Sins of a Solar Empire Review
13 out of 15
Stardock kicks off the New Year with the release of an ambitious real-time twist on the standard 4X empire-building genre.
Date: Thursday, February 14, 2008
Author: Dave VanDyk

If there�s one thing I�ve learned in all my gaming years, it�s that managing a massive, sprawling, intergalactic space mega-empire is hard; trying to survive in a galaxy full of hostile races can be rather challenging. Sins takes the complexity you expect from a typical turn-based 4X strategy game, wraps it in an interface and control system that is surprisingly friendly, and applies it to a real-time formula�and it�s brilliant.

The game has all of the usual trappings of an epic turn-based space strategy game: diplomacy, technology, various ship classes, exploration, planetary management, and so on. Taking care of all of this in a real time environment is a tricky endeavor and with Sins, there�s no question the interface looks utterly daunting at first due to the deluge of menu options and interface panels provided during gameplay, but thankfully things are structured in such a way that players can devote most of their attention to important details without having to micro-manage every tiny thing about their empire. This is thanks to two major components: A centralized command system, and the number of automation features.

The average �universe� is split up between individual gravity wells centered on the various traversable stars. These wells can contain anomalies (nebula, wormholes, etc), habitable asteroids, or planets. Structures can only be built once a planet has been colonized (and even then, only within that specific gravity well), but once you start expanding, laying down the foundations of an empire is a literal snap. This is because every gravity well features its own central command pane that handles just about all building tasks for that area. Rather than having to constantly hunt for individual builder units like in other real-time games or navigate numerous interface menus, you can simply click on the colony in question, and then choose the action you want; this can be directing any idle builder to construct something, develop expansions for the colony in question, or constructing ships and assigning rally points for them. This in itself makes expansion surprisingly painless, adding significantly to the fun factor.

Meanwhile, the game also provides a wealth of automation options to let your fleets manage themselves intelligently. Combat has a heavy reliance on forming fleets of frigates, cruisers, and the all-important capital ships - which almost act as �Hero� units to and provide a set of special abilities. Once they hit battle, ships automatically move to engage appropriate targets and use their abilities as needed, but these settings can be scaled back for normal control if preferred. To further help prevent large-scale battles from turning into management nightmares, a �Create fleet� function is also provided, which opens up new tactical settings (such as the ability to force all ships to stay a set distance from their designated �leader�). Unfortunately, the fleet function seems to have one or two problems; for example, if you set a rally point for one of your colonies to the leader of a fleet, the expectation is that any produced ships will fly out and join that fleet automatically. This �usually� works unless done in a system with multiple fleets, in which case the new ships might randomly decide they want to join a different fleet instead. This can rapidly become a real annoyance when you�re trying to reinforce a specific battlegroup.

The game is set up as this epic battle between three major races; the Human-based �Trader Emergency Coalition�, the exiled cybernetic spin-off of humanity known as �The Advent�, and the alien Vasari. While the game�s documentation and intro movie go into quite some lengths fleshing out the backstories of these races (such as how the Vasari are on the run from an unknown civilization hell-bent on their destruction), the game itself goes no further. In fact, the amount of detail put into the storyline led me to jump into the game with the expectation of an epic singleplayer campaign, but I was surprised to find none existed. Rather, the game sticks with the standard 4X formula of leaving the universe set-up to the players in a �Skirmish� styled format (choosing which slots will be occupied by players or AI, selecting the map, etc.) and never really explores the plot it so carefully sets up in any further detail - it feels like the developers did an about-face half way through production and suddenly decided to go in a different direction. This is augmented by the slightly disappointing realization that all three of the races - while unquestionably distinctive from an artistic standpoint - actually have similar technologies and ship classes, with the only variances occurring in the higher-echelons of the research trees.

Despite this however, these points aren�t enough to void Sins as a superb game. The single player gameplay is unquestionably addictive and will keep you awake for many late hours (thanks to how the AI does a good job keeping you on your toes with ferocious combined assaults or diplomatic offerings), which makes launching into multiplayer even more of an exciting affair. The average multiplayer match is something that could easily last an entire day�it�s LAN party heaven.

There are many reasons to buy this game: the epic space battles, gorgeous graphics engine, the included modding tools (Star Wars, anyone?), or the promise of long, addicting gameplay that will keep you up until four o�clock in the morning. Additionally, the publisher has a sterling reputation for sticking with a product and offering numerous updates based on fan feedback. In fact, a patch was just released bringing the game up to version 1.02 that fixes some multiplayer issues. Blending deep, intricate 4X design into the world of real-time gaming was a daunting task to say the least, but Ironclad and Stardock have pulled it off and in the end have created one of the best strategy games of the past few years.

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