Could the space strategy genre be slowly coming back? You might be able to make a case now that Stardock, the developer and publisher of this year's Galactic Civilizations II, has announced Sins of a Solar Empire, a real-time space strategy game that is being developed by a new startup known as Ironclad. This news comes shortly after the release of yet another space strategy game, Sword of the Stars. Coincidentally, Kerebros, the developer of Sword of the Stars, and Ironclad feature veterans from development teams that worked on Homeworld games, though the coolly named Sins of a Solar Empire will present its own unique take on conquering the galaxy one planet at a time.
Sins of a Solar Empire could best be described as Galactic Civilizations meets Homeworld, two excellent space strategy games. Though the game is at an early stage of development, the presentation and visual look at this point is similar to that of Galactic Civilizations II. The map of the galaxy is shown as a flat, 2D layer, with stars and planets dotting the vast black void. Zoom in with the camera, and those little blue and green marbles turn into beautiful worlds. However, you'll also notice fleets and orbital stations clustered around those planets, and this is where the comparisons to Homeworld come into play. Homeworld was all about tactical battles, and you'll be able to see similar battles unfold in Sins of a Solar Empire, though you won't be able to exercise the same amount of tactical control as you could in Homeworld.
Your job is to command one of the factions in the game (so far there's a human faction, an alien one, and a slightly even more alien one) and conquer planets, which give you resources that let you build more ships and conquer even more planets. That's all standard for space strategy games, but the way Sins of a Solar Empire approaches this task is slightly different from all the rest. You'll be able to churn out huge fleets and send them toward your enemies in real time, and the interface is being designed so it's easy to manage a large number of worlds and fleets simultaneously. In essence, the galaxy will be awash in combat because multiple battles can flare up on the map at any one time. If you zoom in, you'll be able to see the individual ships slugging it out in the fleet actions.
Each faction will have a wide variety of ships to construct, though Sins of a Solar Empire does depart from the direct relationship between researching technology and ship design that's found in many space strategy games. You will be able to conduct research in the game, and that can have an impact on your strategy. For instance, you can improve your industrial output to build ships faster. However, you won't need to worry about researching certain weapons technologies and outfitting your ships with them, or coming up with the latest shield design and having to install it on your vessels. Ships will come in stock designs, so there's no need to constantly tinker with their weapon loadouts.
But, it's not all about combat in Sins of a Solar Empire. A robust diplomacy system will let you wheel and deal with your fellow players, either in single-player or multiplayer mode. One really nifty feature is the idea of a bounty. You can put a bounty on another player, which means other players or even pirates will have a financial incentive to destroy ships from that player's faction. Even worse, if you have a bounty on your head, you won't know who commissioned it--unless the faction responsible for it announces it. So imagine how you could publicly declare yourself as someone's friend to soften him up while at the same time put a bounty on his ships for the moment you decide to stab him in the back.
Sins of a Solar Empire is not due out until 2007, but the glimpse of the game that we got from Stardock was enough to pique our interest. The game mechanics look like they could be a lot of fun, and the real-time aspect of the game is a nice change of pace in a traditionally turn-based genre. However, what we're really looking forward to is assembling huge fleets and throwing them into battle as fast as we can build them.