The 12 Games Of Christmas: Sins of a Solar Empire

By RPS on December 11th, 2008 at 2:30 pm.


For the fourth game of Christmas my true blog gave to me…

It’s real-time space empire management! It’s… Sins Of A Solar Empire.

Jim: A real-time strategy game, but on a galactic scale. It was one of those games that I assumed I understood before I played it, but didn’t. The blubs seemed to make sense: just an RTS like any other, only bigger. Like a 4X game, only in real time. But that information couldn’t be accurately extrapolated into what it was actually like to play. Perhaps what I wasn’t expecting was the sheer pace of it when things began to kick off. In the middle stages of a game the breadth of attention required is astounding: the constant crisis management, with an Empire under constant bombardment by allies and enemies alike. It was just a shame that the AI never quite new when to quit…

Aside from this frenzed RTS clickery, what I think of when I bring Sins to mind is the tremendous zooming. If there is a true Long Zoom game, aside from Spore, then it is this (far more so than even Supreme Commander). With its protracted mouse-wheeling journeys in and out of your many solar systems, you cover a billion light-years in every game. Flying inwards to build, manage, observe, and fight, out again to move your omnipotent camera way to a wider picture, and then in for more micromanagement and stat-checking. I could feel like CPU getting tired, and wanting to have a nap.

This is one of those games where although the world is finely detailed and glossed with polygon techno-beauty, it’s actually a place where you manage swarms of icons, dividing them into batches and sending them off into space to battle other icons against a space-gas background. That sounds terrible. It’s remarkably engrossing, especially because you know that your eye can rapidly rush inwards from abstract galactic map to the fire-and-steel clash of starships in the void.

Your solar empire – and it spans many suns – grows precociously, usually through colonisation, regularly through war, and seldom by diplomacy, although that does feature (particularly via your trade and culture options). Building transmitters in the depth of space, watching hordes of traders head off into the void – it was a splendid superficial illusion of there really being little people on those planets.

Anyway: war. Fortunately for us the combat process is just about well-versed enough enough to keep your focused on the rock, paper, scissors, (beam laser, nuclear death cannon, hyperbolic-ultrabomb 5000) to give the fights some challenge, and therefore some meaning. While it’s a bit hit and miss, there’s something here to master, particularly in taking on an opponents’ (AI or human) mad tactics with a rapid change of your own. Often it comes down to the kinds of problems that real armies face in war: how quickly can you move? Where are you based? If you deploy fast light ships, are they really going to be able to stop the enemy fleet before it strikes a precious planet? When you pull off a battle with a force that probably isn’t cut out for the job you’ve given it, but it manages anyway (usually thanks to a heroic capital ship), then you do feel a flicker of achievement. The battles are regular, and often quite horrendous in scope, with your planet getting devastated by orbital attack as you desperately engage enemy fleets at close range with missiles and laser-death.

Heroic is the right word for the capital ships too, as they rapidly become the focus of your struggles. There are multiple factors of growth within your empire: your tech tree grows and then blossoms, giving you new ships and new technologies. As it does so your capital ships evolve and mature into incredible instruments of death. Their victories are titanic and their death-throes extended. When capital ships go head to head it is a clash of space-bound giants. These are the hero characters of any other RTS meeting toe to toe. Atomic bombs, beam lasers the size of solar flares. It’s stirring stuff.

Sins is just simplistic enough for me to play it as a bulky strategic shooter – the way I like my RTS games – but also complex enough for you to feel like an entire afternoon plunged into its abyss isn’t wasted. I’m sure that when the Great Computer In The Sky judges me after my death it will criticise millions of the seconds I spent playing lesser games, but I think he’ll be okay with Sins.

Kieron: Stardock had an impressive year – while Sins got the majority of the press (and deserved a whole lot more), their second expansion pack for Galactic Civilizations 2, the Twilight of the Arnor was my favourite turn-based game of the year. It’s also one of the games which I wished that I’d found more time to play. I kinda feel the same about Sins, and I played it much more.

