The story is Sins' most glaring weakness. A campaign would have gone a long way into injecting some character or personal connection to the three factions, but you’ll find none here. Instead, players are introduced to the story in an opening cut-scene before jumping straight to four interactive tutorials or the main skirmish mode. All you really need to know is that three factions are, well, at war. The Trader Emergency Coalition is battling both the Advent and the Vasari Empire for control over the cosmos. Each faction or race has various strengths and weaknesses in their technology trees that must be exploited to survive.
While the lack of a campaign is initially disappointing, the outer space setting and real-time twist on traditional empire building are immediately engaging. The developers achieved a near perfect balance between the depth found in turn-based franchises like Masters of Orion or Galactic Civilizations, and the ability to effectively manage without being bogged down by minutiae. Part of this success can be attributed to an ingeniously designed interface that groups important, related functions in distinct areas on the screen without obstructing your impressive, often breathtaking view of the galaxy.
Each game begins by selecting a faction and either a pre-defined or random map, which dictates the number of available planets and solar systems. Even on the smallest map, expect to invest two to four hours before declaring victory or defeat. The largest map, which spans 101 planets, can easily take months. The pace is slower than traditional real-time strategy games, but it's not unwelcome since it gives you breathing room to plan out your moves without the constant fear of being "zerged" within the first thirty minutes. Acting as a buffer between empires are pirate fleets whose raids add an exciting new wrinkle to the traditional strategy paradigm. You can either take them on directly, or have them work for you by entering a bidding war and placing anonymous bounties on rivals (or supposed allies).
Resources come in three distinct flavors: credits, crystals, and metal. Planets are the key to amassing wealth and power, from verdant worlds supporting taxable populations to ice worlds rife with research-friendly crystals. Once a planet has been colonized, structures are created to establish trade, extract resources, build ships, or develop research across two distinct technology trees: military and civics. To protect planets from the advances of other empires, players can build faction-specific defenses such as shield generators or Death Star-like cannons.
Interplanetary travel is facilitated through "phase jumps," which are the sci-fi equivalent of car-pool lanes. Once a fleet moves onto the specially designated paths, it can zip from one world to the next within seconds. More importantly, the system creates key choke points to defend and exploit.
Sins of a Solar Empire's ships, the backbone of any empire worth its flags and crests, are divided among three types: frigates, cruisers, and capital ships. The frigates are essentially the grunts, cheap to make and relatively expendable. Cruisers pack more firepower and take on a support role. The massive capital ships act as the generals: the only vessels that earns experience points and technology upgrades. Each ship class also has special abilities, which can either be manually controlled or automatically used by the AI. In fact, all battles can be handled by the computer and handled surprisingly well. Players can simply sit back and enjoy the laser show, or make adjustments like ordering ships to fire on a specific target or move to intercept retreating vessel.
As refreshing a take on the genre it is, Sins of a Solar Empire is not going to appeal to everyone. It takes around four hours to get acclimated to the mechanics and to simply figure out what the heck is going on, with most of this time spent through trial and error. Those expecting a more traditional, story-driven real-time strategy game will be disappointed, as will those hoping to micromanage every detail, from combat to economy to diplomacy. It's hard to ignore the game's addictive nature, however. By removing many of the needlessly complex details from earlier empire-building titles, developer Ironclad Games has placed the emphasis back on grand strategy over babysitting. Sins is one of the biggest surprises thus far in 2008, a game no self-respecting galactic gamer will want to be without.
• Challenging AI
• Deep tech trees
• Seamless zoom
• Elegant interface
• Online matches can be saved
• No campaign mode
• Relatively high learning curve
• Can't customize fleet formations
• Some cheesy voices