Sins of a Solar Empire

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Developer: Ironclad Games

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PC Review - 'Sins of a Solar Empire'

by Tim McCullough on March 28, 2008 @ 3:12 a.m. PDT

Sins of a Solar Empire is a real-time space strategy title. Unfolding the fate of three unique factions, Sins of a Solar Empire is the first chapter in an epic science fiction saga. With formidable fleets of starships, players will explore and conquer nearby planets and distant solar systems by applying brute force, cunning strategy, elegant diplomacy, economic mastery, and researched technology.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Stardock
Developer: Ironclad Games
Release Date: February 4, 2008

Sins of a Solar Empire is a sci-fi adventure from the publishers of the wildly popular Galactic Civilizations series. Promoted as a RT4X (Real-Time, eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) game, Sins of a Solar Empire successfully combines elements from both turn-based 4X and real-time strategy genres.

After having spent over a thousand years in relative peace and prosperity, the Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC) are suddenly faced with the arrival of the aggressive Vasari Empire. Although initially caught offguard by the Vasari, the TEC was able to quickly mobilize its considerable resources to keep the Vasari at bay. However, the TEC face an even greater problem: An ancient race, which was exiled from the planets by the TEC's ancestors, has run out of resources and is now planning to seek revenge on the TEC by using devastating weapons to take back its home world. In-game tutorials help to bring new players up to speed. The Sins of a Solar Empire game package includes an 80-page game manual and a fold-out keyboard reference card. (Sins of a Solar Empire is released without copy protection, which means you can play the game without having to have the DVD in the drive!)

Sins of a Solar Empire doesn't include a campaign mode, so it'll be entirely up to players to resolve the fate of the three civilizations beyond what is told in the initial storyline. Instead, the single-player game is based on scenarios, over 20 of which are included in the initial game and span a variety of difficulty levels. The high degree of available customization allows for a variety of new scenarios, and the built-in map editor provides even more customization.

The economy in Sins of a Solar Empire is based on three resources: credits, metal and crystals. Credits are generated through trade routes and the taxation of citizens on your colonized planets, and both metal and crystal are usually obtained by mining asteroids that are found in orbit around your colonies. Sins of a Solar Empire features a black market to assist with balancing uneven resource collections and expenditures; I found it to be indispensable for a variety of reasons, including the ability to buy and sell resources for credits. Unsurprisingly, the market price fluctuates significantly based on supply and demand. Another way to gain credits is to build trade ports — thereby establishing trade routes — at each of your colonies.

Although you can certainly stick to the fourth "X" in the 4X paradigm (eXterminate) when it comes to expanding your empire, Sins of a Solar Empire offers you an alternative. By researching propaganda techs and setting up broadcast centers, you can spread your culture to adjacent planets and conquer them without firing a single shot. The research trees are different for each of the three civilizations, although all researched items cost credits and time. Research is divided into military and civic trees, with some research items shared between all three civilizations. Additionally, to reach the higher branches of the research trees, you are required to have a certain number of research facilities; individual research facilities are required for each of the two tech trees.

Ships in Sins of a Solar Empire can be classified into three distinct levels. Frigates, which will be the bulk of your fleets, include vessels designed for both exploring space and engaging the enemy. Cruiser classes are slightly larger ships with specialized functions that make them more suitable for support roles. The last class is the Capital class, which are the largest and most powerful ships in your arsenal. Capital ships have the unique ability to be upgraded and customized with power-up specializations, which increase the capabilities based on their upgrade level. It's easy to amass a considerable armada of ships as you play Sins of a Solar Empire.

To assist with the management of a large number of ships, you have the ability to create "fleets," which are usually comprised of a good mixture of the three ship classes. All fleets also have the ability to warp to other systems together, which provides improved strength to the entire fleet. Travel between planets and other solar systems is only possible through specified space lanes. Having space lanes facilitates the creation of choke points, which help greatly in creating a defensive strategy for your colonies.

