You may remember from my FEAR: Perseus Mandate review, what my definition of a good game is; one where youíre awakened from your trance-like state after an indeterminate number of hours playing to find that itís 4.00 AM, you havenít eaten and youíre still only wearing your pants. Unlike FEAR, Sins of a Solar Empire fits that definition precisely.
The real problem I have with this game is that every time I sit down to review it - ever the consummate professional, with my neatly sharpened pencil and notepad beside the keyboard - I suddenly find that its 4.00 AM, I havenít eaten, my notepad is blank and I am inexplicably wearing just my pants. I seem to remember having a similar problem with Civilisation 4. There must be something about the 4X genre (thatís eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate, not to be confused with the XXX genre of course) that demands you play it until the early hours wearing only your pants. Not that Iím complaining you understand; itís actually very liberating...
Anyway, Sins of a Solar Empire, for those of you who have heard nothing about it, (which must be relatively few of you bearing in mind it was released in February in the United States) is a real time strategy set in the vastness of space. Your aim is to build your Civilizationô colony from a single Homeworldô planet to a solar-system spanning Space Empireô empire. As with all these sorts of games you are, of course, not alone. In single player the devious AI provides real challenge for extended skirmishes but the real challenge can be found online. Those of you destined to be quantity surveyors and accountants with your superior skills in micromanagement will certainly have the advantage here.
Once you have your economy in order, your resources coming in, your research under way, your capital ship crews training, your defences prepared and your fleet under construction, a pirate raid will inevitably throw a giant spanner into the works. You can use the pirates to your own ends by placing a bounty on one of your adversaries, of course; the pirates will then collect that bounty by destroying your foeís ships but when a pirate raid is imminent a fierce bidding war can break out as everyone tries to save their own skin by placing someone elseís head on the chopping block. Itís a beautiful thing to see; speaking of beautiful things to see (man, thatís a smooth segue) the graphics do a fantastic job of rendering the immensity of space and the beauty of a giant fleet of ships phasing into your sector of space. At this point you might know youíre screwed but itís hard to care when itís this stylish.
To capture a planet you must first cleanse it of its unwashed masses, playing as the human TEC, this involves orbital bombardment... with nukes. Donít get me wrong, I love mass genocide as much as the next man, but this is something extra special to behold. Itís made all the more poignant by being able to zoom in and watch the residents of the planet going about their daily business before brutally wiping the slate clean. I dare you to suppress a ďMWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!Ē as you zoom right the way back out to see the whole star system, now all the more peaceful due to your actions.
There are a few minor downsides; capital ships, which act like hero characters from your traditional real time strategy, are immensely powerful, almost to the point of making other ships redundant in smaller skirmishes. The interface can certainly be overwhelming to begin with and the click through tutorial does little to engage or excite. The lack of a single-player campaign has been widely criticised, it would not have been such an issue were it not for the reasonably compelling, if a touch clichťd, back story presented by the opening video. All accounts suggest that this may be rectified in a forthcoming expansion. The biggest problem I foresee is the difficulty in playing this in a public place, in your pants.
Credit to the designers has to be awarded for making real time strategy in space more accessible than Homeworld even if it is at the expense of the third dimension. Considering the amount of time that can be spent in an epic multiplier battle, the ability to save multiplayer games and continue them later on is a godsend that earns further bonus points, however finding a good point to stop and save is always a challenge. Youíll find yourself saying, on more than one occasion ďjust let me vaporise the population of one more planet, pleeeease.Ē Thatís if you notice the time at all, youíll probably all be sat at your PCs as the last enemy world falls under the weight of nuclear bombardment to find that itís 4 AM, you havenít eaten, and youíre all in your pants and youíll never be able to play this game online without that thought nagging you...