Sunday, February 10, 2013

In Space No One Can Hear You End Your Turn

Sins of A Solar Empire is an excellent game that takes the galaxy civilization games a clear step further. Open-ended like a new science-fiction world and played as a seat-of-your-pants RTS game, this is a very intelligent hybrid that I greatly enjoyed.

In effect, SoaSE is a successful blend of the wonderful Galactic Civilizations and Homeworld series, with a sprinkling of Total War for good measure. This is not a turn-based civilization game, so expect a much faster pace. What this means is that while it maintains the characteristics of classic turn-based 4X civilization games (eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation and eXtermination), by relieving from the micromanagement tedium, it allows for an intense RealTime Strategy experience. Now, this probably may not appeal to turn-based purists, but I would advise an open mind: this is a good game.

This concept-blending is new, so expect a slow learning curve - it took me a number of ...false-starts to get the hang of it: after all, it plays like an RTS and (although simplified) it still has enough of turn-based features that need to be taken care of. The interface is simplified and informative at the same time, with info trees sliding out only when needed.

There are three different factions to choose from (financiers, technologists and psitecs) - yet, their differences focus mainly on research tree-branching and ship designs. What I did not like was that the ships of all three factions are effectively the same and their differences are only skin-deep. What I would have liked to find (and was disappointed to the point of withholding the 5th star for fun) was ship design and building! Remember how much fun was to design our own spaceships (from freighters to battleships) in Galactic Civilizations II? Well, no such luck here. Let's hope they keep it in mind when the next patch gets prepared (up to the latest patch, 1.191, one can customize maps and starbases but not starships yet).

Quick and constant exploration is not only encouraged by a necessity if one wants to survive - let alone win. Spaceships built within a solar system cannot travel beyond it, unless using "wormhole"-like singularities. This adds to realism but can stretch your finances to their breaking point - since only locally built ships can be used. Moreover, it makes really hard to locate the strategic points to either built defenses or focus an attack. The AI will constantly be bypassing your planning like the Maginot line - and leave you with such a French feeling...

The graphics (of all of backgrounds, planets and units) are very nicely done. I really liked the multiple afterburners tracing through space as a spaceship squadron was dopplering past my screen...And less-than-cutting-edge PC owners rejoice: even 4-5 years old systems can handle this game like a breeze!
What I truly appreciated was the realistic scale of things. Galaxies are much larger than star systems, which in turn are much larger than planets, which in turn are much larger than space stations...than spaceships and so on. How is this achieved? Excellent zooming!
Supreme Commander was the first game to introduce strategic zoom; however, SoaSE implements it much better and shows how it should had been done: from a galaxy to a single planet and to a single spaceship, zooming in or out firmly maintains the effectiveness of battle controls by grouping and simplifying the info-tiles as one zooms out. In Supreme Commander we had to chose between either discerning the units or moving around the battlefield - not a bad first attempt, mind you. In SoaSE, one almost never looses perspective: ongoing battles, critical hotspots, or colony revolts are all easily identifiable in real-time.

On another note, this game is a StarDock release which, yes, means their specialized installation utility (IMPULSE). Nevertheless, this game hides no DRM or other intrusive security idiocy. Since trust and respect between a game publisher and its customers is a two-way street (and StarDock was willing to prove its friendship first), SoaSE deserves our support.

For a price much lower than that of the original game one now gets both mini-expansions (Diplomancy and Entrenchment)  as well. Entrenchment improves the graphics and introduces a number of new bases and weapons upgrades. Diplomancy adds more weight to diplomatic options and actions (braking a peace treaty now will cost you dearly!), even making a diplomatic victory possible.


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