This is one of my favourite PC games of recent years and I really enjoyed playing and reviewing it. This review made its way around the internet and was the first review on Resonance to really pick up serious links and get the site a decent reputation for well written reviews.
Impending doom on the horizon for 2008 as PC gamers are once again reminded that the end is nigh. We’re all going to be sitting around crying onto our keyboards and buying Macs because, let’s face it, the consoles have won and that expensive hardcore PC you’ve got in front of you is now nothing but an overpriced internet terminal. At least, that’s what they would have us believe. Sometimes, especially during those dark, cold, post Christmas nights, it’s not so hard to believe there might be just a little bit of truth in all that talk. And then, through all that gloom and pessimism comes Sins of a Solar Empire, bursting onto the market like a Rapture Battlecruiser phase jumping into your unsuspecting face, and reminding us of everything we love about PC gaming.
There are going to be two types of people reading this review, and I can save one group some time right now. If you’ve already played Galactic Civilisations, you’re going to have a reasonably good idea of what to expect. That doesn’t mean GalCiv players are all going to instantly love Sins, but it does mean you can skip the next paragraph while I explain the virtues of an underappreciated genre.
Now, for the rest of you, a little more detail might be required as Sins isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. Sins is half an RTS game, half 4X game. 4X is a name of a type of game that is in the simplest of terms, a “turn based strategy”. It means eXpand, eXplore, eXterminate and eXploit. Really, that’s just someone trying to be clever and it doesn’t tell you much, so try to imagine a 4X game as working mostly like an RTS in slowdown. Each player moves separately, you can only do a limited amount each turn and you’re going to be working on a much larger scale. Most of the common themes though; base building, annihilating your enemies and resource management remain. Doing everything slowly means the genre might not be quite as nail biting or as suited for multiplayer, but it also means you can take more control over different parts of the strategy, leading to much greater depth.
So try to imagine this. A 4X game is a slowed down, more in depth version of an RTS, and an RTS is a sped up, more vacuous but lively version of a 4X game. Sins is a 4XRTS game. How does that work? Well, I’ve been playing it nearly nonstop for an entirely disrespectful period of time, and I’m still not exactly sure. It doesn’t sacrifice depth, and it doesn’t slow anything down. It just expects you to work twice as hard to achieve what you want to achieve, and even though you’re not quite sure exactly how to do all of things it bugs you about, you’ll keep trying and trying because Sins demands that you do it, and you don’t want to let it down.
The games story is, well... it’s there. In some form, at least. There’s one 4X game with a good story and its called Alpha Centauri. Anyone who has read a few of my reviews knows I put a huge amount of emphasis on plot and writing, but in a 4X game, I’ve found that other than the above mentoned Sid Meier game, it’s best to leave the plot out of it. There’s just about enough story there to get involved with it if you really try, but this is no space opera, and 4X games no more need a complex and emotional storyline than Pro Evolution. If you don’t agree with this, you’re probably going to like this next part even less; there’s no story mode at all. The virtues of this have been a little trickier to decide this time around, because although I generally believe that 4X campaigns are not worth the space on the disc, RTS games can really benefit from a well laid out story. From the FMV the story didn’t look like anything special, and although I have no evidence I’d like to believe the developers simply decided to focus on making the game as balanced and polished as possible instead of worrying about a campaign that would be over a long, long time before most people are going to get bored of the game.
So, strip out the plot, and you are left with three reasonably different races that use roughly the same type of ships and your standard paperrocksccisors RTS model. There’s a little bit of a lack of identity here. The races all have their own little strategies that you can employ in both multiplayer and single player, but despite being statistically different they don’t bring anything particularly unique to the game in terms of design or personality. That’s not to say any of the weapons or ship designs are poor in any respect, they are just underwhelmingly similar, and coupled with the lack of a real plot; it’s difficult to see the races differences as anything but colours on a screen. In short, the races have plenty of technical ability but a noticeable lack of flair.
Graphics are... spacey. They’re the best we’ve seen from the developers so far and lean more towards Homeworld than Galciv, and they’ve come with a camera that seems instantly practical. Space itself thankfully colourful but not to the point of it looking like a celestial rainbow, and there’s been obvious effort to make it look like anything but an endless void. Explosions and weapon effects are all a little too similar and feel a little cheap, but everything is clean enough. The unfortunate effect of games that focus on scale so much means most of us play with the game zoomed out quite some distance further than the graphics will appear, and end up using different logos and text based information on our units rather than zooming in and messing around trying to set up good looking shots for the gaming press. It’s just not all that practical to play Sins or any other large-scale RTS from any other angle.
