If I could sum up Sins of a Solar Empire in two words and not write a lengthy review, I’d probably go with: Incredibly Epic. But that’s not what we’re here for right? This review will be of Sins of a Solar Empire as a complete package (SoSE for short), so the original game including the two micro expansions. SoSE is not for the impatient types, with games can last well over 2 hours on even the smallest of maps against a single opponent. Play a larger map with the maximum amount of players and you could well be looking at games that go on beyond the 10 hour mark.
Sins of a Solar Empire is 4X meets Real Time Strategy. For those new to the ‘4X’ genre term, it’s a genre of strategy games in which the player controls an empire and ‘explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate’. Master of Orion and the Civilization are perhaps two the more well known 4X styled games. But like I said, SoSE is a combination of both. You build space stations, take over planets and command massive fleets of frigates and cruisers (with the occasional capital ship in the mix). But where this game differentiates itself from other space strategy games is the addition of empire building; culture, trade and long term tactics.
Graphically, Sins of a Solar Empire has to be right up there with the best of the space games I’ve ever played. Provided you’ve got a good enough PC, the quality is simply just breathtaking. But if your PC can’t handle it what then? I do the majority of my PC gaming on my laptop, which means I’m not packing a graphics card (at least not a good one anyway). There are a variety of settings that you can tweak to get a smooth running game while still looking good graphically on less powerful PCs. While playing the game, you’ll notice that there are multiple levels of zoom, allowing you to either zoom all the way out to see the entire map or all the way down onto an individual ship to get a close up look – and everything in-between. In addition to zoom, you can also alter the camera position so you’re not restricted to a top-down view. Messing with that can give you a whole new look on the game.
There are three races in Sins of a Solar Empire; The Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC), The Advent and the Vasari. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the races beyond the ship models, in the grand scheme of things but each are geared toward being ‘experts’ at certain things. The TEC build ships and structures faster and are generally the strongest economically of the three. The Advent possess many ships with special abilities, as well as having hordes of strike-craft (fighters & bombers) compared to the other races. Finally, the Vasari are the most technologically advanced and possess the hardest hitting ships in the game (though as a consequence, are more expensive).
Before we go any further, let’s talk about what the micro expansions add to the game. First off, Entrenchment. Sounds like a word one might use with regards to defense, right? Yup, you guessed it. Entrenchment adds in a whole host of defensive options for each race, including modular star bases. Diplomacy, the second micro expansion, adds to the diplomacy side of the game with a Diplomacy tech tree. Diplomacy makes diplomatic victories possible as well as offering incentives to make friendly with enemies, with pacts that can increase resource gathering rate, weapon damage and more.
Since I’ve already mentioned resources now, I’d better talk about them, hadn’t I? In Sins of a Solar Empire there are three main resources. Credits, metal and crystal. Credits are the general currency used by all three races and are acquired via taxing planets, trade routes, collecting bounties and completing missions. Metal is the most common resource and can be acquired by building extractors on metal asteroids. Crystal is the rarest and can be mined from asteroids like metal and is primarily used in large quantities for late game technology and the more powerful ships. A black market feature allows players to buy or sell resources but too much of either can drastically effect the prices.
The other ‘resources’ present in Sins of a Solar Empire are Fleet Capacity and Capital Ship Crews. Fleet Capacity works much like a population cap in most strategy games; every ship has a set amount it takes up and that value is gained back when it is destroyed. Capital Ship Crews limit the amount of Capital Ships you can field at any one time. So again it is a population cap, the difference being Capital Ships also use fleet capacity. Both amounts can be increased via research, allowing you to field massive fleets. I’ve had battles that have involved over 500 ships!
In combat, there is a sense of rock-scissors-paper with many of the frigates and cruisers generally have a specific role to fill in a fleet meaning they have something they are good at but conversely a weakness. Don’t let that put you off though, almost every strategy game is like that no matter how hard developers try to disguise it. I think it works well as the fleet commander who fills out his fleet with a single frigate or cruiser type does so at his own peril. The things that through the spanner in the works a little, are the capital ships.
Each race in Sins of a Solar Empire has five capital ships to choose from. Capital Ships gain experience in combat and can level up, starting at 1 when first built up to a maximum of level 10. At each level, the Capital Ship gains an ability point to spend on one of four abilities it can learn to give it more functionality. Not only are Capital Ships the strongest out of the box, they are capable of fulfilling multiple roles though they too are generally geared towards fulfilling a single role in the fleet. (Their strength compared to frigates and cruisers give them that duality) I should also mention that occasionally from leveling up, the amount of strike-craft (fighters & bombers) the Capital Ship can field may also increase.
