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SummarySins is a unique and innovative RTS/4x hybrid that combines the best elements of both genres into a great game.
The GoodSins of a Solar Empire borrows elements from many other games, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It's more than a homage to the old Masters of Orion games (or Stardock's own Galactic Civilizations) - it's a reinvention of them. Instead of being turn-based and epic-paced like many 4X games, the game operates in real time with an adjustable speed (in the single-player game). This innovation gives the game a much better pacing than other strategy games, which often suffer from the constant clicking of the "End Turn" button.
The interface is quite well designed. The main screen is a 3-D view of the planets in the galaxy (or galaxies on larger maps). You can zoom all the way in to one planet to watch your constructions ships building or your fleet patrolling the space around the planet, or you can zoom all the way out to the strategic view, which lets you view the entire map at once. In this view, each planet has status readouts which give you a general idea how many friendly and enemy ships are near that planet. You can mouse over the fleet indicators to view a more detailed summary of the ships in the system and their status.
On its own, this interface would have been sufficient to play the game fairly well, but Iron Lore also added a handy collapsible sidebar which shows in detail (via icons) what buildings and ships are in each sector. You can easily highlight units from this interface and give orders to attack specific units or to use special powers.
Finally, you can zoom all the way into a planet and control the battle like you would in many other RTS games. Fortunately, 90% of the time this is completely unnecessary - you can play entire games without any micromanagement of your fleet and win just through strategic decisions.
The graphics aren't the best I've seen in the genre, but the level of detail in battles is amazing if you zoom all the way in. Capital ships majestically turn to bring their weapons into combat and unleash their strike craft. Smaller frigates zoom around and harass the enemy. Siege ships send rains of warheads down to destroy the inhabitants of planets with colorful explosions. The cinematic mode is great for watching the largest battles, which can feature several hundred ships on each side.
For the most part, the "slow RTS" pacing of the game makes the game easier to play and the battles more suspenseful. In other RTS games, battles tend to last no more than 10 seconds. Most of the major Sins battles average in the minutes, which frees you from the micromanaging clickfest into a more strategic contest.
The online matching service for multiplayer games is no Battle.net, but it is much more robust than many other services, and there are no weird firewall bugs or network settings needed. (Yes, I'm talking about you, THQ and the lame firewall bugs in the Dawn of War series!)
Finally, the lack of intrusive copy protection is wonderful. Whether you buy it off the shelf or from Stardock's online store, all you need to activate your game is a serial number. No CD-checks, no copy-protection checks at the company's web site every time you start the game (like the Steam service), no nothing. Just the game. It is refreshing for the developers to trust their customers instead of punishing them.
The BadThe game designers did not do a good job balancing the different factions in the game. As of the writing of this review (version 1.03 of Sins), the Advent is quite underpowered in the early game vs. TEC or the Vasari.
Some ship types are also much better than others. One multiplayer complaint is that you can basically mass huge fleets of the long-range missile ships and mow down everything in your path in the early game, ignoring the early planetary defense systems because your long-range ships can fire from out of their attack range.
The game is also prone to crashing, especially in multiplayer games, which is quite frustrating.
The AI is not all it's cracked up to be. Like in many other strategy games, you cannot practice vs. the AI to get more than a basic understanding of how to play humans in multiplayer. It's a totally different game.
Iron Lore is dedicated to fixing most of these issues (I look forward to the 1.04 patch), but the crashing and game-balance issues should really have been sorted out before the game was released.
The Space Pirates are a mixed bag in both single and multiplayer. They are too powerful in the beginning of the game and too inconsequential at the end of the game, which is why so many people turn them off. I'd like to see them developed into a more interesting part of the game.
In the single-player game, diplomacy is a mess. You can only curry favor by completing quests for other factions, which are often contradictory to your goals or arbitrarily difficult or impossible to complete. For example, sometimes the computer assigns you quests to kill 5 enemy tactical structures, and the enemy only has 4 tactical structures built. It would be nice if you could assign quests to your allies instead of just hoping they will help you.