Ironclad Games’ and Stardock Entertainment’s Sins of a Solar Empire series is known for its ability to immerse the gamer into an unparalleled RTS experience of solar domination. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion brings everything you know from the original series’ three unique expansions and combines it with a revamped graphics engine, brand new research trees, an additional variant of each race, and massive new Titan class vessels to form the most complex and engaging installment of the series to date. Whether you are new to the series or have conquered hundreds of galaxies already, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a worthy new tool in any RTS guru’s arsenal to dominate the universe.
Identical to its predecessors, Rebellion was conceived in the burning fire of raw combat, not in a space bar talking over some alien tea. Gamers that are looking for the thrill of completing a 40+ hour storyline only to be rewarded by a similar in length, credits list will be further disappointed in the lack of a single or multiplayer campaign. But, don’t toss the captain out with the space junk! What Rebellion lacks in storyline, it quickly makes up for in both single and nail-biting multiplayer skirmish replay-ability. Those who remember the Age of Empires series will recall the somewhat lost art of randomly generated maps which Sins of a Solar Empire bring into the space age. However, gamers with a fondness for the predictability of pre-made maps, which encapsulate skirmish mode in games such as Starcraft and Dawn of War, will find comfort in the fact that they can explore a vast collection of pre-made maps and return to the same map until they know every dust particle. For the more creative (or sinister) gamer, Rebellion also comes with both a simple “Map Designer” (enter number of planets, stars, etc) and complex “Galaxy Forge” (more along the lines of traditional intricate map designers). Maps are available for and can be designed to accommodate any combination of 10 players: 1v1, 2v2, 9v1, and anything in between.
The AI in Rebellion is definitely worth noting as Ironclad hasn’t just supplied some half-witted space cadets to play with. The AI varies in intelligence from Easy, Medium, Hard, Unfair, Cruel, or Vicious (to which I recommend the 9v1 layout) and also has various strategic biases that can be set: Aggressor, Fortifier, Economist, Researcher, or Random. I say “intelligence”, rather than cheating, because I have on numerous occasions seen the AI use a distraction fleet to get my primary fleet’s attention while moving a larger fleet to take a planet a couple “jumps” away. However, on higher difficulty, the AI appears to have a tendency to over-utilize super weapons – which generally turns what could be an elegant arrangement of ships, lasers, and explosions into a solar version of nuclear ping pong that leaves you running around to recapture your own planets over and over.
Once the map and enemies have been selected, one will need to decide what race they will lead to galactic domination. “Rebellion”, as one would expect, is the operative word in the game’s title and truly describes the majority of the new features in the game. The first (and only) cinematic in the game appears as an intro before the main menu. It is beautiful in its own right, but the cinematic’s sole purpose is to shed some light onto the black hole between the new features of Rebellion and the “old” series. Races have been expanded from the former three: Tec, Advent, and Vasari to six – each race’s loyalists and the race’s rebels. Technology trees vary dramatically between the races, but the difference between the same race’s loyalist and rebel factions are a bit more subtle – yet even the subtle differences can change one’s entire playstyle. Unlike many other RTSs, Rebellion makes it near impossible to research everything in the tech trees during the game. Some technologies will be imperative for every game, but Ironclad leaves it open to the player to choose their own strategy. Building off the series’ three expansions – turtles, politicians, and aggressors alike will find unique strategic technology chains to fit their play style varying among race as well as faction. The crown jewel of every faction is their personalized Titan class vessel which is a cataclysmic force that can, for instance, devour entire fleets (Vasari Loyalist Titan). However, you won’t find one ship titan “fleets”. They are not indestructible and one will find out very quickly that if their titan is used unwisely, the massive investment might simply be for an explosion of similar magnitude.
The interface to select the race is typically more difficult to navigate than the remainder of the game. Veterans of the Sins of a Solar Empire series will notice a negligible change in the simplistic and visually appealing commander UI, while new gamers will have little difficulty finding everything they need. Diplomacy, research, trade, and construction are all just a click away in the various, strategically placed menus and buttons. For on the fly knowledge, tool-tips are extremely informative – not only about the menu options, but even ship, fleet, and planet status. One will also not find themselves scrolling through a 10-page tech tree to find “lasers”. All technologies are spread out on intelligently separated, single paged trees which logically lead from one to another.
Unlike some other true 3D space RTS, you won’t find the camera your greatest enemy in the game. One of the truly remarkable features of the series is the seamless scalable view. Zoom’ed all the way into one’s planets, it is easy to see and place various structures in orbit as well as micromanage fleet location. In order to get a view of the entire galaxy, zoom out with the mouse wheel to seamlessly transition from the micromanaging view to various levels of the overall galaxy map. From here, one can see all planets, stars, and other celestial objects as well as a clever quick reference for all units and structures (friendly or enemy) within the orbit and in transit. The default camera view is perfect for overseeing your empire, but if you want to fly in and get the cinematic effects of true space combat, the right mouse button is your co-pilot. The UI also includes a “cinematic mode” which removes the pesky labels and allows one to see their ships in glorious combat.
Developers have come a long way from the star-sprinkled black background of space graphics pioneered by games like Escape Velocity (1996) giving rise to some of the most beautiful space games ever created (arguably EvE-Online) filled with nebula, stars, black holes, and other theoretical and sometimes imaginary celestials. Armed with a revamped graphics engine, Rebellion takes on the challenge of delivering the much-desired beauty in space but it still follows more closely to the, more accurate but less impressive, heavily salted black background with the spare nebula. Eye-candy addicts will still find beauty in the detailed celestials consisting of three distinct planet types (ice, lava, terrain), asteroids, stars, wormholes, and nebulae, along with distinctly different types of weaponry, explosions, special abilities, and highly detailed and textured ships. It is still one beautiful RTS, but for all the hype about the new graphics engine, it left me wanting more. However, it maintains its kindness to those who have less than a super gaming machine by allowing complete control over every level of detail. Though if one wants mind-blowing visuals, they might be relegated to sating their desire by using my favorite skill: the Vasari their 8 empire skill “Stripped to the Core” which brings back fond memories of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy scene of planetary destruction and concludes with a fitting and dramatic alien voiceover “A colony has been losssssst”.
Too many RTSs have been created with all the eye-candy you can take in, endless hours of replayability, yet seem to have gone to the street for voice-overs, and obtained stock digital music from the late 80s. While Rebellion doesn’t have the Hollywood cast of Command and Conquer, or the orchestra of Dawn of War (Composer: Jeremy Soule) it has a library of sincere and convincing voice-overs for just about every action you can take and a mesmerizing, albeit somewhat repetitive, dynamic soundtrack which fit the game like a glove. After conquering numerous galaxies with the same background music, one might turn it down for some personalized epic music of their own, but they might soon be repeating catchy phrase lines such as “None shall survive!” in a very alien dialect.
Rebellion, in spite of it being about war and destruction, has managed to stay relatively clean in content. It is rated T by the ESRB for fantasy violence and mild language, but it has little to be undesired. Apart from the fact that the theme is destroying fictitious planets and space-ships, Rebellion should be considered a relatively safe and highly entertaining game in the midst of so many other bloody and violent RTSs recently published.