Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (PC) Review
Posted by Marc Morrison on 06.20.2012
Does this 4X RTS game cover all of its bases? Or do some enemies fly in and destroy everything? 411maniaĺs Marc Morrison finds out inside. (With bonus Warlock - Master of the Arcane review/comparison)
I'm going to examine two games in this review, which is a little unusual. Both Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion and Warlock - Master of the Arcane appear wildly different, but both have a lot in common with regards to their good and bad sides.
SOASE: Rebellion is a sci-fi RTS game with 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate) trappings. You go from planet to planet building colonies, mining materials, expanding your empire, and if need be, putting down any unruly enemies. You start off with a single planet, a few ship making facilities, and a few colony ships. You go from planet to planet (and then different start systems), colonizing them, and going about your fledging empire ways. You can build frigates, cruisers and capital ships to begin with, and only a very low number. Through research (and a confounding tech tree) you gain access to numerous upgrades, building out your fleet, upgrading your empire/planets, and so on. Along with this is diplomacy (defense pacts, peace treaties, etc.) with other empires, a whole black market/Pirate faction mechanic, and so on. There are a few key problems that really drag the game down though, which I'll get into a bit later on.
Warlock - Master of the Arcane is a fantasy-based 4X game. To put it simply (and bluntly) the game is basically Civilization 5 with fantasy creatures. Instead of the Civ 5 units of a B-52 Bomber or a Tank, you use units like an Earth Elemental, or Skeleton Archers. It takes place in the same world as other Paradox Interactive games, such as the Majesty series or the wonderful game Defenders of Ardania . You start off with one city and are told to build your first build a building, research your first spell, and given a few basic units to explore. The basic principle applies though of trying to expand your new empire via peaceful expansion or with more militaristic means. You can have a set number of other mage's to deal with in the game, as well as a neutral/hostile creature's faction. Unlike SOASE, Warlock is entirely turn based, with each unit given a set number of moves or actions to take. Once the moves are used the unit has run out of actions and can't be used until the next turn. It's all very cut and dry because it's been used in other games before and is familiar to most PC gaming fans.
SOASE is real time though which adds a different wrinkle into the equation. You can move ships around at any time (as can your enemies). However moving ships around and attacking enemies is a laborious process that can take forever. In the first training mission, it took me around 15 minutes to destroy the defense turret and planet. I found later in the in the options menu the commands for speeding up and slowing time down. The fact that this isn't explained anywhere in the baffling tutorial is somewhat mystifying to me.
This is one big problem with both games one of their connective problems, a horrendous tutorial. Both games go about it in different way. Warlock has one of the most half-assed tutorials I've seen in a game. They give you about 4 or 5 static screens as you play a game that explain the most basic of concepts. Things like unit type, what buildings are good or bad, economy, how to expand, are just not touched upon at all. You can go to the developer website (or other internet sites) to find out about game mechanics, but really? They couldn't have baked that into the game at all? It feels woefully inadequate in its execution. SOASE has a similar problem but it's the inverse of the equation. The game has a 6 part tutorial that throws so much information at you that none of it sticks. It's an information overload of a high proportion but the problem is that it feels like none of it applies to the game. You get concepts thrown at you about how to make a colony or how to build a fighter squadron on your capital ship but there is a disconnection about what you need to actually be able to do those things.
The biggest problem both games have is a complete lack of a story or campaign. When you select single player, you're just given a map select screen, a screen to choose which faction you want, and a screen to set up your enemies or battlefield options. That's it. I don't expect a 100+ hour epic quest like Skyrim or Fallout, but come on, give us something. Even a simple challenge/mission mode to give you specific tasks would be welcome. Instead it just has a battle creator and that's it. Civ 5 doesn't really have a mission mode either but it does have some scenarios to try and give you something else to do. It's a problem in both games, but it's a seemingly bigger problem in SOASE. You're just given an intro movie and three screens of text to try and explain the factions. There are 3 factions in SOASE, with a "loyalist" and a "rebel" differentiator (so 6 factions playable, total). The game doesn't explain who these races are, or what the stakes are, if any. Warlock doesn't get off easy though as the only story is "Become the arch mage". There are also three factions in Warlock, but many more characters. SOASE has only 6, but each faction has different units to use. Warlock has 12 characters, 5 for humans, 3 for undead and 4 for monsters. However, each of the human characters shares the same human units, regardless of who you choose, same for undead and monster.
The way you gather materials and research is actually pretty similar in both games. You have to build various structures like mining stations (in SOASE) or gold markets (in Warlock) to get money. Likewise the same thing goes for food and magic (Warlock) and crystals, and tech (in SOASE). Once again, there is a problem related to this mechanic in each game. In SOASE, trying to figure out the tech tree is a maddening process. It makes the tech tree in something like Starcraft 2 or C&C 3 look tame by comparison. There are dozens of options to choose from with no hint at all about what's needed and what's not. It's compounded by the fact that each faction has its own separate tech tree. Also each faction has at least 4 different tech trees (some of them having multiple paths) to choose from. So if one faction has 100 different tech upgrades, and there are 6 factions, that equals out to 600 tech options. That's a LOT of stuff to try and keep in your mind. The research in Warlock is far simpler but has a catch. You just have to select a new spell to research with each spell requiring more time to research. You only can have an option to research one out of five, at a given time. Once you've completed one spell it's replaced in the wheel by a new one. It is a completely random and arbitrary system though. So you can research a simple spell like lesser heal, and then what comes next could be "Elemental Weapon" or "Super Mega Deathbolt" (not a real spell).
