If you’re new to the Sins universe, then Rebellion is a great value, well honed 4X space RTS (or RT4X) at a great price; benefiting from years of polish, balancing, and graphical updates. If you’ve been playing from the start of the series, then Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a welcome ‘expandalone’, featuring a much needed graphical overhaul, and even more tweaking to the gameplay.

It all started Feburary 4th, 2008. Sins of a Solar Empire emerged, self branded as a RT4X PC only game. Met with critical acclaim and a cult following in the multiplayer competitive arena, Sins rewarded us with two expansions: Entrenchment and Diplomacy, respectively. The repackaged Sins: Trinity was a conservatively priced Iron Clad development, published by Stardock, which only made its way onto steam late last year.

Iron Clad are back, however, and unlike previous expansions, Rebellion doesn’t require the original game to benefit from the multitude of tweaks, changes and graphical improvements brought to the universe. Featuring all the content from the prior games, this £24.99 release is great value for money – for either newcomers or veterans to the series alike… but, why?

According to Iron Clad: The time for diplomacy is over

This review won’t just be for veterans of the series (as I am), but here’s a short feature list that differentiates the game from its predecessors:

  • All three of the factions (Vasari, TEC, Advent) have new alternative denominations. Players must choose their faction, then their allegiance: loyalist, or rebel.
  • A total of 6 huge Titan vessels – a variant of the capital ship which requires research and masses of resources to build
  • Re-balancing of previous capital ships, including three new ones.
  • A new corvette class of ship, for speed and maneuverability.
  • New tech trees and abilities
  • Additional capital ship levels and abilities
  • 10 all new scenarios
  • Updated graphics, with a new space-box and updated particle effects
  • Steam integration! Great for multiplayer

Now, new players should note that this isn’t a full feature list for the game, it is merely a feature list of new implementations.

It never felt so good to Sin

So what is Sins of a Solar Empire? Sins brings competitive strategy multiplayer RTS gaming, in great length and depth, to up to 10 players. Each player chooses one of three factions and, as mentioned above, either the loyalists or rebels of said faction. Through choosing whether they’re a rebel or a loyalist, they will invariably unlock different skills/ships to use in the fight – and a different Titan ship all together. Each of the three major factions has strengths in various roles, as discussed in the introductory video. The TEC loyalists, for example, have great defenses – whilst the Advent have a star-base structure that can move, and even warp, to a location of the players choice. These roles aren’t set in stone, and if you didn’t know you probably wouldn’t realize through playing – but each race has strengths and weaknesses you’ll surely learn over time.

This leads me neatly to my next point: Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a classic example of ‘easy to play, difficult to master’. With little interest in serious micromanagement or economy management, depth is instead implemented through the wonderfully clear UI, as players navigate the different tech-tree tabs necessary for successful play.

There are two main resources: metal and crystal. These are both collected by building refineries on planets that you acquire, on a grid compromised of innumerable planets and stars (the above image is of a very, very small map). There’s no fog of war, but the planets are shrouded completely at two levels: first you cannot see it at all, then, if explored but you do not have any units on it, you merely cannot see what is there. Aside from these two resources, there is of course monetary credits which are procured through numerous ways, such as through researchable trade ports, planetary taxation, and even a tax embargo whereby one of your capital ships will sit on the outskirts of an enemy territory and sponge off their tax income.

Through an expansive map, players are tasked with mastering the multi-layered tech trees in order to adapt, survive, explore and conquer their opponents.

In space, no one can hear you scream “AFK!!!!”

One of the truly great things about Sins is that games can last anything from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks, depending on the settings the host has set. With 8 different victory criteria (or none at all!) and a map creator, games can either be a head-to-head blood-bath, or economy enriching ‘staminathon’ – seeing who can out-last, then out-blast their opponents.

Blasting wouldn’t be complete, after-all, without an armada of crafts in your command.

Each faction starts with a set of scout frigates, which can be set to automatically traverse the vast and open space-box. Alongside that, your capital planet has a capital ship factory, and a frigate factory. The capital ship factory is your last beacon of hope for your civilization – tasked with building what I suppose you’d call the heroes of Sins. Capital ships are hefty, with numerous abilities such as the ability to colonize planets, bombard planets, board enemy vessels, improve frigate targeting ranges and other such skills. At 3000 credits and a lot of metal and crystal alike, capital ships aren’t cheap, and the amount you have is capped by your fleet logistics; an upgradeable usage cap on the amount of units you can have. Along-side that is fleet capacity, which balances upkeep.

Frigates are of various strengths, but lend to the classical use of the term in any space shooter. They don’t have shields, usually, and have very weak armour. On the plus side they’re cheap and quick to pump out. Each faction has various types, and each faction the option to upgrade as they see fit.

Aside from these two buildings, there’s a plethora of other building types right from the get go – and some that must be unlocked through successive tech-tree probing. Much of this is trial-and-error, or, clicking as you go and finding out what it does later; at least, that’s how I learned. Buildings include broadcast centers, where you can spread your culture around the galaxy and eventually cause a revolt on enemy planets (or counter one on your own!). Other buildings include various defense buildings, such as different types of turrets and hangar defense – and even mines, or phase jump inhibitors, which greatly increase the time it takes for enemies to jump away.

