STRIP-MINED You’re essentially playing as a member of an intergalactic Republican Party.
Let’s get the important part out of the way first: Sins of a Solar Empire has the best name of any game you’ll play this year, or even this decade. Say it out loud. Let it roll around on your tongue. It could be a phrase out of Shakespeare. Sins of a Solar Empire. I get chills just writing it.
It was the name that drew me to Sins of a Solar Empire, more so than the game itself. Sins is pitched as a hybrid strategy game, one that combines the top-level planning of a turn-based game with the tactical improvisation of a real-time game. That description could have some gamers licking their chops; for me, it was like being served consecutive courses of steamed broccoli after that delectable appetizer of a title.
Strategy games — turn-based or real-time — have never held much appeal for me. They make you keep track of dozens of individual units, each with its own attributes and abilities. You need to micro-manage every aspect of your war machine without ever getting your boots on the ground and experiencing the grit of combat. Hell, you don’t even get to step into the shoes of a lowly factory worker and assemble ordnance. A single round of gameplay can take hours to complete, and if you have to save your game and come back later, it’s almost impossible to remember what was happening when you left. Strategy gamers revel in the omnipotent point-of-view these games offer; I’ve always felt it distances me from what’s actually happening.
To criticize Sins of a Solar Empire for exhibiting these traits would be like slamming a rock band for incorporating guitars and drums. It is what it is: a massive strategy game that spans entire star systems and demands a serious time commitment. To build your empire, you need to construct an unstoppable naval fleet (that includes making ships that build other ships), colonize new planets by force, and strip-mine every asteroid you find for its precious natural resources. You’re essentially playing as a member of an intergalactic Republican Party.
After looking at the excerpts on Sins’ Metacritic page, I’m led to believe that its interface has been streamlined compared to that of its brethren. Could have fooled me. This game comes with a reference guide to all the keyboard shortcuts you can use, and the thing is at least a foot wide. It looks like a physics major’s dissertation. On the other hand, you can play the game entirely with the mouse, which is much more forgiving for newbies — simply move your cursor over any available unit or planet and all its relevant statistics will be displayed. It’s possible to muck your way through this way, though not terribly easy.
Better is the much-touted feature that allows you to zoom from a wide perspective of the entire solar system all the way to a single unit with one scroll of your mouse wheel. This really works, and it goes a long way toward dispelling my sense of disconnection. In the course of your galactic campaign, you can focus on some breathtaking dramatic moments, like a ship cycling up its hyperdrive engine in a failed attempt to escape enemy cannons. If nothing else, Sins of a Solar Empire feels epic in scope.
So when I say that this game seems pretty good, I hope it’s apparent where that verdict is coming from. Does my opinion mean more because I’m not a strategy buff? Or is it rendered irrelevant for that very same reason? Hey, just as long as we can all agree on that wonderful, wonderful name.