Sins of a Solar Empire – PC
Developer: Ironclad Games
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment
Release Date: February 4, 2008
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
Reviewed by Malefico
Sins of a Solar Empire is a science fiction RTS set in the distant future. Humans move freely among the stars, but struggle for the control of various planets with other factions and races. Like any RTS, this game combines economic and technological advancement with military expansion. It offers an abundance of competing camps, each with their own unique ships and/or special abilities. Game play can range from sedate to frenetic, depending on the number of players and how fast you have the game running at the time.
First, let me say that I am not going to go into depth regarding details of the various factions. Such a discussion would be lengthy and pointless. Instead, I’ll briefly describe the factions and give a general overview of the game environment, development trees, unit types, etc. If you are interested in learning more about this game, click here.
The game itself is detailed and well-designed. Models look good and animations flow smoothly against the background. The abilities and improvements available to players scale well in proportion to their cost. Space combat is highly detailed, with each ship firing its specific weapons- energy blasts, projectiles and missiles streaking through space to collide with an unfortunate opponent’s hull, in other words, the good stuff.
Like any good RTS, SOSE demands that a player keep up with a number of concurrent events. Colonization, production, research and map awareness all matter in this game. Game play follows the standard RTS layout- click on a ship or click and drag around a fleet to select them. Create groups with Ctrl + number key, and select groups with number key. Movement/attack is accomplished by right-clicking. Moving the mouse scrolls around the map, and the mouse wheel zooms the display in and out. You can zoom in on a single ship or zoom out to show the entire map. Right-clicking and dragging the mouse rotates the view. In typical RTS fashion, the game is a fancy version of rock-paper-scissors, where a given ship type is strong against certain opponents and weak against others.
Note: Be sure you have a substantial block of time before starting an online game against human players. If you play a large game, from 6-8 players, it can easily last 6-8 hours. This is really the only problem I have with the actual game design, other than weak AI. Playing online requires the same kind of time commitment as going to work. Playing against AI is better for shorter matches as you can always pause/save the game if necessary.
The interface has a large number of elements. Players new to RTS may be bewildered by the UI at first, but it’s intuitively designed and the relatively few buttons that are used most frequently are easily learned. From the main screen you can enter Research mode, showing you all the various development trees and allowing you to spend resources for improvements. You can select ships or fleets by clicking on them or pressing an assigned number key, or search for specific classes of ships if you’ve temporarily misplaced one or more. You can also see the number and type of ships and structures in each gravity well, your current resource levels, and any significant events in the game by viewing notification windows.
AI opponents are available at six difficulty levels ranging from Easy to Vicious. The game makes AI opponents harder by giving them a significant income advantage. However, they don’t fight any smarter and that exposes one weak point in the game. AI enemies are baffled by even basic military strategies like splitting your forces to attack on two fronts, but since you can always seek out cunning human enemies online, it’s not enough to cause irreparable damage to the game experience.
Note: The SOSE Rebellion expansion splits each of the factions below into loyalist and rebel groups and adds separate development trees for each of the six factions.
TEC- The Trader Emergency Coalition was formed in response to an attack by an alien race, the Vasari (themselves fleeing from a hostile force). Before the creation of the TEC, human society was fractured by the expulsion of a quasi-religious group who would later be known as the Advent.
Advent- Ostracized and exiled from their home worlds for their religious beliefs and fusion of mechanical/biological technology, the Advent continued their evolution away from the main human population, developing powerful psionic abilities and automated weapon systems.
The Vasari- The only non-human race in the game, the Vasari enjoyed 10,000 years of dominion in their area of space. They fell under attack by an unknown enemy that slowly and inexorably drove them out into space. Their flight has taken them into areas of human habitation.
In addition there are two NPC factions- neutral militia fleets that guard uncolonized bodies, and pirate raiders. The neutral fleets are comprised of TEC ship designs and vary in size from two to about a dozen vessels. Players can choose to make pirates active or inactive before starting a game. If pirates are inactive, the large pirate fleet will occupy an asteroid close to the center of the map. Like any unexplored area, players will only identify the pirate base if one of their ships travels to that gravity well. In addition to about 50 ships, the area will contain a strong network of orbital weapons. If pirate activity is turned on, the pirates will dispatch raider fleets at constant intervals. They will attack whatever player has the highest bounty on his/her head at the moment the raid is launched.. Since the pirate raiders number about 25 ships, this can be disastrous in the early stages of the game. Be sure to leave enough Credits in reserve to outspend your opponents early on. When you are comfortable with your fleet strength, you can use the pirate raids to level your capital ships (which normally only gain experience in a battle).
The economics of SOSE center around three resources- credits, Metal and Crystal. Credits are earned based on the number, type and improved state of colonies, while metal and crystal must be mined from resource nodes found around celestial objects. Ships, structures and research all require varying amounts of all three currencies. Credits can be used to buy metal and crystal if you’re short on one, and metal/crystal can be sold for credits if you have an overabundance. The prices fluctuate throughout the game, affecting how much the transaction will cost/profit you.
