14 Reviews

Sins of a Solar Empire

Review: Epic in both space and time

This would have been the stuff of our geek dreams five or ten years ago. The space battles of Star Wars, only we're controlling them. It's real-time, galactic scale, space armageddon, and it'll run reasonably well on all our PCs.

Problem is, you can't play it in a lunchtime. It's slow. My first match, on the smallest possible map size against a single opponent, took six hours.

The action takes place around planets, of which there are about 15 on a small map and up to 100 on a large one. Fleets battle over them, bombard them to eradicate hostile populations, then drop colony pods on them to propagate their own civilisation.

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You can only travel between planets linked with phase-lanes, so the maps are spiderwebs of possible routes for your fleets, and bottleneck planets quickly become chokepoints.

I was a bit disappointed with the battles initially: on top of being slow, they're static and there's not much to control. Once in range, opposing forces just hang there, firing. But that was before I encountered a real fleet.

Sins reaches a different order of magnitude to other games, and that's where the battles get spectacular. You've got thick clouds of fighter and bomber squadrons swooping in for strike hits, gunboats belting bullets as they rush to the aid of weaker craft, repair cruisers hurrying between the damaged, and giant capital ships drifting glacially toward each other.

Zooming in on this gorgeous chaos is when Sins finally starts to feel like that dream space game.

There's no campaign and the backstory is vague, but it doesn't really need either. The one-off matches are epic enough to create stories of their own. What it does need is a better introduction to the game's mechanics. The tutorials don't adequately explain how the game works, and nor do the in-game tooltips and text.

It's rarely clear in big battles, for example, which of your ships is doing the real damage to your enemies. You can't see weapons fire from on high, and the rock-paper-scissors relationships are unexplained and unintuitive.

Medium weapons and Very Heavy weapons are both decent against capital ship armour, for example, but Heavy weapons aren't. That's mentioned nowhere in the manual or the game that I can see, but is hugely significant tactically. Concealing information like that muddies the spectacular battles somewhat - they're graphically crisp but strategically vague.

That said, the developers have been incredibly quick with patches to address player feedback, including this complaint. They've even added the ability to speed the game up mid-match.

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That's appreciated, but doesn't quite solve the slowness problem. Travel, construction and research all fly by even at the default speed: it's only combat that's bizarrely sluggish. If I'm struggling in a fight, I can actually found an entirely new field of science, research several major new weapons technologies using it, mass-produce ships with these weapons and get them to the fight before my guys have lost half their hitpoints. Apart from making combat less engaging, it also encourages some harassment techniques that are just laborious to counter.

In multiplayer, this is less of a problem: players will rather try to win than annoy, and they surrender if it becomes clear they've lost. The AI, however, fights to the death, and prolongs it maddeningly.

Several times I've caught it warping all its ships back and forth between the same two planets, so that it takes hours to destroy them. Like most of Sins' flaws, the developers are already addressing this: they're planning to tell the AI to surrender when things look hopeless.

A lot of these criticisms would be serious if there was another game like Sins. But it's unique; even Supreme Commander doesn't come close for scale. This is a game in which you can zoom smoothly from a one-man fighter craft to a star-studded map of the galaxy and meaningfully direct your empire from anywhere in between.

Real-time wars on a battleground this big are fundamentally unlike any other, and Sins is the only game to bring that dream to geeky, geeky life.

The verdict

Epic in both space and time

8.4
Format
PC
Developer
Unknown
Publisher
Stardock
Genre
Sim / Strategy

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