Shooting the moon.
As Georges Pompidou might have said, had he lived to play the game, there are three roads to ruin: women, gambling, and Sins of a Solar Empire. The most pleasant road may be with women and the quickest may be with gambling, but the surest is with Sins of a Solar Empire. To say that the game has made a mockery of my normal routines, breaking habits of sleep and timely meals, would be gross understatement. Though originally pleased with the assignment, I quickly began to dread returning home from work in the evenings to face Sins. How would a man of such limited means ever survive?
Sins of a Solar Empire is the first cross between real-time strategy game and empire-builder that is thoroughly successful, a carnal combination that is simply irresistible. To combine the cool, tactile precision and adrenaline rush of the RTS with the warm, loving embrace of an empire-building game is as ruinous for me as a non-stop I.V. drip of heroin-laced caffeine. Indeed, this game is killing me!
Thankfully, the game is killing me with pure, unadulterated delight. Sins of a Solar Empire is incredibly well-designed. Three different playable factions, each with a different emphasis on units and a different play style, make the game well-balanced. The TEC (Trader Emergency Coalition) is essentially your classic, all-around race in an RTS; their ships are both strong and versatile. The Advent, a group of psychic desert nuts scavenging for sandworms and spice, have primarily quick-moving vessels that pack a fair bit of close- to mid-range punch, but don’t stand up to concentrated fire too well. And the Vasari, a lone alien group, play the role of the heavy hitters, with tough and powerful, though relatively few, ships.
It’s not a unique formula by any means, but it pulls off the classic Starcraft balance with such finesse that you won’t notice until some dick like me points it out. The scale of objects in the universe is also perfect, and the empire-building backbone is clean, smooth, and enjoyable. Sins delivers the same intensity as other stellar empire-building games, but with only a modicum of the same learning curve.
The biggest strength of Sins is how much it helps you play. There are tools for automating many of the systems; You can set your ships to use their special abilities on their own accord at appropriate moments, minimizing the need to micromanage every battle. Intelligent queuing makes it easy to arrange a list of priorities in a system.
Visually, Sins of a Solar Empire delivers a sleek, graceful performance on a variety of points. Though the level of detail and general quality of the textures are high, it doesn’t have any specific visual effects or artistic style that deserves special praise. However, it’s impressive how well the game scales from system to system. It runs just as beautifully on my laptop as it does on my tower of a rig, with almost no noticeable drop in graphical performance.
The music and sound are quite good; there’s an excellent, “floaty” quality to the score that feels very appropriate for vast stellar complexes and the patrol of sleek ships in the darkness of space.
If you’re an achievement whore (and if you are, bear in mind that I don’t like you very much), then you’ll be pleased to hear that Sins has them everywhere. Some are pretty simple and obvious; some are more bizarre and mind-bending. Rumor on the interwebs has it that if you get all the achievements within a time limit, you unlock a specialized mod – I have not succeeded in this.
Truly, there is little for me to criticize in Sins. The learning curve is one thing - there’s a lot going on, and it will at first be overwhelming to folks who are out of the RTS loop. For another thing, it’s hard to keep a single game under four hours; Sins is a serious time commitment.
It’s also worth noting that the game has no single-player campaign and no actual storyline, despite the implication of one in the opening cutscene; Sins is pure, unadulterated gameplay and little else. This would be not so bad if the enemy A.I. in single-player skirmishes was not so mediocre. I found that I could force enemy retreats by just focusing fire on key ships. The moment a capital ship or a couple cruisers blows up, the enemy A.I. would retreat, giving me even more time to hammer them as they organized for the warp out.
Finally, it’s worth noting that in the long run, Sins of a Solar Empire does come off a little shallower than other RTS games and empire-building games. Some of the same factors that make the gameplay smooth occasionally feel as though they’re trivializing some interactions. Sins of a Solar Empire cannot be accused of being simple, but the difficulty of many decisions is surprisingly easy.
Overall, Sins of a Solar Empire is truly an excellent game. Minor flaws and caveats aside, it has been a long time since I’ve played any game so addicting and moment-to-moment enjoyable that it’s actually made me worry about starting it up. PC gamers, and especially strategy gamers, owe it to themselves to pick up a copy of Sins of a Solar Empire.