Crispy Gamer

Sins of a Solar Empire

It?s easy to root for a game like Sins of a Solar Empire. Not only does it take a different approach -- combining classic 4X strategy gameplay usually reserved for turn-based games and instead building a real-time epic around that idea -- it?s also published by one of the darlings of the PC gaming hobby: Stardock Entertainment.

Stardock is known for its customer service and its willingness to listen to its user base; it?s a throwback outfit that harkens to the days when the gaming industry wasn?t one big conglomeration of megacorporations. This has firmly placed the company as a fan favorite, and as long as it keeps cranking out quality games like the Galactic Civilizations II series, it?s going to get the benefit of the doubt with a lot of fans.

Stardock isn?t developing Sins; that has been tasked to Ironclad Games, a company with former members of the Homeworld: Cataclysm team on its roster. After playing a late build, you can easily see the influence of that game as well as Stardock?s GalCiv series in the design of Sins of a Solar Empire. There are still some rough edges, and ones that certainly need to be smoothed out, but the general design and the way in which it plays shows enormous promise.

Like other 4X games, Sins places you at the head of a particular empire. In this case you?re either leading the trade-loving Humans, the alien Vasari, or human descendant but now highly twisted Advent. Having three races doesn?t scream variety, but other factions such as space pirates litter the landscape as well, so you?re going to have to deal with more than just the playable races.

It?s your job to manage your empire, conquering other factions by wiping everyone out, gaining political control, or using economic power to stifle competition. You manage fleets, conquer and colonize planets, mine asteroids for precious minerals, tax your people -- typical tasks in a standard 4X game. The twist here is that it?s all done in real-time.

It?s important to note that this is not a typical real-time game where speed and superior reaction time are the keys to winning the day. The gameplay is deliberate, and you won?t need to click around the galaxy at a breakneck pace in order to play it. In many ways it feels like a turn-based/real-time hybrid simply because things happen at a pace that is easily manageable.

The interface also makes running your empire a breeze. Using a feature dubbed the Empire Tree you can manage your entire empire without leaving the main game screen. Similar to the unit-managing scheme in the recent real-time game ParaWorld, the Empire Tree eschews the notion of the mini-map. In a game like this, a small map is pointless because the game world is absolutely enormous. The Empire Tree places units right at your fingertips by showing each planet system and the units that are in it on the side of the screen. You can easily see who is where and if they?re currently being attacked. A quick double-click on a planet and you?re whisked away to the action where you can micro-manage all you want.

You can let the artificial intelligence handle the fighting if you have other areas that need your attention. It?s a slick concept and is the backbone to the entire game, because without an easy ship managing system the process would break down into a click-heavy nightmare. In Sins, you really get the feeling of being the puppet master, pulling the strings on a very large-scale war rather than grouping individual units into formation and lassoing them into battle. Although you can do that if you like, once your empire starts to grow, most of your time will be spent looking at the big picture.

In addition to the Empire Tree, the game?s use of ?gravity wells? makes things a bit more manageable. Battles aren?t fought in the deep blackness of space but rather inside of a planet?s area of influence -- its gravity well. Ships travel from planet to planet quickly via jump points and can?t interact while in transit. This is why simply using the Empire Tree to click on a planet will take you directly to the action. All of the fighting happens inside of a planet?s immediate area.

You?ll find other basic epic strategy game components in the design, such as a large technology tree for each race, which you need to fund via research points. It?s all pretty basic and self-explanatory stuff; nothing in the tech tree is hard to understand. There are various tech branches, from military techs that allow you to bring out bigger and better toys, to civilian advances, which help your empire grow from within, assisting your people and the economy.

Your economy is built by controlling planets, which generate taxes. Asteroids are also potential sources of mineral income (the game uses three resources: cash, metal and crystal). The nice thing about these asteroids is that the minerals never exhaust, so once you set up a mining plant on them, they?re good to go unless destroyed by another race or those annoying raiding pirate parties.