This brings me to my single biggest criticism of the game. No, it’s not the balance or the AI or anything that I think is probably going to be jumped on quickly and fixed by Stardock with their usual professionalism and speed. It’s the horrible dullness of the combat itself. Not from a ‘combat in this game isn’t enjoyable’ perspective, it’s absolutely amazing in fact. It’s more that combat in the game isn’t enjoyable to watch. Ok, so making sure that no ship larger than the smallest fighters really do any moving at all makes it quite a bit easier to see what’s going on and command the troops, but how about a switch that makes it look like there’s a real firefight going on? Sure, the game has the now obligatory ‘cinematic mode’, but all that does it take away part of the UI, it doesn’t make the combat look any more dynamic of exciting. Space is 3D guys, and although setting the game on a 2D plane was most certainly the correct decision, it’s a little cheap to strip us of any real glamour in our battles, especially in a game that’s otherwise so brilliantly designed.
You can choose to play the game either on a random map, or on a scenario map. Some of the scenarios make some significant changes to gameplay, others don’t. You can customise who will be playing with you at what level and on what team, but unfortunately gone is the in depth race customisation of GalCiv2, perhaps in fear of balancing issues. Whatever option you choose though, you’ll quickly (loading times are virtually nonexistent) be staring at your brand new home world. The main idea of the game is to conquer the other players, and quick expansion is normally the key to a later victory, so you’ll start building scouts, looking into research, building colony ships, starting to build up your defences, finding out where your opponents are, choosing a capital ship, and so on. All those decisions you can normally make at a snails pace on a usual 4X game now all have to be made at the same time as ten other decisions, all equally as important. The pace is utterly relentless from the first capital ship to the last orbital bombardment.
The technology tree (half unique to each race) and the capital ships which work on a RPG-type levelling system take up most of your time outside the usual base building and issuing orders. Each planet holds a finite and relatively small amount of buildings which are sorted into ‘Logistics’ and ‘Tactical’, and those limited slots mean you are constantly trying to expand so you can harvest more resources and research new technologies, which need a larger number of labs to build. This is not a game for those RTS gamers that like to build a base, put a wall around it and wait out the impending war; if you don’t push forward, you will die, sooner or later. The game AI is brutal and mostly intelligent. It’s scaled very well, newcomers should find a good level of challenge on easy, and hard should cause a problem even if you’ve been playing RTS games for years. Play for long enough and you’ll see the computer fall into the same traps over and over, but it mimics human behaviour well enough.
Once you’ve got over the difficult curve (the four sparse tutorials not enough for newcomers but sufficient enough for the rest of us) and played a few games, you’ll be able to worry more about killing your enemy than worrying exactly how to use the research tree, or effectively use some of the games more in depth features, like culture (which works a little like influence did in Galactic Civilisations). Sins somehow manages to marry the speed and tension of an RTS with the depth of a 4X game, which should tell you a lot about the UI and stunning design. Micromanagement other than build queues is really not the problem you might think it could become in larger games, and being able to control nearly everything in a system simply by clicking on the planet makes a huge difference. The game also uses a tabbed resource browser on the left of the screen to allow quick access to every single unit you have control over, although I never really used it much. If I had not been graced with a large widescreen monitor, I think it might have even have annoyed me a little.
I can explain the details of the game and its many, many positive features, but you won’t learn a lot. Everyone who has ever played an RTS or 4X game in their life should at least have a go with Sins, and anyone with a soul is likely to be physically unable to make that first ‘go’ last for less than three or four hours. The game is gripping and it should be a legal requirement to have a real time clock displayed in the corner so at least I’m fully aware of the hours that I’ve managed to sink into it without realising quite how easy is to just lose yourself in its charm.
Not since Warcraft 3 have I cared about individual units so much, not since Supreme Commander have we seen something with such impressive scale, not since Galactic Civilisation have we experienced so much depth and replayability and not since Homeworld 2 has space looked so good. Sin takes all of those games, ramps everything up to the extremes and demands that you play it until your loved ones forget who you are. Many gamers have been waiting for years for the 4x genre to meet the RTS genre and go out for drinks, and it’s worked better than even the most positive gamers could have hoped. Now all we need is for someone to make a Babylon 5 total conversion...