: Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity
: Ironclad Games
: Brandon 'brandonjclark
For a company which started out making user-interface enhancements to the Windows desktop computing experience with products such as WindowBlinds, Stardock has come a long, long way. You’re more likely considered a fool to believe that any company trying to break into this industry would succeed rather than hemorrhage money, but Stardock has, in spades. Nevertheless, this review is not about Stardock as a publisher or their meteoric rise from a Windows customization shop to a large-scale digital-distribution house, but rather their latest release in the Sins of a Solar Empire series, developed by Ironclad Games. Without further ado, I give you..
Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity Review
Trinity, as it will be further known throughout this review, builds upon the success of the Sins series by packaging the original Sins with both micro-expansions; Entrenchment, which throws in a couple more units per race and some basic interface enhancements as well as Diplomacy, which adds a new tech tree and more units. Together in one box or digital download, it’s a hell of a lot of game for a Johan-approved* low price of $39.99. This makes it all too easy to recommend as the original plus its expansions offer the best RT4X gameplay ever devised, period.
For those unfamiliar with the RT4X genre, of which many people consider Stardock the father of, Wikipedia defines the four core game modes as Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate. Simplified, Trinity is a real-time strategy game in space ala Homeworld with Risk-like dominion goals mixed with light economic management and some basic diplomacy arcs. It’s as if you took almost all of the things that a core PC gamer loves and threw it into a Magic Bullet Blender ® and spread it out over thin, tasty crackers. I challenge you to find a genre which defines PC gaming better than RT4X.
Technically speaking, the Sins of a Solar Empire series, and therefore Trinity, is a marvel of game design. Running on the Ironclad Games-developed Iron engine and created using the publicly released Forge Tools, Trinity could be considered a microcosm of Stardock’s entire design angle. With extremely low system requirements and SR-71-fast load times, this game will amaze you as it runs happily along without nary a complaint or bug. Read: This game is polished.
Sadly, and there is always a sadly, graphics do suffer a bit from this efficient design theory. Trinity is hardly on par with regular-RTS games such as Supreme Commander or Command and Conquer 3, with its biggest graphic flaw being low-resolution textures. (see images below) They are clean and functional, but nothing to write home about. I don’t know if the team at Ironclad are inexperienced with texture creation, but I do know that you can zoom in the camera to see little space cars zooming around the planets’ sub-orbital highway system and then pan out far enough to see the galaxy in a single mouse-wheel scroll. This large-scale zooming (think Supreme Commander, but even larger) is optimized to run at a smooth as silk frame rate on even the lowest computer specs. Still, you’ll probably wish the graphics were little better but you almost get the feeling that this was a good as they could get given the speed(when zooming) and scale with which the game engine has to deal with. Not all is bad, however. The spaceships designs are good, albeit limited and far too similar to the games three races, but this will most-likely not bother you, as the game really doesn’t need amazing graphics.
The sounds in Trinity, surprisingly, are one of the game’s best attributes. Your cruisers and fighters will pew pew their targets and your Dreadnoughts will strike planets with a thunderous boom so satisfying that it will be hard not to hold future RT4X games against this standard of sound effects. The games’ space opera soundtrack, which kicks in or slows down more or less with the amount of action on screen, will keep you entertained throughout almost every skirmish. It’s actually very hard to find a flaw with the sound in an RT4X game given its importance in the genre(low), but I do wish there was the option to import your own music or monitor a music folder on your computer, as you’ll find out why later in this review. Overall though, Trinity’s sounds are more than you’d expect from a game in this genre.
There is no single player campaign mode, and although this might bother some looking to be guided along, I was rather pleased to see it Skirmish, therefore, is where it’s at. If you choose quick start you’ll begin your skirmishes with a small fleet, a planet under your control and some asteroids with harvesting mines already built and producing at least one of the two physical resources in the game, metal or crystal. The third resource, credit, comes from tax on your planets’ population. From there, the game is all about building a destructive Starfleet and/or enough diplomatic speaker towers to take over the next planet and eventually consume its resources for your cause. An in-depth skill tree with over 100 unique skills per race will allow you to shape your strategy any way you see fit. Want to take it slow and earn the trust of another planet? Maximize your Diplomacy skills and watch your supply lines double their potential. Would you rather just shred any enemy who opposes you? Focus on the military skill upgrades and you’ll be destroying planets with exacting efficiency.
