In the last few years, titles that actually brought something new to the space strategy genre have been few and somewhat disappointing, so when Ironclad announced their first game, Sins of a Solar Empire, as an RT4x, my eyebrow twitched with interest. 4x games have a tendency to be complex (Civilization, Master of Orion) or very complex (the Space Empires series) and I was very curious to see how such complexity would be implemented in a real-time environment this time. Sins is a space strategy that takes place in a 2D galaxy map (as far as movement options go), containing 3D-rendered planets, asteroids and stars, one of the key features being the high level of zoom available, much like the one in Supreme Commander.
The storyline introduces 3 factions and their struggle for power and survival. The TEC (Trade Emergency Coalition) are the "children" of Earth who are striving for economic and social prosperity. The principles imposed by TEC led to a so-called „golden age” for mankind, at least until the Advent, a religious sect that developed psionic powers after breaking free from the TEC leadership, came back to pursue its own agenda to unite the human races under something called the „Unity”. Vasari is the only non-human race present in the game; once a galactic super-power, the Vasari are now fugitives, nomads that jump from system to system, stopping only to consume the resources of the worlds they conquer. Aside from this introduction, however, the producers didn’t include a single-player campaign, leaving the storyline somewhat in the air, but since the game is multiplayer-oriented, it’s debatable if a single-player campaign would have greatly increased its value. Besides, when was the last time anyone played the single-player campaigns in a real-time strategy? Nevertheless, there is a tutorial available, but I found it to be a little too intricate for a game that has a learning curve of about 15 minutes.
The interface is simple and user-friendly, as Ironclad has brought some innovations in this department. The entire empire is visible on the left side of the screen, inside a scrollable Empire Tree, where you can see at a glance detailed information regarding planets, structures and fleet movement. This is a welcomed change from the classic "scroll & click on the minimap" system, allowing for real-time monitoring and quick jumping to hotspots, but it’s not without flaws, as the screen can get a little overcrowded with information, especially towards the endgame and during large battles. Constant work is required to clean up the display, but luckily this is achieved with little effort.
Graphic-wise, Sins looks good, and the engine does its job very well. The already mentioned ability to zoom from the edge of the galaxy to a planet’s orbit and vice-versa, without losing details or framerate, is impressive indeed and a breath of fresh air for the genre. The camera is easy to use, however, rotating the battlefield to get a better view of the action in fact rotates the entire galaxy, which is only noticed at the next zoom-out. Ship and structure details are well-done, the combat effects look nice, the explosions can be quite impressive (especially for capital-ships) and overall, the eye is pleased without getting tired. However, during gameplay you will rarely get to see these effects, because if you’re looking for efficiency, then a top-down view is preferred, where less textures and polygons will be visible, as you’ll be working with colored icons.
The soundtrack is not particularly impressive, but it’s not a drawback either. The music is discreet and relaxing, and it manages to induce a sense of exploration specific to these types of games. The voice-acting, however, will encourage you to shoot the sound card. We can choose between a bored news presenter, a lonely damsel that appears to be in a cave, and an alien with a smoking problem, but all three are annoying: they panic every time I get scouted, every little event is announced and re-announced, and overall are an annoyance. True, there is an option to silence them, but this leaves an empty space in the general atmosphere.