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Sins of a Solar Empire
Strategy; the practice of planning ahead. Some would say that it really is the fundamental necessity of a thriving society. In the arts of warfare and in the conquering of new lands and cultures, it’s undeniably the difference between roaring success and horrible failure. As such, why is it that it tends to be so frequently the least necessary part of the real-time strategy genre? The days aren’t so long past that the words ‘tank rush’ would spell the doom of your enemies in the majority of RTS games. Personally, I think it’s all a matter of scope; you can’t plan ahead when you aren’t making the big decisions, and you certainly can’t make the best use of terrain when you didn’t pick the battlefield. So what happens when you give the player complete control of not only the skirmishes but the entire war itself? Well, you end up with Sins of a Solar Empire.
Taking place across an entire galaxy of gas giants, red dwarfs and asteroid clusters, Ironclad Games’ first offering is a gob smacking space strategy game where the aim is placed firmly on your ability to think about your long term goals and objectives rather than simply the next small skirmish. The standard practices of sitting still and base building until you’ve amassed an army big enough to pester the neighbours don’t work when you’ve got limited resources and a culture and civilisation to keep an eye on. To be quite honest, the last thing you’d expect to find yourself concerned with in a game of this type is the taxation on your planets, but no credit equals no tech, which in turn means that the next aggressive enemy to happen by will likely bomb your homeworld back to the stone age.
The rather perfunctory opening sequence tells us that ten-thousand years ago (or possibly only ten, it’s somewhat unclear) an alien race called the Vasari begin to wage war on the obligatory human side, the Trading Emergency Coalition. This marks the beginning of wars on two fronts for the peace-loving humans, who have been fighting back for a generation, only to suddenly come under attack on a third front from a radical psychic cult called the Advent that the TEC had previously exiled from their part of space. Surprisingly, this back-story has very little bearing on the game, as there is no story-based campaign or plot to Solar Empire. Missions are selected from a list of scenarios that can be tackled in whichever manner you see fit, using any of the races. The story simply serves as a standard method of defining the three available races and explaining their differences in weapons and technology. The TEC are the usual sturdy, no frills bulldogs of the game, hardy and average across the board, while the Vasari sport the top technology but advance the slowest, and the Advent complete the standard triumvirate by being weak but crammed with bonuses.
So it’s business as usual then, right? Not entirely; it might come as a surprise to those expecting a Homeworld-style game that Solar Empires has a much more eclectic smattering of ideas to offer. The basic base-building dynamic that has defined the RTS genre since Dune 2 on the Amiga is still here, albeit with a planet taking the place of a base. Resources like metal and crystals are mined from orbiting asteroids and, as mentioned earlier, credits are supplied from the overtaxing of the populous. However, this is built onto a framework of micromanagement and cultural advancements that make a huge amount of difference to your progression through the game. With flashes of Sid Meier shining through the base upgrades and population advantages, creating culture-wide improvements can do more than a fleet of ships when it comes to expanding your empire. Not to mention the alien artefacts strewn about the systems, which can give permanent upgrades across the board. Advancing the right technologies may unlock some useful weapons, while expanding your population will give you the leverage to put pressure on other players and often ward off the pirate attacks that come all too frequently.
Opening on a map that’s literally the size of a solar system is a pretty good way of letting your audience know that in this game bigger means better and, in this case, ‘big’ can be read as ‘huge’; with even the smallest maps still comprising half a dozen planets, you’d be forgiven if you felt daunted. Luckily it all fits together very nicely so you don’t mind, although the initially impressive scale begins to make more sense when taken into context; especially when the cut-corners begin to rear their heads and let you see through the smart design to the structure beneath. Ironclad has managed to sneakily disguise the fact that Solar Empires is really a large 2D strategy game masquerading as an open, deep space epic. This means that while the action can be zoomed in close enough to read the graffiti on the ships, and far enough out to admire the pretty nebulae surrounding the stars, you only ever operate on a single plane of movement, making you unable to take advantage of the 3D nature of open space. While this solves the age-old question of why Star Trek ships always meet each other the right way up, it doesn’t allow the greater finesse of tactics that some examples of the genre offer.
There is one further nitpick of the design, which is the actual lack of operational areas. Since your vessels only operate in the immediate gravity wells of planets, each planetary zone is a pocket battlefield unto itself, where you can build bases and defences as well as engage in ship-to-ship combat. However, this usually means that the game holds a large element of having your fleet sidle up to the planet next to your enemy and then launch an offensive in the hope of capturing it before reinforcements arrive. This form of interplanetary Risk is at heart a major conceit of the game, as it works fine but conflicts with the RTS style of gameplay and is more suited to turn-based strategic giants like Europa Universalis than the base-building RTS fare that much of Solar Empires tries to emulate. That still doesn’t take away from the frankly awesome size of the game maps though, or that by the end of a long game you’ll have amassed the sort of civilisation that Emperor Palpatine would be proud to own.
Sins of the Solar Empires is a brilliant game, and also a very long one. The shortest missions will take several hours, if you’re lucky, with online missions having the added bonus of being saveable so you and your friends can carry a private war out over a course of days if necessary. Which it will be, as Solar Empires is a game that’ll eat your life if you let it. The future of the RTS genre might well lie in the expansion to epic-scale games that bring facets of societal simulations into them, as well as giving players the opportunity to pick their battles. In which case, you saw it here first.