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Sins of a Solar Empire Member Review for the PC

3scapism By:
3scapism
02/18/08
PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION
EMAIL TO A FRIEND
GENRE RTS 
PLAYERS 1- 10 
PUBLISHER Stardock 
DEVELOPER Ironclad 
RELEASE DATE  
T Contains Fantasy Violence, Mild Language

What do these ratings mean?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in space no-one can hear you scream. Ignore that noise; it's just Jane Austen getting fidgety in her grave. As if to prove that movie quality somehow directly correlates with tagline quality these days, the poster for Aliens vs. Predator 2: Requiem proudly proclaims that 'on Earth everyone can hear you scream': what, even the people in China...? Because I'm not sure I can scream that loud, guys. If there is any truth in Requiem's claim you will, at 10:26pm GMT last night, have heard me screaming. Screaming, swearing, damning and cursing for the whole blasted planet to hear, railing against a cruel and fickle God like a de-robed Lear on a heath. Why? Let's just say I'm suffering for my Sins... (Poor - Mel)

Sins of a Solar Empire, that is! Hah. Sins is the snazzily but inexplicably named unofficial sequel to Stardock's more straightforwardly titled 2006 hit Galactic Civilizations II. I say 'unofficial sequel' because Sins is developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock, but remains staunchly a 4X game at heart. The association with Stardock will seal the deal in the eyes of the uninformed masses that Sins is some sort of sequel - or at least it probably would if dealing with the 'masses' had ever been a problem for the 4X genre, which has thus far scarcely been the case.

A 4X game, for all those of you letting your jaws slack in bemusement at the term and dribbling all over the keyboard, is essentially a space strategy game encompassing the fields of 'eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation and eXtermination': so more or less shuffling around a map, increasing your domain's size, gathering resources and blowing the merry **** out of those who think to oppose you... in space. As one of the most unabashedly geeky, cliquey and downright niche of genres in all Genredom, it traditionally makes as many concessions to appeal to newcomers as Japanese whaling fleets do to appeal to Greenpeace. It has a history as a 'hardcore' genre, and its looming iceberg like impenetrable depth means those who enjoy the genre will love it, and those who don't will stay the hell away from it. Make no mistake: opinion will be polarised.

Remember the first time you saw Supreme Commander's tactical zoom? Quite contentedly hovering above a robot trundling around and minding its own business and BAM! A flick of the wheel and you're in orbit, 81km of map spread out below and dizziness rapidly setting in at all the possibilities. Sins pulls off much the same trick but ups the ante, this time providing you with a view spanning dozens of planets and thousands upon thousands of ships, space stations and stellar bodies.

It remains a neat trick.

More than a trick, though: it allows a similar kind of panoramic, large scale strategy that SupCom did, and is about as much of a ****ing headache when things get hectic - even when things aren't that hectic, actually. Sins sets the player up with a developed homeworld, some starting amenities, a free capital ship and then sends you off, obliviously skipping into a galaxy that wants you dead, preferably before lunchtime. For this position the candidate will be required to; manage civic and military research, harvest crystals and metal, earn credits, build ships and, better still, fleets of ships, develop planetary infrastructures and defence systems, pre-emptively quell planetary uprisings, explore other systems, spread word of their culture, trade, fight, destroy, invade or subvert their enemies and all the time keep one eye on the space pirates who will enthusiastically nuke any undefended asteroid colonies they may find lying around.

Still want the job?

There are a spectacular number of variables in the air at any time, and aside from four perfunctory and largely inadequate tutorials it's up to you to figure out what to do with it all: like SupCom it demands multitasking skills. Keeping a balance between research funds and ship spending is a perennial challenge, and failure is ruthlessly punished by the demoralisingly brilliant AI.

War! Huh! Good God y'all! What is it good for? Well, explosions are generally a safe bet. Not so in Sins, which has bafflingly elected to also rip off SupComs's weedy, underwhelming combat effects. It disappoints... nay, it pains me when developers give us futuristic war machines which see fit to conduct their fracas with slingshots, fireworks and water pistols. Is there not something incongruent here, dev types? How about some ship-to-ship nukes, weapons with some brunt: beam weapons scything through hulls like a hot knife at a butter convention, a la Freespace 2? For a game focusing heavily on combat and strategy, Sins fumbles the combat rather consistently.

I've yet to meet the geek who's not stirred (and possibly just ever so slightly aroused) by seeing a fleet of 250 allied ships jumping into a besieged solar system, just in time to launch their wings of bombers, open up with their weapons batteries and save the day. It's a beautiful thing. Sins' biggest issue is that zooming up close to the action takes us veering wildly into cluster**** territory, like stepping closer to a Pointillist painting and realising it's just a load of dots. Space battles in Sins, before the aforementioned weedy weapons and explosions hove into view, consist of groups of ships approaching each other, getting into a comfortable position and shooting. Then shooting some more. Shooting until someone decides to run away. They make large scale interstellar combat look so dull, so static, that one feels quite happy nipping off to boil the kettle while things resolve themselves. I'm not arguing for the implementation of full Newtonian physics here: I can appreciate that a bunch of ships taking two hours to change their direction and accelerating indefinitely toward light speed does not lend itself to friendly gaming. But Sins' battles need something, they need to jiggle about a bit and at least pretend to be enjoying themselves.

