Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review - Sins of a Solar Empire

It's been a dry couple of months since November or so, the last time anything noteworthy came out. Granted, we were deluged under several top-shelf titles all at once, but the months since have been a veritable desert. Hither comes "Sins of a Solar Empire."

SoaSE is a spaceborne RTS. The imagery involved in it is reminiscent of Masters of Orion or Ascendancy, but unlike those two titles this one is not turn-based. There are quite a few other important distinctions as well, so it is important not to go into this game expecting MOO or any other space-based strategy game you've played before.

The visual quality here is rather good. There are options that allow the game to scale as far down as need be to let it run well on older computers, but even with all the bells and whistles turned on it isn't anything that would tax most systems horrendously. If you look around with your camera, you'll see some very desktop-worthy spacescapes. The game is very pretty, and compliments the interface in a way that could almost be called elegant, yet it has an austere quality that still communicates the emptiness of space. Most of the time you won't be paying attention to this sort of thing, of course, given that the game will keep your mind too busy to go sightseeing, but it's nice that it wasn't neglected. I would have liked some of the displays and controls to have been a little less static, though. Many of the depictions of humanoids (leader portraits, the face of the space pirate on the pirate interface) seem flat and lifeless, maybe a little disjointed from the rest of the rest of the artistry of the game. After a beautiful intro movie, one is left to wonder why more liveliness and animation wasn't put into the game itself.

The audio is good quality and suitable for the atmosphere of the game. There's lots of bass rumbling around as ships slide through space, explosions, weapons fire, and of course the voices of your ship captains and what I'm assuming is your adjutant or some such. It is handy that the adjutant, or whatever he is, often clues you in to what's going on where you aren't looking, yet it avoids the annoying "Our base is under attack!" repetitiveness that has been present in many a Command and Conquer game, for instance. The ship captain voices are only as diverse as the different types of ships, but they are distinct enough that you can tell one ship type from another simply by the sound of the captain. Of course, Warcraft/Starcraft and C&C games have spoiled me a little in this regard, especially in the area of injecting humor into the voice acting of units, and that is not present here but it gets the job done efficiently. The musical score suits the game well too, while not exactly soul-stirring is competently arranged and alters itself according to events occurring in the game.

The game is real-time strategy with an efficient command and queuing system that is at the current end of the logical progression set by previous games of the genre. Lots of UI refinements pioneered by those RTS predecessors are used here, such as convenience of selection and queueing and building, hitting tab to select certain units within a group selection, holding shift to queue up subsequent orders, etc. Also, much like Supreme Commander, there is no distinction between a small scale map and a strategic overview. To get from one to the other you simply place your cursor and roll the mousewheel, and you can zoom as far in or out as you like, from counting the lit windows on a ship or watching hovercars zoom around on a planet to viewing the entire star system all at once.

An important part of the interface is the empire summary that sits on the left hand side of the screen. At first it's a little daunting, but once you understand it and customize its level of detail a little, you can maintain a situational awareness of every fleet and planet in your empire at a glance. The interface also does a good job showing you (through surrounding pips with rollover tooltips) the important things around each planet without you having to zoom in and hunt for them. There is a bit of a learning curve to the UI and controls, but the game provides short tutorials that get you the basics and then the rest follows and gets easier as you play.

The "research" aspect of the game is a little different from most games in this setting that I've seen before, and truth be told I was a little disappointed in it. Rather than grope your way along branching tech trees that lead to improvements of a distinct type from those you would have received if you had gone another way, each faction has its entire set of tech upgrades laid out before it with prerequisites and resource requirements plainly displayed. It takes a little of the "mystery" out of scientific discovery. However, it opens up a lot of strategic options because you are very much in control of what advances you get in what order (though by the end of any given round of the game, you will pretty much have them all). You can even queue up research, so long as you have the resources available to pay for it all in advance. I also like that any research you complete automatically upgrades all units in the field, so there's no tedious calling home all your ships to spend hours retrofitting every last one of them. I would have liked there to be more of a "design" aspect to new classes of ship, but in a game that isn't turn based I can see how that'd not be a good fit. Sending ships around and building orbital mining platforms doesn't leave a whole lot of time for deciding how many and what kind of lasers your new ship class should have.

The dynamic of space combat is rather simple, and focuses around four types of vessels - Capital ships, Cruisers, Frigates, and single-seat fighters and bombers. Each type of vessel can also get "special abilities" that are on cooldowns and use some of the vessel's "antimatter" (which regenerates over time by itself and serves no purpose other than to power the special abilities), but you don't have to micromanage because these ships default to allowing the AI to "auto-use" these abilities when they want to, and they're pretty good about picking the right moments to do so (not just mashing everything at the first hint of combat). So it can be as hands on or off as you care to be, in regards to micromanagement (or lack thereof). The ships are all specialized and balanced for certain roles, and while the actual tactics during battle have only a limited effect on who will win and lose, configuration and placement of forces and formations ahead of time can really make a difference. Capital ships, which are involved enough to require specific "research" done for each additional one you want to build past the first one, also gain experience and "level" with combat, granting them access to more special abilities. There's plenty of combat to go around from the get go, because even uninhabited planets start off with a few "creep" type privateers around them that will attack everyone else on sight, so expanding without at least a small navy is not an option. Also, very shortly after a game begins you will start to have pirate raids, with rival empires bidding against each other by placing bounties on each others' heads, and whoever ends up with the highest bounty is the one the pirates go after... until 12 minutes later when the bidding starts over.

Even the "short" map in the game ended up lasting me 5 hours on the easy difficulty. The normal difficulty AI can be pretty punishing for newbies, so you might want to get your feet wet with easy for the first round or two.

The Final Word
Despite coming from a small developer, Sins of a Solar Empire is a solid title. It lacks a few "bang-zoom" bits to make you ooh and ahh, falling just short of what would have otherwise been a milestone in the genre to compare with any other of the big names if only it had a slightly bigger development budget. Nevertheless, once you get used to the interface the game really starts to get some depth to it, and it is easy to appreciate both the way the game breaks new ground and yet still builds on good gaming concepts put forth by previous RTS titles. It's hard to put it right up against the RTS awesomeness that is Supreme Commander, and it doesn't have a storyline at all to drag you in like the War/Star-Craft series, but those who appreciate real-time strategy involving space and fleets of vessels will find this a title they'll enjoy and come back to often. Verdict - B+. And that's the word from Bandit Camp


DimentoGraven said...

FYI, for the sake of any future advertisers that come here: I finally got the game based solely on the fact that GasBandit ranked it high enough to merit it.

So far I am enjoying the game, although the fucking nuetral systems piss me off occassionally, and the goddamn pirates...

Oh and the fucking zerg-minded AI on this fucking thing...

Goddamn this game is fun!

No really, I do like it, it just pisses me off occassionally...

pharmacy said...

FYI, for the sake of any future advertisers that come here: I finally got the game based solely on the fact that GasBandit bounties on each others' heads, and whoever ends up with the highest bounty is the one the pirates go after... until 12 minutes later when the bidding starts over.