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The 12 Games Of Christmas: Sins of a Solar Empire

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.

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