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Sins of a Solar Empire

Preview: Sunbathing naked?

The four Xs that define this genre of strategy games are eXplore, eXpand, eXterminate and eXploit - presumably no one spotted that they also have an initial in common.

They're traditionally the guiding principles of turn-based games like Civ, but Sins is an attempt to make a real-time space strategy out of the same spaghetti.

This cannot possibly work, of course. Little space skirmishes take place on an entirely different order of scale to the machinations of an entire space-faring species. Star Wars: Empire at War gave up and split the game into three different modes. Sins' creators came up with a far more impressive solution.


Sins does play out on hugely different levels of scale, but all at once, all in the same engine, and with no hard dividing lines. You can simply zoom from a view where the smallest trade ship fills the screen, to an overview of an entire chain of solar systems.

It combines the gasp-inducing majesty of the enormity of space with tactical flexibility. The difference between picking which solar system your armada should warp to, and directing a fleet of bombers to target an enemy cruiser, is just a stroke of the mouse-wheel.

You start in the 'gravity well' of your homeworld: the area of space immediately around it where ships can't use their warp-drives, and where battles take place. Here you can build stationary weapons platforms, ship factories, research centres and other RTS mainstays. You'll see a few other planets neighbouring yours, and any of your ships can warp to them.

The few unclaimed asteroids and planets quickly get snapped up; from then on it's diplomacy and war, and Sins does the latter remarkably well. It has only rudimentary race-relations, but spectacular controllable space battles.

Capital ships can launch fighter and bomber squadrons, and each has a few special abilities you can unlock once the crew has gained enough combat experience, such as incendiary shells or a protective forcefield. These guys are the star players of Sins, and if you can build more than a couple, you're already a solar superpower.

Although you're going to hear a lot of Homeworld comparisons, be aware that Sins' universe is on a 2D plane. Ships can pass above or below each other, but you don't control movement in this axis, and it's probably for the best. The game is complex enough without having to strategise in an extra dimension.

If you've ever enjoyed a game about spaceships, you can't help but be moved by Sin's clashes of gleaming war machines, hanging above vast bile-green nebulae, cascades of fire peppering their flinching shields, turrets belting in angry response. It's just so damned dramatic.


And though ships and planets aren't ultra-sharp at the maximum zoom level, there are great artistic details. Little lines of planetside craft stream across the surface of your worlds if you look closely enough, marching like columns of ants through the atmosphere. And when your siege frigates let rip on an enemy world, the nuclear mushrooms are visible from space.

Perhaps the only worrying thing about the game is just how much the devs listen to their testers. When we make suggestions, guys, we expect to be told that you tried that three years ago and it sucked. Not "Hey, good idea. We'll try that tomorrow."

But if Sins turns out anything like as good as it looks right now, consider your philosophy vindicated.