In the world of strategy games, two distinctive sub genres have always been maintained, each with its own fans and detractors, pros and cons. In one corner, meticulous turn-based strategy games such as the « Civilization » or « Total War » series focus on an ability to execute well-planned strategies over a long period of time. In the other, offerings such as « Warcraft III » and « Command and Conquer » operate in real time and reward speed, guts and quick reactions. Developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Online, « Sins of a Solar Empire » shoots these concepts out into space and unifies these seemingly opposite styles of play into one thrilling game experience.

Before delving into the review proper, it seems necessary to issue a warning. If you have been enjoying a decent sleep schedule and a productive social life, do not buy this game. Once you’ve launched that first fleet, you’ll suddenly find that there’s always one more planet to conquer, another tech to research or enemy fleet that needs destroying.

sins-picIn « Sins, » you play commander-in-chief to a trio of space-faring races, each with a distinct visual design and different motives for galactic domination. While the lore doesn’t go into Blizzard-like detail, the back story is sufficient in giving each faction an individual feel.

The game begins with players in control of a single planet, with access to further planets limited by phase lanes that allow ships to jump at faster-than-light speeds and players to create strategic chokepoints. A small game between two players may limit the scope to a mere ten planets while larger games can incorporate up to 100 planets spread across multiple solar systems. In order to successfully muster a fleet large enough to conquer the galaxy, players must expand and hold additional planets and asteroids for their mineral wealth and taxable populations.

Even at the beginning the stage, the unique balance that Ironclad has accomplished is evident. Players can immediately build some scout and light frigate units and group these together in a fashion familiar to any RTS (real-time strategy) veteran, but the path to top tier units and upgrades requires planet development and expansion reminiscent of turn-based games.

To fuel both fleet and home, three resources are needed. Credits are gained from the tax base on individual planets while metal and crystal must be mined from asteroids orbiting each heavenly body. In order to mimic the fast-paced feeling of an RTS, the game offers an astounding amount of places to spend money and minerals. You can explore your planet for useful artifacts, develop weapon and hull upgrades, research new ship types and build the military and civilian labs necessary to unlock new technologies.

The combat is respectably balanced and allows for a variety of strategies and counters. A nice variety of craft, ranging from scout ships and support cruisers up to giant capital craft that gain experience and levels, facilitate the dynamic battles. However, the game’s easy on the macro management of forces necessary for victory in more hardcore RTS’s and relies instead on bringing the right force to bear in any given situation. This again exemplifies the expert blending of qualities that makes « Sins » such a remarkable game.

The visuals in « Sins » are commanding not only in the level of detail paid to each individual ship and structure, but in the game engine that renders all these so smoothly. Zooming in and out of the action is accomplished by the simple scroll of a mouse wheel and an intuitive camera system (For once, thank God!) makes it easy to keep up. However, it simply can’t compete with games such as « Crysis » or « Unreal Tournament III » pixel-for-pixel.

While the ships available to each faction are practically identical, the tech trees required to construct each ship vary from race to race, creating an exciting sense of give and take. Would you rather play as the Vasari and be able to research your LRM frigate on the initial tier or use the TEC’s quicker access to trade port construction for an early economic incentive? By integrating such decisions into a real time framework, « Sins » creates a pervasive tension that lasts throughout the two-hour plus matches.

« Sins » most notably achievement is the interface used to keep all these precariously assembled elements in place. Called the Empire Tree, a scrollable list on the left side of the screen uses simple icons to represent all your empire’s vast holdings. Organized by planet, it keeps track of every ship and structure occupying that space, be it friend or foe. It also allows for the construction of units and buildings without shifting the view to that particular planet. Thus, you can direct units in a heated battle and queue up some reinforcements without moving the screen away from the action. And while this interface keeps your intergalactic holdings neatly organized, the ability to assess your total number of military and civilian tech labs at a glance causes some frustration.

Other minor flaws mar the game from being flat-out perfect but are never so jarring as to disrupt enjoyment. Its lack of a story-driven single-player campaign may be a sore point for some, but while it would have been a nice addition, it doesn’t seem necessary (no one complains about the « total War » games lacking a campaign mode : read Shouldn’t MMO’s end ? ) Some players may also find the game’s length frustrating, as online battles can easily reach into the four to eight hour range.

Online multiplayer is offered through Ironclad’s proprietary service, Ironclad Online, and at the moment seems to suffer most from a lack of players. It also features the usual problems associated with online RTS and some people may have trouble getting their router to cooperate (port forwarding, anyone?). However, Stardock has a good track record when it comes to supporting its products, so expect future patches to improve the service’s usability.

Finally, the game’s space setting makes it a thrill to play for every sci-fi fan. The epic ship-to-ship battles recall some of the greatest moments from popular science fiction and the game allows for the easy renaming of any ship or planet. So, if you’ve ever wanted to lead the Battlestar Galactica against an armada of Cylon forces or to recreate the Battle of Endor (« it’s a trap! »), « Sins of a Solar Empire » will take you to a galaxy far, far away.

Game companies are as bad as politicians when it comes to failing to fulfill their promises, but « Sins » is one of those rare games that excels because it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: combine the thoroughness and planning of turn-based strategy with the thrill and pace of a RTS.

REVIEW VERDICT: For this strategy hybrid, space is the place. (8.5 out of 10)

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