There's a blissful nirvana strategy gamers yearn for, even though experiencing it usually involves a considerable loss of sleep along with a steep drop in productivity for days on end. Sins of a Solar Empire is one of those rare games that can deliver an incredibly addictive experience that devours a healthy chunk of your life, and you won't mind a bit. Not bad for a debut game from a relatively small developer. Ironclad and publisher Stardock should be proud, because they've delivered one of the most original, compelling strategy games in recent years.
Let's get this clear: Sins isn't anything like a typical turn-based space strategy game such as Galactic Civilizations or the granddaddy of the genre, Master of Orion. Instead, this is a real-time game--but don't let that make you think that it's Command & Conquer in space. Though it's in real time, Sins unfolds at such a leisurely pace and can happen on such a gigantic scale that you'll easily manage five or six gigantic fleets at a time as you battle across multiple star systems that contain dozens of worlds.
This medium-sized map comprises only a single star system. Larger maps in the game contain up to five, linked together by wormholes.
The game is set in a distant future where the Trader Emergency Coalition--an alliance of various human worlds--bands together in the face of two threats. The first is the Advent, an offshoot of humanity that has embraced an alien philosophy and has come looking to spread the word by force. Even direr is the Vasari, a mysterious alien race that seeks the annihilation of both factions. Sins lets you play from the perspective of any of the three factions, which are approximate mirrors of one another.
Like many space strategy games, the action begins with you in control of a single planet, and from there you must explore the rest of the system worlds, locating planets to colonize, as well as resources that you can exploit to fuel your research and ship-building needs. Sins isn't as ambitious as other space strategy games that task you with taking over a galaxy; instead, the action is limited to a maximum of five local stars, each with a network of planets around it. Travel among planets is limited via strict space lanes, so some planets are natural choke points. Planets themselves come in four varieties. Terran and desert planets can be colonized easily, but to settle ice and volcano planets you must research the appropriate technology first. Asteroids can also be colonized, but they're so small that they can support only tiny populations, making them ideal for outposts.
To support your expansion, you'll have to build a plethora of vessels. Scouts explore the planetary systems, locating ideal worlds to colonize with colony ships, as well as providing advance warning on incoming enemy fleets. Warships come in three classes. The smallest are frigates, and they include frontline combatants, siege vessels that can pummel planets with nuclear weapons, and missile platforms. Then there are larger cruiser-class vessels, such as escort carriers that can deploy squadrons of fighters and bombers to heavier warships. The crÂ£me de la crÂ£me, though, are the capital ships, which you can build only a handful of. Capital ships are huge, expensive, and powerful, but they're also like the characters in a role-playing game in that they can level up as they gain experience, making them more powerful and unlocking unique and potent abilities. The ability to gain experience creates a powerful dynamic, as you want to get your capital ships into fights so they can level up, but you also want to protect them from danger, because the loss of them can be devastating. However, if you get a task force of high-level capital ships and smaller vessels together, you'll have a force to be reckoned with.
Like characters in a role-playing game, capital ships become more powerful as they level up.
Good strategy games force you to constantly make decisions about where to allocate your resources, and Sins does an exceptional job of this, mainly because you'll usually find yourself having to juggle where to invest your precious resources. There are three resources in the game: money, metal, and crystal. Money is generated by having large planetary populations or by building trade stations. Metal and crystal can only be harvested on small asteroids. Building warships or structures, making planetary improvements, and conducting research consumes large amounts of these resources, and usually you'll have a shortage of at least one of them, which forces you to make some difficult decisions.
It's also possible to engage in a bit of diplomacy, though Sins takes a different tack than a lot of other strategy games. You can do the standard diplomatic maneuvers like declaring a nonaggression pact or forming an alliance with someone, but to do so, you've got to prove your worth to that faction by pursuing missions it puts toward you. For example, one faction might task you with destroying a certain number of defensive structures of another faction. Successfully completing the mission will earn you favor, though not completing the mission will earn disfavor. In order to form an alliance with any faction, you'll have to complete several missions for it.