Conquering planets, however, does take time. Directly bombarding a planet and destroying its people in order to “colonize” it will only force you to wait for the planet to “rebuild” itself. You could try the diplomacy angle and thereby keep the planet’s people alive for your future tax laws, but this takes even more time than direct attack as you’ll find the planet’s indigenous people exceptionally resilient to your words. If Stardock sped up the Diplomacy arc I might have used it more, because you can only imagine millions of people screaming on a planet so many times.
The game ends when you’ve conquered all planets on the map. The length of the missions must be mentioned though, as they’re determined by the amount of planets in your map which can be controlled. Most missions take just around 45 minutes to complete, but some multiplayer games with forty or more planets have been known to take over a month given your play time per day and the competitiveness of your opponent! This is where adding a feature to play your own music really could’ve helped to break the eventual monotony of the soundtrack. Thankfully, both the single-player and multiplayer games allow for pausing and fast-forwarding of missions, greatly reducing what would otherwise be nauseating periods of time between waiting for skills upgrades to complete and moving your fleet across the traverse.
Oh, and there’s one more thing... the pirates. Pirates, which can be disabled (thankfully) in single and multiplayer skirmishes, are a pain in the ass. In every game they’re not disabled, they will launch every ten minutes or so and attack whoever hasn’t paid them off. And these aren’t your run of the mill pirates. They have almost the same traits as the human race, TEC, and usually attack in forces much larger than what you’re dealing with. Towards the end of the game, after you’ve finished off your opponent, I found that one of the most satisfying moments the presented itself as you could now focus on hunting down the pirates and make them pay for the damage they caused.
As I briefly touched on earlier, the games comes with three races to choose from; the humans known as TEC, the human-like and spiritual Advent, and, SURPRISE, the humanoid but alien Vasari. Sadly, even the NPC pirates in the game are just scalawag humans. Was the story, which is more or less non-existent, so set in stone that they could not include some varied choices? If anything strikes you negatively about Sins, it’s the lack of diversity, and I don’t mean the old wooden Civil War ship either (thank you Ron Burgandy). The races, and their fleet designs, are just too damn similar for my tastes. Again, this might have to do with efficiency restraints on the game engine, but it mostly feels like a lack of creativity.
Commanding your fleet, waging War/Diplomacy, dealing with the ever-constant Pirate threat, Skill training and Resource management are the meat and potatoes of the game, and they’re some of the best prepared meat and potatoes you’ll ever enjoy. I’m not sure how Ironclad managed to finely tune such well-balanced proportions, because even though you’re served such a high amount adversity, you never feel helpless. There is a small learning curve and the basic tutorial missions are actually of great help, so once you have the hang of the excellent interface (a testament to Stardock’s user-interface experience) you’ll be conquering planets and guarding wormholes with the best of them. Like many PC games, Trinity already has a substantial community so you’ll never have a problem finding a multiplayer game either using the built-in IroncladOnline which includes stat tracking, player ranking and matchmaking services.
Each of Trinity’s three included games also includes mod support, with a nice management section accessed through the main menu for configuring and enabling them. The game also ships with a map designer, so you can create your own map to conquer by yourself or with a friend. This greatly adds to the replay ability of the game, although it didn’t really need it as the amount of included missions and multiplayer had already made it one lengthy investment.
In summary, Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity is the definitive version of the series, as it contains the original and all of the micro-expansions. If you’re going to get your feet wet into the RT4X genre, this is the best game to do it with.
Score: 4 out of 5
- Slick interface makes managing large amounts of tasks actually fun
- The sounds of the fleet battles are top notch
- The best RT4X game, ever. Yes, even better than Galactic Civilizations!
- Long missions can turn some people off
- Graphics could be better (?)
- The Vasari portraits are hideous!