I’ve been drooling over Sins of a Solar Empire for a bit over a year now, so when Ironclad Games offered me a chance to run their latest beta through the paces, I jumped at the chance. This epic space RTS is looking to hit that sweet spot of strategy games for me: grand, sweeping empire building, crunchy technology trees, and exciting-but-never-frantic gameplay. While Sins of a Solar Empire is not a turn-based game, it manages to hold much of the feel of that beloved genre while delivering the constant pressure of real-time play.
When I write that Sins of a Solar Empire is an epic game, I’m not exaggerating. From the moment I first fired it up, I felt almost overwhelmed by the scope of this title. Sure, I’d expect this from a 4X turn-based offering, but this is the first time I really felt that “I’m taking over the galaxy” feeling in a real-time setting. Unfortunately, that epic scope comes at the cost of a fairly steep learning curve. I led many fledgling empires to a brutally short galactic existence while I was learning to grasp the finer points of the game. After a while and with a little effort, however, I was finally got the hang of things, and I can now honestly say I last until much later in a game before leading my empires to their brutal (but impressive) demise.
My shortcomings aside, I’ll move forward with a quick description of the gameplay itself. Most of the action in Sins of a Solar Empire takes place within the gravity wells of various planets, asteroid clusters, and other galactic debris. Connecting these locations are hyperspace lanes, connecters that string the galaxy together. It’s in these wells that empires set up their colonies, gather their resources, and build their infrastructure. Each colony has a limited amount of space for military and civilian structures, so setting up a proper empire requires the careful coordination of several colonies spread across many planets. Most of the buildings occupy orbital positions around the planets, ripe for attack from the enemy if not properly defended. Since many planets have several space lanes connected to their gravity wells, attacks can come from almost any direction with little or no warning, so careful placement of defensive installations and units is a must.
A robust technology tree sets up a solid backbone for advancement and galactic superiority. Research is a straightforward affair: military and civilian orbital laboratories open up access to various advances, which must then be purchased. While the earlier technologies require only one or two laboratories to acquire, many of the more powerful techs require a dozen or more labs. Given the limits of building space, this means that laboratories must be spread throughout the empire and not simply tucked away on a few remote (and easily defended) planets. In addition to maintaining infrastructure, players must also balance cultural influences, planetary loyalty, and trade, each of which can be vital to the fledgling faction. The technologies themselves were the usual bag of tricks: improvements for various units, access to more powerful unit types, bonuses to resource acquisition or planet quality, and some show-stopping super-techs. The balances of these tech advancements are still being worked out, but at this point in development things seem fairly well tweaked.
While I only got to play around with a limited selection of units, I was happy with what I saw. There’s a nice balance of short- and long-range attackers, with a decent assortment of durability and power. In addition to regular resources, empires have two additional limits to the size of their armies. Each regular unit uses a set amount of supply points, setting a hard cap to the size of the empire’s fleets. Gaining more colonies increases this number, making it necessary to conquer and hold more planets to feed the military engine. While a swarm of regular units can be formidable, Sins of a Solar Empire also uses capitol vessels, massive ships capable of taking and dishing out huge amounts of damage (and often fielding their own squadrons of fighters or bombers). The presence of these capitol vessels naturally leads to the formation of fleets of ships, several regular units supported and led by the powerful capitol ship. Crews for these capitol ships are hard to train and support, so each empire can only initially field a single capitol vessel. Part of the technology tree consists of nothing but increasing the number of capitol crews available for deployment. And even when the crews are ready, these massive and valuable ships are extremely expensive to build. Once I started fielding a few fleets, fighting to bring these juggernauts to the fight while at the same time protecting my investments, I really felt I was in the middle of some huge space opera. Very few RTS games have given such a strong impression as this.
As this is still the beta stage, I won’t say all that much about the graphics, balance, and technical issues at this time. Everything looks really good for this stage of production, and those glitches and issues that do arise have plenty of time to be iron out. The interface is also pretty solid right now, and while it takes a bit of time to get used to, it does seem to do a good job at controlling and coordinating the huge amount of information necessary to deal with a game of this scope.
At this time, things look great for Sins of a Solar Empire. During the development process, Ironclad Games is doing the right thing and enlisting (and listening to) their dedicated fans. Improvements and tweaks are continuously coming down the pipe, and each new update brings more polish to the title. I have a feeling this is going to be the Really Big strategy title of 2008, and I anxiously await the final version of this galactic empire gem.
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