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...
(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...
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.
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.