If there's one thing the world of video gaming doesn't need, it's another acronym. FPS, MMORPG, DLC, DRM, SKU - pardon? So, in the interest of getting our harshest criticism of Sins of a Solar Empire out of the way early, game developers Ironclad and publisher Stardock must be condemned for introducing the term 'RT4X' into the world. Damn them all to heck.
Other than that though, it's all good. Brilliant, even. Let's start at the beginning...
So, RT4X. What the hell? Put simply, it's a combination of real-time strategy with 4X depth, '4X' being best embodied by games such as Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Galactic Civilizations and the turn-based sections of the Total War games. The four Xs refer to the standard gameplay elements of eXploring the map, eXpanding your territory, eXploiting resources and eXterminating the enemy. These games are almost always turn-based, have tremendous depth and a leisurely pace. Real-time strategy, on the other hand, gets rid of the turn-based structure and tends to give action priority over depth. Sins of a Solar Empire aims to have the best of both worlds.
Probably the greatest hurdle that SoaSE faces is in convincing the buying public that it is actually possible to combine the ticking clock, breathless pace and action of an RTS with the extensive research options, economic fiddliness and sheer scale of a 4X game without ending up with an unwieldy, overwhelming mess. Boiled down to basics, the problem is this: how do you distill the vast amount of information generated by a 4X game into a manageable, real-time stream? The answer is that you have to create the Greatest User Interface Known To Humankind - the GUIKTH. And that's just what Ironclad have done.
The screenshots don't really do the GUIKTH any justice. That left hand sprawl of icons - the Empire Tree - looks particularly worrying, right? However, think of it more as a virtual Swiss Army Knife. Some bits are familiar and you'll know immediately what to do with them. Double-clicking on a planet takes you to that planet on the map, just like you'd expect. Hovering the mouse over any icon tells you what it is. Easy. After a little while, you'll uncover the more exotic abilities of the Empire Tree, things that might seem like clutter until you work out what they do. Little crosses and pyramids above certain ships that tell you, at a glance, who's leading a fleet or who's got an upgrade pending. Pretty much everything you need to know is right there, smiling at you and waiting to be discovered. And it can all be condensed and collapsed down to a simple at-a-glance overview of your entire empire.
Working hand-in-hand with the Empire Tree is the actual map itself. It's vastly zoom-able, much like the map in Supreme Commander, and lets you get right up close to the action or pull way back to encompass every planet and star. In practice it's less like a mere map, and more of a deep pool of information that you can plunge into and climb out of with a quick flick of the mouse wheel. It's functional on every level. Many RTS games fumble the ball when it comes to the map, either locking the viewpoint too close or too far and leaving the player to fidget uncomfortably between viewpoints. Sins gets it right, and it's a constant pleasure to swoop in and out of the map, extracting information as needed.
It'll probably take two or three hours until you really start to settle in with the interface, which might seem like a lot in this age of pick-up-and-play distractions. Keep in mind, though, that Sins is a game you will be spending a lot of quality time with, and it's a game that gets better the more you play it. The first hour or so will most likely be one of bewilderment and mild frustration. Sometime during the second hour, little light bulbs will start going off like your own personal paparazzi and then, very soon, you just have sit back and admire the genius of it all. The grand idea of RT4X works. It's not entirely new - the Europa Universalis games have been doing similar things for years - but it's never before been accomplished with such elegance. Even if the underlying game was dreadful, Ironclad would deserve a sustained round of applause just for the interface.
Thankfully, the game itself proves to be ferociously addictive and multiple bucketloads of fun. You start off with a single planet and a constructor ship, which will - hopefully - become a sprawling empire underpinning vast, lethal fleets of spaceships. At any given moment, you'll be working your way up a research tree, trying to keep your economy in the black, churning out new ships, fending off pirate attacks, co-ordinating assaults on enemy planets or trying to stitch together an alliance with a neighbour. It sounds overwhelming but there's a lot of breathing room and this need for constant decision making is what makes the game so gripping. It's exceptionally well paced and you do have time to think about what you're doing - Sins is not a twitchy, who-clicks-fastest-wins game. The speed can be adjusted on the fly and the pause key will become your special friend, particularly when coming to grips with the intricacies of research.