What I most find appealing about Sins is that it’s a game that’s perfectly at home at what it wants to be. When I interviewed him this year, Brad Wardell talked about how the developers he likes to work with should share a belief in they’re engineers rather than artists. It’s that sort of eye for the game which makes Sins work, and perhaps paradoxically gives it is unique vision. Someone more interested in plain old marketing wouldn’t even dream of releasing an RTS game without a traditional single-player campaign. An engineer, when looking at the problem at how to make the best game of this sort, realises a traditional SP campaign is i) both a totally different thing from the key game-elements of the game ii) so would divide the budget, leading to a worse game in the fundamental ways and anyway iii) the SP-campaign is fundamentally not that interesting, so fuck it. Efficiency, elegance and other words beginning with “E”. That’s Sins all over.

The engineer-over-art thing also continues into its after-play support. Sins, at release, while a fascinating designed game, wasn’t exactly transparent – I enjoyed scaring the living shit out of PC Gamer’s Tim Edwards with the who-counters-who sheet. Since release, it’s been tweaked and polished and generally altered with a complete lack of ego. And for a game to be as enormous as Sins is, that’s managed to discover a niche audience that’s actually much bigger than many more apparently-maintream genres, to remain with that attitude’s also inspiring in a way.

I also like the long ships with the lasers that fire out of their nose.

, .

41 Comments »

  1. Nimic says:

    I never managed to really get into Sins. I didn’t try that hard, but it just didn’t seem like my type of game (and I’m a huge strategy fan).

  2. Freudian Slip says:

    If you’d like to know how little is widely known about Sins here it is; I thought it was a 3rd expansion for GalCiv… And I play GalCiv!

  3. Ergates says:

    This has been on my wishlist for a while – should probably get around to it after Crimbo. I’ll finish Fallout3 first though….

  4. qrter says:

    I started really liking Sins but then my enthusiasm quickly waned, sadly. It didn’t seem very deep on a strategy-level, which is a weird thing for me to say because I’m quite shit at strategy, so you’d think I’d like that. It was disappointing.

    Maybe I have been Playing The Game Wrong again. :(

  5. qrter says:

    Btw, just had a look at impulsedriven.com and Space Rangers 2 Complete is on offer for only €3,99/$3.99 and both GalCiv’s are €9,99/$9,99.

    Which is nice.

  6. Sid Clayman says:

    It was great but I got bored pretty quickly. Maybe because I didn’t touch multi-player and games were so long.
    Really I wanted a campaign and story…

  7. Mr Pink says:

    This is still sitting unopened on my desk (won it in a competition with a few other games). I will eventually give it the time it deserves, but Gal Civ 2 has been feeding my deep space urges rather too well up until now.

  8. Dizet Sma says:

    Even heavily modded to improve the combat, it still got a big meh from me. The combat looks pretty, but totally unrealistic, even for an SF title.

    Also the massive pirate lair full of uber-ships might be some ironic comment on DRM / Stardock, but it still mungs the game, even if you turn off the pirate raids.

  9. Gap Gen says:

    The closest thing to it I can think of is Rise of Nations. In both, the combat was a case of spamming units in the correct proportion, there was a basic tech tree, you build cities/colonies to advance your economy, and it’s all pretty sandboxy.

    I quite liked it, but not immensely. I played a few epic games and gave up, as most games ended up being vaguely samey. The capital ships were good, mind, standing out from the swarms of smaller ships.

  10. Axiin says:

    I’m also not a fan of Sins. Too simplistic for my tastes. Much like risk, It eventually just dissolves into who has the larger resource base to crank out more ships.

    I never finished a large game because, again much like risk, once you reach that threshold where you know, you are going to win, it’s just a matter of time, I get bored.

    I also hated that if you got stuck in a crummy area to begin with, there was no way you could complete with the AI.

  11. SwiftRanger says:

    If anything it should have had more things like pirates and such, more space anomalies, more 4X in other words. Its scale is bigger than SupCom but the zoom in the latter game feels a lot more fluid and natural.

    Anyway, it’s all about the big picture in SoaSE and its big fleets don’t disappoint from afar. I can’t wait to see what those three mini-addons will add to the game. I guess we probably have to wait till SoaSE II to see it coming close to a real 4X/RTS combo classic like Imperium Galactica.

