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Thursday, September 09, 2010

A Timely Review of Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity

Or: Forget Everything You Thought You Knew About Strategy Gaming And Learn to Define Victory For Yourself

A Joint Review by Blood N' Glory Possum and Jraptor

Since Galactic Civilizations II doesn’t have a proper multiplayer module, we’ve been hunting for a good 4X sci-fi-themed space empire game. We bought the original Sins of a Solar Empire a while ago when it got phenomenal reviews, hoping that it would fill the multiplayer 4X void. At the time, we thought that the original Sins had lots of potential, but found the whole pirate aspect tedious (unlike, for example, the Antarans in Master of Orion II). We recently gave Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity an extensive “test drive” because it offers some gameplay improvements over the original game (like fortifications), as well as the ability to disable the pirates. Our comments here cover the Entrenchment game and not the Diplomacy add-on because we were never able to get that to load in multiplayer mode.

During install and multiplayer set up we encountered a surprising number of bugs, considering the maturity of this product (it has, after all, been on the market for some time). During install, three links are created for each of the three different versions of the game; however, only one of them actually worked. If you do manage to directly load each version of the game, you will have to reset the video and sound settings on the first load of each version. Fortunately, you can switch between versions of the game from the in-game menu; it basically closes and reloads the game into the selected mode. But at least this way, your video and sound settings are preserved.

When we tried to enter the multiplayer waiting room, we encountered errors about our game versions not matching even though we both had the latest updates. Checking the file system, one of us had an additional file in one directory. The only thing we can think of to explain this is one of us had installed the original Sins and then the Trinity add-on while the other only installed a virgin copy of the Trinity pack. It seems odd to us, however, that this should cause such an extreme error that could have been quietly resolved if the game merely synced our files. We were, ultimately, able to resolve the problem for the Entrenchment game by uninstalling the version that had the original Sins upgraded to Trinity and replacing it with a fresh install of just the Trinity pack. However, the Diplomacy game still gave us a “files don’t match” error and declined to let us play.

From the beginning, it was not obvious that the only way to win Sins: Trinity is through domination. No where in the game manual does it say how you actually “win” the game. We have divined from internet searches that the way to win is through total obliteration of all other factions. We also gather from internet searches that more win modes were added in for the “Diplomacy” expansion. However, since we were never able to win the game (or load the Diplomacy expansion), we still don’t really know. We suspect others have had the same problem since some websites suggested that “winning is how you define it for yourself.”

Overall, the gameplay was good. Managing the planets is simple when “auto-placement” is turned on. However, this will severely weaken your defenses because the algorithm that the game uses to place them is not at all good. It will lump them all together, or place them on the opposite side of the planet from where enemies would be expected to arrive. To the credit of the game creators, the manual doesn’t say that “auto-placement” will do desirable things.

We tried many strategies during gameplay that usually work in other strategy games. However, after 3 days and several restarts, we were, in the end, always completely overwhelmed by hundreds of enemy AI ships. The AI is aggressive and in our opinion unreasonably difficult even when on “Easy” mode. While we aren’t looking for a free lunch, we found this to seriously limit our enjoyment after 72 hours.

In particular, we found that the Vasari were vastly more powerful than either the TEC or the Advent. To test this theory, we played one game with only Vasari factions, figuring this would put us all on the same level playing field. We found that we did better this way, and our ships would occasionally survive a battle (as the TEC and Advent, our ships had an annoying tendency to explode after only a few seconds in combat). However, we were still completely unable to match the fleet production of the AI teams, and for hours we watched them produce 1 ship every 30 seconds, forming huge fleets of hundreds of ships. It’s possible that our game was so unbalanced because the Pirates were disabled; however, the game should be able to compensate for this.

As we lost planets, we also lost the ability to use the higher level technologies we had researched because we started loosing the labs needed to conduct and maintain high level research. So, as you get pushed back, you are put at an even further disadvantage, one that makes it impossible to recover -- your faction will effectively revert to a more primitive technological state in addition to the loss of economy as planets fall to the enemy. This severely limits the quality and quantity of ships you can produce and your ability to fend off attackers.

As soon as the AI smells weakness, it is relentless in your destruction. First, it will break all deals with you, then it will ignore your pleas for mercy, and finally it will taunt you as you’re crushed under the wheels of destruction. We tried the game on “Normal” mode first and then on “Easy”; in both cases we saw little difference in the game’s actual difficulty level. The AI in both modes still out-performed us economically and fleet-wise.

In general, we are big fans of Stardock; they treat their customers really well. The trend continues with Sins. We really appreciated how Stardock allows at 2 LAN players per copy of the game, which is great for multiplayer gaming on a home network. Sins also has truly reasonable system requirements - it can even run on a netbook! Unfortunately, this is not the game for you if you’re looking for a quick victory or any measurable victory at all; it lacks the perfect design balance of (for example) Rise of Nations. This game is designed to be difficult and is horribly unforgiving of even the tiniest mistake. The uncanny AI will know all your moves and move against you before you can recover. Think it won’t notice that you’ve moved your fleet to another planet for a few turns? Think again. Think those last 50 enemy ships you destroyed was the best they could do? Nope, wrong again. They’ll be sending a “little surprise for you” very soon, oh and they’ll taunt you about it, too.

The bottom line is that we’re still waiting for a great modern multiplayer sci-fi 4X game to build on what Galactic Civilizations II accomplished. Sins has a lot of good ideas, but it really doesn’t come together to make a compelling multiplayer experience.

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