Sins of a Solar Empire (2008, PC)

By The Chosen Unbread / June 1, 2016

Let me preface this by saying that I purchased this game back in 2012 during a Steam sale. I installed it along with a few other titles, played for a few hours and uninstalled it within a few days. A couple years later I decided to give it another shot and removed it within hours of installing it. In fact, I actually googled to see if there was a way to delete the game from my library because I swore the damn game would never fool me into installing it again. It was extremely frustrating trying to learn all of the complex technical nuances to managing and controlling your space fleet, especially given I'd just downloaded a bunch of other titles and this one had a learning curve, and expected me to actually play through all four of the dense tutorials to gain the minimum level of proficiency to play it. And of course, I clicked through them without retaining anything, immediately started a skirmish, couldn't control my empire, was confused about what was going on, got obliterated, cursed the game and uninstalled...
   Out of profound boredom and a sudden inexplicable itch for a large-scale depthy 4X, and seeing I had this game in my library and admitting I never gave it a fair shake, I installed it again. I read the other reviews of it on Steam and actually watched some Let's Plays first and rightly concluded that I should give this game an earnest attempt, and I'm very glad I did.

   If my preface wasn't verbose enough, let me spell it out now: This game is complex. There are a lot of moving parts and this an RTS so you will have to manage your resource-production, fleet-building and war tactics at the same time, but because it is a near seamlessly integrated 4X, you will also need to consider commerce, political allegiance, alliances, colonization and world-building simultaneously. Don't get me wrong, it's not unbearable and that is a testament to the game design, but it can easily be overwhelming if you aren't trying to learn the game. Also, because there are so many moving parts, the pace of the game is therefore turned downnnn to make it manageable. There are controls to turn it up to 2x, 4x, 6x and 8x the normal speed when you're playing against the AI, thankfully, as sometimes you really have nothing to do except wait for taxes to roll in or your fleet to be built.
   I've played games from Sid Meier's Civ and Total War, two turn-based games that integrate a lot of elements. Civ has no real-time component and Total War breaks the game up into separate modes of play. Sins manages to take all (or most of) the elements from these games and blend them in real time, so that you're building fleets and managing diplomatic relations without waiting on other players. This means that you have to multi-task and keep track of your separate enterprises simultaneously, and without the convenience of your enemies waiting on you. Compared to a conventional RTS it is much slower, however. Each planet or asteroid you take on is like a micro-base that needs to be built up and more micro-bases lead to greater technology advancement as well as board control.
   There is no campaign mode, the game is played in a sandbox mode, similar to Civilization games. When you start a new game, it generates a unique galaxy. This means that exploration is always important, and you never know what's around the corner before you go see for yourself.

   Unlike the typical RTS, games are HUGE in scope here, and take quite a long time to finish. You will lose sleep playing this game, because it's more engrossing than most anything you'll have played. Battles can last quite a long time — long enough for reinforcements and large-scale maneuvers to make a major difference, unlike in the typical RTS, where the person who can click fastest is usually the one who wins. The first game I played was the smallest map size on the easiest difficulty level, and when I finally completed it I couldn't believe I had spent over five hours playing. Games can last days of real time on harder difficulty levels and larger maps.
   The strategy element of this game is from the point of view of a general or leader, not a commander. Grand strategy is much more important than micromanagement. If your strategy puts your ships in the right place at the right time, the fastest clicker in the world wouldn't be able to stop you. There is a small element of micromanagement available to experienced players who want to maximize the potential of their ships, but I found out pretty early that my time was better spent in other areas, like planning the geographical layout of my defense turrets or sending scout ships to check up on the enemy's strength and location.
   In smaller doses in smaller matches, however, this game can be played in a very micro-intensive fashion, as you'll typically only ever fight one fleet at a time. Though the real gorgeous splendor of this game is when you find yourself beset from multiple sides, having to give up territory because your fleet is elsewhere on the defense, and counter-attacking to send foes scurrying back to their precious resources. This game is very unforgiving in larger matches, and on higher difficulties. AI opponents are very strong, according to their presets and difficulty ratings, and will use different tactics and strategies to win.

   As you develop your empire, swinging from planet to planet, tumbling down the tech tree, stringing together fleets and levelling up your capital ships, the game simply gives you a bit too much to think about.
   It’s uncanny. As a beginner, you’ll have your hands (and head) full developing trade routes and continuing the electric push of your culture across the solar system, perhaps with one eye on your prize fleet, making sure it’s still winning some 20-minute pitched battle. But experts will be kept just as busy micromanaging the powers on individual ships, perhaps leaping home to oversee the construction of a Maginot Line-like array of turrets, before snapping up the diplomacy menu to offer a job, a ceasefire, a demand, then back to the fight.
   Sins’ sweet spot is that it always threatens to overwhelm, but rarely does. This isn’t the riptide real-time "strategy" of StarCraft. It’s more sedate than that. But the game simply has so much going on, its every element rewarding not just attention but obsession, that you’re able to sink into it like a hot bath. Want to fling armadas around as if they were plastic toys? You’ll have a great time. Want to orchestrate your fleets like an interplanetary Rommel? You’ll see the rewards instantly.

