The 1990s were the decade of the real-time strategy game, and I played every major one: Herzog Zwei, Dune 2, Command & Conquer, Warcraft 1 and 2, Red Alert, Total Annihilation, Starcraft, Age of Empires 1 and 2. Then I burned out. Done with base-building, peon-sitting, unit-spamming, tactics-light games, I spent the 2000s in RTS-less bliss. Then came the original Sins of a Solar Empire, in 2008, as far removed from its 90s forebears as a game could be. Peon micromanagement was out. Scrapping over a finite number of planets with a finite number of available improvements (a la, I would later realise, Kohan or Rise of Legends), battling over strategic jump lanes, constructing vast capital ships and choosing scarce upgrades were in. I was hooked. Sins brought me back to the RTS fold. Now, four years later and two “mini-expansions” later, developer Ironclad and publisher Stardock have unveiled Sins’ latest incarnation: Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, a deluxe version incorporating every addition made to date, and some new ones to boot. Is it worth your while?
The key point about Rebellion is that, underneath those additions, this is the same Sins we know and love. Sins has always succeeded as an exercise in juggling resources: Do I use my main force to push on Deucalion, or do I hold it back to defend Calliope? Do I invest in a dreadnought that can eventually hit an entire fleet with one missile barrage, or do I bank on an early-game rush with a carrier? How do I split my cash between the fleet, fixed defences, economy, diplomacy, and research? Rebellion does nothing to mess that up. By itself, that makes it worthwhile for a series newcomer.
For series veterans, the answer becomes more complicated. Rebellion’s new features fall into three main categories:
New units at either end of the size spectrum: titans, gigantic ships limited to one per player; and little corvettes. While the titans are Rebellion’s highest-profile addition, I’m not convinced they quite live up to the hype. Oh, they’re spectacular to watch, and they shake up the game dynamics the moment they come into play: it was horrifying and yet cool to see an AI titan take apart my level 5 Marza dreadnought (only one level away from Missile Barrage!) like the proverbial knife through butter. But what do they actually achieve? They’re a very pretty way to break stalemates – and that already existed, in the form of endgame superweapons such as the TEC novalith cannon. The titans (which unlock at research level 4) effectively pull forward that endgame stalemate-busting power into the midgame, which is satisfying but not as novel as some of Rebellion’s other changes.
New factions: Each of the game’s three races, the TEC, Advent and the Vasari, is now split into two sub-factions (Loyalists and Rebels) who share most of their units, but have unique titans, corvettes, and special bonuses. Two of the sub-factions deserve special mention. From early in the game, the TEC Rebels can break one of Sins’ key rules (players can only expand as quickly as they can fight their way past the neutral forces occupying most of the map): they can research a “truce amongst rogues”, which allows them to go unmolested by neutrals and space pirates – and thus, expand hilariously fast. This isn’t an instant win: new colonies in Sins start well in the red and require an initial investment to make them profitable, so the faster the Rebels grow, the more they have to invest. However, while “infinite colony spam” might leave the Rebels vulnerable at first (something I suspect would be a liability in player-vs-player multiplayer), it pays off hugely once those colonies pull into the black – giving the Rebels the most unique feel of any faction. Meanwhile, the Vasari Loyalists – hurrying to gather the resources needed to flee an ancient foe – get the ability to strip-mine planets down to a barren husk, as well as a titan that can salvage resources by chomping enemy space fleets. Not only does this emphasise the Vasari’s strengths at hit-and-run war, it also nicely fits the game’s lore.
New victory conditions: Whereas previous Sins instalments had two victory conditions (“kill ‘em all” and “accumulate X diplomacy points”), Rebellion adds “destroy the enemy flagship”, “level the enemy homeworld”, “research a special, fantastically expensive technology”, and “occupy a heavily-fortified neutral world”. If I had to name Rebellion’s most significant improvement, this might just be it: now I can finish large maps in a reasonable amount of time! Unfortunately, it’s also a gigantic missed opportunity: the AI doesn’t understand the two potentially most significant victory conditions. The flagship and homeworld victories are fine: the AI takes good care of those (if anything, it’s too cautious – the flagship is a big help on the front lines early on). The problem is with the science and occupation victory conditions. While the AI seems vaguely aware it can win via science (the game once notified me that a computer player was researching the victory technology, and while this was too little, too late since I was bombing its homeworld, it was still nice to see), it completely fails to grasp the concept of a victory countdown. When I am about to win, my opponents should try to stop me – that’s why the game broadcasts warnings about other players’ impending victory! Rebellion’s computer opponents, in contrast, do nothing. No last-minute rush, no desperate attack, just placid acceptance of their impending loss. Done properly, the science and occupation victories could have transformed Rebellion’s endgame, turning it from the traditional strategy slog into a desperate and tense and interesting race to survive until the countdown ran out. Instead, against the computer, they’re just “I win” buttons. This omission is all the more disappointing because it’s a problem the RTS genre solved almost 10 years ago: as far back as 2003, the computer player in Rise of Nations knew enough to go for my throat when I built enough Wonders of the World to trigger that game’s victory countdown*.
At the end of the day, Rebellion is a good game: its Sins heritage sees to that. As the latest and greatest Sins instalment, I would unquestionably recommend it to a strategy fan new to the series. On the other hand, while Rebellion offers enough improvement to be worth a look for experienced fans, it falls just, painfully short of its potential. It was worth the time and money I put into it, but had the new victory conditions been better implemented, it could have offered more. A good game, but not the breath of fresh air for the series it could have been.
* To say nothing of the TBS genre, which decisively solved that problem with Shogun 2’s realm divide.
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Sins of a Solar Empire wiki (most of the advice here seems pre-Rebellion, but still worth a look for new players)
The basis of my review
Length of time spent with the game: Around 19 hours (including time spent with the beta).
What I have played: One single-player game won, on Unfair difficulty, as each faction except the Vasari Rebels. One co-op game as the Vasari Rebels, approximately to the halfway point. One aborted single-player game on Cruel difficulty.
What I have not played: PvP multiplayer.