The video game industry is precise in its creation of good games. It’s a machine that inputs familiar gameplay formulas, vigorously assembles and polishes them, and then ships them out the door. Truly terrible games are still made, but they’re less common and are quickly lost in the noise.
Great games, however, are as rare as ever. These games don’t play it safe and provide an experience that is as tightly constructed as it is refreshing. I’ve been playing one such game lately. It’s called Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. And here’s why you should pick it up.
The Perfect Pace
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a real-time 4X strategy game. These are two genres that look similar on the surface but rarely blend. Real-time strategy games tend to have a fast pace that encourages short play sessions while 4X games usually use a turn-based system that encourages exploration of gameplay mechanics and epic sessions.
These two variations of the strategy genre seem to be polar opposites, but it turns out that combining them helps to solve the problems of each. Sins offers the depth of a proper 4X game – there’s exploration, research, construction and diplomacy. Yet Sins also includes engaging and challenging combat. This helps to keep a game of Sins exciting because the player is always provided an important task. You can’t auto-pilot your economy – but your fleet is more effective when you take charge. How will you choose to use your time?
There are other tweaks that help to keep the game fresh from beginning to end. Pirates occupy the space above colonizable planets and must be driven out. These fiends also can be bribed early in the game to attack other empires, providing incentive for a strong early economy – or a strong early military to thwart them. Long games, on the other hand, see the deployment of super-weapons like Titans and interstellar cannons that can help end a boring stalemate.
Variety Is The Spice Of Sins
When Sins of a Solar Empire first arrived on store shelves it was a fun departure from other strategy games but also a title that felt a bit restrictive due to the power of offensive fleets. Over the years and through expansions the developers have added numerous new systems such as starbases that can defend planets, diplomacy ships that can be used to brunt aggression and a stronger emphasis on culture (it was in the original game, but was relatively weak).
Rebellion goes a step further and splits the three original factions into six, each of which has new and unique research options as well as unique Titans, huge capital ships with powerful abilities.
The TEC Loyalists, for example, can build two starbases around a planet instead of one and have a Titan that provides a massive AOE defensive bonus, making them one tough nut to crack. The Vasari Loyalists, by contrast, are incredibly mobile – they can consume planets entirely for a massive one-time resource boost and can research technology that allows their capital ships to act as mobile scientific labs.
Compared to a game like Starcraft, which is obviously asymmetric to anyone who plays a single match, the differences between factions in Sins seem subtle. They’re nearly as significant, however, and have a huge impact on how you execute your strategy.
Human – Game Interface
Sins of Solar Empire’s greatest innovation may be its interface. Games that allow players to found multiple colonies have for years struggled to create an interface that allows players to quickly see what a colony or city has built and what units defend it.
This nut has finally been cracked by the empire tree. It’s a simple, scrolling vertical interface element on the left side of the game that shows, via icons, a list of planets and all of the improvements and ships orbiting them.
Further information can be conjured by hovering the mouse cursor over any individual icon. This provides its name, current health and any other relevant information, such as population (for planets) or anti-matter (for ship abilities).
Players can define the list by selectively un-pinning planets, removing them from the tree unless they are clicked on in the main interface window. This is useful for planets that are behind the front lines and used only for research instead of active product.
One of the most frustrating issues found in 4X strategy games is artificial intelligence. In many games the AI simply does not seem to understand what is going on and is easily mislead, making it impossible for the AI to win without massive economic bonuses.
That’s not the case with sins. The AI players understand the game mechanics and actively engage all of them. AI players use diplomacy to create pacts, build long-range cannons to crack end-game stalemates and construct defenses to protect systems. An average player will have a hard time beating it on anything above hard difficulty, and there are several additional levels beyond that.
Ship AI is also decent. While Sins gives you the option of zooming in and commanding battles you don’t have to exercise that option in every engagement. If a battle is obviously in your favor you can leave your ships to do their thing and count on them to fight competently while you attend to another portion of your empire.
Space Ships Are Cool – Duh!
This is a game about space empires and that means it is a game about space ships. Planet-level interaction is kept to a minimum. Improvements mostly occur not on the surface of a planet but rather in space, which is quickly crammed with all manner of cool ships.
Some games say they have cool ships but instead recycle boring designs that look like something I drew in high school. Sins delivers the goods. Each of the factions in the game has a unique and beautiful style that is different from the others.
And then there’s the scale. The new Titan ships dwarf even capital ships but will frequently find themselves in combat with tiny fighters and corvettes that swarm like angry bees. It feels much like watching a battle from Freespace 2 – except you’re an admiral rather than a fighter pilot.
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a great game. You can buy it online for $40 bucks if you’re a new player or you can purchase it for $30 if you’ve ever owned a previous version of the game. If you’re new to the franchise this is the one to buy as it includes all previous expansion content. If you’ve played before, give it another go – you’ll find that the game is even better than you remember.