There are four types of planets in SOSE, with a number of others added in the Rebellion expansion. They are Desert, Ice, Terran and Volcanic in nature. Terran and desert planets have a mix of Metal and Crystal nodes, while ice planets have only crystal and volcanic planets only metal. Players start the game with a home Terran planet and must explore the star system to find more colonizable bodies and gain resource nodes/credits. In addition to planets there are two kinds of colonizable asteroids, those with resource nodes and “dead” asteroids that serve as colony outposts, but provide no metal or crystal. All colonizable objects add to your Credit income. When a player first established a colony, it must be developed, otherwise it slows the flow of Credits. Various planet types require different levels of development. Trade facilities can be researched and built as orbital platforms, but only in areas that can be colonized. The longer a trade route becomes, the more it increases Credit flow.
SOSE maps are either randomly generated each game or set by scenario, and vary in size according to the scenario selected and the numbers of players (up to 8, either against AI or humans online). Invariably, maps conatin one star, a number of colonizable planets and asteroids, and uncolonizable areas that may contain abandoned resource nodes. The small area surrounding celestial bodies is referred to as the gravity well, and it is here where all combat occurs. In addition, each area that has no colonizable body will affect fleets differently as they move through the area. Some zones will affect movement, while others may disallow the deployment of strike craft, etc.
Each faction is capable of a range of Research- Civilian, Defense, Diplomatic, Fleet Logistics and Military. The research interface also allows a player to view any Artifacts found during the game. Resources must be spent in order to search planets for artifacts. However, they are rare and it’s best to wait until you have a comfortable cushion of resources before spending on searches.
Civilian research strengthens your economy and depending on the faction you’re playing, can improve production, research and certain military capabilities.
Defense research allows you to build and improve a variety of structures including mine fields, orbital defense platforms, strike craft bases and star bases.
Diplomatic research allows you to build certain ships and helps your economy, as well as improving team bonuses.
Fleet Logistics research allows the player to increase the size and vary the composition of their fleet. Capital ships (described below) require not only an adequate number of fleet support slots, but need a trained crew before they can be built. This research tree allows you to increase the size of your fleet and train capital ship crews separately.
Military research lets you improve the offensive and defensive capability of your fleet. In addition, new ship types must be researched before they can be built. At its highest level, this tree gives each faction a “doomsday” weapon.
Players have four types of ships that can be built- Capital ships, Cruisers, Frigates and Strike Craft. All ships can be improved through Military research, based on structure, shield and regeneration upgrades, and by spending resources on improving specific weapon types.
Capital ships are the core of the fleet. In general terms, all factions have a multi-purpose capital ship that allows the ship to establish colonies. There’s also a “battleship”, a carrier, and two support ship types that can be built. Usually one of the latter type specializes in destroying enemy colonies, and the other makes use of the factions unique strengths. Each faction’s capital ships have special abilities that are unique to the faction, but generally fill the roles mentioned above. Capital ships increase in level as the battle progresses, allowing the player to spend points to improve the ship’s abilities. Players can also spend credits to “force” the ship up to a certain level, usually 3 or 4 depending on research done to increase the limit. All capital ships are capable of attacking enemy colony worlds.
Strike craft are represented by bomber and fighter squadrons. Capital ships and carrier cruisers are able to host these craft, and the squadrons can be strengthened through research. Strike craft lost in tussles are replenished by the host ship between fights, and at a much slower rate during battle.
The bulk ships in the categories below each have special abilities, some of which are available automatically, and some which must be researched. Having and using these abilities make a huge difference in the outcome of engagements.
Frigates make up the bulk of the fleet,numerically. In broad terms there are colony, light, assault, defense, (planetary) bombardment, and specialty frigates. The frigate class is the cheapest to research and build, but fall quickly in a pitched battle.
Cruisers add substantial attack and defense power to the fleet. Each faction gets a heavy cruiser, command, support, carrier, and a number of specialty cruisers that add attack, healing, buff and debuff abilities. Cruisers are relatively expensive, but hardier in combat and capable of dealing excellent damage.
The Bottom Line
Starting from humble beginnings, players can build huge fleets of ships to dominate an area of space. This game has all the elements that RTS fans love- the challenge of building an economy while balancing research and production, huge battles, complicated development paths the element of diplomacy in online games that introduces a whole new level into the environment. The abilities and units of the factions are nicely varied so that any player can find one that suits his or her style. Moreover, the game rewards realistic strategy and tactics- a well balanced fleet and sound planning go a long way in this game.
Overall, if the game has a major weakness it’s the lack of a campaign mode. But with the inclusion of random maps and the uncertainty of dealing with human adversaries, the replay value is extremely high. Sins of a Solar Empire has a large and loyal group of players, and deservedly so. It is a well-designed and very balanced game that stands out in the crowded RTS genre. It’s only blemishes are dim-witted AI and the possibility of very lengthy (eight hour shift) games.
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