Games For 2008: Sins of a Solar Empire

By Kieron Gillen on January 23rd, 2008 at 11:58 pm.

Stars!

As always, we are two nations divided by a common language. Despite being online and PC gaming for a clear decade, my first reaction to hearing anyone say 4X is to think of cheap Australian Lager rather than the ol’ explore, expand, exploit, exterminate of strategy games. Doesn’t make me love them any less, of course. This is one. But it’s different. How to describe it? Oh, let’s be cheap and nasty. Since Sins of a Solar Empire is being published by Stardock, even though it’s being developed by the Sierra/Take2/Rockstar alumni at Ironclad, let’s imagine the stunning Galactic Civilization 2, but in real time.

Before you play it, you may think that a little overwhelming. And, from my experiences in the Beta, you’ll be right. Just that it’s in an “overwhelmingly exciting” sort of way.

Okay, the GalCiv2 but in real-time thing is slightly over-selling it. It’s nowhere near as complicated as GalCiv2. This is because, for a human brain, even with a pause key, your mind would be reduced to slurry if you attempted to wrestle with such a thing. But the mass of options you’d see in a game are there. Like, say, trade routes to boost money. Or broadcasting satellites to spread your borders through propaganda rather than firepower. Or a much more complicated than usual Diplomacy system, including the ability to put a cash bounty on another players’ head to encourage people to attack them. Or NPC pirates who sweep out of their closed systems to wreck havoc. And tech-trees. Great big fucking tech-trees.

The game does plays out in the exploring and exploiting structure. While on the set maps, you’ll know where the best planets are, starting on a random one means you have that delicious nosing around the galaxy and seeing what’s where, before getting stuck into more heavy-weight conflict. Resources are always tight, so with so many options available there’s a lot to think about. In the research area alone there are two separate (and really quite broad) tech-trees for civilian and military equipment, plus a third one for the alien artifacts you can find if you explore the planets you colonise. There’s a lot to do. There’s a lot which has stopped me going online and playing against people, because I’m still trying to master the tech-tree. It’s one which you can really get your brain stuck into.

It’s also, for an more cerebral RTS, it’s an attractive and atmospheric game too. Yes, the shot at the top is a cheated one by zooming in and having a nose. In play, you’ll be zooming in that close to have a nose, to out to a full galaxy view…

Stars!

(Which is a pretty small galaxy, incidentally. You can have ones with multiple stars it so 10 players can fight it out at once.)

Before zooming back in to see what’s going down in the battles, like this fairly-illustrative not-posed-to-look-sexy of what an in-battle one looks like…

Stars!

It’s good at atmosphere. Stuff blowing up is always a high-point – worth noting micromanagement is very much at a minimum, with special abilities normally best left to deploy by themselves – but it has other strengths. When Jim passed through the room he was visibly yelping like the Eve-Addict he is at the sight of one of my heftier fleets lined up at the edge of a system, then all warped out together.

The capital ships are another nice touch. While you have a strict fleet-size limit for everything – expanded by upgrading each of your systems – the incredibly valuable Capital ships need to have their cap increased manually, by researching one crew at a time from the tech-tree (Oh – and the height you can climb up a tree is also limited by the number of military research centres you have constructed). This means you’re choosy over which of the five you build for each slot – a support one, or a more general battler, or the long-distance bruiser who specialises in performing orbital genocide. Ah, yes, Orbital genocide. That’s what it’s all about.

Here’s an orbital genocide I committed earlier.

Stars!

Reservations are few at this stage – primarily, Ironclad have concentrated its effort on the skirmish (and multiplayer) side at the expense of the campaign. That is, it doesn’t have any traditional campaign of linked missions. This is always a touchy point in RTS games anyway: where really is the heart of the game? It’s the game, surely, and that’s expressed most clearly in a skirmish map if you’re talking single-player… but there’s a nagging sense that without a meta-level of some sort, there may be a limit to its lasting appeal. You want progress. But I honestly don’t know yet. As a general principle, in a world of developers with limited resources, I’d rather they threw their full efforts in doing something as well as possible rather than just filling in the back-of-box checklist. The second reservation is that, at least in the games I’ve played, that it’s clear that I’ve won as I sweep the board of their final settlements – it’s a traditional genre fault, but I’d like to see the option to select AI who throw down the white flag rather than fighting to the last alien when they know things are hopeless.

But, putting that aside, this is looking enormously promising. It’s an RTS which is clearly decided to set off on its own direction – deep space, deep strategy – and is set on the cusp of being something that quietly defines its own mini-genre. In other words, 4X is always a bad name for this, if not for spelling, because something this elegant, maximalist and specialist shouldn’t ever risk being connected to some cheap-and-easy getting-pissed juice.

