Rebellion’s stellar overhaul to Sins of a Solar Empire

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Command and Conquer: Generals was a grand action RTS. Then the Zero Hour add-on split each faction into distinct sub-factions. It took an already over-the-top action RTS that gloried in asymmetry and gave it more over-the-top and more asymmetry. Similarly, Rebellion splits Sins of a Solar Empire’s factions into subfactions. It takes an already nuanced strategic RTS that glories in asymmetry and gives it more nuance and more asymmetry.

After the jump, the titans aren’t even the best part

Rebellion also reminds me of the expansions for Age of Empires III. Ensemble and Big Huge Games eventually brought to that RTS new ways to play by adding strange new factions and victory conditions that drove the game in new directions. Native Americans, Eastern cultures, trade monopolies, and revolutions made Age of Empires III almost unrecognizable from its original form. Rebellion is nearly as revolutionary with its new subfactions, and it’s easily as revolutionary with its new victory conditions.

Rebellion’s new victory conditions are arguably the most meaningful addition. It’s one thing to add new toys, but it’s something else entirely to give those new toys a new direction. The victory conditions overhaul Sins’ endgame, which has previously been a problem. Try as Ironclad might, they haven’t been able to keep matches from turning into colossal slugfests of fleets smashing mightily into each other and into heavily defended planets. Sins is a massive game that necessarily gets more massive as you play. The victory conditions add some needed sculpting to the endgame massiveness.

I’ve always resisted the description of Sins as a real-time 4X, mainly because it leans so heavily on the conventions of real-time strategy. But with the diplomacy victory added in an earlier expansion, and especially with the new Rebellion victory conditions, Sins embraces its grand strategy like never before. The research victory is such a classic economic solution to stalemates, and it’s a staple of 4X tech trees. Like a spaceship victory in Civilization, this is how a game will end if no one has the stomach for conquest. Alternatively, the occupation planet allows for a military victory without direct aggression against another player. You can slip across space to a distant sun, where you’ll find a heavily defended planet that will remind any Master of Orion fan of Antares. Take this planet and hold it to win the game. And even though killing a flagship is usually a clumsy chase, this classic protect-the-VIP scenario will be familiar to players of the original 4X. I refer, of course, to chess.

New asymmetry among the factions is peppered throughout the tech trees. It can be hard to discern at first. The big messy selection screen where you select your faction looks daunting, but it gives you all the information you need. Which is Sins in a nutshell, really: it looks daunting, but it’s going to give you all the information you need.

The subfactions split each race into loyalists and rebels, which is awfully dry for such an otherwise sexy sci-fi game. The Vasari loyalists, for instance, can eat planets. Slapping them with the tag “loyalist” doesn’t do them justice. These guys are going to eat planets. Loyalists? That’s like calling Cylons “insurgents” or Reapers “the opposition party”. One of the new TEC factions earns money and a combat bonus for nuking planets from orbit. A new Advent faction can resurrect dead ships. And they’re called loyalists and rebels? That sounds like something from Age of Empires III. Before the expansions.

A lot of the new sexy is, of course, in the titans. The thinking here is that size matters, but you can only make ships bigger so many times before it starts getting ridiculous. Sins isn’t there yet, since the titans feel like an appropriate response to the starbases. Previously, Sins tilted precariously in favor of turtling when it added minefields and starbases. Especially starbases, which could be incredibly tough nuts to crack. Multilayered nuts, brimming with weapons and strikecraft. These new defenses were countered with scout ships and torpedo ships, respectively. But the titans are a higher level response. Why counter defenses when you can outbuild them with a powerful, long-game, offensive heavy hitter? These roving starbases are at last Sins’ version of an Imperial Death Star, and they’re just as glorious, if not sometimes weird. One looks like a funeral urn. Another looks like a dandelion seed. They are, without exception, totally awesome.

The three main factions also each get a new capital ship, and each subfaction has its own corvette. Ironclad continues to impress with the ideas they’ve come up with for the new capital ships. You’d think they’d be on autopilot at this point, just adding bigger guns and more armor. Instead, the Vasari nanoswarm ship, the Advent uber-debuffer, and the TEC boarding platform are each unique gameplay hooks.

The corvettes add a nice dash of activity to the already gorgeous space battles. I never minded that Sins’ ships lined up to fire at each other any more than I minded that the turrets don’t rotate (Ironclad has contended with both of these complaints from some of their more, uh, dedicated fans). From a gameplay perspective, the static battle lines make the action more manageable. From a historical perspective, the politely arrayed formations give the battles a stately Napoleonic feel. Now the corvettes threading their way through these stately lines add a splash of new activity, both visually and in terms of gameplay. The Vasari corvettes can slow repairs, the Advent corvettes debuff attacks or mana generation, and the TEC corvettes either slow ships or make them take more damage. These nimble little craft tweak the combat nicely and they add diversity to early fleets that would otherwise consists of your capital ship and a handful of light frigates.

Rebellion also supposedly upgraded the graphics. Frankly, I didn’t notice. I’ve always thought Sins of a Solar Empire is an absolutely gorgeous game. Can it get more gorgeous? You’ll have to tell me. I’m too busy digging on the new gameplay and pausing the game every five minutes to take screenshots.

5 stars