Archive for April, 2008

Sins of a Solar Empire

April 29, 2008

Sins of a Solar Empire is an attempt to meld the RTS and 4X genres; to provide the empire-level strategic management of a turn based game in real time. And it works. You control your planets, build fleets of spaceships, and send them out to expand your empire all whilst the universe is ticking away.

The demo consists of a handful of dull-yet-informative tutorials, and a choice of three skirmish arenas in which to conquer or be conquered by AI. Each skirmish map is small, containing 12-20 planets linked by warp lanes and 2-4 players, all the same race, around a single star. When you jump into an easy skirmish for the first time the initial impression you’ll get is “where’s the game?” Fleet combat is fairly simple and the ships control themselves so well that in most scenarios you can happily leave them to it, so the game’s not there. Planet development is also simple, with only a few options most of which are no-brainers – yes, I do want to mine metal, no, this isn’t where the game is. The scenario is so small that there’s not much possibility for strategic maneuvering, you’ll colonize the planet next to you and probably stop there, until you’ve researched the necessary technology for inhabiting harsher environments. The tech tree has a lot of branches (with the highest-end equipment locked in the demo), and finally here is some of the meat of the game, with different play styles expressed by separate civilian and military research pages. When you start to crank out research you’ll quickly run out of resources, and here is a little more game for you, but keeping your economy running and growing is again very simple and nearly automatic, with bad decisions hard to make. You’ll then amuse yourself with trying out the various ship types from fighters up to capitals, have some back-and-forth skirmishes with the AI, and hit the time limit. The Sins demo has a 90 minute limit for every skirmish game, and you’ll hit it a lot. On the plus side, it solves the old 4X problem of drawn-out, un-challenging endgames, which is present in Sins to some extent. On the minus side, whilst it throws you loads of statistics, it doesn’t actually give you the satisfaction of telling you who was likely to win if, say, you have a technology and metal advantage but they have more planets and credits. And on the minus side, this is an RTS, and reversals of fortune are a lot more likely than in a turn-based game – a time limit is less appropriate here. And on the minus side again, it means you’ll have real trouble achieving a fully teched-up and cannoned-up empire. In short, it’s a big negative.

However, once you jump back in with a bigger scenario, more enemies, and, critically, the game speed options set to fast, you’ll find a bit more to do and a bit more to like in Sins. With the speed higher managing everything takes a little more attention. However, it never gets to the point where organizational skill is a big factor, because the interface design is excellent (including the Supreme Commander style strategic zoom), the automation is almost all perfect (and, of course, the AI uses the same automation, so even the flaws balance out if you choose not to micromanage at all), and because even in the largest scenario you won’t have more than half a dozen planets and as many fleets. This leads to an interestingly chilled-out game of universal domination, a nice change of pace from more frantic RTS games or focused 4Xes. With more enemies the diplomacy options open up; you have a reputation with each AI which you can improve by fulfilling “missions.” These either come down to bribing them or attacking their opponents, neither of which are really recommended since in the limited time of the demo it’s quite hard to satisfy their irrational demands enough times to get to an alliance, and you’re more likely to find that bribe money spent on a capital ship and pointed at your home world with guns blazing. Unfortunately, you can’t make demands of the AI in the same way, so it seems a bit lopsided. Similar to the bribery missions, you can enter a mutual trade agreement with an AI, and enjoy the spectacle of their warfleet attacking while their trade fleet is unloading goods in your port on the other side of the planet. Three- and four-way fights also lead to more interesting combat scenarios, although they’re a lot more likely to end in a stalemate at the 90 minute mark even at maximum speed. The planet and warp lane arrangement lends itself to some funny faster-than-light peekaboo, as your fleet can jump into a vulnerable system at the same time as an enemy looking to claim it – the situation looks bad so you turn tail and jump back, but your last ships out see that the enemy had also seen a costly battle and fled, so you jump back to claim the now-undefended prize to see a familiar enemy fleet coming out of warp…

Along with the combat, diplomacy and economics in Sins there are pirates to contend with. The interesting thing is the bounty system; hits can be placed on enemy players, with pirates or other AIs claiming the money that’s put up by doing damage to the empire under threat. The “most wanted empire” will be the recipient of a full-on pirate raid every 15 minutes or so, but, pirates being untrustworthy allies, this can backfire; whilst badly losing a game I’ve had a pirate raid show up above my home world at the same time as fleets from the enemies that paid for it, resulting in the enemies and the pirates battling it out. Still, the pirates are a nice way to let economic and defensive players keep up with the militarists, as are the broadcast towers – a means of spreading your culture and causing rebellion on enemy worlds without having to fight.

Ultimately, this demo is crippled by the 90 minute game limit, and it really comes down to how much this will aggravate you. The relaxed pace of play meant that it didn’t disturb me enough to prevent me enjoying finding all the different mechanisms of this unusual game, but it also ruins the long term appeal. Still, even with that caveat, 5-10 games of 60-90 minutes is a lot of entertainment for a demo, and it deserves a recommendation.

2/3 – Play the demo

Tech details:

Size: 536 MB

System Requirements: 1.8 GHz CPU, 512 MB RAM with Windows XP, 1 GB RAM with Windows Vista, 128 MB video card (GF 6600/Radeon 9600 or better)