Thursday, March 05, 2009

Sins of a Solar Empire: Entrenchment Review

Sins of a Solar Empire: Entrenchment, developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: New defensive structures and counters add depth, improved AI
The Not So Good: $10 limits the variety and scope, additions don’t dramatically enhance the game, “quick start” option is too limited, zero documentation of new features
What say you? There’s almost enough content for the low price, so don’t get all defensive: 5/8

Did you like Sins of a Solar Empire? Me too! Didn’t you wish there were more options available for the defensive-minded? Me too! Enter Entrenchment, the very appropriately titled first micro-expansion for Sins of a Solar Empire: what luck! This first go-around features large defensive structures and additional upgrades to expand the original game, as expansions tend to do. On with the countdown!

The press material for Entrenchment mentions improved visuals, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what they are. Of course, when you are starting out with a quality presentation anyway, a few tweaks and changes here and there are subtle. It looks like the textures are more detailed, the weapon effects are slight more impressive, and the backgrounds have been improved. Playing most of the game from a zoomed-out perspective makes actually seeing these features less likely, but it’s nice to get some sort of upgrades in this area. The graphical improvements seem to be appropriate for an additional year’s worth of work, and it shows that the graphics engine is quite flexible and expandable for the future.

Welcome to Entrenchment, where none of the new features are explained! That's right: no additions to the manual or tutorial are made, so you must learn the fresh-faced features on a trial and (mostly) error basis. Clearly the most significant extra that Entrenchment brings to the table is the star base. These are basically large, expandable turrets that are built by colony ships in any sector (so you can construct one in enemy or neutral territory). Star bases are slightly less expensive than a capital ship, so they require a significant enough investment that really isn’t plausible until the middle or end of the game. While mainly used for defensive purposes, they can be improved using upgrades in nine areas: weapons, shields, fighters, trade, culture, population, self-healing, and enemy ship inhibitors. In this sense, star bases can be customized into a specific role, possibly supporting a population and trade for additional income. Research has been accentuated with additional options to support these new star base upgrades. Ships in Sins of a Solar Empire have always been a bit limited in customization, so this is as close as you get to the level of specialization seen in 4X games like Galactic Civilizations. You are limited to eight total upgrades to prevent spamming, and the upgrades themselves are about half the cost of a star base, so losing an extensively upgraded base is a significant loss because of the financial investment. Since the star bases only cost slightly less than a capital ship, so one could argue why you wouldn’t just opt for that and a couple of ships that can move between planets. Of course, the upgrades go a long way towards pushing the argument in favor of investing in a fancy new star base instead of rusty old ships. Star bases are just about as powerful as a capital ship and can be countered in the same ways: a determined attack can bring one down, so really star bases are more of a deterrent than a permanent solution. The customization options elevate the star bases from “OK” to “good,” and they fit into the game well.

Entrenchment also comes with a handful of minor improvements. Coupled with the star bases is the ability to lay mine fields (mines in 3-D space?). Just like the bases, mines are more of a deterrent, but when placed properly (you can guess where enemy ships will warp in from) they can surprise an enemy fleet. Each of the game’s races has been given a shiny new assault cruiser to deal with those pesky enemy star bases; cruisers were traditionally used in a support role rather than for front-line combat, but this new ship class expands their usefulness. The AI has been improved for a more competitive game (the computer players on the higher difficulty settings are quite good) and the game has become easier to mod. There is also a new “quick start” option that gives each player two scout ships, both ship factories, and all mines right out of the gate. This feature only saves you about three minutes of gameplay, and it is too limited in my opinion: it would have been much more useful to give each player three fully developed planets and a starting fleet to cut out a more significant amount of boring early-game tedium and repetition. And that’s it: one new (but significant enough) structure, a new unit, mines, and minor patch-like features. I had more content in mind, such as additional buildings and more options for ship defensive weaponry. Maybe next time.

While the star bases are a neat addition to the world of Sins of a Solar Empire, you can’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the limited scope of this expansion. The bases are great for defending systems that can be harassed by incoming enemy units, but they are the only significant add-on made in this admittedly cheaply priced expansion. The short length of this review (well, for me) speaks volumes about the skimpy number of improvements present in Entrenchment. The question remains: how much should you expect for $10? This is a sticky price point, as Entrenchment certainly does not compete with $20 expansions in terms of features (even ones done by the very same publisher), and several games are now offering similar improvements for free. I have absolutely no problem supporting a quality developer and publisher for a small investment, but I was expecting a least a little more significance in Entrenchment: the bases are nice and all, but they don’t radically improve or even change the basic gameplay. While none of the improvements are terrible (although the “quick start” game setting could be been more dramatic), it’s just not at the level I was expecting. This isn’t a must-have expansion, but fans of Sins of a Solar Empire will appreciate the new bases and other small tweaks.