The space strategy genre has long been dominated by turn-based games such as Master of Orion. After all, trying to conquer dozens of worlds and manage hundreds of ships in real time sounds like an impossible task. However, someone didn't tell that to Stardock and developer Ironclad Games. That's because their upcoming Sins of a Solar Empire looks like an elegant take on space strategy. Sins features real-time gameplay that ranges from gargantuan space battles to management of an interstellar empire. It's an ambitious design, and it's shaping up to be one of the strategy games to keep an eye on in 2008.
Sins is a game of interstellar conquest featuring three different factions, though you can have up to 10 players, both human and computer-controlled, in a game. The scale of the game can vary from three planets, which is designed to last under an hour, to multiple star systems filled with a dozen planets each. That size of game "could take months," according to Stardock president Brad Wardell. Like many turn-based space strategy games, you start Sins with control of a single planet, and your goal is to explore space and expand by colonizing newly discovered worlds, exploiting the resources on those planets to build larger fleets, and using those fleets to exterminate your enemies. However, the difference is that this process happens in real time, so the game is constantly flowing.
There are two resources in the game, metal and crystal, and these can be mined from asteroids orbiting each planet. The game follows the Starcraft resource model in that there's a finite amount of material on each asteroid, but once the main store is exhausted, the asteroid still generates a small amount of resources for the rest of the game. Mining these resources is incredibly simple and part of the reason why a game the size of Sins is manageable. You can click on an appropriate harvester and then click on an asteroid, which is the traditional real-time strategy method of getting things done. Or, you can simply click on the button that says you want to harvest the material on that asteroid, and the game finds the closest harvester ship and takes care of all the details.
The elegance of Sins' interface is found on the left-hand side, where icons represent planets, fleets, and individual ships. If you arrive at a new planet, a planetary icon is added to the interface. The number of color-coded dots on the interface indicates the number of ships each faction has in orbit around every planet. You can expand the interface further to view in greater detail, and you can see the data on a fleet right down to the health and status of each ship. Giving orders is simple at that point. If you want, you can click on a ship icon and then click on a planet icon to give a movement order. Or you can click on a hostile ship icon to give an attack order. You can basically manage multiple battles and fleets with this interface.
Your fleets can consist of dozens, if not hundreds, of different classes of vessels. There are huge capital ships, smaller escorts, as well as fighter and bomber squadrons. What's cool about all this is that the game intelligently manages whatever battle groups you throw together, so you don't need to micromanage the battle. For instance, fighters and scouts will sweep ahead of the main group, while frigates and cruisers will array themselves next, followed finally by the capital ships. Think of a US Navy carrier battle group and how the carrier is at the center of an elaborate battle formation; that's similar to what the artificial intelligence does in Sins. You can jump in and micromanage at any time, or you can just zoom the camera in and watch the battle unfold.
Speaking of the camera, Sins features the same type of epic zoom out seen in games such as Supreme Commander. You can pull the camera in close on a single ship, right up to its skin, and then pull the camera back to an almost intergalactic scale, to the point that you can see multiple star systems on the screen.
Travel between planets is done by phase jumping, which is sort of like warp speed in Star Trek. However, there are some things to keep in mind. First, ships have to travel outside the gravity well of a planet in order to jump; that prevents you from building ships at your shipyard and immediately warping them to a battle. It also prevents you from warping next to an enemy planet and bombing it; you have to arrive at the edge of its gravity well and fight your way past its defenses. The other thing about phase jumps is that jump drives take time to charge, which means that a ship is a sitting duck in the meantime. Keep that in mind if you're in a battle and have to retreat, because you'll likely take losses as your ships prepare to jump. Likewise, travel is restricted along the space lanes that connect planets. So if you're at Planet A and want to get to Planet C, you first have to go through Planet B. This is for gameplay purposes, given that the ability to go from one planet to any other in a solar system would make the game far too easy; all you'd have to do is aim for the enemy's homeworld and take it out.
As you progress through the game, you'll not only get larger fleets, but you'll also improve your ships through technological research and unit upgrades. Ships can gain experience levels, and you earn points that you can use to improve certain aspects of the ship, such as its shields. Alternately, you can have the computer manage all of that and automatically upgrade ships for you. The technology tree has three branches. Military technologies improve your ships, civilian technologies improve your planets, and artifact technology lets you take advantage of ancient alien artifacts found on other worlds. They're an incentive for players to quickly explore the galaxy.
We're impressed with how Sins is shaping up, in that it brings some new thinking to the genre, along with a cool premise and beautiful visuals. Even better, the potential for the mod community is there. Wardell has said that beta testers have already managed to create mods based on popular science-fiction franchises. Work continues to progress on Sins of a Solar Empire, and it is scheduled to ship around February of next year.