Sins of a Solar Empire (or just Sins as it is known around town) is the latest RTS game from Stardock and Ironclad.
Stardock is perhaps a name that you don’t know well, mainly due no doubt to their penchant of making software that mods windows XP or Vista. Such fare as ObjectDock and the like. The sort of thing we have all installed once, but removed once it dragged Windows to its very knees. They also pioneered the online product delivery method back when Steam was just a gleam in a fat mans eye. To order a Stardock game it is required that you download and install their horrendous client first. This then unlocks the game itself and downloads the content.
Yes, Stardock are strange alright.
I was lucky enough to come across their previous games thanks to Penny Arcade,when they introduced me to Galactic Civilisations II. In the office, Gal Civ was a God of games. It had more depth than the Mariana trench and yet managed to remain accessible. Hour after hour was sucked into this game and even on a limited and simple map one could easily start to need vitamin D supplements. I spent so much time telling my staff to get back to work that I almost felt that I should do some too.
But I don’t know how to dance the dance of the Australian aboriginals, so I wont beat around the bush; Gal Civ II was deep, involving and brilliant but it was also slow. Glacially slow. So glacially slow that Polar Bears could take up residence and global warming start taking effect before anything actually happened.
Sins is Gal Civ like you imagined it could be. It is also every Star Wars space battle, every Cylon Base Star attack and every White Star Fleet engagement rolled into one. IronClad have taken the best from many lesser RTS games and built them into an amazingly coherent core around which they… well around which they forgot to hang a story.
To explain: Sins has an animated intro when loading. However, you can safely ignore this in its entirety as there is no single player story. At all. There is only skirmish mode.
Probably the best skirmish mode ever devised.
Sins borrows shamelessly from lesser games. The 3 classes are very similar to CNC3, the maps are straight out of Gal Civ II, the mahoosive tech research tree is an idea taken from Civilization and the battles are similar in play to Age Of Empires 2.
That is one hell of a pedigree!
Chuck all these games in a blender and pour the results into space and you have 80% of Sins. The last 20% is the graphics engine from heaven. Many times in my RTS gaming history I have wanted to zoom-out for some tactical clarity. Similarly I have also wanted to zoom-in to get a real feel for the battles. Sins has an amazing engine that allows you to smoothly zoom out until the very star systems are little blobs and then in a second smoothly zoom in until you can literally read the numbers on the side of a carrier. This effect is not just a gimmick, it is built into the very fabric of the game’s control method. Using the mouse wheel you zoom out and then while holding down the right mouse button you rotate the view in 3D. Once happy you then use the wheel to zoom back in. Once this is understood you can be in the middle of a hundred-strong battle and hear an alarm from another system, instantly zoom all the way out and, by moving the mouse over the required planet, zoom straight back in. You get so used to doing this that, frankly, going back to the old way of doing things is going to be a serious step down.
That is the rub with this game. Every single time you come across an RTS stable, such as ship production, Ironclad have got there before you and somehow worked out exactly what the genre needs to improve from before, such as auto-fleet assignment. At every single turn IronClad have improved the template they “borrowed” to such an extent that it is difficult to remember how it used to be before.
So what is the basic premise? You are the leader of a civilization that starts off in a small uncharted backwater in the unfashionable end of the western arm of a star system and you must build your people up until you are either dominant or at peace with other races. There are in total three races and up to 8 players spread out amongst the stars. You must build, fight and coerce your way to victory through strength of arms. The planets are all connected by at least one space lane and travel is only via these using Faster-Than-Light drives. Remove or ally with all the other civilizations and you win. The three races in the game are the TEC (Trade Emergency Coalition), the Advent, and the Vasari.
The history of the races is quite interesting. The TEC are a group of trade worlds that descends from earlier human exploration and are playing catch up in the space wars they find themselves embroiled in. Attacking them are their rejected cast off’s the Advent. Back from the remnants of space the Advent were originally a desert religious sect that mastered psychic powers. They are 1000 or more years ahead of the TEC. They have returned to exact vengeance and unite the human race with the “Unity”. The Advent tend to favour cheap lightly armoured units but make up for this with energy weapons (lasers and plasma), psi-weapons (weapons that are mentally charged with a user’s mental powers) and shields. The final race are the Vasari. The Vasari are the only alien race in the game, they tend to have fewer but more expensive units that have extremely hardened hulls. Their ships tend to use Phase Missile technology, which has the possibility of completely bypassing the shields of enemy ships.
