Sins of a Solar Empire
Sins is the latest entry in a long, long string of space strategy games that can trace their ancestry back for decades (a long time for an infant medium like ours) to classics like Master of Orion and the Space Empires series. Its unique bid for notoriety renown is that it blends 4X gameplay and RTS (real-time strategy) action with breathtaking battles and “epic” scale.
is an RTS with planets (or more specifically, gravity wells). Colonizing planets allows a player to harvest resources from orbit around them, set up trade posts (read: markets), establish laboratories, and build factories which in turn build capitol ships and cruisers. Planets are where battles happen and technologies are researched and fleets are formed, and everything else is just blank, unplayable space. Ships warp between planets along pre-established lanes, and planets are often only connected to one or two others, despite the fact that several maps contain dozens of them and that many planets share the same star. This linear style of inter-planetary travel makes it easy to set up defensive breakwaters, especially after technology becomes available that allows players to “trap” opposing fleets in gravity wells and prevent them from moving further into their empire. Sometimes, however, this feels a bit awkward; why can't we move a fleet directly to one planet from another if they both orbit the same star? The concept of restricting travel between planets to a few pre-established lanes is a bit wonky in a game that's supposed to be simulating the wild, wide-open expanses of deep space. It's also worth mentioning that combat, like everything else in the game, takes place on what is essentially a two-dimensional grid. Sins
is set in outer space, but sometimes doesn't seem to act like it very much.
The economic side of things is very basic. There are three resources – money, crystal, and metal – and all of them can be produced at sites established around planets the player controls. Trade posts established on different worlds send automated ships back and forth between them and in the process generate money, while taxes levied on planets also contribute to the cash flow. Crystal and metal are mined from rocks orbiting planets, and most planets have one each of crystal and metal resources, though there are some exceptions which make certain planets worth fighting over more than others. The resource gathering scheme is, like in Rise of Nations, largely a matter of “set-and-forget,” which is helpful because the resource requirements increase drastically as the game wears on, and players must construct massive fleets more or less continuously to stave off attacks and assault their neighbors. Since crystal and metal mines can both be exhausted, the player is in a constant quest for new ones to replace them, and getting cut off from a planet's resources by an enemy siege or raid can seriously hamper the player's ability to strike back.
Technology is handled in a similarly simplistic manner. Upgrades are divided between military and civilian, and are a mix of incremental advancements and new capabilities. Most military technologies focus on improvements – +1 to missile damage and so forth – but there are is a fair amount of new ship designs to research and several new abilities which can be granted to capitol ships and cruisers. Most civilian technologies focus on allowing new planets to be colonized and improving the resource collection and productive capabilities of planets. An additional wrinkle in this system is that higher-level technologies require ever-higher amounts of research centers. Since there are limits to the amount of research centers one planet can support, technological advancement becomes a major factor in promoting imperial expansion.
So the economic and technological aspects of the game drive players heedlessly into the map, gobbling planets up left and right and tearing away as many resources as they possibly can and pumping them into huge fleets. After several hours of this incessant buildup, conflict becomes almost inevitable. Meanwhile, all of our saved up effort has been left over, too. Resource gathering is simple, research is simple, everything is simple. It seems like the game is saving our time and consideration for something else.
But the combat is simple, too. It's definitely satisfying from a graphical standpoint – and you only need to look at the screenshots on the official site to figure that out – but it involves picking the right fleet composition beforehand and just clicking them into battle. There are no formations or tactics or even many opportunities for micromanagement, aside from triggering capitol ship abilities at specific times. Ships are generic and adhere rigidly to a rock-paper-scissors structure. Some cruisers hold fighters and other cruisers have flak to shoot them down. Some capitol ships have abilities that allow them to drain energy or slice through shields, and others have the ability to buff shields or distribute energy to nearby spacecraft. If you can balance pluses and minuses and click the right ship-creation buttons, then you too can conquer the galaxy, it seems, which is profoundly disappointing.
But perhaps the real hard core of the game is diplomacy? Here, too, things are one-dimensional. Allies and enemies periodically contact you with missions you can pursue to increase your standing with them, and as your standing increases they offer alliances, trade pacts, line-of-sight treaties, and even tribute. And that's it.
So, setting aside the basic gameplay for a moment, what does the far future of humanity among the stars look like? Conveniently, there are three races. There are the Trade Coalition, with hard-hitting, bulky battleships; the Advent, a hive-mind society with sleek spacecraft and psychic powers; and the Vasari, the alien “fallen empire” with high technology and expensive units. If this framework looks familiar, then it's probably because you've played an RTS game before. Thanks to the runaway success of StarCraft, the three-race dynamic has become almost as common as random map generators and production queues.
In fact, there is much in Sins that comes from somewhere else. Resource trading and diplomacy have largely been lifted from Age of Empires; GalCiv can claim to be the father of the planet upgrade system; and the combat owes more to WarCraft than it does to Homeworld. Sins, for all of its ballyhooed originality, is simply an RTS that went to outer space with a bunch of baggage from older games. Think of the spaceship at the end of Civilization, made up of the last ten years of strategy games.
|..."there is much in Sins that comes from somewhere else."
This, I should be quick to point out, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many games with original concepts turn out to be awful, and a game that combines time-tested features with stellar execution can do some serious business – see World of Warcraft, which I am more than willing to admit is an excellent game despite the fact that it added virtually nothing new to its genre.
The problem with Sins
isn't that it begs, borrows and steals; it's that it combines everything improperly and streamlines it so much that it whittles away its own soul. Simplicity in one area of a game is supposed to balance out complexity in another – the Total War
series, for instance, abstracts resource collection and diplomacy to allow more time for an intricate simulation of mass slaughter across detailed battlefields. Unfortunately, there is no such redeeming factor for this game. Sins
simplifies and abstracts everything and winds up becoming tedious instead of compelling, a game polished to a mirror finish by experienced professionals but containing little more than a bare framework under the glossy exterior. It's a shame. I was waiting for a more accessible 4X space game to keep me from going back to the classics of yesteryear for the umpteenth time, but it seems that Sins
is not that game.