Summary: Sins of a Solar Empire could possibly be the most unique RTS you've ever played. Or the battles last so long you'll grow a beard before you finish a game you started before puberty. One of these Jakub finds true, the other he ignores. Read on to find out.
Despite brief flings with Age of Empires II, StarCraft, WarCraft III, and Homeworld: Cataclysm, all of which usually ended about a week after I went online and found myself discreetly asking the pharmacist about “burning sensations down there”, I continue to subject myself to the RTS genre. It’s like I’m one of those girls who always finds the boyfriend who’s quick to anger and has mastered the bitchslap. And I’m sorry (not really) if you find that politically incorrect but before you hastily write an email to my editor (ie, me) complaining, I suggest you spend the energy fighting my political incorrectness on fighting the women who find such behavior attractive and the men who treat them as such.
Right, now, this was a game review. Sins of a Solar Empire is an RTS game, true, but it’s almost closer related to the divine Europa Universalis series than it is to anything else. You never worry about having the right amount of economy drones mining resource nodes 1, 2, and 3, because that’s actually done for you. Rather, the concern is merely trying to acquire more resource nodes, while at the same time fighting off pirates, neutrals, your enemy, trying to balance technology and production and diplomacy… yeah.
In a move that is sure to induce the ADHD-afflicted who refuse to take their Ritalin into slitting their wrists (remember: down the river, not across the road), the combat is surprisingly simple. While you can manage the cooldowns and probably do so better than the computer, the fact of the matter is that during most battles your time is better spent managing your empire than worrying about whether or not your battleship has stolen aggro from the right amount of ships.
Now oddly enough, for a game in which the average match seems to last around 3 hours, time is the resource of most importance. Not the player’s time, as in most RTS titles, but how he manages the time of his fleets. Guessing the enemy’s intentions incorrectly or launching an attack on a system at an inopportune time is a recipe for disaster. He may jump in just as your fleet has engaged the neutrals, or perhaps attack a system of yours while you’re busy elsewhere. Splitting the fleet is a prudent choice to cover several choke points, but a split fleet is vulnerable, and fleets are almost useless without a capital ship at their heart – and supporting more capital ships requires more research.
Thus, you need more planets – but there’s a caveat. Not only must you beat a planet’s defenders, but if you simply haphazardly colonize every planet you see then you’ll quickly begin to run out of money, because planets need to be developed to the point where they no longer lose money. Moreover, front line planets often find themselves to be the targets of raids by siege frigates and their ilk, which will make short work of any planet not properly defended and fortified. Thus, not only must your new planet be developed to the point where it’s not losing you money, you must also spend a fortune fortifying it, or keep a fleet stationed around it – and thus this fleet isn’t harassing the enemy or capturing new planets for you.
That’s not to say that fleets should be simply sent out just to keep them busy, since they are extremely valuable and between the physical cost of the ships (especially capital ships), lengthy build times, and the time to move it into place, taking a risk with a fleet shouldn’t be haphazard. Scouting is of vital importance, particularly in multiplayer matches. What may seem like a chase of a weaker enemy fleet into another system can quickly turn into a rout, if he’s planned an ambush there. It is the need to balance these risks – “Can I destroy that Battleship before his help starts turning the tide”, with the rewards the offer, like a planet that may be surrounded by lucrative crystal asteroids – that is the real test of skill in a game. The more players involved, the greater the stakes.
Matches may be long but they’re worth it, there’s something to do in almost every moment. Whether you’re desperately trying to sell metal to buy rare crystal on the black market (at a hideous cost), paying off pirates, deciding on research, or focusing on upgrading your planets, the need for the player’s attention never stops and the tasks are never repetitive.
Sins of a Solar Empire is as unconventional as an RTS title can get, with battles that are epic marathons, plenty of opportunity for treachery, a deep yet simple economic model and a satisfying research tree. The developers took big risks in many areas of design, and while not all of them may have paid off, Sins is undeniably unique and just plain good.
We can only hope that the game is successful enough to warrant a sequel, that sequel will have a fully fleshed out singleplayer experience. At the moment, however, it’s not a major concern. As satisfying as a campaign may be at times, in the RTS genre my experience is often more along the lines of “right, when can we get this silly cliché gameplay nonsense out of the way so I can find out what happens in the story”, than “well that’s great, a mission on a timer! I was waiting all day to finally play it”.
Clearly, whatever healing Sins has managed to give me, I still have my issues with the RTS genre.
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