Map sizes in Sins of a Solar Empire can vary greatly. The game engine is capable of managing map sizes of well over 100 planets in six or more solar systems. As is the case with a lot of 4X games, playing a single map from start to finish can take hours or even days. Although you can make some adjustments to reduce game lengths, you should expect to set aside a good portion of a day to play through some of the smaller game maps. As expected, you always have the option to save your game at any point.

When expanding your empire, you must be capable of not only capturing a new planet, but also colonizing it. There are a total of six different planet types, some of which have such extreme surface conditions that they require certain techs to be researched prior to attempting to colonize them. One option that is offered after you've colonized a new planet is to search it for resource bonuses and artifacts. You'll usually have to perform a search at least two times (with increasing cost) to complete a thorough search of a planet. If you find any of the nine available artifacts, you will be presented with a unique bonus for your civilization. After successfully winning (or losing) a game, you have the opportunity to review numerous statistics for each of the involved players. I found this to especially useful for formulating new strategies to try against the AI players.

As if there weren't enough to have to worry about fighting against other opponents, Sins of a Solar Empire includes rogue pirates who go on a rampage every few minutes. Although the constant presence of pirates could initially be considered a major nuisance, you will usually have the advantage because their ships do not have shields. Better yet, if you have extra credits handy, you can use the pirates to your advantage by placing a non-refundable bounty on other players, which usually has the effect of diverting the pirates from you and toward your competition. It is important to keep an eye on this pseudo-auction because your opponents can also place — or increase — the bounty on your head. It's possible to establish diplomatic relationships with other gamers while playing, although in the single-player mode, you are usually required to complete certain good-faith missions on their behalf, before the AI players consider striking a deal with you.

Visually, you won't find anything in Sins of a Solar Empire that you haven't already seen before. This is not to say the graphics are disappointing because all of the visual elements are attractive and well presented. The user interface is surprisingly intuitive, and just about all game screens can be accessed within two clicks of the mouse (or even quicker if you use keyboard shortcuts). Since the game is played in real time, you also get to enjoy watching 3-D animated combat, although the space engagements seem a bit tactically impaired and drawn out. The mouse-controlled camera system, complete with lens flares, is exceptional, and camera movement is possible in all directions. Quick and smooth zooms, which range from individual planet orbits to entire galaxy views, make expansion and management of colonies much less tedious. The numerous sound effects are pleasing and not too distracting. In my opinion, the hammy in-game voice acting, which provides voice reports, is a bit over-the-top.

Sins of a Solar Empire also includes a nice achievement system that offers over 60 different awards for completion of certain in-game milestones. Achievements range from winning games as a particular race to collecting or selling large quantities of resources on the black market.

Sins of a Solar Empire offers both local network games and Internet-based games through Ironclad's online service. Up to 10 players can compete against each other in multiplayer mode, and because game lengths can be quite long, there is even a save option in multiplayer. With the latest game update, if a live player drops out of an online game, an AI player will step in and continue the missing player's game. Additional features, such as a game recorder and screen-capture option, add even more shine to this well-polished game.

Stardock and Ironclad frequently release updates for Sins of a Solar Empire, and the latest update at the time of this review, version 1.03, offers new game customization options, game speed control, computer player surrendering, improved AI, and the black market is now even more volatile. The developers state that their frequent update program for Sins of a Solar Empire is their version of "copy protection."

In a game genre that is normally filled with complex and difficult-to-learn games, Sins of a Solar Empire manages to find some good, solid middle ground. The title successfully delivers a real-time space strategy that offers 4X and RTS fans an experience that is both detailed and easy to learn. Veteran 4Xers may find the reduced complexity to be a shortcoming, but I found that the title offers a perfect level of complexity while still maintaining the delicate balance between strategy and action. Except for some cheesy voice acting, I found very little I didn't like about Sins of a Solar Empire. Without reservation, I would highly recommend adding Sins of a Solar Empire to your gaming library; it is an exceptional sci-fi, real-time strategy experience.

Score: 9.2/10


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