Even with Red Alert 3 and Colonization to contend with, Sins of a Solar Empire remains my personal favorite strategy game of 2008. That’s not a dig at RA3 - I just prefer a slower pace, and let’s face it: spaceships are awesome. (Side note: check out the demo for the Star Trek mod Sacrifice of Angels 2.) However, Sins’ planetary defense structures always felt anemic - a cluster of short-range gun turrets and fighter bays can barely protect a planetary gravity well from a pirate raid, much less an enemy fleet intent on destroying orbital facilities like asteroid mines or trade stations. So, you’re forced to keep substantial defense fleets nearby, and even combining defenses and fleets, you’re hard-pressed to blunt a full-scale invasion.
But there’s good news for the home team: Stardock and Ironclad are aiming to beef up the defensive lines with a micro-expansion, aptly named Entrenchment, before the year is out. (Stardock is taking a unique approach by releasing a series of micro-expansions online, later to be bundled as a larger retail expansion.) A partial list of improvements includes upgradable star bases that can be deployed in any gravity well (such as wormholes and nebulae, or even hostile territory), minefields that damage or slow enemy ships, upgrades to existing defenses, and new defense structures.
Above: In space, minefields are the closest thing you've got to defensive walls to protect your stuff
Watching the community reaction to the announcement of Entrenchment has been interesting; there’s a great deal of concern that defense improvements will make the already slow-paced multiplayer games even longer as players build impenetrable defenses. I predict that the effects will be much more positive - first of all, I’m almost always in favor of giving the player more paths to victory (turtling is not a crime!), and second, this change could just as easily speed up games if people rely too heavily on static defenses instead of fleets.
Defenses may be stronger, but if they’re properly balanced in cost, then there’s no way anyone could afford to fortify every planet of a moderately-sized empire with a star base and minefields. Meanwhile, adequate defenses at key planets will free up ships from patrol duty and put them on the front lines, where players will be able to launch stronger multi-front offensives. Identifying the weak points in an enemy’s lines will increase the need for reconnaissance, both for choosing where to attack and to make sure the enemy fleet isn’t close enough to help defend. And if your opponent does manage to build a totally impenetrable defense, Ironclad says there will be a new, as-yet-undisclosed means of sieging planets - presumably some kind of interplanetary weapon that packs more of a punch than the existing Novalith cannon.
Above: You'll need to defend the star base deployment ship, as it will be extremely vulnerable while it builds the space station
It’s true, of course, that super-competitive players will find ways to use these new defenses to draw out matches to some degree (they always do), but that’s a small price to pay for more options, strategic depth, and epic space battles for the rest of us. Besides, with five patches this year alone, Ironclad has proven its dedication to keeping the battles balanced and lively.
Nov 3, 2008