You'll certainly want to take the time to watch a few fleet battles up close. SoaSE doesn't skimp on the visuals and there's something undeniably cool about watching a fleet jump into a enemy system and open up with everything it's got. You can attach the viewpoint to a single fighter as it harasses a capital ship, or pull back a smidge and see everything unfold with measured, deadly grandeur. It's very satisfying to watch your meticulously assembled fleet hammer down an enemy's defences. Even better, you won't need a cutting edge system to keep things running smoothly, though if you've got the horsepower, SoaSE will happily serve up some of the best deep space visuals around.
The game's automation options go a long way to keeping the game manageable. Automation isn't something we necessarily trust in games and handing over control of a burgeoning empire to a squiffy AI can be a shortcut to Sweary Town. However, SoaSE's automation options - and they are always options - are reliable and add tremendously to the feeling that you're an intergalactic bad-ass overseeing an empire, rather than a low-level office clerk juggling fleet management spreadsheets. An example: there's a fleet on the other side of the galaxy that's getting hammered. It needs reinforcements. Queue up ten anti-bomber frigates in production and set their rally point on the distant fleet. That's all you have to do. The frigates will make their way to the fleet, wherever it is, join up and co-ordinate with every other ship in the fleet. It's fantastically easy and, like most things in Sins, works just like it should.
Pirate attacks are an interesting and somewhat divisive aspect to the game. Every fifteen minutes or so, a pirate raid will become imminent and players can put a price on their opponents' heads. The pirates will attack whoever has the largest bounty. It's an interesting addition to the game that has can be used in various ways. If you can constantly outbid your opponents, the pirates can become your own personal mercenary army. Or don't bid at all and use combat with the pirates to boost the experience of your capital ships. Depending on your overall empire building strategy, the pirates can be incredibly useful or a tedious annoyance that has to be dealt with every fifteen minutes. It's easy enough to set up a pirate-free game, though, so you'll never have to deal with them again if you don't want to.
The game has attracted some baffling criticism for not including a story-based single-player campaign. We didn't miss it for a second and, to be honest, were thankful for not having to wade through an arbitrary number of missions linked together with sci-fi cliches. The 30-odd skirmish maps that ship with the game can easily be seen as 30 different single-player campaigns. The game is so gripping and immersive that it generates its own narrative. Trust us, there's a powerful emotional response to seeing your homeworld invaded by a backstabbing ally and it wouldn't be enhanced by wall-papering on a few badly voiced cut-scenes. Ironclad have hinted that they may be dabbling with an innovative way to incorporate a story into the game and we're very curious to see what they come up with, but it simply isn't necessary, or missed.
There are, however, a few valid criticisms to be made. As it stands, the endgame can drag on and on as an obviously beaten AI refuses to surrender. Hunting down and destroying every last enemy planet can take ages and sees even the most exciting, knife-edge game end in a tedious, drawn out bug hunt. Ironclad have said this will be addressed in the upcoming 1.03 patch and it can't come soon enough. Enemy fleets also have a tendency to run away screaming whenever confronted with a superior fleet, which can result in a less than thrilling game of intergalactic tag. While blatant cowardice is a valid tactic, it does undermine the feeling of titanic civilizations crashing together in a tooth-and-claw battle for survival. Finally, the learning curve could have been smoothed out a little with a better manual and more extensive in-game tutorials.
There's a lot more to discover in Sins of a Solar Empire that we just don't have the room for here, and there is a significant joy is slowly uncovering its many secrets. To very quickly touch on a few essentials: multiplayer is solid and can be saved and reloaded at a later date. The game is supremely customisable and mod-friendly, which leads to the tantalising prospect of Battlestar Galactica or Star Wars mods. There are in-game achievements. There's no copyright protection whatsoever on the game, with the publishers deciding to provide regular enhancements and updates - not just bug fixing patches - to those with valid serial numbers. Big hugs to Stardock for treating their customers with respect, rather than suspicion.
Sins of a Solar Empire is a big, audacious game that succeeds so profoundly that it deserves to be on every strategy gamer's PC, and warrants attention from those who might ordinarily run a mile from real-time or turn-based gaming. It's a wee bit early to be declaring PC Strategy Game of the Year, particularly since Starcraft 2 is waiting in the wings, but it speaks volumes that Blizzard's monster is going to have to be something really special if it wants to be anything other than second best in 2008.