In 2008, Ironclad Games released Sins of a Solar Empire, an interstellar 4X strategy game where-in players could battle for control of entire star systems on a galactic scale. But unlike its Total War or Galactic Civilizations brethren, Sins was not turn-based. All of its action, from empire management to fleet engagements, took place in real-time. That blend of genres was a success with fans, and four years later the developer is set to release another, now standalone expansion pack titled Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion.
While it may be classified as an expansion pack, it's by no means a small product. It includes all the content from the original game and its other two expansions while adding even more ways to explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. New victory conditions help move the game at a quicker pace, while creating interesting scenarios. Flagship Victory gives each player a powerful, durable ship which they must protect at all costs or lose the game if it's destroyed. The player that conquers a specific, random planet in Occupation Victory will win if he or she can hold it for a certain duration.
The three races already had their own unique playstyles, but Rebellion splits each into Loyalists and Rebel factions, adding further nuance and defining characteristics. The TEC Loyalists, for example, focus more on defense than their Rebel counterparts. They can build multiple starbases per system, and their units have greater hull and shield points within their own territory. Meanwhile, the TEC Rebels can ally with the pirates – a non-playable faction that sends out constant raids if enabled – and gain money when bombarding enemy planets.
The races and factions can also recruit new ships, though the list isn't too extensive. But what they can build is impressive, new titan-class ships which are costly to build but extremely difficult to destroy. Their masses all but dominate entire gravity wells, easily dwarfing capital ships and cruisers in size and power.
I decided to play on a small map as the TEC Rebel faction against a single, random AI opponent, but the game offers plenty of other match options. There are multiple map sizes, ranging from a single star system with a half-dozen planets to multiple systems with over 140 planets. I could also have chosen to play on a randomly generated map or created my own. Furthermore, I could customize general game speeds, enable or disable pirates, set numerous victory conditions – I only enabled the new Capital Victory option, meaning the destruction of my or the enemy's capital planet would end the game – as well as define AI difficulty behaviors, not just their difficulty levels. Once the game had finished loading, I zoomed the camera around and out to take in my small corner of the galaxy.
Despite the original Sins of a Solar Empire being more than four years old, it's still a beautiful game, no small thanks to Rebellion's new textures, shaders and engine optimizations. Ships are wonderfully detailed and designed. Planets glow from their atmospheres and the lights of civilization. It's easy to lose yourself zooming the camera inward to admire the sharp cannons of a battleship or the glacial scars of an ice world, forgetting about the management of your greater empire.
I soon discovered, however, that several of my faction's traits were not passive bonuses. I had to research an alliance with the pirates and the minor AI factions, which took me some time to find as the interface is still somewhat difficult to navigate and manage and information buried or unclear. Regardless, I quickly set to building up a sizable fleet to defend my growing territory from the intervals of pirate raids. The AI smartly kept placing a bounty of my head, effectively bribing the pirates to attack me, but soon the tables would turn and an enemy would become an ally.
Further research granted me pirate ships – up to a dozen frigates and cruisers – after each raid. They still consumed logistic slots and required upkeep, but I didn't have to spend credits to build them. That money saved was no small matter. Research, ships and installations in Sins of a Solar Empire are all costly investments. Players have to be very conscious of how they spend their hard-earned credits and resources. Several times I found myself teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, relying on the black market to sell minerals and keep myself in the game.
My alliance with the pirates proved extremely beneficial. I secured my border worlds, surrounding them each with a half-dozen defense platforms and countless mines. I had also fully developed my colonies to sustain greater populations, thus bringing in more tax income. I was ready to commit myself to building a titan-class ship.
This was no small project. It required several stages of expensive research before it could be fully built, nor was the ship itself cheap. And when it was finally purchased, the game alerted every other player of its construction. Thankfully, the AI was busy fending off pirates to concern itself with me.
Almost seven minutes of time in a titan foundry, she finally pulled out into space. She was a beautiful, kilometer long mass of teeth, her body lined with dozens of cannons and missile bays. My new fleet of TEC and pirate frigates and cruisers, two capital ships and my titan consumed enemy worlds in mere moments. I soon surrounded their capital world and let her feast one final, violent time.
The additions of this latest expansion make Sins of a Solar Empire worth revisiting. The new factions for each race add further diversity to exactly how you play the game, and the new victory conditions do a lot to reduce the original's end-game slog. However, Rebellion may not be easy for beginners to quickly grasp. The interface, real-time gameplay and scale can be daunting. But unlike other strategy games where I was left disappointed, by my own lack of skill or otherwise, this is one I could definitely lose countless hours to trying to master.
Note: These impressions were based on the preview code of Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. The features we experienced are not final.