Monday, February 11, 2008

Sins of a Solar Empire Review

Sins of a Solar Empire, developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Streamlined yet strategically deep gameplay, excellent user interface, smart automation, fantastic graphics both up close and far away, multiplayer with the ability to save and resume progress, easy to use galaxy generator, absolutely huge maps that can take months to finish, pirates are neat (as long as they aren’t attacking you)
The Not So Good: Slow pace with waiting for resources early in the game, all three races are basically the same, no story-driven campaign, no alternative victory conditions
What say you? The 4X strategy game gets real (time) with marvelous results: 8/8

You know, I totally forgot I did a preview of this game. I guess that explains why I had access to the beta all this time (I just thought it was because I am cool). As you know if you frequent this site (and who does?), strategy games are my most favorite genre ever! BFF! So you can imagine my childish excitement upon receiving the release version of Sins of a Solar Empire, the latest game from Stardock designed to ruin your life with awesomeness. 4X games (which stands for “eXplore,” “eXpand,” “eXploit,” and “Xylophone”) have always been turn-based, but Sins of a Solar Empire takes the traditional formula and makes the game play out in real time. Blasphemy! Of course, the biggest question is “will it work?” So, will it work?

In short, the graphics of Sins of a Solar Empire are fantastic, and some of the best ever seen in a strategy game. Better than Command and Conquer 3. Better than Supreme Commander (and Sins of a Solar Empire runs a whole lot smoother). Better than Company of Heroes. About the same as World in Conflict, but that's a big compliment. This is surprising coming from an apparently small developer and an independent publisher who is known for good but not great graphics. With everything cranked up, Sins of a Solar Empire is absolutely stunning. The planets and stars are highly detailed with animations such as flying vehicles. The three races each have a distinctive design that covers ship and building design. You can push the camera right up to ships and they will still look impressive. The weapons are great and the explosions are powerful. The backgrounds, while a little over the top with large amounts of colored nebulae, make for a great setting. This is simply one of those games that’s just nice to look at. What’s even better is the performance: it runs buttery smooth on good systems (assuming, of course, you don't have 20,000 ships on the screen at once) and the game is very playable even on crappy systems: on my 1.7 GHz, 512 MB laptop with an onboard Intel graphics card, Sins of a Solar Empire actually works (albeit on the lowest settings, but it’s still remarkable). The sound in the game is understated, which is really how it should be. The background music fits the theme of the game well, and the auditory notices and various sound effects alert you to important events. So I don’t think anyone will be disappointed by the presentation of Sins of a Solar Empire, and most will be surprised at the large range of systems the game supports.

Like most strategy games, the object of Sins of a Solar Empire is to kill everyone. You do this by establishing new colonies, forming a large military force, and then killing everyone. The first thing you might notice is that Sins of a Solar Empire lacks a story-driven campaign. While some people might complain about the lack of a campaign, I don’t really play them anyway (I gravitate towards skirmish and multiplayer games) so I certainly don’t miss it. Besides, I’d rather have no campaign than a crappy campaign. Plus, most campaigns are really just a set of linked skirmishes anyway, and the range of skirmish maps and options in Sins of a Solar Empire is plenty to keep your busy for quite a while. There are a slew of pre-made skirmish maps that range from small solar systems for one-on-one carnage to huge (and I mean huge) multi-star galaxies intended for up to ten players. The biggest included map has 100 (!) planets to colonize, but you can use the flexible map designer utility to easily create galaxies with thousands of planets. Speaking of the map designer, this in-game feature allows you to set parameters for semi-randomly generated maps. You can set the number and type of stars, number and types of planets around those stars, number of players (from two to ten), phase line parameters (which planets are connected to which other planets), map size, and neutral or empty colonies. There is a whole lot of replay value in the randomly, semi-randomly, and designed maps, so the missing campaign isn’t even noticeable. And you can always try the free-to-download Galaxy Forge utility if you want to design your maps more definitively. I would like to see the game automatically download maps for multiplayer games, especially since all the maps are under 50 kilobytes. You can also earn a “whole bunch” (technical term) of achievements during single player games, from “Pop Idol” (for spreading culture) to “Family Planning” (for having high populations).