Let it keep its dignity: Sins of a Solar Empire is looking like a single-malt of a strategy game. I’m looking forward to savouring it when they crack open the cask in February.

Stars!

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32 Comments »

  1. DigitalSignalX says:

    Just for one blazingly ecstatic second when seeing this article and that first screencap, I thought someone had finally gotten around to making a modern version of Homeworld.

    *sigh*

    That aside, this does show some promise. The Galciv titles are a great pedigree for exactly this sort of venture.

  2. Therlun says:

    I certainly hope the Galciv 2 comparison is just some writing mumbo jumbo…

    Not that Galciv 2 is a bad game per se… but it is more a management oriented traditional 4X game, while SoSE should be more of a “decision based” one [some hope here].

    I’ll be very happy if they focus on MP skirmish, although right now there seem to be no chance for any form of coop in the initial release.

  3. Kieron Gillen says:

    Well, you can play humans against AI in teams.

    KG

  4. Hypocee says:

    Stay excited; these guys are Homeworld alumni, Stardock’s just doing the publishing. The basic story: Barking Dog did Homeworld Cataclysm (the hardcore hard one) and then got bought up or went under or both – in any case, everybody in any sort of leadership position jumped ship at roughly the same time, and both simultaneously and independently decided to take their space RTS experience into a jab at space ‘RT4X’ as Ironclad are calling it. Roughly half of them formed Kerberos, and made 2006′s…unique…Sword of the Stars. The other half formed Ironclad and made SoaSE.

    The story’s actually pretty similar too, now that I think of it – at least insofar as one race was kicked out, went all Fremen and now they’re reinvading.

  5. Chis says:

    I would play Homeworld again. If the average mission didn’t take 5 hours to complete. Well, that’s what it felt like.

    Still a bloody awesome game though, and a particularly beautiful vocal take on Agnus Dei / Adagio For Strings.

  6. Rich Powers says:

    Humans against AI coop is always fun in RTS games…or 4XRTS…or whatever.

    Homeworld meets GalCiv (at least according to most of the marketing material)? Sounds pretty damn awesome to me.

  7. fluffy bunny says:

    “and made 2006’s…unique…Sword of the Stars.”

    By “unique”, I hope you mean “brilliant” or something like that, because that’s what it is. :)

  8. Bobsy says:

    If I can’t design my own ships, I’m not interested. Bah!

  9. Iain says:

    Sounds like a bit like a cross between GalCiv2 and Haegemonia: Legions of Iron. This is not a bad thing, given that they’re my two favourite space-based strategies from the last five years.

  10. Turin Turambar says:

    I would say this game is more a Space RTS than a 4X game. 75% RTS – 25% 4X. Not a bad thing, just clearing the genre and focus of the game.

    Because in lots of sites i am reading some vague descriptions that makes the game like a Civ/MoO/GalCiv 4x game but in real time with battles. I think that’s not the case.

  11. cliffski says:

    This looks flipping cool. when is out eh? eh?

  12. fluffy bunny says:

    Turin: Despite being real-time, this is definitely a game I’d put in the 4X-genre. Granted, I’ve only played the beta for a couple of hours, but that’s my impression at least.

  13. Grandma Pod says:

    Wow. It looks like ascendancy crossed with Homeworld. I AM WET WITH ANTICIPATION.

  14. Kieron Gillen says:

    Cliffski: Early february.

    KG

  15. Andrew says:

    Cliffski – February, it seems. KG is ‘looking finished’ to it then.

    This does look very nice, though. Like the sound of it, particularly the capital ship stuff.

  16. Andrew says:

    Oh, shit off, Kieron! Who asked you, eh?

  17. martin says:

    i will get this game and drool like a teenager that plays the witcher to see all those nudity cards until SoSE is released (btw, sosse or soße is the german word for sauce so i can say that SoSE brings some new sauce to the 4x genre, damn i am funny :)

  18. moromete says:

    I never played Gal Civ 2′s campaigns and don’t care about them… all I care is nicely produced deep and fun space 4X and Sins is definitely looking as it can provide…

  19. Hypocee says:

    fluffy bunny: Heh. Well, I own a copy of SotS, I love it and I’m proud of it, but I saw no need to derail this place with all the multifarous hate which it also so richly deserve[d/s]. It’s a three angels three devils game and no mistake, eh?

