I love a good strategy game - real time, preferably. In the past though, I've always found myself less inclined to enjoy the space based RTS's as they
quite often seemed to have trouble capturing that same playability seen in traditional RTS's. Well, except the Homeworld series - that was one space
RTS that balanced the fun and addictive nature of RTS's with the complexity you expect with space games, and there really hasn't been a game quite like it
since, at least for me.That is
until I recently got
to check out a beta build of Sins of a Solar Empire. Although not coming from big time industry heavyweights in developer Ironclad Games and publisher
Stardock Entertainment, if RTS or more specifically space RTS is your thing, this game is on pace to being a big time gem when it sees release in early
Sins of a Solar Empire is selling itself as basically the complete package when it comes to the space RTS genre. The game breaks its
gameplay down into 5 categories - Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate, and Diplomacy. It would have been nicer if that last one could start with the
letter 'E' to keep the theme going, but this isn't a power point presentation for a pyramid scheme. Anyway, it isn't hard to understand what each key
component means, but lets summarize - You explore to find new planets,
star systems, enemies etc. You expand your empire to explored areas. You can exploit trade markets and spend money on bounty placements on your
discovered enemies. You can amass fleets of combat craft to exterminate those who oppose your will, and finally you can use diplomacy to form cease
fires, share trading routes, and even share intelligence with other factions. All of this forms to create the gameplay in Sins, and I must say, going
off the beta build I got to play around with, it forms
together very well.
The core gameplay is basically
that of your traditional RTS - you select units, move units, attack enemy units, and do just about everything else as you'd expect in an RTS, but there
is much more on offer here than just ordering units, moving them around, and attacking enemies. You have a space empire to build and this is probably what
you'll actually be spending most of your gameplay time on in Sins. Depending on the map chosen, the galaxy you reside in could have many planets and
systems, not to mention a huge amount of resources to acquire. In an attempt to keep things rather simple, the game does only feature two mineable resources
- metal and crystal - and of course a currency 'credit' resource which you generate from taxes on your planets, selling resources on the trade market, and so
forth. While two limited resources might seem a little low, this just means metal and crystal are that much more important to have individually, as just
about everything in the game from units to
research upgrades requires a certain amount of each, along with 'credit' of course.
The most striking impression reached in my time with the beta was how integral building your space empire is in this game, which is a nice change from
some RTS's that focus more on combat prowess,as that can grow tiring pretty quickly. The simple fact is, in Sins, you won't dominate a star
system let alone galaxy without having some serious resources behind your war/diplomacy machine, and this translates into controlling more planets for
more population taxes and more mineable resources,
but of course to do this, you will be required to expand - likely into areas already controlled by an enemy faction - so what you have is a tricky
balance between offensive and defensive strategies playing out at the same time to enhance your empire, but not so quickly you stretch your forces thin and
leave your own planets and regions open for attack. Gaining control of more planets and regions also means more capacity to your fleet unit count which in
turn means you have to master the empire expansion
elements of the game to really even have a chance on the battlefields (or whatever the space equivalent is for that term). Keeping this balance is very
key to success, whether you're playing online or against the CPU, the latter by the way being quite impressive AI wise. While I'm sure the AI is constantly
being refined by the guys at Ironclad before release, even in the beta you could see clear signs of solid AI, ranging from smart reactions from CPU factions,
to your own units utilizing their own abilities
by themselves without excessive micro management.
Gameplay as diverse and detailed
as this will definitely need a user interface to match, and it seems Sins doesn't fall short here either. The UI will take some getting used to,
but the same can be said for any game that features a lot of detail and control gizmos. Sins deploys a reasonably standard interface for those
experienced in the genre when it comes to the basics, although one slightly more unique addition can be seen in the "Empire Tree". Since the game
can span many
planets in multiple star systems, having access to all units at any given time without having to manually zoom out, navigate to their physical
locations, and zoom in would be ideal, and Sins pulls it off in rather spectacular fashion - the left side of the screen is occupied by a
scrollable tree view that lists every planet/asteroid etc that you either own or know of, and from here you can expand and select individual units with ease,
and minimize that area of the tree when you're done. Perhaps
the best achievement of this feature is its obscurity - thanks to a transparent background it never seems to get in the way, so when you're not
using it you'll hardly even recognize it's there.
And that's just one impression based upon the beta's interface - while more detail and refinement is promised for the retail release when it comes to
certain screens such as the research screen and diplomacy screen, even at their current state they do the job more than well. There is also a bevy of
advanced control and function mechanisms included for the more hardcore gamers such as strike groups, shortcut keys to many in-game
functions, rally points, order queues, easy displaying of unit line of sight distances,
ROE, waypoints, and many more advanced tips and tricks that will allow the seasoned veterans and enthusiasts to get the most out of the UI and controls
in the game.
Despite being a pretty early beta, I've gotta say the engine being used in the game was also very slick and smooth. The fully 3D world was easy to
navigate in full 360 degree motion although most unit movement will naturally be on the X and Y axis. The visuals are about as you'd expect for this type of
game when it comes to individual unit detail, but the effects and environmental graphics are slightly more impressive, rounding off a pretty nice looking
game that could be looking even better by retail release.
The best part though was the silky smooth framerates and rock solid stability even in this build, which are both huge positives, particularly the former as
there are few potential snags as damaging for an RTS as poor engine performance - even when the unit count multiplied in the heat of battle while zoomed in,
Sins beta seemed to play fine.
Sins of a Solar Empire may not be the PC's biggest discussion point even during the usually quite uneventful early year release schedule, but
perhaps it should be, because I can't help but come away extremely impressed with the game even during its beta stages. The gameplay comes together superbly,
the engine used is very powerful, and the appeal to both inexperienced and experienced RTS/space RTS gamers alike is definitely on track for widespread
success. Come early February, I suspect we'll be
hearing more from this game as it has the making of a very good strategy title, let alone space strategy title. I'd claim it as a "Jack of All Trades
Master of None" type of space RTS, but I'm not even sure that will adequately end up doing the game justice.
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