Learning the game is helped by the tutorials, which do an OK job teaching the basic mechanics of the game with well-highlighted instructions. I did experience one hang-up during the first tutorial for some reason, though (but this seems to be fixed in the 1.02 patch). Like all other Stardock games, Sins of a Solar Empire doesn’t have any copy protection, so you don’t need to keep the stupid DVD in the stupid drive; people who register their key will be able to download free future content. Sins of a Solar Empire also has multiplayer, with matchmaking done through Ironclad Online (which has no subscription fee, obviously; damn you MMORPGs for making me point that out). What’s cool about the multiplayer is the ability to save and load the game later. This means huge maps are actually playable online, because you can get some friends together, play for a couple of hours, and then play again next week, picking up right where you left off. Also, future patches will compensate for dropped players: if some jerk can’t play next time because of some poor excuse like a social life, he can be replaced by an AI player. And if he wises up and joins back in the week after, he can take over again for the AI. Sweet. And multiplayer autosaves can be loaded as single player games, with the AI taking over the previously human-controlled forces. Mega sweet (especially since multiplayer games are really too long for pick-up-and-play matches).

4X games are partly defined by their complexity, so it’s good that Sins of a Solar Empire features a spectacular user interface. The empire tree along the left side of the screen shows all of your planets with small boxes representing buildings and military units, so you can gauge the relative strength of forces halfway across the galaxy without moving your view at all. You can also select units and planets using the empire tree and order new buildings or upgrades without even looking at that particular unit in the main screen. The tree is also collapsible and modifiable for those who don’t like the default display. When you are zoomed out, you can select all of the military units at a planet with a simple mouse click, and each planet has a straightforward display showing the strengths of friendly ships, buildings, and enemy forces. Sins of a Solar Empire certainly spoils you with its information-heavy interface that is not overwhelming or unintuitive. Sins of a Solar Empire also features a ton of tool-tips that displays everything you would ever need to know about any object in the game. As an example, you can hover over the antimatter display for a colony craft and see exactly how many seconds are left until they are able to colonize again after a cooldown: pretty cool. Tool-tips also show which ships were present at enemy and neutral planets the last time you visited them, great for determining how many ships to send without having to remember something from twenty minutes (or last week, if you saved the game) ago. Sins of a Solar Empire also has optional automation for almost everything in the game: placement of buildings, passive and active ship abilities, attacking, scouting, colonizing, forming fleets, resource gathering. This means you can focus on one part of the galaxy without the rest of your empire falling apart. I really just run everything I can automated and focus on the things I have to do manually (research, ship and building construction, general movement) and let the game worry about the rest. This is the only way that Sins of a Solar Empire would be playable in a real-time environment, and it’s executed superbly.

Planets are your bases because they produce resources: credits (from taxes) and metal and crystal (from asteroids orbiting them). If you are short in resources, you can buy them on the black market, or sell excess for cash. You can also try to undersell the market rate to make even more money. You need to colonize new planets with a colony ship, and then you can select a number of upgrades to improve tax rates, planet health, building limits, and uncover alien artifacts. This includes enemy planets: instead of invading planets, you need to kill everyone first then colonize it (I guess that a part of the Sins the Solar Empires are making). In orbit around each planet are buildings that mine resources, produce ships, earn trade income, broadcast culture (to take over neighboring planets without attacking them), and defensive structures. There are obviously a lot of decisions to make when dealing with which upgrades to do and what role each planet will have in your overall empire. Research in the game is straightforward: each lab (military or civilian) you build will unlock a number of upgrades. The research tree is much more intuitive than the one I complained about in the beta and the tree doesn’t have very many prerequisites so you aren’t tied into one research path (I could never keep up with the weapons research in Galactic Civilizations). In addition to upgrading and unlocking your ships and planetary improvements, you can increase your population cap and look at artifacts you gained from exploring. The population cap is very interesting: as you increase the number of ships your empire can support, you also incur a penalty on income. So what is your focus: quality or quantity? Interesting and important decisions like these make for a good strategy game.

You might not want to wage war with every single opponent at once, so Sins of a Solar Empire has some basic diplomatic options. You can declare war, proprose a cease fire or peace treaty, forge a trade alliance, and share vision. The AI players will also occasionally give you missions (usually giving them resources) to improve relations. Unfortunately, you can’t give them missions, so the mechanic seems a bit unbalanced; I can’t really tell if AI players give missions to other AI players or not. Probably the most debated feature in the game is pirates. Every fifteen minutes or so, pirates will attack someone, and who they attack is determined by who has the largest bounty on them. Bounty is earned in secret, so all you do is pay 250 of your credits to increase the desirability of an enemy force. This is a kind of reward for players who have good economies and the mechanic can result in some tense gameplay as players try to outbid each other as the time counts down. Pirates can seriously piss people off but I find it a very intriguing gameplay element. You can win solely by bribing pirates into attacking your enemies, which works like an economic victory. I successfully bribed pirates into attacking my competitor six times in a row, and when I arrived at his home planet, he owned a paltry three ships while I had a healthy 30-ship fleet. Ah, death by proxy. Timing your attack right after the pirates have decimated an opponent’s fleet would really piss them off (insert evil laugh).