Deciding what you want to focus on, what you need to research to unlock in order to do that, and how to implement it, is the key to winning in Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. With weapon/shield and tech upgrades all retrofitting your existing ships, it’s a race to the end of the line to see who has the toughest, most powerful vessels. Focus too much on military tech, however, and you’ll find your defense and civilian tech trees lacking – perhaps slowing your economy and giving the enemy all they need for that fatal blow to your capital planet. Finding the right balance between the tech trees is a little tricky, but you can still go a long way simply by ‘winging it’. New players might want to play defensively, which is a perfectly viable tactic, and some of you will just want to rush out and blow everyone else apart.

Reeking of Sci-fi – the battles are glorious and thematic

Everything about the combat of Sins reeks of good science fiction. The sounds of jumping in mixed with the moaning and groaning of the engines mirrors what we loved about Battlestar Galactica. The diversity between the races gives huge visual depth to the lore, and faced with the unknown becomes a real strategic reality as you try to navigate your way through a cloud of 200 ships – each of which has a design you’re not accustomed to. You can only sit and watch as your ships react to their weapons, and try to figure out just what does what.

Each faction has their own tech tree, with its labels. They have their own buildings and their own star-bases. Getting to know your enemy is a huge gain in this otherwise convoluted and intimidating war.

Combat in Sins is intuitive, in a word. There isn’t a huge amount of micro-management, with ships able to react and use their abilities themselves – but due to the scale and size of each game, with the multitude of fleets and planets you’ll have to deal with, this is a good thing. Battles are more – at least in single player – a matter of sending in the right stuff and hoping for the best. Of course, it’s up to you when to pull your units out – but retreating isn’t always easy. Losing a ship can be costly, too – especially when you’ve gained levels of veterency on those hero capital ships.

Fleet management is also core – with the ability to issue orders, such as jump as a fleet. All your ships and planets are neatly listed on the left, with collapsible tabs acting in real time, letting you know where everything is. There’s also an in depth search function.

Whatever your favourite battle tactic, be it hulking out with gun-power, or toughing it out with shield buffs and hull improvements, the fights are simply a joy to watch. And with the new particle and textures added for this expansion, they are really breathtaking at times. Be weary, though, as frame-rates even on the most powerful rigs can drop substantially on planets with a lot of ships fighting all at once. I found myself spiking from around 160-8 fps depending on what was going on. Because there isn’t a huge amount of micromanagement, this isn’t a huge deal – and everyone is facing the same issue, but I suppose if it is a problem for you, you can turn the graphics down – although I feel that would be a detriment to the rest of the game.

It might not be a time for diplomacy – but let’s dabble

If you don’t want to take on the fight yourself, players can bid on a price for the pirates to target one player. After the timer runs out, you’d better hope it’s not you, because from one planet (designated for pirate HQ – a non-playable faction) a fleet of pirate vessels will head towards your home-world. Fairly over-powered and always a nuisance, you can either turn this feature off, or you’d better keep your eye on it.

Aside from piracy, you can also either aide your allies or bribe AI players to target them. Indeed, the AI will even attempt to bribe you to turn on your allies. This is a great multiplayer feature, really adding another layer of core depth to the way players interact with each-other.

With a multitude of choices at your disposal, it’s up to you how you chose to tackle the map. There are a few things you’ll have to do, however. You will certainly need to explore, and develop. You must tech up. Teching up is the key to getting a leg up on your enemy. To do this, you need resources. To get resources you need planets, and, to get planets you need to tech up. The cycle is complete. Arctic and ice planets both needed research in order to colonize, so you can’t simply focus on one tree of research. The key to success is mixing all of the tech trees to suit your needs, with some decent foresight.

Planets don’t just offer extra tax income, though – they also offer an opportunity to expand your research and buildings. Each planet area will have a cap on logistics and military structures, which can be increased with planetary development. This is necessary for unlocking further tech… such as: the titan. 

Wrath of the Titans 

Titans are huge, costly vessels with a host of their own abilities. Players are allowed one at a time, and with a fleet of supporting cruisers and capital ships, Titans help to create an unstoppable force. They kill quickly, and level up quickly – unlocking new abilities as they go along. Although not indestructible, a Titan early on in the game could gain you a huge amount of lee-way and earn you a great proportion of the map. Titans are a new arrival in Sins, and a welcome one – giving players something each to focus on, or, more pressingly, to worry about. They tend to fire at a huge array of targets at once, and can fly through mine-fields like harvest in spring.

Sins: Rebellion needs to be in your life

It’s as simple as that. This unique, highly polished experience is a must have for any RTS fan. I can perhaps see players currently subscribed to EVE anxiously feeling the effects of cold turkey, should they play both – but for those of you who aren’t engaged with internet space-ships, Sins: Rebellion contains pretty much everything you need. With lengthy, visually impressive multiplayer games and a host of bespoke game modes, the game has infinite replay-ability. Each new game is different, with a new map – with a new aim. You can chose a different way to play every time, with a different faction, or a different loyalty. If you want, you can even chose to play with no victory condition, and simply build a vast empire in the style of Anno.

Sins of a Solar Empire has enjoyed four years of fan-critique, and the game has really benefitted from that input. Don’t be put off by the idea that this is a mere stand-alone expansion; it really isn’t: it’s the complete Sins experience with all the added sugar and depth it needed all along, and nothing has even come close to delivering a similar space-themed RTS with this spit and polish.

Until something else comes along in this malnourished genre, Sins will remain my go-to game for good ole’ science fiction RTS action.