Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion Review

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Additional victory conditions, new units, rebel factions with unique research, improved game balance, enhanced AI
The Not So Good: Not worth it for previous owners, still no campaign
What say you? The fantastic real-time 4X series continues with a standalone expansion that doesn’t offer enough for veterans of the series:
I own previous Sins games: 4/8
I’ve never played Sins before: 7/8

In 2008, a monumental game was released that combined real-time strategy and 4X conventions. It was called: Dora the Explorer: Lost and Found Adventure. No, wait, it was Sins of a Solar Empire. The inevitable expansions followed the initial success, and now it’s time to keep the gravy train moving, this time with a standalone expansion. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion adds rebellion to the sins that are in the solar empire, introducing alternative factions, more ships, and additional victory conditions. Is this $40 game a wise investment for newcomers and veteran players alike?

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion purports improved shadows and lighting, but I didn’t really notice them, to be honest. The game also gets an hour of new music and some additional voice work, which is nice. I don’t think you could reasonably expect much more from an expansion, especially when you consider that Sins of a Solar Empire looked good to begin with.

As the general awesomeness of Sins of a Solar Empire has been well established, this review will focus solely on the improvements contained herein, as I think we can safely assume that most discerning strategy gamers already have some version of this game permanently installed on their hard drive. So, on to the new stuff. First, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion introduces rebel factions for each of the game’s three races. The rebels and the loyalists both have six unique research options (clearly highlighted on the technology trees, to show that they are shiny and new) that align with the backstory. I found most of the new research options to be valuable, adding supplementary strategies to each game. Also notable in Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is new victory conditions. Before, you had to align with all of the remaining sides or opt for total conquest, but Rebellion gives you more options for triumph. First, you can enable a single ship or home planet that needs to be destroyed to eliminate a side; this makes tedious clean-up a thing of the past, as you can quickly head towards the capital when you have numerical superiority instead of having to take out each and every enemy colony. There can also be a hostile, neutral planet that can be captured and held for a win, or a tech resides at the end of the civilian research tree that can grant victory once you’ve researched fifty other technologies. This makes Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion tend to move away from a pure military focus and reward other approaches to the game. The new game mechanics have produced two new tutorials, and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion requires Steam but allows for achievements and cloud-based saving as a consolation. Both the faction-specific research and additional victory conditions are fine additions to the base game.

Each of the game’s (now) six factions gets three new units: a corvette, a capital ship, and a titan. The cheap corvettes allow for “zerg rush”-type tactics, something that’s different (but not necessarily effective if prepared) for the normally slow-paced game. Each race also gets a new capital ship and the experience cap has been increased to level four, enabling more specialized operations for your largest ships. Finally, each faction gets a huge, slow-moving, outrageously expensive Titan-class ship that requires multiple research steps and lots of money to build; personally, I would rather spend the resources on mobile battleships (plus, Titans are fairly weak until they get experienced-based upgrades). The new ships are typical new features for an expansion and, while they do offer new options for players, they do not significantly alter the general strategic approach to the game. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion also offers balance changes and the AI has been taught to play the game with the additional features; I was not able to exploit a specific strategy to consistently defeat the AI, so it remains as strong as before (especially on higher difficulty settings). Of course, playing up to nine other humans online is the ultimate in competition.

Sins of a Solar Empire is generally a streamlined 4X game, so only having a few new ships and techs aligns with the theme of the series, but you could always want more. More important than more, though, would be the addition of some meaningful innovations to make the game play differently, something that Rebellion lacks and would justify a standalone price. This would have been an excellent time to add a story-driven campaign to the game, highlighting the new rebel factions and why they broke away. But, alas, the developers opted to keep skirmish-only battles, which further reduces the value of Rebellion. Those who, for some unknown reason, have not played Sins before should purchase this particular version, as it provides the most well-rounded gameplay of any in the series. But for veterans of the Sins games, it’s difficult to recommend spending $40 on what’s included.

Is Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion a good game? On its own, yes: it continues the highly-rated strategy gaming of the original. But as a $40 expansion? No, as it fails to provide enough content to justify a standalone price for owners of the previous games in the series (even with a $10 pre-order discount for owners of Trinity or the Diplomacy expansion). The most important addition, I think, is the new victory conditions: no longer do you have to ally with everyone or obliterate all comers, but you can focus on research or defeating a specific neutral planet. There are also quicker options for victory, like destroying a capital or important ship; this makes end-game clean-up a lot easier. The rebel factions introduce some unique research options that inject new strategic choices, and the new ships give additional options for composing your fleet. The AI has been updated to handle the new features, and overall game balance has been improved. Still, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion certainly doesn’t bring any significant, innovative changes to the formula (like a campaign, for instance), which is I why I feel those who have already played a game in the series can avoid this pricey expansion. I would rather see the game cost half what it is, considering the improvements offered.