Sins of a Solar Empire Review - 30/09/2008

Sins of a Solar Empire sounds like any other sci-fi RTS on paper. It looks like it in most of the screenshots too. Yet it's better than virtually all of those on the market today, and has created a unique genre all of its own.

As a big Civilization fan as regular readers will know, while always partial to RTS games they don't quite have the depth that I like to see in my PC games. One of the main features that Ironclad Games quote when talking about Sins is the aim to make a turn-based game in real time. Of course this oxymoron seems impossible, yet having played the game for weeks on end, and actually feeling more compelled to finish each match than on Civ IV (despite some being even longer), I think I've been converted. Ironclad have started RT4X, a cross between real-time strategy games and the 4X sub-genre including series like Civilization and Master of Orion (4X standing for explore, expand, exploit and exterminate). With no history behind them but a core of the Rockstar (Barking Dog) studios responsible for Homeworld Cataclysm, we awaited Sins more with anticipation than expectation.

Sins is not the most innovative game so far this century, nor would it stand out from the crowd if you just saw a snippet of the game in motion. Nonetheless, all the RTS fans that ridicule the Civilization-style for being more of a board game than a computer game should eat their words, as Ironclad have skilfully created something that should appeal to fans of both. In fact, sci-fi fans in general could probably get into RTS or 4X games through Sins. Enough hype though, what makes Sins worth getting?

A strategy game of the epic variety.

The game is a basic (though incredibly deep) empire building affair, set entirely in space. You begin each match with one planet, your homeworld, and a couple of construction ships (sometimes structures too). The idea of the game is to conquer and dominate the galaxy, though you can play using entirely non-lethal methods, just not win. There are two types of structures you can build. Tactical structures, which are based around the military infrastructure of your empire including operations such as turrets, repair platforms, orbital fighter hangars and trade outposts. Civilian Structures are basically everything else. These include factories for Frigates and Cruisers, as well as a separate building just for the massive Capital Ships. You also have to build research stations for military and civilian technologies. A certain number of these are required to research anything on the large tech tree in the game.

You access it through a menu at the top of the screen and while some improvements are more noticeable than others, such as the ability to colonise ice or lava planets, the others should not be overlooked. They visually change weapons fire and can radically alter the effectiveness of an elderly fleet of ships. Research is expensive however and as such requires the other civilian buildings: Metal and Crystal refineries. Most colonisable rocks come complete with asteroids in orbit which you can then build refineries on to access the deposits within. These then are added to your total of Crystal and Metal; you can also sell them on the Black Market for gold, or use them to appease other factions.

Beautiful graphics up close, even on modest-spec systems.

Gold is collected in the form of taxes from all your colonies, and trade. The further away they are from your capital (you can change this planet so as to best manage your empire) the less you get, with some incurring maintenance costs greater than the taxes you receive from them. To get the most from each you need to upgrade their infrastructure, with many additional areas available for improvement, for example to allow more structures to be built in the planet's gravity well.

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