With those resources you can start to personalize each planet under your command. You only have a limited number of things you can do on each planet, though, so you need to make a choice -- do you build a huge Capital Ship or a lot of small, cheap frigates? Do you invest in planetary defense or work on making your people happy with civilian upgrades? Do you turn one planet into the ?research? planet and another into your base of military operations? The limited options for each planet make every decision matter.

Diplomacy and trade are also crucial elements, despite the game?s short list of races. Signing treaties and pacts with other players is vital. You can use political relations to slap a bounty on another race, which other players can try to fulfill -- but so will the aforementioned pirates. In one test game example, a massive fleet of pirate ships attacked my home planet to cash in on a bounty; 12 light frigates later the pirates finally retreated back into space, leaving the planet?s defenses in complete shambles.

The battles in Sins of a Solar Empire are beautiful to gaze upon and with the game?s deliberate pace, it?s possible to sit back and watch some of the fireworks of important battles without running the risk of missing out on something that is happening elsewhere. Battles can get absolutely huge with literally a hundred or more ships onscreen at one time. You can zoom in close to the ships, which look fantastic, or take a distant view to get a bird?s-eye perspective of the entire battlefield.

Just like the overall game, the pace of the battles isn?t too fast, so there?s very little need to click like crazy to get the most out of your units. Most ships don?t turn on a dime and take a little time to accelerate, so you always have time to plan and actually think during a fight. The game truly is an RTS for turn-based gamers. You never feel rushed or pressured.

Multiplayer is a big part of the design. An epic-sized turn-based game is hard to manage in a multiplayer environment, but Sins uses its real-time design to great effect in its multiplayer approach. Some of the large-scale games can take several days to complete. Thankfully there?s a multiplayer save feature that alleviates the fear of having to play each session to completion and actually allows for a large-scale game to develop over time. There?s just something about playing a game over multiple days, thinking about strategies during offline time and then coming back and trying a new tactic. We?ll put the multiplayer portion through its paces in our full review. Still, the idea of a large-scale multiplayer game, in a world that is this big is intriguing to say the least.

Finally, there?s the game?s modding capability. Stardock claims that Sins of a Solar Empire?s modding will do for strategy games what Neverwinter Nights did for role-playing games. That?s a pretty wild boast to say the least, but it we?re able to play a complete Star Wars mod, for example, it could take the game to another level. We?ll just have to wait and see.

There are some hiccups with the latest build, though. The game crashed like clockwork when running through the tutorials and suffered some frustrating slowdowns at various points during play. The AI, which at times behaves brilliantly, setting traps and knowing when to attack and when to flee, is also prone to silly mistakes from time to time, and at other times seems to go haywire altogether, running suicide missions into hopeless situations. It just tends to do weird things, such as flail to defend productive planets. Still, it?s hard to say if this is an AI gaffe or just a mistake by that particular AI player? It?s hard to determine, because on the whole the game is by no means a pushover, even on the lower-end difficulty settings.

By far the biggest question mark is the stability of the latest build. The build used for this preview was the Beta 5 Preview version, which was significantly less stable than the latest public Beta (Beta 4). It was so bad that even getting a new game to load past the splash screen was a feat in and of itself. When a game did load, it often was so sluggish, it was unplayable. Installing the latest NVIDIA drivers was to no avail. In all, about one out of every three games worked as it should with no pattern to why some would falter. It?s odd that the earlier builds worked almost flawlessly, so why Beta 5 would behave like this is a mystery.

Despite its performance issues, when it works, the preview build of Sins of a Solar Empire is loads of fun. The question remains: Will RTS fans want to adapt to a different style of game with a more grand-scale approach and deliberate pace, and will turn-based 4X fans give a real-time game a chance? We?ll find out when it ships in February.

This preview was based on a Beta 5 Preview copy of the game provided by the publisher. The game is scheduled for release on Feb. 4, 2008.