Review: Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity (PC)

Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity
Genre: Real Time Strategy
Developer: Ironclad Games
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment
Release Date: 2/9/2010

Back when the hype train for Sins of a Solar Empire was running back in 2007, it seemed the game was too good to be true. Take the best of the 4X turn based strategy genre and mix it with the best of the Real Time Strategy genre to create some sort of super genre or something.

While the game was released to great critical and retail success, I wasn’t impressed. Sins tried too hard at being Homeworld and tried too hard at being Galactic Civilizations and failed at doing both – a perfect example of a jack of all trades and master of none; couple that with a lack of any sort of story mode, and I was sorely disappointed.

Now, Stardock has released Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity, which includes the first game and its two micro-expansion packs Entrenchment and Diplomacy.

Will a second chance change my opinion of the Sins franchise or will I stick to my initial reaction?

1. Story/Modes

One of the things that I thought was strange in the original Sins of a Solar Empire was the complete lack of a single player story mode considering it had a full back story for all the three factions. Now, I know most other space 4X titles such as Sword of the Stars don’t have a story mode, but after Gal Civ II introduced a single player story back in 2006 I assumed most other companies would follow suit and incorporate this into their own titles.

Wasn’t Sins of a Solar Empire supposed to be a fusion of RTS and 4X? I can’t remember any successful RTS game without a decent story mode. What would Command and Conquer be without Kane and his battles against the GDI? What would Red Alert be without Tanya? What would Starcraft be without Sarah Kerrigan, Tassadul, or Jim Raynor?

Other than that glaring omission you have most of your standard strategy modes: single player skirmish with any number of CPU opponents, online and LAN multiplayer battles, as well as a map designer to round off the list. The online portion of the game is handled through Ironclad Online, and creating an account is quick and painless with no need for you to open a web browser or wait for validation e-mails or such. The only problem I see is that since I live in a completely different timezone and have the latest expansion pack, I find it difficult to find many games to play. This isn’t the game’s fault but it is worth noting that if you can’t find many games on Trinity you can play the game without expansion packs to increase the pool of available players.

You might also want to appreciate that there is a LAN option because it seems Blizzard is intent on making it a thing of the past.

Story/Modes Rating: Decent

2. Graphics

Games set in space usually have excellent graphics (see X3, EVE Online or even Super Mario Galaxy) due to the fact that you have a lot of empty space that frees up processing power to render planets and ships. Sins of a Solar Empire is no exception, with the graphics being one of the main marketing tools for the game which show massive fleets surrounded by scurrying fighters and shooting lasers and missiles and other ordnance at each other. It is truly one of the best ways to reel in the sci-fi nerds (who doesn’t like giant battling space fleets?).

Beyond the obvious detail on the ships and other effects, Ironclad has placed a lot of little details here and there that enhance the experience, such as warning lights on all ships and space stations, little ships flying on the surfaces of planets and smoke coming from your mineral extractor’s smoke stacks. The most impressive feature, however, is that the game runs completely smoothly when zooming in from the map all the way down to seeing a small frigate’s paint job without a hint of slowdown or lag.

While the graphics are certainly very good, I’m still slightly disappointed that these strategy games still haven’t surpassed Homeworld 2’s graphics in the way FPS shooters like Crysis have raised the bar for all FPS games. I know that Sins is an indie title and it’s modeling entire systems instead of just one battle, but I still yearn for a space strategy game that would truly make my eyes bleed (Homeworld 3 anyone?).

Graphics Rating: Very Good

3. Sound

I found it kind of surprising that an indie title would have different voice acting for every ship in the game. It gets the job done, but some voice actors are better than others (compare the TEC Scout Frigate with the TEC Light Frigate for example), with the narrator for the opening cutscene being my personal favorite (he’s an unnamed Trader Emergency Coalition member).

The best part of the audio is undoubtedly the music. From the opening cutscene through to the main menu and into the game itself, the music is a feast to the ears with a rousing epic and orchestral score that would suit any space opera be it a movie, TV series or videogames. The strange thing is that music is turned down in the options screen by default. Why would anyone do that? That’s the best part of the audio! First thing you should do when you boot up your game is go to options, then to the audio tab and turn the music volume up to one hundred percent. You’ll thank me later.