   The sense of scale that this game provides is truly in a league of its own. Truly amazing. After Sins loads the galaxy initially, the entire game is played with no loading screens. You can zoom down on your home planet, build a shipyard and some planet upgrades, zoom thousands of light years out, then zoom back in to another planet that you are attacking. Zoom back out, and then back down to one of your frontier planets, select your large battle group of ships, and set them out to explore another new planet in a COMPLETELY different star system. ALL of this in real time. If you are exploring and upgrading, all the while your battle group is crushing space pirates 7,000 light years away in a different star system, nothing stops.
   Multiplayer is a tricky area of the game. I will say, IF you have the time and commitment to sit down for SEVERAL hours, with people who are willing to do the same, you will love it. A single match can last anywhere from a few hours to a week. Actually, if it lasts for a few hours, that's because someone has ragequit. The developers were smart when they created this section of the game, allowing for saving of multiplayer games. Just make sure you and your opponents and partners have a time when you all will log back on and resume the game, because you must have all previous players before you can start again.

   While Sins primarily focuses on military building and assault (against heavily-fortified planetary defenses), it's in all of the myriad subsystems that the game truly shines; this game is best played with a large group and unlocked teams, causing everyone involved to jockey for position and alliances to rise and fall as people try to find the best way to survive the chaos. Unlike turn-based games with similar diplomatic systems, Sins' real-time nature keeps the action moving at the same steady pace regardless of how many players are involved. That, combined with the game allowing any number of players to engage in local-area network play on a single purchased copy, makes the perfect recipe for massive LAN party insanity with Who's the Werewolf style intrigue.
   Graphics are very good. For a game that has so much scale, the details are there. Specular lighting, shadows, particles. Turrets that move and track, small agile fighters, space junk. The graphics of this game are gorgeous for its time and scale. You can zoom out to a galaxy level and see small icons representing fleets and planets, or zoom in to watch ships phase-jump towards distant worlds. It even has cinematic modes for those of you who like to make films!

   But where this game makes its money is in the solar system maps. You might have to use your imagination a bit, which I actually kind of like. The planets, bustling with life and activity and the constructs you place in their orbits, the amorphous gaseous nebulae, stars and planets in the distant backgrounds... there is something sweetly satisfying and oddly profound about the execution here, about the sense of space and scale. You feel power in the worlds you conquer, colonize and build up. The zoom function is extraordinarily seamless and fluid, from full-on solar system right down to your tiniest trade ships, and you will use it a lot as you manage your empire. If you can immerse yourself in it, it's fantastic. I would invite anyone to look at the screenshots I've personally posted, or anyone else's, and I'd like to remind you when you do so that building a fleet can be difficult. So while these pics may not have a lot of context for you and may just look like a patterned collection of polygonal shapes, to the people who built them they are a statement of our economic and technological success.
   Music is decent enough to get the mood across. Again, I was more impressed with Homeworld's music, but this is still a quality piece of work.
   Voice overs are fine at first and then get repetitive. It's funny because when you're mass producing one unit type and you have your game speed turned up, you will hear the same sound byte over and over again. There are a LOT of units produced in this game, and their confirmation audibles get old, fast. You may produce 20 of a particular type of ship at once, and you'll hear 20 "ready for action!" (or something similar) confirmations when they finish training. I haven't found any way to turn this feature off. The diplomacy voice overs are downright irritating, tho. Every time they offer a mission or you succeed or don't it is the same voice message, and over a game that takes several hours it can be exhausting.

The UNSC Pillar of Autumn. Let's hope it doesn't end up like the real one

   Another problem is that although the game is freakin' gorgeous, it's really hard to adjust the camera to get a great angle of the action. You adjust the camera by holding down the right mouse button and scrolling, but the scroll is inverted on the horizontal axis and not on the vertical one. That means that when you scroll left, the camera pans right. This makes it really awkward to get the perfect visual angle to watch your attack crush an enemy's home world.
   But these are minor niggles. All in all this is a game that was way ahead of its time, walking the perfect line between turn-based depth and real-time action. If you enjoy games that demand attention, observant learning and epic imaginations then I think you might enjoy this game as I do. The combat takes place on epic scales, it can be incredibly nuanced and technical depending on how into it you want to get, and I think that it speaks volumes to its depth and balance and staying power that the Sins subreddit is still very active after several years of its release, as is the modding community (total conversion mods abound: Sins of a Galactic Empire is Star Wars, Sins of the Prophets is Halo, Star Trek: Armada and Stargate Invasion are from the titular TV shows, and so on). The multiplayer community is also incredible, having spent thousands of hours of rich entertainment — of wins, failures and memorable conflicts — with those folks. I have bought, and would buy again, this game for all my friends. You should too.

Sins of a Solar Empire is runner-up to Insomnia's 2008 Game of the Year. Join The Cult today and play Sins the way it should be played!