Monday, February 8, 2010
Learning curve steep for "Sins"
"Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity"
Developed by Ironclad Games Corp.
Published by Stardock Entertainment
Available: Tuesday, Feb. 9th by download or at major retailers
By Wilhelm Andrews
It's weird. That sound. It's not lasers, phasers, death rays or photon torpedoes. It's not that (now-all-too-familiar) warning: "Our home world is under attack!"
Then it hits me. It's the sound of birds chirping. It's 5:30 a.m. and the sun is beginning to brighten the backyard.
This was my first test run of Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity, set for release Tuesday, developed by Ironclad Games Corp. of Vancouver and published by Stardock Entertainment, for Windows 7, XP or Vista.
Trinity incorporates the original, 2008 "PC Game of the Year" Sins of a Solar Empire, plus the Entrenchment and Diplomacy expansions.
This was my first, but not my last, attempt to figure out how to at least survive "the complete Sins experience." I gave up trying to actually win the game around the sixth attempt.
I began installation with a download through Impulse (www.impulsedriven.com) about midnight. The press release said it would "only take a few minutes," but really, it took an entire TV episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and about half an episode of South Park to fully install and configure. And I've got a quad-core PC with broadband cable.
I stopped playing, finally, after starting over three or four times, about 5:45 a.m.
Now, there are many, many reviews online by all kinds of well-qualified players, programmers and gaming pundits. I can't speak to the countless variations of play, or the best strategies or the nuances of playing it online. Honestly, I stayed offline on purpose, fearing I'd just be embarrassed, getting taunted and slaughtered by a 12-year-old girl or an editor from Wired magazine.
But I can say something about playing solo.
Even now, I keep going back. If nothing else, this game is addictive. But I also find that, even at its very easiest settings, I still can't actually win this game. I build and build for hours, then in a flash, the enemy invades and I'm toast. I had the same problem, and a similar play experience, with EVE Online (www.eveonline.com by CCP).
To me, Sins is like a combination of Sid Meier's Civilization and Activision's Star Trek Armada. It's an RTS - Real Time Strategy - game. Building ships and bases, and flying around the universe, feels just like Armada.
And just like in Civilization, I tend to get invaded and killed off very quickly. Except this time, the Prussians are space pirates. Every campaign feels like I'm wearing hamburger pants, trapped in a cage full of rabid badgers.
In Sins, you've got three key races: TEC (Trader Emergency Coalition, better known as good ol' "humans"), the Vasari and the Advent (both called "mysterious" aliens).
As the FAQ at www.sinsofasolarempire.com says: "Each race brings to the table its own unique abilities and history that impact how you play the game." In the press release, Stardock's Brad Wardell advises the first-time player to pick the human TEC race, for familiarity's sake.
One thing I found: No matter which race I pick to play, I always die in a hail of energy blasts. The Web site offers a download of Particle Forge, the software used to create those blasts. With these graphics, dying is gorgeous, but it's never pretty.
After setting up a new character (picking a race, making up a name, setting the gaming environment - i.e., for me, turning on the "Nerf" controls), it's time to actually hit the "play" button.
From the beginning, getting used to handling this universe takes some effort. In the first test run, I kept tumbling end-over-end in space, like the astronauts with "gimbal lock" in the flick Apollo 13. I've got a two-button mouse with a wheel, so click-and-zoom isn't too difficult. Still, there are moments even now where I wind up standing on my head. And that's not the best position in a firefight.
Wardell, the game's executive producer, also advises newbies to build and explore quickly. That's an understatement. In test run No. 3, I finally secured three planets and had a fairly decent "capital ship," a big cruiser with nukes and stuff, my own virtual Battlestar Galactica. I laid out minefields in orbit around my three planets. I placed giant plasma-type canons all around. I felt ready for anything. But then the neighboring Vasari invaded my corner of the cosmos, and my battleship and all my defenses got wiped out within a few mouse clicks.
After the smoke and debris cleared, I scrambled for the "quit" button and checked out my stats. There's an entire feature of the game that shows how you stack up against your foes, in line-graph form.
In every category - technology, empire-building, whatever - my graph was Code Blue. Not even a faint blip of a heartbeat in most areas. The enemy's went off the chart in every case.
The Sins Web site offers advice on how to "achieve victory over your numerous enemies." It's a simple formula: Explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. "Diplomacy" allows you to try to buy some time by negotiating with the other factions. (The best part I found was "hiring" pirates to attack the enemy.)
Some folks online complain about the lack of a story line during play. This, after all, is not Mass Effect or Halo. But I didn't really notice, or care that much. I've been playing World of Warcraft since 2006, so plot just takes up too much time. That's why the keyboard has an ESC key. Now in my ninth or 10th run at Sins, I'm still too busy getting killed off to worry about story lines, anyway.
I can see where, after a few weeks or months of play time, Sins could become just like Age of Empires or any of the other strategy game classics. You've played all of the possible combinations.
And after a while, the whole experience - the sights and sounds of laser blasts, exploding spaceships and even birds chirping after a full night of gaming - becomes repetitive and, well, boring.
To me, that sounds like it's just time to move on to the next new title.
The verdict? 2 (out of 4 stars). It's fun, but unwinnable.