When you marry the talents of Ironclad and Stardock together, you expect something to be produced that leaves your jaw on the floor. I remember when I first looked at Stardock's Galciv II: The Dread Lords, one of the finest forays into 4X style games on the face of the planet, a game that had such stellar after sales support and content that it was worth every hour sunk into playing the game.
So imagine that I was very interested to see the birth of a new star to an interesting genre, no longer turn based, but 4x the tactical Real Time Strategy 4X game: Sins of a Solar Empire landed on my desk and was quickly installed, patched and given hours and hours of play, in fact it was given over two weeks of play at least with two long LAN sessions, one of them lasting over five hours.
I'll open this whole review with my biggest concern for some of you, if you're looking for a story type game, this isn't it. Sins of a Solar Empire, in a way, commits a cardinal sin of design, lack of single player story but manages to avoid being crucified because the mix of strategy, gameplay and features are truly excellent. This game proves that you can make an engaging title without having to spend thousands on writing an engaging story, a gripping script and having cgi cut-scenes in a game.
Of course that doesn't mean that developers should stop doing the whole thing, because unless you're me or someone like me, you're going to be somewhat ticked after parting with your hard earned cash to find you've got a game that's built purely for multiplayer online and LAN play offline. Sins supports team based gaming perfectly and is sure to provide hours of tactical strategy for the determined player. It can take a serious while to get into, once you're there though, the learning curve isn't all that steep and there's a couple of tricks you can employ to give yourself a decent head start before the trouble comes knocking at your door.
4X gameplay means that you have to obey the four rules of that genre.
Sins has a number of excellent set maps, a random map creation tool built into the game and tools freely downloadable from the net where you can make your own maps in a matter of minutes. The Sins modding community is thriving and the game should appeal to those people who desire to make content for such titles, since virtually every aspect can be altered and there are already some awesome mods for it.
Setting up a game couldn't be simpler; you can alter numerous parameters in terms of the time it takes you to research, gain funds and so on. Make up your teams, selecting from TEC, Vasari or Advent, the three factions battling for control of the galaxy. I won't bore you with the who or the what of these three races, but suffice it to say they are all very different in terms of visual style, research and play style. I have a fondness for the TEC at the moment, and no, not just because they have the giant planet bombardment gun: the Novalith Cannon, but because the TEC remind me of the Earth forces from Babylon 5.
You should make sure you play the tutorials, they'll give you a grasp of how the game works, they're not long and they're pretty fun.
At the start you have one planet under your control and you'll need to get exploring, the game's GUI allows planetary management, fleet management and ship management options to flow smoothly. You can have a fleet of at least 80 ships selected and you can manage their abilities, build new support squadrons for carriers, upgrade the ships as they gain experience (for capships) all in the one task bar, no need to switch and find the individual ship as you're watching the intense battle.
Planetary, fleet, system information also appears in the GUI on the right. You can search, very quickly, and find the colony ship, battleship, and so on, you're looking for. It's this kind of breezy forward thinking design that gets top marks from me. It's one of the reasons that the game gets such a high score, because it makes managing a large collection of worlds pretty simple. You can pin and unpin items as you like, and collapse certain elements of the left hand window to provide a clearer picture if you have several well protected colonies in the latter part of the game, that are just glorified mining systems and under no threat.
Exploration is simple, getting a decent economy can be tricky at first, but once you're up and running you should prepare to defend against enemy (and Pirate) attacks as there are only a limited number of tactical (defences) and logistic (installations) slots on each world, only a limited amount of upgrades and to survive you have to expand, it's impossible to turtle in the early game, and by late game you're always pushing towards the enemy home system with everything you have in an effort to grind them into the dust of a hundred worlds.
There's an expansive research/tech tree that covers numerous facets, such as civilian, military and experimental technologies, some subjects need more than one lot of research to fully max out and you're going to be pouring in lots of resources (metal, cash and crystal) throughout the game. You'll be building vast armadas of frigates, cruisers, capital ships and carriers that disgorge fighter and bomber support if you're going to take the systems from your enemies.
If you're playing with AI, the various AI will offer you missions (including your allies) and unless you've disabled pirates, you'll have to contend with the Criminal Underworld's Bounty system, where the person with the largest bounty on their head will be the subject of a massive pirate invasion as well as having to stave off their enemies' assaults. If you fail these missions for your allies, this can lead to your alliance being broken eventually. If you succeed, you'll earn favour and other rewards as shown by the diplomacy system screen.
There's also a black market where you can sell resources to get more money, and buy a resource you might require. So if you have too much metal, you can sell it to get the money you need to get the vital crystal and so on.
Sins of a Solar Empire is definitely a good looking game and brings to mind the early Homeworld titles in terms of design/look. The graphics of the ships are excellent and the three factions all differ visually as well in the design of their ships. The game features superb lighting effects and textures, with excellent rendering on the solar systems themselves. The game's camera is fully 3d and can be manipulated flawlessly, never leaving you far from the action.
There was one area that I felt needed a little bit of work, the weapons, shield effects and the explosions, battle effects all seemed to be toned down. I was expecting a lot more from those areas, but it's a minor niggle that has actually been solved by a recent mod which I will link to at the end of the review, because it's worth a mention. This just goes to illustrate my earlier point about the Sins modding community and the level of modding that the game supports.
The audio in Sins of a Solar Empire is of an excellent quality, with the special effects and explosions having good solid sounds and various spot effects when the camera is close. Sins lacks a lot of vocals, the voice work is great, but the chatter between pilots and so on seems to be missing and a lot of those vocals are repeated as per most RTS'. I really miss those chatty pilots from Homeworld.
One of the golden stars of the game is the music, the music to Sins is simply stunning, with each race having their own distinct thematic soundtrack, once again, the TEC feels very Babylon 5 and their score is a sweeping dramatic orchestral one with numerous stirring pieces and even some quieter sad moments. A point to note is that all the music is nicely presented in the game's sound folder, so you can listen to it outside of the game. This is the kind of soundtrack that I'd purchase if one were available; it's got a big budget feel to it and excels in every area regarding that score.
I have to admit that I didn't know what I'd think when I opened up this and put it on the PC, 4x + RTS without turn based, would it ever work? Well, I can tell you right now, it does and it works really well. Well enough to replace Galciv II as my favourite space based strategy game for now, this is how the 4X RTS genre needs to proceed, with other companies or even Ironclad and Stardock building upon this game type and shaping it into something truly stunning, not to say that it isn't stunning to begin with because I'm pretty impressed with it, but it just needs a little bit more before it starts to really shine.
And just because I promised earlier I'd link to this mod, I really think it deserves a mention as one of the best Sins mods out there so far, it's a visual mod that sharpens up the battle graphics, has some great shield effects and really does add to the game. You can find Bailknight's work here at: Sins of a Solar Empire 1.3 graphics mod
And that about wraps things up for me here, I'm off to go play Sins of a Solar Empire some more. There's a pesky Advent presence that needs to be wiped out before I can proceed further into the nearby system, and to think, they used to be my allies!