Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Ironclad Games
Release Date: February 2008
God bless Stardock. Despite the general trend toward pleasing the mass market (not that we can really blame most companies, as this is obviously a rather consumer-driven market), they keep on with genres that are a bit rare these days, and they tend to manage it with an almost annoying level of competence. The Galactic Civilizations series is home to some of the few remaining 4X games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate — think GalCiv, Civilization, and the like), but right now, Stardock is doing something a little bit different. Admittedly, this time they're largely relegated to the role of publisher, but God bless Stardock anyway.
God bless them for picking up Sins of a Solar Empire, too, because if this preview code is anything to go by, we're in for a real treat.
Sins of a Solar Empire is a space-based RTS, in the vein of classics like Homeworld, albeit with a twist. This space RTS culls elements from the 4X types mentioned earlier (there was a reason for that digression), making SoaSE an RTS with some elements not normally seen outside of turn-based games. Gamers with long histories will probably remember things like Pax Imperia and Imperium Galactica, which attempted the same thing with moderate degrees of success, and the comparison isn't bad, but not quite perfect. This is more RTS than 4X.
Space, as "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" taught us and GalCiv 2 reminded us, is big. Really, really big. Accordingly, SoaSE is bleedin' massive. Each individual game revolves around areas within a solar system — planets, asteroids, the sun itself, etc. — linked together by what are essentially jump nodes. Each "area" links to a number of others, and they link to others, creating a set of areas linked up in interesting ways. The intervening space is empty, and travel within said emptiness is sped up massively by phase jumping to a linked area. Most of the things located (i.e., asteroids, planets) can be colonized, allowing construction in those new areas. This is at least reasonably similar to most RTS games, just twisted slightly, but as I said before, this is big. My first game, on a "small" map, was comprised of around 15 different linked areas, and took maybe an hour and a half. Reportedly, games with multiple players over a huge galaxy (made up of multiple solar systems, all most likely bigger than the one I was playing on) can take weeks. Thank God for a decent multiplayer save feature. In any case, while the Civilization/Master of Orion/GalCiv comparisons now make sense, this is far from the only 4X feature thrown in.
Most of the familiar 4X game conventions are in SoaSE, in fact. Research trees are there, taking a little time and costing a lot of money, as well as requiring a prerequisite number of "labs" to be built for each tree, whether military or civilian. The trees are spread out enough and costly enough that this takes time and effort, and turtling in an attempt to build up your research will usually mean you're not getting enough resources to move up the trees as quickly as you'd like.
Civilian structures and colony management are important, too, in a rarity for RTS games. Spend money on improving a planet's infrastructure, and the tax rate will rise. The opposite is also true, however: Colonize a new asteroid and don't spend any money on improving conditions there, and the colony will be so inefficient that it will actually lose you money. Sure, it's another area to build things, and you can now mine the tempting crystal deposits in the area, but you're going to lose money off it.
With all of this said, the RTS side is no slouch, either. In terms of similarities, it feels closest to Total Annihilation — not in terms of unit number, fortunately, but just the general feel of really big machines facing off against each other, with gigantic explosions. Unfortunately, at this stage, one of my primary complaints with Total Annihilation is also somewhat apparent: a bit of a disconnection from the action, and a general lack of humanity in the units. This really doesn't affect it that much, though, and anyone who enjoyed either that or Homeworld is likely to find SoaSE diverting.
Because of the size of games, diplomacy plays more of an important role than usual. Alliances vary from full assistance pacts (alliances) to merely allowing the player in question to see what you can see, and with longer games, clever diplomacy can win the day. Other 4X staples also make the transition across; bounties can be anonymously placed on other players, replacing the "Attack X and I'll give you Y" common to the 4X genre, and random pirate raids are also common — and can be used as a weapon, as they, too, will hunt the bounties, allowing you to send them against a troublesome rival.
The real surprise, though, is exactly how streamlined SoaSE is. It's clearly been designed by people who were less focused on micromanagement and more on grand strategies. There are so many good ideas found in here that you can't help but wonder why no one else has done these things before, or at least made them quite so simple. Take, for example, the unit interface. All of the usual RTS options are present and correct — number grouping, drag-select, etc. — but there's also a panel on the left of the screen showing every area you've explored. Further drop-down menus in this panel illustrate what ships are there (both friendly and hostile), and everything can be freely and intelligently selected or zoomed to from here. This takes the place of the traditional mini-map, and the added functionality is extremely welcome, although it does take a little getting used to before it becomes anywhere near as intuitively helpful as mini-maps are.
One of the most promising features in the preview build is just that: promised. Intelligent fleet management systems should be included in the next version. Select a group and order it to attack a unit, and your fleet will autonomously decide whether to follow or ignore the orders. If a group of enemy frigates warps in while your fleet is in the middle of combat, and you order your main group to hit them, only those units that will actually have a reasonable effect will attack. Naturally, how well this works remains to be seen, but this — along with things like setting attack ranges, allowing groups to jump only when all ships are in position, etc. — should all vastly reduce the need for hotkeys and micromanagement. On the off chance that it doesn't work as planned, or you'd simply rather not use it, all of these can be easily overridden.
And then, there are all the usual attributes that we've come to expect from things with Stardock's name attached. Sins of a Solar Empire will be fully moddable, and the developers actually listen to players, meaning that some other small tweaks and ideas are promised, such as the ability to name capital ships. Best of all, the beta is currently open. If you want to play the game in this early stage — and there are still some rough edges, but far, far less than expected — then pre-ordering the game now will grant immediate access to the latest public build. Sounds like a fair offer to me.
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