So far so very template. In fact change the names to GDI, NOD and Scrin and I wouldn’t blink.
What Sins offers is at once very deep in the level of personality you can bring to your strategy, but eventually very shallow in that all non violent options are tactical in nature. In other words, Sins always comes down to battles in space; to violence. It is not possible to win the game through peace like in CIV. However, while this is not too much of an issue it does explain the contrast between the game’s extreme combat depth and the light diplomacy options.
Here is a basic scenario I played (and lost) in my first go at the game:
Here is my new TEC home planet.
You can see the contextual menus at the bottom, which change based on what I have selected, and the standard research/resource menus at the top. Hovering over these gives readouts on the performance of all aspects of my civilisation. What is new here is the fold out menu to the side which gives a graphical run down of the planets and fleets I have at my disposal. This menu is excellent in messy situations. In battle it is what I spend my time looking at as it shows the enemy in rank order; thus giving me my next target.
Here is the same view totally zoomed out:
My corner of this map is very small; time to expand! I tell my builder ship to claim the local resources. In Sins, resources are split into three. Cash gained from taxes, metal
Each planet may have a number of asteroids in its gravity-well from which you can harvest a stockpile. You are going to need it. I have completed the entire research tree a few times and it takes hours. Cash on the other hand is earned from taxing your people. More people means more taxes. Cash can also be earned by selling excess resources to the pirates (or other players in multiplayer). Thus, what resources are around which planet becomes an aspect of your unfolding strategy. Do you go for that ice planet, rich in crystals, or is it stretching your fleet too far? Leaving yourself and your planets open and undefended is quick death in this game and expansion cannot be unchecked.
In order to defend this lush bounty I need ships. There are four types of ships: non-combat (freighters etc), light frigates, Medium frigates and the special Capital Ships (which can have short range fighters/bombers called strike craft). Each race gets a completely different set of ships, not only in look but also in weaponry and firepower. The TEC are basically standard BSG humans and their ships use only human based weapons such as gauss guns, ion cannons, lasers and auto cannons.
The TEC frigate builder.
My first ship!
A Cobalt light frigate.
This is the lightest of the TEC combat based ships (leaving aside colony ships and scouts) and like all RTS games is great at the beginning and end of the game. The beginning because they are cheap and no-one has researched anything else yet, but also good in the end game because (as always) there is an upgrade which makes them relevant that is buried somewhere in the tech tree.
I send the little fella’ off to scout the next planet and build myself a military research station.
These items are the basic requirements of researching certain technologies and come in military and civilian flavours. Each planet can take only a limited amount of space-born equipment before running out of “slots” for them. This means that to research the higher end items, you will need to expand to other planets and place down more stations. There is a massive amount of space born items that you can place, such as civic research centres, fighter hangers, planet defence guns, FTL “phase” jump inhibitors, planet shields and even massive super weapons.
Everything must be researched.
A few hours later…
I have managed to move my forces and empire up to the next few star systems. Mainly due to this bad boy:
“Mr Gaeta, bring her around.”
The Kol is one of the TEC capital ships and vital to successfully winning the game. Capital ships have shields far in advanced of normal ships, weapons of all types and can be individually upgraded based on their experience or culturally upgraded based on what you research. There are about 30 different upgrades you can research and 10 levels of specific upgrades. The Kol is a direct fire ship. It is brilliant at simply diving in full steam and laying the smack down. Anyone who knows me will appreciate that this is very much the way I like to do things. Capital ships carve up frigates and smaller craft like Sunday joints. They hammer colony ships to bits and their powers can include all sorts of special bonuses from reduced damage (due to multi-phasing shields), to dropping nukes on their opponents. The non TEC ships are similarly spectacular and can drop special bonus powers such as the ability to reflect damage or cause 250 damage to all ships in range. Capitals also come in different flavours. All races have carriers of some description (although some are better than others), support ships and combat vessels. The TEC have a missile boat, while the Advent push out the Mothership which is a direct homage to Homeworld.
It is not long before I have pissed off the other races to the point where they have allied together and attack me in force.