  12. Kestrel says:

    I have been playing this from day 1. It’s awesome. Play online.

    I can’t deal with the slowness of Turn-based, but I like the depth. This gives you that depth in games that last an hour. Or 8 hours, if you prefer.

  13. Heliocentric says:

    $3.99 for the reboot expansion, F Yeah!

    Wait… £3.99=€3,99=$3.99

    Bleh… That’s not such a good deal now. I’ll think about it.

  14. qrter says:

    Still better than £19.95=€19.95=$19.95, I’d say.

  15. Heliocentric says:

    What’s the odds they’ll add tax on top when I pay?

    I swear, I’m getting a visa somewhere that’s not getting shafted by these companies, then I will buy games and at reasonable prices!

  16. qrter says:

    When I went to checkout no tax was added, just a clean €3,99. I’m in the Netherlands, though (although Steam always adds tax).

  17. Matt says:

    It was either this or GalCiv where the demo had no tutorial, and dumped you right in the middle of a deep, complex strategy sim, with no fucking clue of what everything bleeping at you was. Either way, it somewhat put me off.

    However, I do feel obliged to point out that Sins of a Solar Empire is a bloody fantastic name. Well done them chaps.

  18. Heliocentric says:

    This is bull. But i’ll buy it. But impulse will find itself making no money off me if it carries on like this. I’ve been eyeing up hinterland but i swear everytime i look at it it costs more. Stupid gordon brown, stupid british pound, stupid stupid stupid! I already own sr2 but no i’ll buy the game again! I’m doing it for the intrinsic patching as much as for desire of the game content.

  19. Premium User Badge

    Fede says:

    @qrter: thanks a lot for finding out the offer, 3.99€ is really dirt cheap for game+expansion

    @Heliocentric: it seems they do that only for the games on special offers, I tried to add other games to the cart and with them the price changed

  20. Richard Beer says:

    I rather liked Sins, but only because I really, really put the effort in. At first I dropped it pretty quickly: the lack of a single-player option dashed my “Ooo it’s like Homeworld again!” dreams and that took some getting over.

    Once I had another go, climbed the enormous learning curve and peaked over the other side into the abyss of strategy beyond it became infinitely more rewarding and I lost hours in a variety of large scrimmages and battles.

    That being said, a part of me is still disappointed it wasn’t Homeworld. Although you’ve largely dismissed the SP side of games like this in the article, Homeworld spoke to me from the moment a choral Agnus Dei gave life to the death of a planet in the intro sequence, until the final battle at journey’s end. It was classic stuff and I still want more.

  21. qrter says:

    This is bull. But i’ll buy it. But impulse will find itself making no money off me if it carries on like this. I’ve been eyeing up hinterland but i swear everytime i look at it it costs more.

    You’re right, it is ridiculous. Anyway, I bought Hinterland on Steam, myself – but there you’ll get slapped with the tax hand.

    At first I dropped it pretty quickly: the lack of a single-player option dashed my “Ooo it’s like Homeworld again!” dreams and that took some getting over.

    I remember Stardock talking about part of the upcoming expansions being a singleplayer campaign, one with missions and a kind of story, I mean.

    Here we go, Wired blog last april:

    “While he couldn’t nail down a date for the expansion pack’s release, Mr. Wardell did mention that the expansion would include some much-requested features including a “full on campaign” mode as well as new playable factions.”

  22. Heliocentric says:

    Also sins is awesome i must add. But suffers a little from “he who manages his economy best wins” rather than feeling like a war where each inch of space is desperately battled over. There are a few end game technologies which are win buttons. But hell, its a must try.

  23. Frans Coehoorn says:

    Spent 12+ hours on games with 3 AI and two friends. Did it in three days or so. Good times, good times.

  24. Down Rodeo says:

    I did mean to get this but then didn’t; I have picked up GalCiv II though. Like other people here I might get it when I have more time. Like when I retire.

  25. Chris R says:

    I never played Sins or Age of Conan, EVEN THOUGH I BOUGHT BOTH and have them sitting on my desk, still in their little boxes.

    I’m a horrible horrible person, I know. :(

    Once L4D dies down a bit, I’ll give Sins a whirl.

