Sins of a Solar Empire (PC) review
"Itís not uncommon for a game to end with hundreds of ships on screen at once, engaged in constant combat while each player struggles for dominance. Frankly, the hours youíve invested in this game only help to heighten the emotions brought about from this final conflictís outcome. The disappointment can be overwhelming; that you could come this far and fail at the last second doesnít seem possible. On the other hand, the sense of satisfaction gained from a narrow victory is one of the most gratifying Iíve yet to experience in a game. Either way, itís an epic fight."
I donít know enough about the 4X (space empire-building) genre to understand how it differs from your standard real-time strategy title (aside from the obvious, being turn-based), or how Sins of a Solar Empire supposedly combines the two play styles near seamlessly into one big, accessible package. What I do understand is that whatever Ironclad did, boy, did they do it well.
As much as I like a good RTS, I often find the genre overbearing, especially online. Every match starts out simple: Youíve got a small establishment, a few units, and all the tools you need to expand and become more powerful. But as a match treads on and circumstances become increasingly more complicated, itís easy to lose sight of whatís going on. Multiple conflicts are constantly arising, and youíre flying all over the map, trying to keep each individual crisis under control. Itís an overload. Sins seems geared towards people like me, as itís unlike any other RTS Iíve ever played. Itís set on a much greater scale and at a far more leisurely pace Ė the pressure of multitasking is lifted because thereís no rush. Victory is decided not by whichever player can click the fastest, but by which player has better planning and resources, and can build the most powerful fleet in the shortest amount of time.
Itís also easy for anyone to get into, thanks in part to the relatively low system requirements. Like any good strategy game, Sins Ė with its enormous tech tree and wealth of unit types Ė will feel overwhelming at first but quickly becomes second nature after a short amount of time spent with the game in action. This is because Sins follows the basic patterns that will feel familiar to any fan of the strategy genre: Build structures, gather resources, expand your territory, develop upgrades, create an attack force, and annihilate your foes. Once youíve grown accustomed to the controls and interface, youíll realize that, in some form or another, youíve probably played Sins beforeÖ it just wasnít this big.
You start with a single planet, a frigate factory, and a couple of construction ships to get you started. Youíll begin light: Send a scout frigate out to explore the network of planets, extract metals and crystals from nearby asteroids, develop your planetís infrastructure and defenses, and get a small fleet operational in case of a surprise attack. As your funds increase, youíll be able to set up civilizations on neighboring planets and expand your empire through the use of trade ports, orbital refineries, and broadcast stations. Youíll be able to locate your enemyís territories, and those of any allies you may have. You save up money and resources to research some sweet enhancements for your ships and structures. And then you strike.
The brilliance of Sins is that, despite everything thatís going on, the game does all it can to help you keep track of your empire. Iím not talking about the frequent status updates or little voiceovers telling you that, hey, a structure is now complete! (Though thatís certainly helpful.) Ironcladís big contribution to the RTS genre is the Empire Tree, a grid of icons on the left side of the screen that displays all of your planets and the contents within. Once youíve understood how to read the grid, your entire empire can literally be studied and controlled with this handy tool. The issue of multitasking is solved, as you can easily purchase upgrades and order new ships while youíre half a light-year away, engaged in an intense firefight with a fleet you just know you have the strength to take out.
That Sins lacks any sort of solo campaign is really the game's one major fault. The opening intro hints at some sort of plot (as does the gameís official website), but itís only there out of necessity and doesnít contribute anything to the gameplay itself. The single-player mode consists only of custom matches against AI opponents, the challenge of which grows thin when you realize how easy it is to outsmart them. Most AI-controlled fleets will retreat when you target key units (such as capital ships, rare-but-powerful frigates that can level up and gain special abilities), which makes most solo matches fairly predictable.
A few rounds in the single-player mode are good practice for Ironclad Online, where Sins truly belongs. Even the smallest matches will usually last at least three hours, while some of the larger games can suck up an immeasurable amount time and energy, with over a hundred planets and up to ten players getting caught up in a frenzy of trade alliances, peace agreements and war declarations that can be difficult to keep straight. A true investment in Sins is a huge commitment that will take a serious toll on your sleep schedule.
And yet I canít stop. Sins gives the player a wealth of options and approaches that award the patient and punish the reckless. You could go ambitious, sending out colony frigates to create settlements on every uncharted world you come across. Then your empire will be bigÖ but it will also be thin, and should any rival players launch a powerful attack, theyíll have no trouble plowing through to your capital planet. Or you could focus your attention on developing and fortifying only a select few key planets, and keeping your forces put for the time being in case one of your foes thinks theyíve got it in them to bring you down. They might be in for a big surprise when they exit a phase jump and find that youíve been spending more time and money on defenses than theyíd anticipated.
The first few hours of a Sins match usually contain very little action, mainly because the good players realize itís not smart to jump the gun on combat. Then there comes a moment when the empires erupt, when everything each player has been building towards thus far is put to the test. Itís not uncommon for a game to end with hundreds of ships flooding the screen at once, engaged in constant combat while each player struggles for dominance. Frankly, the hours youíve invested in this game only help to heighten the emotions brought about from this final conflictís outcome. The disappointment can be overwhelming; that you could come this far and fail at the last second doesnít seem possible. On the other hand, the sense of satisfaction gained from a narrow victory is one of the most gratifying Iíve yet to experience in a game. Either way, itís an epic fight.
Sins of a Solar Empire is big and bad enough to root out the people who ďdonít belong,Ē but familiar and accessible enough that any player who loves a good RTS can jump in, and have a lot of fun doing so. The wait for StarCraft II just got a little easierÖ and even once Blizzardís highly anticipated sequel does roll around, donít be surprised if itís got a little competition on its hands.
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