Monday, February 15, 2010

Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy Review

My Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy review, originally published at Hooked Gamers.

Revisiting a Classic

When Stardock released Sins of a Solar Empire two years ago, the game's large-scale blend of real-time strategy and turn-based strategy elements garnered multiple PC game awards. But its slow pace and predictable AI soured the game for me a bit.

After taking the time to establish a sustainable economy and large fleet, while fending off constant hit-and-runs from AI opponents, I could methodically destroy enemy fleets and planets. At least until the AI players allied with each other. Such scenarios were either very frustrating when they crushed me or very rewarding when they didn't.

Love Me

Diplomacy, the recently released micro-expansion for Sins allays many of the qualms I had with the original by providing features fitting to its title. The biggest and most encompassing addition is a new way to win campaigns: Diplomatic Victory. Theoretically, achieving a diplomatic victory is straightforward: make everyone love you. Practically, doing so is complicated.

Every player in a campaign has a diplomatic score, which represents how he or she or it feels about you. That diplomatic score results from a large number of detailed variables, including adjacent territory, military actions, resource trading, and fleet strength. Some variables are out of your control, such as racial inclination. The Advent do not like the TEC - and diplomatic inclination - and some AI players just don't like you from the beginning.

Increasing Relations

To make those players like you, the Sins expansion offers a new research tree aptly titled Diplomacy for the TEC, Understanding for the Advent, and Manipulation for the Vasari. The new win condition may be Diplomacy's largest addition to Sins, but the new technology tree is its most important.

The first researchable technology, and your initial foray into relationship building, is a new cruiser which can be sent into other systems to increase relations with and generate income from AI or human players, thereby creating new opportunities with allies. You can also research general relationship bonuses that automatically improve Diplomacy points with other factions.

In the original Sins, AI players could offer you missions, but you had no way of offering missions back. With Diplomacy, assuming you have the required research upgrade, you can pay an AI player with an amount dependent on your Diplomacy points to attack an opposing player's specific planet. It is a great way to keep AI players vulnerable and to prevent them from ganging up on you.

You can also research mutually beneficial pacts, to share resource, missile, armor, and other technologies with allies. Doing so can afford increased metal extraction rates, increased missile damage, and improved armor strength, respectively. Of course, you have to be careful in creating pacts - while a pact can bolster your armor, it may do the same for a potential enemy.

Diplomacy also greatly increases the strength, and resultantly the cost, of pirates. If you spend enough money, you can generate a pirate fleet large enough to destroy home planets. However, I found the addition of missions really reduced the necessity of pirates. And given the large amount of credits it takes to hire pirates, why not just upgrade or add to your own fleet? I always found pirates and their bidding wars to be a distraction from what I really wanted to do. Now they're powerful enough to obliterate me in early stages of the game.

Balancing Power

Outside of the new in-game features, the micro-expansion also offers a new and very welcome pacing option, Faster. You can apply it to a campaign's income rate, build speed, ship speed, and other game variables. Two new difficulty levels, Cruel and Vicious - both of which I'm too scared to try - are also available. And of course, the expansion adds new maps.

Despite the micro-expansion's victory option and all of its related features, you're not going to be able to sit back and win. Even the new peaceful victory requires more traditional gameplay: to establish an adequate economic base for Diplomacy, you'll need to expand your empire. You also can't completely ignore the diplomatic options and focus solely on military might - relations offer substantial rewards and you can be sure AI players will make use of them. One of those AI players may even reach a diplomatic victory before you can reach a more traditional one.

Diplomacy's strength lies in the balance and depth it creates between your relations with AI players and their relations amongst themselves. AI players are no longer either enemies or allies. Now, they can be trade partners, military advisors, potential employers, or just tools for achieving an end.

Improving a Classic

Diplomacy may be a micro-expansion, but the features and gameplay it adds are akin to what one would expect from a fully developed sequel. It evolves Sins of a Solar Empire into a deeper, more varied, and more satisfying experience.

Given that Diplomacy is available alone or as part of Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity - a package that also includes the original game and its first expansion, Entrenchment - there is no excuse to not experience this improvement on an already worthwhile game.

No comments:

Post a Comment