A New Old Concept
Sins of a Solar empire takes on a very unique feel in the gaming world. It fits squarely between two huge genres. The heart of Sins is turn-based strategy, or a so-called "4x" game. Most of the mechanics and concepts in it are derived from this classic genre. However the concept has been simplified a bit and merged into the interface and gameplay of a realtime strategy. It's not the first game to try to merge turn based and realtime strategies, though it is the first to try to merge a full 4x system into the realtime world. There are many ways to do this poorly. The first major hurdle is the need to drastically simplify the interface. Where turn based strategies have hordes of interface panels, massive amounts of micromanagement, and civilization management, realtime games tend to have very simple UI configurations where almost everything is controlled by interacting directly with units on the screen, or a small no-nonsense toolbar and status screen at the bottom. At the same time, it's easy to oversimplify and abstract the interface to the point of the "spreadsheets in space" episode that Master of Orion III became.
In this, Sins manages to successfully capture the best of both genres. It has the feeling of imminent cause and effect, tension, and epic battles that realtime gamers yearn for, while maintaining an addictive and satisfying, albeit simplified, micromanagement and location management that turn-based gamers have come to expect.
With that fear gone, it becomes easier to examine the rest of the game. There are three factions within the game. The TEC would be considered the human faction. They feature near-future technology type ships and research paths, and focus on ballistic weapons. The Advent, while also technically human, is a semi-mystical faction. They rely heavily on energy weapons, have sleek design single piece ships, and focus on shields more than armor. The Vasari is the alien faction. Heirs of a brutal empire, they have slow, expensive, lumbering ships armed to the teeth and very heavily armored. All three races have unique facets to their ships and defenses, and unique styles of combat to a degree, though many of their ships tend to be rough equivalents of each other, providing minimal obvious difference between them. Notice I say "obvious"... it's the subtleties in their weapons and defenses that make each race different.
Where the races truly separate, however, is in their tech trees. While all races have a common four-layer research queue. The fleet tree is always open and is the same for all races. This handles your fleet capacity (population cap) and your crew training (capital ship capacity.) The artifact tree is also the same for everyone. This involves one of the alternate ways to win in which you round up pieces of artifacts from planets you control. The other two trees, military and civilian (the names change per race) exist for all races, and likewise, access up the ladder of each is controlled by your quantity of civilian and military research outposts around planets. For each race the tech trees are somewhat unique. One race may have the ability to research an advantage not held by another race, or, more interestingly, a research item that may be near the top of the tech tree for one race may be near the bottom of the tree for another. No one ability is a definite advantage, but your combination of strengths, make vast differences.
Sounds too good to be true, right? All this tech costs money. And you only get a few mines available, at best, on each planet, so even if you're planning to win via passive means, you still have no choice but to expand your empire to enough planets to get the income levels you need. Not just resources, but there's a limit to how many facilities you can build on each planet, so to get enough research stations to get to the highest research labs, you need a number of planets under your control to support all the required structures.
The concept of the gameplay is simple enough, build some ships, research some tech, expand to a new planet, and repeat. As your enemies upgrade, however, you need to upgrade as well, otherwise even small swarms of their ships can outmatch your large but weak fleet. Alternately their massive fleet can easily take down your well built capital ship fleet in no time. Unlike a raw turn-based game, though, the realtime elements allow you to make up for bad numbers with a bit of skill and finesse in handling a battle. The ships can do well on their own, but with a little TLC, you can make a fleet perform a bit beyond their stats give them credit for.
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