    Ps. I still haven’t played Fallout 3 yet, because I know I don’t have the time! haha.

  26. ArtyArt says:

    …to add a little to the confusion over the Impulse pricing: although Space Rangers 2 supposedly costs 3.99 €, I only have to pay 3.07 € when paying via Paypal. Thus, the dollar price is the right one, yay!

    And I haven’t tried SoaSE yet. It’s on the list. The long, long wishlist…

  27. RichP says:

    Sins is on the top of my “must play” list. As soon as I finish my massive backlog…

    Anyway, it’s heartening that good, epic stat games are still being made for the PC. Not all is lost.

  28. subedii says:

    Sins is an awesome game, and really comes into its own online. The scope of games is HUGE, and it’s best played with people you’re familiar with. What’s important to understand is that whilst diplomacy is a little rudimentary (out of necessity, and keeping the pace of the game), it’s also very essential in playing against other players. There WILL be last minute betrayals, and often help from unexpected quarters.

    Someone else on a forum I visit made a comment I wholly agree with: The game’s at its best when you don’t know whether the person you’re sharing your resources with is ALSO the one putting the pirate bounties on your head. :)

  29. Heliocentric says:

    Nice i’ll try that. A use for pay pal after all.

  30. Funky Badger says:

    Helio: unfortunately/fortunately that’s how real war works*

    *Industrilised war between states anyway,not that there are going to be any more of them anymore, but I digress…

  31. roBurky says:

    When I played the demo, I didn’t get through the tutorial. Watching the health bars of ships get worn down ever so slowly just made it seem so tedious and slow.

  32. Man in a Hat says:

    “Knew” not “new”, jeez. This is why spellcheck is not a substitute for proofreading. Way to break the immersion, guys.

  33. jackflash says:

    Sins is a gem. Can’t way to play Entrenchment, the first expansion for it. This is a studio worth throwing money at. I mean, they develop deep games solely for the PC? Who does that any more!

    Surprised how many people on this board didn’t seem to understand or enjoy the game. How you could call it shallow, strategy wise, is quite beyond me. Just turn off the pirates and it’s lovely. It’s like L4D, though – play with people you know.

  34. Heliocentric says:

    not £3.99 but £2.74 GBP hah, paypal liberates the customer of the shackles of expected payment!

    I’ve barely played sins 20 hours but I’ll likely get the expansion and play it 20 more. Its no Homeworld 3, but that’s because of the 2 axis movement and the lack of momentum in the ships (travel without jumping is never epic distances). jumping in Homeworld was a costly alternative to space trucking, that made it a strategic choice. Relic need to get their crap together and stop all this WMGs.

  35. 8radson says:

    I’ve played homeworld as well, but SINS is much more intuitive. Umm, funny the article didnt once mention the company that actually made the game – Ironclad
    how bout some credit given where credit due

  36. malkav11 says:

    I thought Sins was really neat for a few go-rounds, but ultimately it feels pretty empty – it doesn’t take at all long to see the basics of playing each faction and the AI doesn’t require cunning tactics to defeat. I would really, really like a singleplayer campaign, because skirmishes palled long ago and I never have had any interest in playing against other people.

  37. James O says:

    I really want to love Sins, as I love my spaceship games, but like many others here, I just found it too shallow for engaging multiplayer action (I’m used to Company of Heroes myself.)

    One of the central issues I found was that economics rendered most of the game’s toys and upgrades non-viable. Most of the tech in Sins is just not cost efficient – I crunched the numbers a while back, and the first damage upgrade for the TEC Long-Range Missile Frigate was not worth buying until you had something like 50 frigates deployed (it was more efficient damage-per-cost-wise to just buy another frigate up until then.) The upgrades past the first required really absurd fleet sizes (100+ for the second level, more still for higher tech) to be economically viable. Most of the economic techs/planet upgrades in the game take literally an hour or more to pay for themselves. There was basically one viable high-level tech in the game (outside of the fleet-cap upgrades and ship blueprints,) and that was the Vasari “Returning Armada” power (quite easy to tech to in a team game with resource tributing,) which provided the player an unlimited supply of ships for free (I hear they are fixing that in a beta, however.)

