Developer: Ironclad Games / Publisher: Stardock / ESRB: Teen (Fantasy Violence, Mild Language) / Played on: PC / Price: $39.99
While many would contend that humans are mere animals, we have an edge on them because we can defer gratification. If you put a treat in front of a dog, no amount of convincing short of an electric prod will keep that pooch away. Meanwhile, legions of folks drag themselves out of bed every day to go to soul-crushing jobs just to get food on the table. While the jobs thing is a great example, the fact that I uninstalled Sins of a Solar Empire about a month after buying it is the superlative example. The game threatened to consume my being and erase my soul, so I made the executive decision to cut myself off. The withdrawal shakes were intense and frequent.
Now it’s back, and with even more content. Bastards.
First, a bit of explanation: Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity includes the base game and two micro-expansions, Entrenchment and Diplomacy. Diplomacy is the last scheduled micro-expansion (aren’t we just calling that DLC now?), so Trinity launched alongside it. The original Sins is a real-time strategy game, though the content added with those micro-expansions pushes Trinity towards a 4X game, which of course stands for Xighting, Xesearching, Xoving Units Around, and Xosing Hours of Time Without Noticing. Players start with a lone planet and must expand to others in a system, capturing their resources, building structures, researching to unlock new units, and ultimately crushing enemies under their space-boot or (thanks to Diplomacy) making nice enough to earn a diplomatic victory.
Diplomatic victories haven’t had time to settle in to Sins’ combat-heavy mechanics thanks to their recent addition. They work thusly: maintaining a positive relationship with other factions increases a diplomatic score relative to how high the relationship is. Meeting a certain score earns victory. Only problem is, defending one’s planets and researching diplomatic tech requires resources. Nabbing resources necessitates conquering planets, which requires a sizeable fleet, and if a player has a fleet strong enough to capture planets, well, why not just win the game by conquering everything? It’s (theoretically) possible to conquer planets by passively bombarding them with culture broadcasted from transmission structures, but the process takes so long that the easier option is still to swoop in and stomp on everything.
Aside from that, the gameplay (which is to say, the combat) from the original is still solid two years later. Sins’ combat is balanced and paced very well, though it will be slow for those more familiar with Command and Conquer-ish games.
There’s no avoiding it; lasers, space, and explosions are just awesome. While Sins’ visuals look dated due to some blurry textures and relatively simple weapons effects, great use of color keep the visuals fresh. Thanks to impressive differences in scale, space battles in Sins seem understated and almost insignificant, making the tiny flashes of guns and space-popcorn-explosions oddly relaxing when viewed from a zoomed-out perspective. The backdrop for these battles almost steal the spotlight, as Sins’ backgrounds are downright gorgeous. Planets, nebulae, and star fields convey the absolute size and wonder of space.
The more information-heavy displays in Sins are overwhelming to start, but an hour of use exposes the organization underneath. Multiple little touches prevent the game from being the spreadsheet nightmare it could be. For instance, mousing over an enemy faction displays an exact breakdown of all the factors that compose the diplomatic relationship with them, while trying to build a unit locked out by research prerequisites will highlight the needed research in the tech tree. This isn’t a jump-in-and-play game; even the tutorials don’t cover all the bases. Even still, the interfaces and displays are designed such that a patient and inquisitive mind can learn.
More than the RTS trappings or awesome space battles, Sins’ greatest feature is its controls. Smart displays and the ability to toggle auto-cast of ship abilities and auto-placement of structures can obscure most of the control minutiae, but still offer micro control for the RTS enthusiasts. Every unit/planet/structure is listed in an organized manifest on the left side of the screen, which provides a great overview of one’s empire at a glance. Units around any planet are represented by groups of pips in line with that planet, which makes selecting groups of units and moving them an absolute breeze. Zooming in and out is easy, allowing players to switch from macro-oriented tasks like expanding to new planets and micro tasks like targeting a specific frigate in a battle quickly.
While Sins’ pew pew laser sounds fill in the sounds of battle well, the rest of the game’s audio isn’t as successful. Unit responses for the Vasari faction sound like one of the more annoying races from Star Wars, and while that may sound awesome on paper, the average game in Sins easily eclipses two hours along with any tolerance for such sounds. The game’s music wears thin quickly as well. The simplistic symphonic score is better replaced with Shiny Toy Guns or something more musically complex (but still requisitely futuristic).
Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity is a hell of a lot of game for 40 bones. While the two micro-expansions don’t fundamentally change the base game, their inclusion is awfully handy for anyone that hasn’t already bought the original (and for those that have, Impulse offers both micro-expansions for half the price). PC-owning RTS fans have no reason to pass this one up, unless of course they’re making grand statements about the finer points of humanity… but you know what? Sometimes you gotta just sit at your computer in your underwear for hours at a time, pounding back tortilla chips and soda, and conquer the hell out of a solar system.