Sins of a Solar Empire features three races, but I found them to be very similar, especially in the early game before you upgrade them with research (and even then most of the upgrades are identical). The humans, the aliens, and the sort-of-humans all have the same basic set of ships, buildings, and research trees with minor alterations throughout. The advantage of this is that it makes it easy to learn each race, but the three warring factions lose their identity (something that was strong in Galactic Civilizations). Unlike Universe at War, where the sides were distinctly different, the three races in Sins of a Solar Empire are simply too identical for my tastes. Each race has a number of frigates (scout, colony, light, missile, planet bombardment, anti-fighter), cruisers (carrier, repair, support, combat), and capital ships (combat, support, colonization, planet bombardment). The roles are the same for each race, though their specific weaponry and methods might be slightly different. Ships may (and capital ships do) have passive and/or active skills that are unlocked through experience or research; these can be automated (thank goodness; I have more important things to do) or done manually. While the roster of ships is small and ship design is not an option (I don’t see how it would work well in real-time), you can customize your ships somewhat through the upgrades you choose. There are enough things to choose from to make one game play out differently from the next, so the relatively small unit types isn’t that big of a deal (plus it makes the game easier to play).

Battles are a sight to behold in Sins of a Solar Empire, and you can actually watch them in awe instead of having to order around units or click on ability buttons thanks to the intelligent automation in the game. Ships can be organized into fleets, which will place ships in a formation relative to their roles (support and ranged ships in the back, et cetera). You can even have new ships automatically join existing fleets, and the game will automatically rearrange your forces to compensate. Sweet. It is a little odd that ships are stationary during combat (there’s no real reason for this), but the battles are still well done. The gameplay of Sins of a Solar Empire boils down to simplified but important decisions. I found this game much more approachable than Galactic Civilizations (which is really geared towards the hardcore strategy player) and it doesn’t rely on quick reflexes like those twitchy RTS games. This is in part due to a slow pace: units take their sweet old time traveling between your planets, which puts an emphasis on defenses and bribing those pirates. There are instances of waiting for resources to accumulate early in the game using normal game speed, but once you get your empire going the game would simply be unplayable at a faster speed. The ability to accelerate time during the game will be included in the 1.02 patch, so you can speed it up early and slow it down late. Games of Sins of a Solar Empire are long; don’t expect half-hour Command and Conquer kill-fests. Even the smallest maps take at least an hour or two to finish, and the huge maps can literally take months. Sins of a Solar Empire is combat-heavy, so focusing your efforts on military action is important. You can gain some planets through culture and ally with races for a victory, but most of the time you’ll have to kill everyone and the solitary victory condition is a bit disappointing. The AI is pretty good, though I found it not aggressive enough at colonizing on normal difficulty levels (they did not research unlocks to access volcanic and arctic planets) and subsequently fell behind. Hard difficulty is a different matter altogether, so the AI of Sins of a Solar Empire will provide enough of a challenge. You can also tailor the behavior style of the AI, which has a distinct effect on their overall strategy (which may have something to do with the whole not colonizing thing).

The golden rule of Out of Eight is: the longer the review, the better the game. Sins of a Solar Empire: long review (well, for me it is), outstanding game. I tend to get long-winded about things I like, and I certainly like this. Sins of a Solar Empire has an elegant design that simplifies certain aspects of the game (research, units) in order to make it more approachable without sacrificing strategic depth. What really helps to control a large empire in real time is the effective combination of the interface and automation: both of these things in concert allow you to handle the game successfully. I think if either of these things were missing, Sins of a Solar Empire would be unplayable. Supreme Commander had a lot of units too, but didn’t everyone just set up infinite queues and select all units? Plus, the huge maps of Sins of a Solar Empire puts that game to shame. The features are also robust: random and semi-random maps, multiplayer with saved games, and it’s pretty looking. Multiplayer games are very long (hours, not minutes) so there is a tendency for people to quit in the middle, but you can always finish the game offline against the AI, or save it and try it again with the same people next week. Nobody’s really going to miss the campaign and I’m not heartbroken that the three races are essentially the same. Sins of a Solar Empire is a distinct game: it’s not Supreme Commander, it’s not Galactic Civilizations, but it is entertaining. The game successfully finds the middle ground between difficult-to-learn 4X games and click-heavy RTS games. Sins of a Solar Empire gives you time to relax instead of constantly building stuff (like Command and Conquer), but you are still doing something (research, bounties, pirates, trade) most of the time, especially when your empire grows. So Sins of a Solar Empire actually pulled it off: it takes the best of real-time strategy games and 4X turn-based games and combines them with enough polish to produce an outstanding title. Go buy it already! The Space Ponies are waiting.