  20. Geoff says:

    Fantastic. High hopes here.
    But I do hope I can make my peace with the macro over micro bit. I tried to like Master of Orion 3, I really did. I was intrigued by the notion of really macro-managing one of these 4X types. But what I discovered was: if the details are there, I WANT to manage them, I care about the details that I know are down there.
    If Dawn of War gave me the option to spend 10 minutes customizing every single troop or building I constructed, I’d feel bad not doing it. Even if the default loadout was pretty good, I would know that I could be making it better.
    But there’s also no way for me to avoid this game. Complains about innovation and originality don’t change the fact that if someone was to publish a slightly shinier version of Master of Orion 2 every year, I’d buy it every time.

  21. DigitalSignalX says:

    @Hypocee, thanks for the info, I will definitely keep the flame burning for it. and will try and find a copy of SotS to try out. The only other title I’ve played from Lighthouse was “Avencast” which was very enjoyable in a sort of a Harry Potter kicks some ass sort of way.

    @Geoff “if someone was to publish a slightly shinier version of Master of Orion 2 every year, I’d buy it every time.”

    - lol exactly my same sentiments :)

  22. Garth says:

    “By “unique”, I hope you mean “brilliant” or something like that, because that’s what it is. :)”
    My ex-girlfriend did work on that – she’s actually one of the voices.

    I should probably get it at some point…

  23. Craig (Ironclad) says:

    Hey guys, Just came across the site. Thanks for the review Kieron! I’d be happy to answer any questions you guys have about the game directly – here or in the official forum.

  24. mike Lombardo says:

    I have played the beta of this game for months. The developers have gone to great lengths to listen to us in incorporating features and playability into this game. The visuals are stunning, and I have not had a bug in my system causing any problems for over 90 days. (THAT’S A BUG FREE BETA NOT GAMMA).
    Even as a beta this game has been more fun than many other finished games. So much so that it has drawn me into playing it online, something that I have never bothered to do with other games.
    With the finished AI expected in the retail release I fully anticipate this game causing a decrease in the United States rate of productivity as many people ignore and neglect their work to play SoaSE.

    This game is more exciting than was SimCity back in it’s day and even more fun then Civ IV.

  25. Michael K. Campbell says:

    Yeah, this game is actually insanely promising. I bumped into it a few months ago and was initially drawn into it as I thought it was a cross between Homeworld and a 4x game.

    But that kind of comparison really doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. This game is really an RTS – but in most cases when people talk about RTS, they really should say real time TACTICAL – as RTSs are usually about twitch skills and massing ogres and such (which, i’ll be honest: i love). But this is much more strategic. And vast. Insanely vast. Yet surprisingly manageable.

    The best way I can really think to describe it would be to take the killer graphics and ‘spacey-ness’ of homeworld, and mix it in with a killer game of war3 that is on a MASSIVE map where the game can just keep going and going. Yet, amazingly, the game is still challenging all throughout, and you slowly watch your focus shift from micro-management to strategic management.

    And no, I’m not a paid shill or anything. I ponied up $50 to get my hands on the beta, and i’ve just been blown away at the potential this game shows even in beta. (The game is MUCH more stable than most other games I play – even in beta), and as a programmer I can say that this game just has a VERY clean feel to it in terms of the engine, flow, and execution. For example, I’ve got a saved game running with 5 stars, probably close to 100 ‘planets’, oodles and oodles and oodles of ships and stations and so on, and the saved game loads in 30 seconds or so (which is really ‘slow’ for this game). But once everything loads, the system is INSANELY responsive.

    In fact, I’d say that even if the game weren’t well done from a playabililty standpoint (it’s got this killer approach to resource utilization and unit caps/etc that constantly keep you feeling like you’re stretching to stay ahead of the competition), that it would be well worth the price of the game JUST to see a) how clean/nice the engine is, b) what they’ve done in terms of usability (i.e. there’s no mini-map but i can drill into a single ship with 3-4 clicks – no matter WHERE i’m at), and c) what they’ve done with letting you flawlessly zoom from macro-to-micro without skipping a beat.

  26. alphaxion says:

    Whenever 4x gets mentioned I always think of the awesome Stars! that I used to play back when I first got myself onto the net.

    Such a shame that the sequel turned into a miscarriage and never made it out of beta. :(

    This sounds like a promising evolution of that game and definitely something to keep an eye on :)

  27. Jim Rossignol says:

    I’m on the beta for this now too. It’s exactly the kind of level of complicated I want. Just big enough to feel like there’s a lot of master, just small enough that your brain doesn’t bubble out of your ears when it kicks off. Really, really excellent. This should be one of the big games of 2008.

  28. GrandMasterJ says:

    Alphaxion: Cheers to a fellow Stars! player. Still pick that one up and play for a month every so often.

    The design team seems really intent on getting this right and listening to what players want. I’m excited about this game and hope it has great success!

  29. Lightbulb says:

    “If I can’t design my own ships, I’m not interested. Bah!”

    Because what every online game needs is massive balance issues…