We're publishing a range of articles from our extensive magazine archive. This article was originally published way back in PC Gamer UK February issue 2010, but Sins of a Solar Empire is still awesome.
Videogames have made certain fantasies their own. Grand or weird escapades of the imagination inaccessible to books or film. Conquering the galaxy is one such fantasy: taking on the enormity of space itself.
Gaming doesn’t get any more grandiose than this. The genre which has traditionally handled space conquest, the 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate, probably best exemplified by the Galactic Civilization games) has normally been a turn-based affair. Indeed, how else would you handle the enormous complexity of trade, fleet-combat, diplomacy, and galactic infrastructure construction? Well, you could do it the way Sins of a Solar Empire does: in real-time.
Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting PC gaming days gone by. Today, Jim Rossignol commits Sins of a Solar Empire with a game that changed the rules.
What madness is this? Can one human brain really handle all this in real-time? The answer is yes, but only just. The consequences of Ironclad’s decision to make a live-action 4X game are far-reaching. Rather than being able to sit back in the leathery depths of your Parker-Knoll recliner deskchair and consider the options before you, you’re now managing everything as it happens. You rush from one side of your empire to another, the tasks that await you spiralling upwards in an exponential ‘to do’ list as your influence expands.
The game doesn’t do much to reduce the scope of a normal 4X game: there are often dozens of planets, three major resources, and various factions on each scenario, including pirates. This means that games of Sins require many hours to play: a near impossibility for the multiplayer side of things, where a single session can span most of the day. Nevertheless there are brave gamers who will undertake it, and the rewards are huge.
Nor is Sins of a Solar Empire a campaign game. Instead you’re offered a series of sandboxes that you must make your own. These range from a single solar system which can be crushed in a few hours, right up to grand constellations of stars which will take you an age to encompass.
Your actions are layered. At the most basic you’re gathering resources: tax from planets and trade, metal and crystal from the asteroids. Then you’re exploring the tech tree by building a research infrastructure: civilian, military, and fleet. Of course, what ultimately matters to your enjoyment is the strategic depth that the game offers. The mixture of real-time processes with a game of this scope means that standard real-time tactics don’t always work, although they’ve been somewhat better facilitated by the most recent ‘micro expansion’, Entrenchment. I speak, of course, of turtling.
The best defence
While it was possible to build defence turrets and little fight-outposts in the original game, the reality was that when an enemy assault of any significance did make a beeline for your planets, the only way to stop them was to have a well-equipped defensive force of spaceships to hand. The achievement of Entrenchment is to expand this into an entire tech tree of defensive possibilities. Even if your fleet is small or underdeveloped, a good defensive strategy can allow you to ward off considerable enemy attacks. Useful if you’re more concerned with development than with conquest at that particular stage in the game.
Conquest, however, is where Sins of a Solar Empire takes us, and there are two aspects to that which make my strategy and tactics glands swell with delight. The first is the planetary siege. Few game events have the majesty of this, and few are as horrifying when you are the victim.
The most limited resource in the universe of Sins of a Solar Empire is that of capital ship crews. The ships are themselves immense resources, and cost a huge amount of cash and material resources to create, but they also require a capital crew, which can only be earned by having colonies under your control. Capital ships cannot therefore be squandered in a test battle, and must only be put in harm’s way when you know you can win the conflict. Seeing one slowly go down—and with it your precious capital crew—is heartbreaking, and can in fact spell the end of the entire game.
Your planets are bustling with activity, and you can see little craft whizzing about across the surface. When you spot an approaching siege fleet in space—you can see the particular siege ship icons, which are a stomach-churning sight when they appear en masse—you have to either pray your planetary defences hold, or get a fleet in their way. If neither of those things is an option then you will just have to watch your planet burn. That’s not just a bummer for the billions who are getting nuked from orbit, it also shuts down your space infrastructure, so your research, resources, trade and production will all be affected. Of course, when you’re doing it to an AI who has been vexing you for hours, it’s a delight.
The other magical aspect to space conquest is the capital ships: the centrepieces of the Sins of the Solar Empire fleet. Each of these is a named ship, that can be slowly upgraded over time. Seeing a maxed-out battleship commit to a fight is a glorious thing: “Shields up! Launch the fighters! Deploy the ion cannon!” Yeah, that’s the stuff. Best of all, they come in various flavours, meaning that you can opt for a variety of tactics from frontline laser-biff to more stand-off carrier tactics with groups of fighters launched to take on enemy ships.
Sins isn’t going to replace something like the turn-based Galactic Civilizations, because the constant-crisis pace of things won’t suit normal 4X tastes, but it is slowly becoming one of my favourite grand strategy games.