Sound Rating: Above Average

4. Control/Gameplay

Before Trinity even launches you have the choice of playing Vanilla Sins, one of the two expansion packs, or just playing them all together at once. If you’re a newcomer, I recommend just using regular old vanilla Sins of a Solar Empire so you can get used to the game without the additional layer of defensive combat of Entrenchment and diplomatic wrangling of Diplomacy.

The game comes with 4 tutorials that explain the basics of the game and you can get through them in about an hour or so, but unfortunately the game neglects to offer tutorials to the expanded options in the expansion pack. Once you’re done with those, I recommend starting a small skirmish game without AI opponents and just getting a feel for your chosen faction and how to build an empire with them.

The concept is simple: you start out with one planet and two construction frigates, a disc around twice the size of the planet’s radius represents the planet’s “gravity well”, and this is where you build facilities, construct units and extract resources. If you want to explore and move to other planets, ships have to move to the edge of gravity well and jump across the empty space between gravity wells at a much higher speed than normal (Vasari can move between any two planets as long as they’ve been there before without making a series of jumps). Battles occur mostly in the gravity wells of planets or other objects (asteroid fields for instance) and are handled in the familiar RTS style of drag boxes, right clicks and CTRL groups and the interface is arranged in a manner that any strategy nerd will recognize immediately: three resource counters in the top right corner (Metal, Crystal and Credits), all the non combat stuff (Diplomacy, Research…all that boring stuff) at the very top of the screen, and unit cards at the bottom along with unit commands at the bottom right.

There are a couple of additions that break it apart from other games, however. At the top left is the “Empire Tree”, a collapsible menu of what units and buildings reside in each planet’s gravity well. This tree even has a search function to greatly decrease the time it requires to find your fleets and buildings. To manage large empires, you’ll need to master the use of this function or else get utterly overwhelmed by the pace of the game. At the bottom left are the reports boxes that give you regular updates such as military threats and ship production in an effort to make sense of your sprawling empire.

Even with these additions I found myself completely lost when I started my first game after the tutorials and even a simple 1v1 skirmish ended badly for me. The lack of advanced tutorials makes the game’s seemingly simple learning curve a bit steeper than one would expect at first glance, and the pace of the game can be too quick for seasoned 4X veterans such as myself but should be comfortable to anyone with a solid grasp of Starcraft or Age of Empires. I’m not insinuating that Sins is what some may call a “Der Klickenfest” as it is comparatively slow to those games, but it makes up for that with the extreme scale of the battlefield you are expected to develop.

With practice however, you can wrap your mind around the fundamentals and begin to enjoy yourself with steadily larger matches that culminate in a massive 5v5 game across multiple star systems, because that’s what Sins of a Solar Empire was made for.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability

Thanks to the magic of online multiplayer: both RTS games AND 4X games are infinitely repayable as long as people can still log on to the servers and find people to play with. If you take a game which combines both the aspects of these two genres, you have achieved a near pinnacle in the science of replay value. Combine it with the fact you can easily whip up a custom galaxy in a few minutes or just have the game make a new random galaxy for you in mere moments and you’ll have a near endless variety of battlefields to fight over. Even if you get bored of the game, installing mods is incredibly simple and Sins has an active community making all sorts of modifications and additions to relive pretty much every sci-fi movie space battle of all time.

The only problem is what do you do when you don’t have anyone to play with? The AI provides a good game, but it’s not the same as playing with human beings, and if you have both booster packs installed you can find a shortage of players online.

Replayability Rating: Classic

6. Balance

Due to the excision of a single player mode and the almost complete focus on competitive multiplayer gaming aspect, Sins of a Solar Empire is a lean mean balanced RTS machine. Ironclad has done an excellent job in balancing three completely different races into a cohesive whole and will continue balancing the game as is usual with patches whenever an exploit is found. I could be lazy and describe the TEC as “The Terran faction”, The Advent as “The Zerg faction” and The Vasari as “The Protoss faction” but there is a depth to all these races that make combinations such as a spamming TEC faction or a turtling Vasari faction if you so choose.

The only problem I see with the balance is that the pirate factions at the start of the game begin with substantial amounts of forces that you can’t remove for quite some time. While this is probably intended so that the pirates have a stronghold from where they can launch attacks on players and collect bounties, it causes a large disadvantage to a player if the pirate stronghold planet is blocking his expansion.

