Sins of a Solar Empire Preview

by on 21st Jan 2008

If you play PC games, this is the time for you to try out space strategy games. Do a little searching and you must stumble upon some ancient remains from the glorious past of space-games. Then comes the Great Void and at its end in 2007 space games started to appear again.
Sins of a Solar Empire (Sins) is another beacon at the end of the Great Void. This game is being developed by the young company Ironclad Games. It is hard to start a large project without any experience, so it is not really surprising to find that this new company has people (perhaps the other way around would be more appropriate) with quite some experience under their belt.
While I stumbled upon Sins completely by accident before it became public knowledge, things got really interesting after Stardock became the game's publisher. The self-publishing developer of the well-known Galactic Civilizations series could surely not afford to grab some hastily made game and become its patron. Does this mean Sins is also destined to become legend? Read on and find out.

An interesting detail for all players of games who thought they have seen it all; Sins belongs to the RT4X class of games. Never heard of this particular class? Not surprising – it didn't exist before Sins. Does this mean Sins is completely different from all the rest of space games? Well, not really. It means that Ironclad was the first to use this new conglomerate name of Real Time and 4X – RT4X. If nothing else, Master of Orion 3 went there looong ago, with devastating results. I have to admit that the mix of real time and 4X was definitely one of the few good things the game had, so this is not a recipe for disaster at all.

The story behind Sins

»10.000 years ago

The Vasari Empire ruled over countless worlds. Relentless and unstoppable, the Dark Fleet sought to eclipse ever more until a cataclysmic error brought it all to an abrupt end. With their worlds destroyed and their species all but wiped out, the survivors began a desperate race to outrun their past.

1.000 years ago

During the formation of the Trade Order, emissaries found a single world orbiting a giant red star on the periphery of what was to become Trader Space. The people of that desert planet were eventually found to be practicing the utmost in scientific and social deviancy; ancient taboos long since assumed to be law. Shocked and disgusted, the Trader Worlds conspired to have their forgotten brethren exiled far outside the territory they were claiming as their own.

10 years ago

The Trader Worlds prospered in an era of lucrative trade and relative peace. Stories of their ancestor's wars had long since passed into the depths of the oldest archives; the methods and machines by which they conducted those affairs long since buried. Consequently, when the Vasari Exodus Fleet arrived, the outlying Trader Worlds paid dearly.
In a battle for survival, the Traders find a new impetus to rediscover the ways of their savage past.

Now

The Exiled have returned; a transformed people calling themselves "The Advent". With a vast fleet of advanced warships and mysterious weapons, they bring a growing number of worlds under their control. The already struggling Trader Emergency Coalition finds itself caught in a two-front war that appears utterly hopeless.
The fate of the galaxy is at hand and one must rise to face the Sins of a Solar Empire.«

So, in short, we have three sides of the conflict; aliens fleeing for 10 millennia from who-knows-what and coming to the Trader Coalition's doorstep, Human traders that had peace for a millennia and have forgotten about war, and shunned Human deviants that practice weird mind stuff and are back with a vengeance. I don't know why but I find the millennia of peace the least believable of the above, the rest is quite normal.

Joke aside, read even further to learn what the game is really like so far.

General

Stardock was kind enough to give Strategy Core access to a copy of Sins beta. As is usual for Stardock's games the beta is open, meaning that the fans who bought Sins are already playing the current version (naturally missing some goodies that will be included in the final game). Not only that – the final game is promised to have a lot of fleet improvements over beta 4 version, which you may be able to read about in the review.

The main feature of Sins is a BIG real-time universe. Why big with capital letters? Well, considering the size of ships, planets and stars are huge. No, not as huge as they are in space – that would make ships look insignificant (read: invisible) and destroy most of the game without a doubt. But huge enough to make battles around stars really awe-inspiring. In comparison to capital ships the fighters are like flies yet the star… makes the capital ships look just as tiny. A big game usually has three stars (there are maps with more) and each star can be laden with planets. These are connected among themselves and the star they orbit with so called phase lanes. While three star systems does not at all seem enough the number of planets gives you a chance to imagine each star system as a galaxy and each planet as a habitable world in a separate star system.
Viewing the empire is very practical. It is mostly the same as the zooming feature in Supreme Commander; you can wheel-zoom from a fighter to a whole “world” and back in a matter of seconds. At certain distances every object turns into a symbol, letting you know where they are when they would otherwise be smaller than pixels. Zooming is also made much more manageable through informative and easy to personalize empire tree (a tree menu of the objects found in your empire). Messages warn you of current events and let you zoom directly to action, be it an attack or a finished research.

Planets and the star are junctions in the phase-line web each system forms. Yet they are not the only junctions you will see. There are rich asteroid fields, dead asteroids and plasma storms as well. Stars are connected with long-range phase lanes, too long for a “normal” technology to bridge the gap. So what you can do is research an advanced technology, become able of interstellar travel and contest for other solar systems.
Asteroids and planets can have civil and tactical orbital structures built around them. Both types of structures have their limits so one is advised not to build only laboratories around a planet – later civilian infrastructure that becomes available through research is very useful as well. Trade ports and refineries add life to your empire (not to mention the flow of money and resources) with a crowd of civilian ships flying around.