    With teching being generally not economically sound, you instead invest all your resources into ships. Unfortunately, I felt that central aspect fell short, too. Capital ship research and construction is so absurdly expensive that there’s no reason (beyond style points) to build one after you pick your initial (free) capship. The counter system in the game was not well-balanced (at the time I played, at least – I played during the first 3-4 patches,) and the dominant strategy was to just spam your race’s long-range frigate, because nothing else countered it effectively for the cost (aside from even more long-range frigates, or end-game heavy frigates.) With no special abilities to manage, and with unit preservation made very difficult due to Newtonian physics (after a ship eats one salvo, even if you immediately order it to retreat, it will die before it can escape, as it starts its retreat by flying towards the enemy to make an arc,) it ultimately just came down to who could throw the bigger fleet of long-range frigates at the other.

    Overall, I think my biggest problem was the game’s incredible inertia – early victories are extremely consequential, because the most important thing in the game is the size of your fleet (i.e. there’s not much leeway for using smart tactics as a force multiplier to help you regain the lead.) Thus, once a lead gets established, it’s extremely hard to reverse. Once a planet is colonized, it’s extremely laborious to take it down (and the siege ships are horribly overpriced,) so there’s not much use in small raids – only giant Jutland-style engagements. Fleets move so slowly across such great distances that you cannot really adapt to changing strategies in a timely fashion. Everything that happens in the game happens slowly, and takes a very long time to reverse, leading to un-fun slippery slopes and a less dynamic match.

    In a casual setting, however, there’s a lot to like in Sins, and it’s fun against the AI, since it’s dumb and does not use optimal strategies (allowing you to play with more units.) Online, however, it seems just a bit too shallow to really foster interesting competitive play (though the Pirate mechanic was quite excellently designed; unfortunately, it loses its teeth quickly once everyone has a standing navy.)

  38. theleif says:

    @ James O
    You should try it again. The 1.1 patch has fixed most of your concerns. Returning Armada costs resources to use, the A.I has improved a lot and all ships has been tweaked.

    And i think your number crunching skills might be flawed :)

  39. Fumarole says:

    Perhaps more time playing and less time bean-counting would make it more enjoyable.

  40. James O says:

    theleif: The math is sound, unless the prices have changed significantly since the first few months of release – if you want to increase your fleet DPS by 5%, you can do one of two things – you can increase your fleet size by 5%, or you can upgrade each existing frigate’s damage by 5%. TEC Long Range Missile frigates (LRMs) cost 250 credits/40 metal/20 crystal. 5% of that is 12.5/2/1. Going with credits here, the 600 credit cost of the tech is 48 times that. Verifying the numbers, 48 LRMs costs 12000 credits. Increasing your fleet size by 5% (2.4 more LRMs) to effect a 5% DPS increase would cost 600 credits, or in other words, the same as the tech cost. Past that point, building more LRMs gives you less DPM per credit than getting the tech would.

    I might give Sins another shot; the Returning Armada fix was much-needed. Still, the game still possesses great strategic and logistical inertia and is thus less dynamic than my preferred RTS (CoH,) so I wonder if some simple balance fixes will be enough for me. Maybe a very-very-very-very fast play speed…

    Fumarole, if you aren’t interested in playing optimally, that’s certainly fine. However, if you want to learn how to play effectively, you must do the math to know what strategies work; and that is where players like myself find enjoyment.

    Sadly, like so many other RTS games, most of the mechanics and damage tables are hidden or obscured in Sins (the various armor types are not mentioned anywhere in the manual, and understanding that table is the only way to know what counters what – did you know that scout and flak frigates are the intended counter to long-range frigates?)

  41. Sunjammer says:

    Fantastic game. I do wish the tech trees were longer and that the single player diplomacy wasn’t so completely unilateral. Yes please mr AI guy that i am currently bombing from orbit, i would like a few measly credits from you for shooting at someone else! It just broke the illusion for me.

    I hope the expansions add some more units to every empire. It consistently boils down to massing ridiculous numbers of the starting frigate unit with a few upgrades and throwing in some orbital bombardment units for kicks.

    Also, that name…