Or, itís a small, medium or large universe out there, depending on the game size you choose. Regardless of the number of planets though, one of the most impressive aspects of Sins is its scale. At the farthest out view you get something like pictures from Hubble, stars centered in clouds of bright colors, and at the smallest you glide just above the hulls of your armadas, watching energy weapons flare and fade while missiles burst like fireworks, and you can go from the one to the other with a simple scroll of the mouse wheel. There are no intervening screens you just zoom in and zoom in and zoom in. Not only is there a curious beauty to be had narrowing from the Godís eye view of the universe down to the immediate savagery of combat, but it gives you a much better impression of a vibrant, connected universe. The zoom is also completely intuitive. It centers on the mouse pointer or expands out as you pull back.
That being said, I spent the most time at about planetary scale. With planets bright and soft lit like you always see images of Earth from space and most other structures little more than symbols. Even so, Sins still beats most other games in the genre because you can watch your fighters wheel around for another pass at attacking frigates or the inexorable approach of your defending space station. Sins feels more alive than most strategy games because it has removed the constraint of turns, and given you the scale of the universe to play in.
So Sins is pretty, and incredibly large and incredibly small and it makes you feel like youíre always teetering on the edge of disaster or triumph. Once you get past the exhilaration though it is in its bones the same as any strategy game, and Iíve always had one complaint with these titles, diplomacy, or more accurately a lack thereof. Almost every game Iíve played with a diplomatic component boils down to showering gifts on your potential enemies until they like you. Yes, there are always pacts or treaties or what have you, but in order to get AI opponents to go along with any of them you basically have to bribe them into being your friends. Sins is unfortunately no different here, and what bothered me the most about this was the theme in this incarnation of Sins is rebellion, or the interaction between factions within the races as much as between the races, and a lack of diplomatic depth breaks an otherwise excellent immersion. Or maybe Iíve just never learned the trick of it.
Now, there are a whole host of topics I havenít touched on: the different factions (three races each with an offensive of defensive faction), the AIs consistent change in tactics to counter your strategy (oh, your fleet is full of carriers? weíll just use anti-fighter ships) and probably a whole host of other topics. But there is so much to talk about itís hard to choose the proper scale to settle on. So Iíll leave off by mentioning that with the vast array of choices before you in terms of strategy, technology, military and everything else Sins has struck a very fine balance with it all. There is no one tactic or build order that produces an overwhelming result, which lets you explore all of those different possibilities mentioned above rather than just settling into a single strategy and repeating it ad nausea.
And that ultimately is what makes Sins such a great game. It prepares you a staggeringly large number of different options and then builds the game to encourage you to try them all, not only that, but makes it so they are almost all viable options for victory. Finally, someone figured out how to have their cake and eat it too.