Friday, September 17, 2010

Strategic Depth in Sins of a Solar Space Empire


From time to time, I've played a computer game known as Sins of a Solar Empire. Not as well known as others, it is a game set in the deep of space, allowing the player to take control of one of three galactic empires in a quest for dominance of the void. It is not original in its choice of setting and gameplay, but it is an innovator in one respect: bringing unmatched strategic depth to the world of real-time strategy games.
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A Universe to Conquer

Sins of a Solar Empire is a game that involves testing one's skill; not as a spacecraft pilot, not as a marine invading a world, but as a supreme commander-in-chief of a vast, sprawling, and constantly expanding military and economic powerhouse. When confronted with the task of sending fleets into battle, you are the one who decides where they go, what their unit composition is, and how they will use their varied abilities in battle. You decide when they will retreat, when they will feint, and when they will flank the enemy in battle. At the same time, you make the economic decisions of an entire race, balancing the desire for a vibrant economy with the likely need for defensive and offensive forces. Finally, you also decide whether to try and expand one's culture to subvert the enemy from within; carefully coaxing a powerful and appealing culture into being can cause entire worlds to switch sides and join your nation.

Yet, to those familiar with real-time strategy games, these are hardly original tools of gameplay. So what makes Sins of a Solar Empire so impressive?
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Options Enough to Paralyze or Enable

Recently, I've been reading a biography of Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allies in Europe during World War II. In it, the author describes the massive amount of build-up and detail that went into the famous D-Day landings. The book takes the reader through a journey both elaborate and gripping. It describes the Allies' need to consider the possibilities of enemy mines, tanks, submarines, aircraft; the need to plan for weather, the need to disable enemy transportation, disrupt railways, split hundreds of thousands of troops into manageable landing groups, and the need to mislead the enemy into thinking that the Allies would land somewhere else. In short, hundreds of things were planned for, countless contingencies accounted for, and innumerable logistical preparations dealt with in order to pull off such a massive undertaking successfully.

Sins of a Solar Empire both allows and often requires such depth in planning if one wants to truly succeed against tricky AI's and even craftier players. Take an example.

In Sins, planets are separated by hyperspace jump routes, creating specific areas of a gravity well where you can expect the enemy (or your own ships) to come from. Thus, if one of your planets borders an enemy, you can create defenses enough to severely cripple any invading force that comes your way. In my game, I took my massive fleet, a fleet powerful and large enough to destroy most of the enemies in the game's universe, and, without thinking, attacked an empire which I had previously ignored up to this point in the game. I did not plan. I did not consider the possibility of failure. I simply assumed that the size of my fleet and its power would be more than enough to crush this new target. Boy, was I wrong.

Upon arrival, my fleet took heavy damage from an unexpected source. My enemy had prepared. Mines were densely laid at my arrival point, destroying dozens of my fighter craft and ripping away the shields of my larger capital ships. Immediately, an enemy starbase positioned nearby (think the Death Star) opened fire on my most powerful ship, destroying it in short order. Enemy strike craft (snub fighters) surged from the planet in my direction. In seconds, my entire fleet had been cut in half and shot to pieces; my capital ship from the start of the game shredded into bits before I even had time to react.
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Think Out Your Actions or Perish

Quickly, I commanded all sources of industry to build new ships and send them to my planet bordering the hellacious trap. Yet by the time my new force was created, I had lost this planet to a cruel (and totally deserved) enemy counterattack, along with an asteroid belt nearby. By the time I was ready, my new force was positioned at my last redoubt in the system, a lonely desert planet with only one entrance, one exit.

Slowly and cautiously, I pushed from this one planet and recovered my lost possessions; finally returning to the planet bordering the place where I had been defeated so thoroughly and embarrassingly. And I wondered how to break this nut that stood in my way.

This is where the strategic depth of Sins began to stand out. With careful planning, I prepared a small force of scouts able to detect and dispatch mines. I prepared ships that could create starbases of their own. I divided my forces into groups. One group would act as aircraft carriers, skirting the far borders of the gravity well and sending its bombers in to take out the enemy's hangars. One group would be comprised of flak frigates, ships able to fire from every aperture in order to neutralize the enemy's first waves of fighters. Another group would be the heavy cruisers, whose main job would be to take on themselves the punishment of remaining mines and to try and take the bulk of enemy fire from their starbase. Yet another group was my capital ships and a cadre of ships able to bombard the planet. The final group was tasked with supporting my own starbase-creating units in setting up strongpoints able to shelter craft from being overwhelmed and to solidify my advance.

In short, I prepared extensively, as no other real-time strategy game has allowed me to do so; planning for every contingency and pulling off an operation so detailed and multi-faceted that it boggles my mind that I was able to pull it off.
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Conclusion

I ended up suffering significant losses, but took the planet and destroyed all of the enemy's defenses. My planning was so careful that I was even able to repel the enemy's main fleet showing up halfway through the battle; the enemy's last ditch effort to exterminate my attack force.

For those of you with strategic leanings or the desire to play a game that requires careful planning and thought, I can thus recommend Sins of a Solar Empire with flying colors. The game's strategic possibilities are endless, and in this post I barely even mentioned the strategies involved in managing one's economy, advancing one's culture, and the nuances of marking a fine balance between expenditures on technology, military, culture, economy, and exploration. Sins of a Solar Empire allows this, as few other games have before, and should be recognized and enjoyed for it.

2 comments:

  1. I find it hard to think of another RTS in which you build up such attachment to your units. It takes such time and effort to develop your capital ships that you cringe whenever they are battered by enemy forces. This is directly countered by the thrill of taking down one belonging to an opponent. They are comparable to the hero units from Warcraft III, but cannot simply be revived if they are destroyed. Becoming immensely powerful and varied in their abilities late game, losing one can spell doom for an offensive push.

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  2. This is very true. And as I've been playing it more, it has gotten to the point where I retreat them away from the slightest danger or focused fire, for fear of losing them and their epic special abilities!

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