Slow and Steady Wins the...Solar System...
Epic scale, great interface and controls, capital ships, low system requirements, slow pace
No story mode, repetitive sounds, to slow for some, no real variety between races
The Bottom Line:
A thinking gamer's RTS that provides epic scale and a lot of fun for those that don't mind waiting a little longer for the end result.
Sins of a Solar Empire has quickly become the flagship title for Stardock and their Impulse delivery system. Impulse is much like Steam in that it allows consumers to purchase programs without going to a store or getting a physical medium. You can back up your files using a CD or DVD if you so choose though. The great part about it is that there is no Digital Rights Management (DRM) that is involved. The only other stipulation is that you must download any updates through the Impulse engine. But even the Impulse frontend is pretty sleek and easy to use. Once you log in it tells you which games have updates; upgrading is as easy as clicking a button. Or don't update, the choice is yours.
The story is perhaps the weakest aspect of the game. The opening cinematic does a great job setting up the game which pits three different civilizations against each other. I was ready to jump into an epic war between the three races! To my surprise there was no campaign whatsoever. The opening movie was all I was going to get. The game consists of a series of maps to play different skirmishes. While it is highly customizable, nothing carries over from one game to the next.
SOE can be played on most any computer. This is the way that it was developed and Stardock seems to want to keep it that way. In no way does that detract from the sheer scope of the gaming engine. The game looks great and with some of the patches that have come out, looks even better than when it started. The capital ship explosions will shake the screen as they explode and each ship is properly scaled with the class of ship it belongs to. The battles are fairly dynamic and you can rotate completely around the action. Zooming in, you can see the shields and armor take impacts from the various weapons each type of ship has. I don't know why, but I really like the planet and star models. They may be simplistic but you can almost believe there are billions of people on each world.
The music is pretty entertaining if not repetitive. It fits right in with the epic scope of each of your maps. I just found it looping a little too often for my liking. I almost would have rather had the ambient noises of space stations and things going in the background.
Even more so than the music; the voice acting gets extremely repetitive but not enough to detract from the gaming experience. The sayings would get stuck in my head from time to time. Especially hearing, "Our ships have entered phase space..." for the hundredth time. This is another area that if you zoom in close enough to the battle you can almost feel the punch of the cannons from your capital ships.
CONTROLS & INTERFACE
SOE really excels in the control department. The game allows you to use the mouse wheel to zoom all the way out to view the entire solar system and then seamlessly zoom into the smallest fighter. As you zoom into the action, the view will follow wherever your mouse cursor is at. This should be the standard with any real-time strategy game. The view will even lock onto a ship as you are zooming in which makes it easy to track individual ships.
The icons on the left hand side of the screen will expand as you explore new planets and increase the size of your fleet. This allows you to track which ships are at which system as well as which ones are travelling through the space routes between worlds. In addition to the cards, when zoomed out, each planet has a ring around it that graphically displays the strength of the planet as well as the amount of ships there. It takes a little while to get used to it but once I figured out which color meant my forces and which meant the other I was all set.
I'll tell you right now that I am terrible at keyboard shortcuts. For being such a big gamer I really have a hard time with going beyond maybe five at the most! That being said, it really helps to know what shortcuts are available especially when creating individual fleets based around your capital ships.
A very detailed "card" will pop up whenever you place the mouse over a ship, planet, or structure. This gives you everything you need to know about strengths, damage, armor, shields, antimatter, etc. This means that you spend less time searching for information and more time playing the game.
The user interface is set up with a very simple design. In the top center of the screen you will find the research, diplomacy, and black market screens. Next to that you will find the only three resources used in the game; credits (money), metal, and crystal.
Each one of the three races (TEC, Advent, and Vasari) play pretty similar and their technology trees don't even differ that much. That being said, they do have their own strengths and advantages.
The Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC) is your standard humans. Their ships are a little more "boxy" than the other races. They depend on their technology and seem to excel at refining the different resources.
The Advent is a more highly developed human. Their ships are not as powerful as the other two races but they come with some great abilities that can often disable the other ships.
The Vasari is a powerful alien civilization that has seemingly come out of nowhere. The ships of the Vasari are more expensive but can absorb more damage than the other races.
SOE is your typical 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) empire building game. The main difference that sets it apart from others is that it is all in real-time as opposed to turn-based games like the classic Master of Orion series. Your main focus is ensuring you have a stable economy by researching each planet's economy (credits) and mining the different asteroids for your metal and crystal.
The type of planet will determine how much of each resource is available in a system. For example, arctic planets will have more crystal asteroids than metal. To give your economy a boost, you can turn to the black market to sell your metal and crystal which acts like a simple stock market. So buy low and sell high if you can!
In addition to the planet developments you can invest in you also have empire research goals. You can focus on hostility or harmony to accomplish your goals. Each planet has a chance to hold artifacts that can give empire wide bonuses as well. Just be careful, once it is discovered it is announced to all other players that an artifact was found.
Each system is connected by space lanes which is how the ships will travel between each one. This can help with building your defenses and focusing on your fringe territories rather than the ones that are a little more isolated. Granted, later technology can allow for longer jumps or even super cannons that can hit distant systems.
Your main fleets will usually consist of several frigates, some cruisers, and a capital ship. The frigates are fairly inexpensive and do not take up too much of your fleet capacity. The capital ships on the other hand are massive and cost enormous amounts of resources to build. Losing just one can really hurt an empire not to mention cripple your fleet by losing its benefits. The capital ships will even level up as their crew gains experience. This in turn allows each one to use more powerful weapons and abilities.
An important aspect of the game is that as your fleet grows so does its upkeep. What this means for the player is that you spend more to build your ships and you don't make as much money, metal, or crystal per fleet level. This requires the player to balance his priorities throughout the empire.
The game ships with a level editor to create your own maps but I have not personally delved into that aspect. However, it appears to be very intuitive and you don't need any kind of skills as an artist to create your own. To my understanding there are some great modifications to the game that can change the ships into ones from the universes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, etc.
While the game is a real-time strategy game it plays extremely slow. The smallest maps can take several hours to complete depending on your play style as well as the difficulty of the AI. I have not played the multiplayer online because I can't see myself spending that much time in one sitting. I have played a LAN game or two where we would save it and come back to it later. Stay away from this game if you are expecting something along the speed of the latest RTS games.
To be honest, each game plays exactly the same. There isn't a whole lot of variety unless you try out different play styles or you try to unlock the different achievements that are available. Each map does present its own strategies but it always boils down to building your economy, setting your defenses, researching, and sending your fleet against your opponent. Again, there is no campaign or story mode so what you see is what you get.
Stardock is in the process of releasing its first expansion called Entrenchment. I have played the beta and it adds some great improvements. These changes include race specific technologies, defensive platforms, and space stations. Look for that toward the end of February (pending any delays of course).
The game is a lot of fun but you need to have more patience than a regular RTS game. Keep in mind it is not as wide in scope as some turn-based 4X games it is more in the middle but it succeeds in what it is. I highly recommend it for anyone that wants a little bit of a slower pace and time to think and enjoy a good space empire simulation.