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Sins of a Solar Empire - First and Probably Final Impressions
I have long been a fan of the turn-based empire-management genre. Games like Civilization, Heroes of Might and Magic, Master of Orion, and, most recently, Galactic Civilizations 2. There's a wonderful, horrible, addictive component to them that taps directly into the pleasure cortex of my brain. "Just one more turn, just one more turn, just one more turn..." has kept me up long past when I would otherwise go to bed far more times than I would like to admit. I guess I just love managing the shit out of empires, and I love the ability to make time leap forward and interesting things happen with the press of an "End Turn" button. Thus, when Sins of a Solar Empire came out, published by Stardock, who are all about being DRM-free, and who produced and published Galactic Civilizations 2, my most recent turn-based addition, I took note. Sins received near universal praise, and could best be described as a real-time empire-management game. When it was put on sale for a couple of dollars via Impulse a few months back, I finally bought it.

Sins of a Solar Empire is a sci-fi themed real-time turn-based empire-management game. It's essentially everything you've come to know and love about the turn-based empire-management genre - planets / cities, research trees, armies, culture, trade, resource management - except that instead of having an "End Turn" button, the game's time slowly creeps along, giving you the chance to respond to what's happening without having to do so frantically, while still maintaining constant forward progress. Sins has three resource types, three races, three primary tech trees, three types of planets, three classes of ship, and maybe three of some other stuff there. If you know the genre, you know the drill. Sins certainly has its own take on research and planet building and all of that, but none of it is incredibly innovative or unusual. What is innovative and unusual is the fact that it's a real time game with a rather enormous scale. Zoom out far enough and the 3D ship models turn into little 2D icons, the 3D planets become 2D icons, and the little details like floating debris, swarms of traffic around planets, and ship wreckage disappear.

This seems like precisely the game for me. Turn-based empire-management! Except in real time! Why not try something new, right? How could a game that's in one of my favorite genres and was roundly praised fail to disappoint? Unfortunately, even when everything seems aligned to produce a sure-fire success, things can still go wrong. I do not enjoy Sins of a Solar Empire at all. It is only vaguely more fun to me than work. All of the addictive joy that comes with the turn-based version of the genre has been sucked out. I have spent a couple weeks slowly plinking away at my second mission - I aborted the first mission after learning some of the basics of the game and getting brutalized by the game's merciless learning curve. It is on the smallest system possible, something like a size 1 out of a possible 5. I do not think that I will ever finish this mission. If I do, I doubt I will ever start another. I do not like Sins of a Solar Empire.

It's a little difficult to pinpoint what went wrong. I think there are actually a number of little things, rather than a host of big ones.

The first issue came during the four tutorial maps. They throw a lot at you. The interface isn't really overwrought, and I imagine it conveys a lot of information when you know what everything means. That said, it's entirely overwhelming when you're new to the game. There are all these different windows and numbers and graphics, and hovering over anything will tell you something, and clicking will tell you something else. Every planet in your tree on the left will show you your ships, and defensive structures, and logistic structures, and enemy ships, and whatever else. I had no idea what was going on in my first game. Part of this was due to the fact that I was drowning in information, and part of this was due to the fact that the tutorials left out some rather critical information.

Specifically, they failed to mention pirates. I didn't understand pirates until I Googled a wiki on the game and read up on them. Normally when you start a turn-based empire-management game, shit is overwhelming. But that's fine, because usually you have your little corner of the world, and you can start to build and learn at your own pace, without being threatened by other empires, at least for a time. Not so in Sins: you have to deal with pirates. The basic gist is that every so often, you'll get word that a pirate raid is forming. If you enter the black market screen, you can see how great the bounty is on each player, and you can anonymously increase the bounty on other players. When the pirates launch a little later, they'll go after the player with the highest bounty, sending a rather massive fleet of attack ships at one of his systems. Of course, the tutorials mentioned nothing of this, so I simply got blitzed with pirates several times early on, fucking up plenty of my structures, diverting my resources to half-assed defensive efforts, and otherwise ruining the game for me. I didn't know that they'd be coming, didn't understand why they were coming, and didn't know how to deal with them. I still barely knew how to play the game when hostile forces were flying at me. I do not fucking approve.

The problem of early-game assaults was perhaps exacerbated by my choice of map. The game sort of recommends a small system, which I can understand to an extent. Less planets, less to manage, less overwhelming. Of course, the downside of this - which might not even be corrected in larger maps, I don't know - is that not only are pirates breathing down your neck from the get go, your opponent is, too. Soon after barely fending off the pirates, I was hit with an attack by my enemy. Lovely! Wonderful! I'm scrambling to learn how to get a fleet together, trying to figure out how to setup adequate defenses, and then my planet is under siege. Not frustrating at all.

When all the dust had cleared, I simply started a new game, with hopes that my new found and hard earned knowledge of the game's mechanics would let me suck a little less fatally. And that did, indeed, happen. Sadly, once I left those problems behind, I ran into a new one entirely: the game moves too slow, and quickly becomes boring. Without the "End Turn" button, you cannot artificially speed up time during those lulls where you're waiting for resources to accrue or a fleet to mass. Instead, you simply stare at the screen and wait. I found crystal, which appears to be the game's bottleneck resource, quite scarce. Often I would just sit there, waiting to get more so that I could start research on a new technology, so I could in turn then wait for that research to complete, so that I then could start building a structure, and then wait for it to complete building, too.

Sins of a Solar Empire isn't a very interactive game, really. You don't really do anything in combat. You don't really do much in times of peace, other than click a few buttons to spend resources every now and then. I suppose this is, at heart, no different from turn-based empire-management games, but the key difference is that turn-based games are constant action and constant reward, with minimal waiting. Sins of a Solar Empire flips the equation, making it a game of near-constant waiting, with minimal interaction. Between that and the sometimes overwhelmingly complicated interface and gameplay, as well as a horribly steep and punishing learning curve, I find that Sins of a Solar Empire is really not much fun at all.

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