Balance Rating: Classic

7. Originality

Taking elements from Real Time Strategy games and 4X turn based strategy games and mixing them together into one seamless whole (unlike the Total War series which clearly separates the two) seems like such an obvious idea it would have been done before, but for some odd reason it hasn’t (maybe a game did come out that combined the two but didn’t achieve widespread fame?) so I’ll give Sins points for trying such an interesting combination and giving strategy gamers the game they’ve always wondered about in the back of their heads.

The overall theme and aesthetic for Sins is still pretty much within the realm of your average epic science fiction story and the gameplay doesn’t do anything innovative outside the mechanics of its two mother genres.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness

How well does “One more turn” syndrome that is synonymous with 4X games translate into a real time format? Surprisingly well actually!

It’s not really the “turns” aspect of games such as Sid Meier’s Civilization or Master of Orion 2 that continues to draw us into these games, but rather the constant stream of things to do such as that one city that you can improve food production if you build a granary, or that mountain tile that will give a mouthwatering production bonus to Los Angeles if you send this idle worker to build a mine there or that one OH MY GOD THE EGYPTIANS HAVE DECLARED WAR!

By having a constant stream of objectives as well as many things to multitask (numerous cities/planets, diplomacy, military, trade, etc.), turn based strategy games keep you hooked for incredibly long periods of time. Sins manages to more or less capture that feeling in real time space and will give you a fair share of butt cramps.

That being said, being real time also means the game must end much faster than its TBS counterparts (though it lasts longer than your average RTS), and there isn’t really the same sense of attachment you get to your virtual empire due to that. The purely multiplayer format of the game tends to also favor shorter, more competitive games rather than a more benign and slow “at your pace” single player game.

Addictiveness Rating: Above Average

9. Appeal Factor

Sci-Fi nerds constitute a large chunk of videogamers. Sins of a Solar Empire delivers this in spades with massive ship battles and star systems alongside more geeky technology upgrades that you can shake a stick at.

Sins of a Solar Empire is also somewhat of a media darling and I can see why: it’s published by a well known indie publisher who know how to take care of their fans and developed by a developer that shows huge companies that you can make beautiful looking games on a budget.

Nevertheless, being an indie game limits its mass appeal simply because you’ll have to dig a little farther than Gamestop to manage to find a copy of this game or be familiar with Stardock’s own content delivery systems “Impulse” to get the Trinity package.

Appeal Factor Rating: Above Average

10. Miscellaneous

Stardock are continuing their unique policy of not placing any copy protection system on their published titles in a manner similar to Galactic Civilization II. This trust in its consumers is what sets it apart from other companies’ draconian efforts to control their products (you hear that Ubisoft?). Of course, the game was out on the file sharing networks the day it was released, but the only difference DRM would have added was additional costs, consumer inconvenience, and a mere 24 hours before the game hits the torrents anyway.

However, I don’t like that Trinity seems to be only available on Stardock’s “Impulse” delivery system. Now don’t get me wrong, Impulse is very good and quite lightweight as well but… I already have a Steam account… and a Gamersgate account… and even a sucky Games for Windows Live Account. The point I’m making is I don’t need yet another program running in the background, I have too much already!

Stardock can take a page out of Paradox Interactive’s book and eliminate the actual client itself but leave the online shop open and all downloads and registration handled through your choice of web browser, quite a simple and elegant system.

Finally, I’ll add bonus points for having one of the best video game titles of all time. Whoever came up with the title “Sins of a Solar Empire” is a genius.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Modes: Decent
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Above Average
Control/Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Classic
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Good

Short Attention Span Summary
Sins of a Solar Empire is a game designed to bridge the gap between real time and turn based strategy gaming, but in the end it doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot and veers off ever so slightly towards the RTS end of the spectrum with on the fly management, a crucial factor in gameplay prowess. Still, anyone with an appreciation for strategy and epic space opera action can find something to like about Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity.



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2 responses to “Review: Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity (PC)”

  1. […] music isn’t bad. It reminds me a lot of the music found in Sins of a Solar Empire actually. It’s mostly symphonic, with hints of Butt Rock, as it used to be known. You’ll […]

  2. […] if you enjoyed Sins of a Solar Empire or Sword of the Stars, you’ll find Star Ruler to be right up your alley. Like most indie […]

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