The flash point comes when the enemy attack one of my planets…
…while my fleet is away taking on pirates!
Prepare to jump:
Ah pirates! In this game pirates attack the player with the most bounty on their head. you can drop credits onto another name and save yourself the bother of fighting them off, or you can take them on and use them to upgrade your capital ships. Either way just be careful that you don’t get wiped out or dragged into a bidding war with another player!
The pirate homeworld is well guarded and they quickly pounce on my clumsy attack.
While the battle may look confusing a simple roll of the mouse zooms out and the ships turn into icons, which are simple to read. I often find myself placing orders and then zooming back into the action. The fleets meet and I am clearly outclassed so I order the retreat!
So much for ridding the world of the pirates! I quickly learn that pirates can be your best friend. With them in play they can act as a buffer, a predictable enemy or even a mercenary fleet to unleash on your opponents.
While I have been away the AI has been watching. They don’t like the look of my fleet so they have quickly settled their species differences and ganged up on me. I meet them few jumps from my homeworld in a deserted asteroid belt and the the battle is fierce indeed!
Here they come!
My fleet do their best and take down the enemies top carrier:
But it is a losing contest and as the enemies bombers and fighter strike craft swarm around my capital ships I know I am doomed:
My fleet is gone and the enemy quickly jump to my homeworld to wipe me out once and for all:
I have played in total now, 30 hours of Sins. I know this because after every game you get an exhaustive report. This stats-based ending is always gratifying if you have done well and mind blowing when/if you see how far off the mark you actually were. Yes, the AI in Sins is of a high standard. Not a single time that I left a homeworld undefended did it stand.
You quickly learn that this is a game of many battles. Often there is a final keystone battle, but mostly the play is one of a war of attrition. You are trying to reduce your opponents ability to wage war rather than win through a decisive final conflict.
So that’s the game play in a nutshell. Every race is significantly different to be unique and the AI is stunningly good at the higher levels. All in the all the experience is very well balanced and refined by a team who obviously love RTS games far more than the rest of us.
I have since gone to play some multiplayer online and in the office and my teams three man structure played well to the games setup. Jim prefers the tricky Advent, with their sneaky play and cleaver psychic powers. He loves taking over the ships and craft of the others.
Notice the hands in the graphics as the Advent take over this missile boat.
Kieran, on the other hand, loves the alien nature of the Vasari. They place emphasis on large ships that don’t die easily. Power is the role for him. Myself, I love the TEC. Why? because my idea of a good night in is to check in with Adama and Number Six. I often find myself imagining Starbuck in the little craft or Boomer in the bombers. That is the power of the engine here that it can achieve that level of detail.
So what’s wrong with it?
Well, the diplomacy is very light and you cant give missions out to others like the constantly do to you. Also, there is no campaign just skirmish mode. That’s about it. Everything else is exemplary.
There is nothing wrong here that isn’t wrong with a million other RTS games.
An RTS of significant depth is all about the massive level of possible moves. It is like Chess or Go in that your objective is to find the best way to victory for you. It is about carving out the correct strategy to marry with your fleet’s tactics. The questions the game asks you are:
- What is the right amount of bombers, ships and capitals to obtain victory?
- Which tech’s to research first and which to leave to later?
- How do you advance your civilization safely?
That’s all good.
But eventually you will get it. You will crack what it takes to win and refine that idea down to a formula. Once that is achieved the game will lose its shine. This is the same for all RTS’s; they only keep you glued while you are learning.
Long may that be.
Sins is a masterful RTS from a stable of masterful RTS makers and specialists. That perfect formula is a long finish line away and there are three races to master. And even then, once that race is well a truly won, you will still get surprised. I was a master of AOEII, or so I thought. I won something like 50 games in a row and then played Kieran and lost again and again.
There is nothing as refreshing as getting your ass kicked by someone else in a ways that you didn’t even consider. Sins is the next and best of a genre that steps us inventively towards the game found in Iain M Banks’ “Player of Games” novel and as such is a welcome addition to a bloated genre. It throws up some surprises and features a wonderful 3D engine that polishes up the serious depth. Thus it is a brilliant game.
Oh, you can mod the game easily, I cant wait for some of these mods to come out:
Sins scores 8.5/10 (losing only half a mark for the diplomacy-lite options)