All these orbital structures are built in a gravity well (a sphere of high gravity around a heavenly body that inhibits phase travel) around asteroids or planets, but not around the star. Planets and asteroids can also have planetary improvements built. These will increase the possible inhabitants, harden your planetary infrastructure (meaning that your planet can endure a lot more pounding), increase the number of tactical and civilian orbitals, increase your fleet limit or just search the planet for hidden treasures.

Strategy

What fuels the conquest in Sins? Everything in Sins has a price in resources. The game has three resources; crystals, metal and money. First two can be mined and refined; money is made by population of planets/asteroids and by trade. A “black market”, shown in the diplomacy screen, lets you trade crystals and metal for money and vice-versa and also to place bounties on other players incognito. These bounties were supposed to give other players an incentive for an attack on the bounty's target because it is rewarded with destroying its ships and structures, but ended up as simple pirate bait. The bigger the bounty the more its target is attacked by pirates, who act more or less as mercenaries. Through the diplomacy screen you can also forge alliances, give resources to others etc.

The lack of fleet maintenance can be seen as a pure-RTS sign. Fleet points are awarded through enlargement of the empire and through planet upgrades while the number of capital ships is limited with research. But the fleets do not affect your budget. Also the upgrades to ships that you have gained through research are adopted instantly and free of charge.

Research is divided into military and civilian and there are two different research facilities. The level of military research you can achieve is limited with the number of military research facilities, same goes for civilian research.

War

Aaaaah, finally war. Let's start with the Sins' chosen weapon of destruction – space ships.

There are four classes of ships; fighters (including bombers), frigates, cruisers and capital ships. All but fighters have antimatter reserves for powering their special abilities (more on these just a bit later). Antimatter replenishes itself with time, which is shorter in the gravity well around stars.
Fighters are unable to operate on their own and jump among planets, so they are stationed on planetary defences, cruiser-class light carriers and some capital ships.
Frigates are fully jump capable and they carry out dedicated support duties mostly, like destroying annoying bombers that can be a real threat to any large ship. With research their support role becomes much more pronounced through added abilities.
Cruisers are more or less larger frigates with superior capabilities, like harbouring fighters, having repair ability and the like.
Capital ships are bigger. Much bigger. Much more powerful. Having superior powers.

Did I say super powers? Yes, I did, and it was intentional. This is a part I really can't force myself to like. Special abilities themselves are not the problem, what I see as somewhat farfetched is the way they are handled and this makes them “super” powers. Capital ship abilities are triggered with experience. Does this not bring Warcraft with its magical heroes to mind? True, experience does have an effect on performance of every vehicle that needs a crew, but what exactly limits me from mounting an extra gadget to one ship if another one of its kind is able to carry it (and I haven't used the available space for something else)?
Anyway, each side of the conflict has several types of capital ships, each type having unique abilities (another Warcraft similarity?). Trader Emergency Coalition can train their crews and raise the abilities to a level additionally expanded with research. Capital ships are built in capital ship factories while light factories build frigates and cruisers. Fighters and bombers are built in stationary defences, capital ships and light carriers.

So far fleet management is pretty poor. It enables grouping and two fleet movement modes; jumping all at once or each ship separately. This field is promised to be subjected to big changes though so it may be better to wait for the final release before commenting any further. I hope ship behaviour will change as well because for now it consists of going to target, parking and shooting. The only moving ships are fighter-class ones, which doesn't make for very cinematic feeling.

Battlefields, meaning gravity wells, while being 3D and ships even being able to move in 3D, are completely flat for all practical purposes. Ships don't manoeuvre in 3D (by themselves) and frankly – in most cases there is no advantage in doing so either. Attacking from the rear, flanking, or any tactical manoeuvre you can think of for that matter, has no point in Sins. It makes no difference from which direction the attack comes.

Closing comments

If I thought Galactic Civilizations was too hard-core strategy, too statistical for my personal taste, Sins of a Solar Empire has surprisingly taken a completely different route. Perhaps too far for a strategy.
This game definitely has a huge potential. If it is used to the fullest we may be looking at what Master of Orion 3 hoped to be.
Remember that everything I’ve written in this preview is based on a beta version and that a lot may be subject to change – also things that I see as a hindrance may be a blessing to a different kind of gamer.

With a release date in February 2008 the game is just around the corner. You will be able to play it on Windows XP and Vista.

Special thanks to Slaughter and Bomb Bloke for making the preview a lot more eye and mind friendly.

 

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Space Voyager\
31 Jan 2008 - 9:46pm
Space Voyager

Legion116, on 31st January 2008, 4:00pm, said:

Ironclad's deveolpers used to be apart of Barking Dog Studios which created Homeworld: Cataclysm so most of them actually have experience.
True, and that's what I said. Well, I didn't say on which project they worked. Funny, both Sword of the Stars and Sins of a Solar Empire developers (Kerberos, Ironclad) have people from HW:Cataclysm. And they all stayed in space games development... I can only say that it is great.  :D
Legion116\
31 Jan 2008 - 3:00pm
Legion116
Ironclad's deveolpers used to be apart of Barking Dog Studios which created Homeworld: Cataclysm so most of them actually have experience.

 

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Game Card

Sins of a Solar Empire Box
Developer: Ironclad Games
Publisher: Stardock Systems
Released:2008

Screenshots

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