Combat engagements in Sins tend to run the gamut from confusing, all the way to disappointing and back round to vaguely farcical. Combat can only occur in discrete 'gravity wells' around planets, the distances between which are traversed by 'jumping' through hyper/mega/sub/ultra space. This creates situations in which you attack a fleet, begin to gain the upper hand, only for it to run away into another system. If you give chase it will just jump away as soon as it spots you, possibly into the same system you just left, meaning you never quite have time to kill them, feeling for all your life as though you're playing tag with a squadron of warships. Scout ships are also a perpetual pain, flying around too fast to be shot by your vessels (although they seem quite happy to try and chase them anyway), and triggering a melodramatic announcement like 'AN ENEMY INVASION FLEET HAS JUST ENTERED YOUR HOME SYSTEM!' by the computer every time they come into sensor range. Combat ≠silky smooth.

That combat occurs on effectively 2D planes in these 'gravity wells' makes the strategy at times seem decidedly conservative, and lends the whole affair the same sort that 'SupCom Sensation', that you're pushing toy soldiers around a massive boardgame. Planets have no moons and do not orbit or move in relation to one another- the only thing that moves are the ships. This can create the impression of a group of separate smaller battlefields, slathered with a veneer of the illusion of hugeness but actually playing it surprisingly safe.

A maxim for life: just because you can doesn't mean you should. Anyone ignoring this and zooming in too far on Sins cannot fail to realise its other main failing: art design. There doesn't seem to... be... any. It's not an ugly game - I'm gonna drop the the F-bomb again and say 'functional'. It can render massive numbers of bump-mapped spectacularly-diffused ships and planets as though it's barely an inconvenience. It is, however, a strikingly characterless game. There are three factions; the TEC, somehow an acronym for Generic Traders Alliance, are decent all rounders; then there's the Aeon from SupCom, who apparently decided it might be fun to spend some time in a different game; then there's these other aliens who've come along caught everyone by surprise, and now Total War has, like, totally broken out. Oh, sorry, I just gave away the entire plot (*BELATED SPOILER WARNING*): that's all the story you get because there's no single player campaign to develop it. No, Sins is about the skirmishes and multiplayer, but it's still painfully without pizazz.

Ship designs look suspiciously as though they were drawn on a beer mat the night before the development deadline. The human craft are boxy and square, the aliens slightly curvier: all are entirely uninspired. None of these designs will stick in your mind, and until some player mods come along it's a disappointment. GalCiv II alleviated this by providing a comprehensive ship editing tool, facilitating my desire to field a fleet of phalluses and mammary glands and giggle myself into unconsciousness. Sins does not provide any kind of ship editing option, ostensibly because this is a 'RTS', and 'RTS' is too 'RT' to waste 'T' designing ships. Which is obviously balls but let's not rock the boat.

This design issue, an overpowering sensation of blandness, is really symptomatic of the game's underlying malady: it's got no style. GalCiv II had huge, sloshing buckets of style. It had a sense of humour, with computer players sending you sarcastic messages saying they know why you have a fleet of troop transports orbiting their planet, even if you've cravenly set their AI too low to allow them to do anything about it. This style pervaded every part of the game, including the superior art design. Sins is as straight faced as they come, and suffers for it. Sacrificing fun on the altar of clean lines and purity of purpose is not always the best option.

So how did something so dull sounding have me screaming and raging so heartily? It's because I care. I care about my empire in Sins, if only because every game seems to take about eight hours to finish, usually culminating in me being roundly annihilated by an unstoppably immense alien fleet. I go back for more, because Sins purity of purpose, being a straight strategy game, means I always think I can do better next time. There's generally an undeniable and inescapable logic to my humiliating losses. The specific late night screaming incident with which this all began emerged after I had been chasing an enemy fleet from system to system like some kind of demented, heavily armed Scooby-Doo episode only to glance at my home-system just in time to see a colossal enemy armada jumping in with genocide firmly in mind. Did I quit the game and snap the disc in petulant fury? No, because it was my own ****ing fault for being so caught up in chasing this fleet around. So it was that I stuck my watch next to the radiator for a minute and branded myself on the thigh as a reminder not to make the same mistake again, and started over. And that's about the highest praise I can offer of any game.

Should you buy it? Do you enjoy having your arse mercilessly handed to you in the cold depths of space? If so I look forward to hearing your screams of frustration, in perfect harmony with my own, ringing out over the Yorkshire Dales. Until then...

Gigantor


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