Diplomacy is one area that SOASE has a good lead above Warlock (or Civ 5 for that matter). There are some good options to help bolster this system. You have the usual stuff of defense pacts, cease fires, empire/ship vision, and the like. One neat thing is the inclusion of a "mission" option, where you can give missions to other players for rewards and credit. The other nice thing is a good range of relationship status, going from -20 (hated) to 20 (loved) about how other factions think of you. You can also make a ton of different material trade pacts to influence people. Warlock doesn't really have that many options. You can only make diplomatic relations with another mage in the game, and not any neutral units. Once you do make a pact, there's no reward for doing so. You can't win the game with diplomacy in Warlock so there's no real reason to even try. The few times I would try, the other mage would love me for a while then break the treaty for no real reason. The game gives you no notifications about what you might have done wrong, just a "You and the other mage are no longer allies" message.
Graphically both games are competent but not much else. Warlock generally looks good but the world is a bit too colorful at times and has problems pointing out key things (like enemies). The designs are about as cookie-cutter as you could expect. SOASE takes place in a full 3D environment, namely space, with a camera that can let you zoom in as far or as close as you want. Zooming in on the maximum setting reveals that the ships look like they're made from about five polygons total. Zooming out provides a nice view but is largely useless due to how small everything really is. The in-game effects, like laser blasts or enemies blowing up, look pathetic. The noticeable thing was the "Jump drive" effect, which looked artistically very neat. The game still looks like it's from 2009 though, and had a weird bug on my machine. Near the end of one round my ally built a sizeable army (over 100 ships). He swarmed a planet and the FPS on my machine dropped like a rock. I exceed the minimum requirements and somewhat match the recommended ones, but still the game chugged along merrily. I'd say it hit about 5 FPS, give or take. That's slightly worrying if you're on an older machine and have an itch to build out a large fleet.
Sound seems like it's missing from both games. Sound effects and music are kind of muted in SOASE. They are there but they aren't noticeable or memorable much. There is a lot of voice acting in the game but it goes overboard somewhat. It's just constant messages about allies needing help, or your fleets getting reinforced. There is voice acting in Warlock, but it's relegated to only a few units shouting random stuff, and the same Paradox Interactive Sean Connery sound-alike narrating the tutorials for you. The music and sound effects are also pretty forgetful but pleasant enough.
Both games have ample amounts of replayability, but the edge goes to SOASE for the sheer number of stuff you can do. There are a lot of options for customizing your matches in both games, in terms of teams, enemies, map size, and the like. That's about all Warlock has though. SOASE has a map builder, mod support, LAN support, and online play. If you can actually figure the game out, there is likely to be near infinite replay value.
Warlock ľ Master of the Arcane is a pretty shameless Civilization 5, only with a different setting and unit types. It doesn't reinvent the wheel by any means but it is fairly solid in its own execution. It has some problems around the edges, (again) no single player, weak tutorial, and a dodgy research mechanic.
Graphics -- 7.5 The game is a bit simple but looks good. There's a problem of trying to pick out enemies from the terrain though.
Sound -- 6.5 Music is decent and the effects are alright. The narrator is annoying though. I also ran into a bug where he said two different things at once, overlapping the audio.
Gameplay -- 8.5 It's derivative of Civ 5, but it doesn't make it bad. Actually that makes it a whole lot of fun.
Lasting Appeal -- 8.5 You can have a game go on for hours. It doesn't have the same depth as Rebellion does, but you could spend a lot of time plugging away at different games.
Fun Factor -- 8.0 It's a slightly more simplified version of Civilization 5, but it's s till a lot of fun. Tutorial issues aside, you will enjoy it a lot.
Overall -- 8.0 [ Very Good ]
I'm very hesitant to say that Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a bad game. It's just a deeply frustrating game that doesn't hold your hand at all. It's deeply strategic, with a ton of depth and tons of different things to keep track of. But it has no story, a poor tutorial and feels like it they made no huge changes from the original game. If you liked the previous games in the series it's totally another one of those. But if you're waffling even a little bit, try the demo and really make sure you can get into it.
The game looks decent, but nothing revolutionary. I don't think there have been any huge improvements since the original version. I ran into some FPS problems as well.
I may be too dumb for this game, and that's fine. For fans of the genre, it's more of the same. No story or any single player hurts though.
Music and sound effects aren't distinct but they aren't terrible. The constant vocal chatter about what your empire is doing can be annoying though.
Again, if you can understand it, you will be playing it for months. If you don't get it though, it's likely just to frustrate you and make you long for something else.
I didn't personally have a lot of fun, but I can understand if someone did. The game just didn't resonate with me at all.