Depending on the size of the map, the most players you can have involved in a game of SoSE is 10 (including yourself). This allows for a variation of game play with teams of differing sizes; 5 v 5, 2 v 2 etc, or going it alone. But in addition to players and AI, there’s one thing that is a threat to everyone, a non-aligned AI force; Pirates. Pirates in a manner of speaking are Sins of a Solar Empire’s equivalent of Civilization’s barbarians. Provided you haven’t turned them off, Pirates get their own planetary base (but they can’t expand!) and every so often, they will raid a target player’s empire. In order to protect yourself from a pirate raid, you can bribe them to attack another player by using credits.
Whoever has the highest bounty value come raid time, the Pirates will move to attack their worlds. Not only that, but you can offer up missions (with credit incentive) to pirates for them to go after another player regardless of whether it’s raid time. You probably want to get rid of this thorn sooner rather than later right? Think again. You might be able to defend your planets from pirate raids but taking their base is another thing entirely. Trying to take out Pirates too early in the game could leave you horribly exposed as you send off your fleet confident they’ll do the job only for you to suffer major casualties at their hands. Trust me, it’s happened to me enough times.
Non-counting the research that improves capital ship crews and fleet capacity, you have four tech tree branches in which you spend resources in to improve your empire. The first tech tree is dedicated to warfare, so improving your ship’s weapon damage, shield and hull strength as well as prototypes for new ships. The second relates to defensive structures, both making them available and improving them. The third tech tree is empire related, technologies like improving the rate at which you mine resources, structures like trade ports and so on. As mentioned earlier, the fourth tech tree is filled with diplomacy related technology. Tech isn’t the only way to improve your empire though, you can also search your planets for rare and ancient artifacts that provide a variety of bonuses.
Speaking of planets; there are variety of planets and celestial bodies to be found in Sins of a Solar Empire. In total, there are six types that can be colonised (four planets, two asteroids) each with their own properties, ranging from supporting large populations (Terran Worlds) to having only crystal asteroids to mine (Ice Worlds). In edition to the celestial bodies that can be colonised, there are a variety of anomalies and such, ranging from black holes to asteroid belts. In total there about 8 of these, each that provide bonuses to fleets or the potential to reek havoc upon them. For example, in asteroid belts, an asteroid (albeit rarely) might collide with one of your ships causing massive damage.
I have mixed feelings about the AI in SoSE. By the Diplomacy micro expansion there a bevy of difficulty settings for you to set any AI opponents you might have at. In addition to difficulty, you can also set the type of AI they are, such as being economic focused, aggressive or defensive minded (plus more). That’s what I like. What I don’t like is that the AI isn’t really any smarter as it goes up in difficulty (or at least I’ve never noticed it – maybe I’m just that good at this game? Not really.) instead the difficulty dictates how much starting resources the AI opponent has. So the difficulty is derived from it being able to develop and reach ‘late game’ with larger fleets than you’ll ever be able to.
I wonder if anyone has ever beaten the hardest difficulty setting for the AI 1 v 1 without gimping them in some manner? If you have I take my hats off to you. I suppose the one benefit of the added resources (and I’ve made use of this) is playing games where I have several allies and I try and take down one of those AI set at that difficulty. Not an easy task I assure you.
I’m not sure many will ultimately care but for me, one of the negatives of Sins of a Solar Empire is that lacks anything in the way of a story driven campaign. I guess that could just be the RPG fan in me coming out but I also in the past have found campaigns to be great tutorials for learning the various aspects of the gameplay available, without throwing you to the wolves straight away with everything available. I like to think of story campaigns in RTS games as tutorials, except fun. But ultimately SoSE is a multiplayer game and that’s what is going to sustain you if you’re into that sort of thing.
Make no mistake, Sins of a Solar Empire is not the perfect game and it has it’s short comings but you’ll be hard pressed to find a better game of this genre set in space, anywhere out there. There’s also a strong modding community (I hope to review my favourite SoSE mod some time) for the game and with the ability to make your own maps, there’s a lot to keep you going even after the original content can no longer sustain you (and it can for more hours than I care to admit spent playing it).