Friday, May 19, 2017

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion - 20/20 hour

The biggest obstacle to me enjoying this war-game was all the war in it. No, no, I know it's absurd, but I dragged my feet on a game I otherwise wanted to complete quickly, and that's more or less the entirety of the reason - the very premise of the game sapped my enthusiasm.

Which is silly. I don't know how it's even possible to enjoy the strategy genre without embracing war, but here I am. I like colonizing planets, setting up trade routes, and researching technology, but I don't like the one ting you're supposed to do with all those resources.

Sins of a Solar Empire was thoughtful enough to include other victory conditions, so I wasn't completely out in the wilderness here, but after my third technological victory, I started to get the feeling that it wasn't the "right" way to play the game. Mostly because pursuing a technological victory is a dire slog where you put the bulk of your research on hold and simply wait out a slow as hell timer. After about 40 minutes, when your last research reaches 100%, you win.

Which doesn't really bother me as much as one might think. No, what really bothers me about the technological victory (and, to be fair, this complaint is not unique to Sins of a Solar Empire) is that it promises you this fabulous, world-changing technology, and then end the game right when you get it. I get that having a fantastical high-tech reactor that gives your civilization near-infinite resources breaks the game's balance something fierce, and I get that most people would prefer to simply take the inevitable curb-stomp as a given and skip over all the tedious mopping up. But I have to think that I'm not entirely alone in my desire to at least experiment with the godlike power the game's flavor text suggests.

Although, more and more I'm coming to think that victory conditions themselves are what bother me. Not necessarily that they're there, but that a game with a victory condition is one that necessarily has an upper bound. It is a game that is meant to end.

And that is natural and proper, of course. It wouldn't really be a game, per se, if its various obstacles and challenges didn't have a point. If it's a game, then you can either win or you can lose, and most of the game's mechanics revolve around getting you to one end or the other.

But what if they didn't?

Some games are like that. There's no real end to Minecraft or The Sims or No Man's Sky. These games, instead, are about a process of living. You set your own long-term goals and then the game provides you with a series of hurdles towards achieving your goals, but the reward for overcoming those hurdles is nothing more than seeing the world or your character's circumstances transform according to your vision. And then you get to set another goal.

And while there may come a time when your accumulated wealth and power become tiresome and there is no longer any thrill in overcoming obstacles because your resources render them trivial, that is more of a soft ending than a firm one. You can still play the game in this world and the basic mode of play remains the same, you just no longer derive the same satisfaction from transforming a world that has already bent so severely to your vision.

I've gradually come to realize that this is exactly what I want from a 4X game. It's a ridiculous thing to want, given that no 4X game has ever promised (or indeed been capable of delivering) such a thing. Indeed, the genre is practically defined by drawing a very concrete border around the things you can and can't do. At it's most abstract, it's just picking items from a menu in a particular order in the hopes of filling all the available slots in another, complementary menu. But even so, the dream is there - that the menus might be large and diverse enough and the opportunity costs high enough that your forced to make your empire your own, to have ownership of a unique thing that you nurtured through its perilous growth.

The innate finiteness of the 4X genre works against this, though. Any empire that endures long enough is going to lose its uniqueness, simply as a function of running out of things to learn and build. And while I'm coming to realize that this is a fundamental flaw, given my particular gaming agenda, I've also come to realize that this horizon is farther away in some games than in others, and it is easily possible for it to be far enough away that it doesn't really bother me.

Unfortunately, in Sins of a Solar Empire, it's too close. Even on a huge map, the time comes quickly when you have nothing left to do but win. Even expansion loses its appeal when the culture system punishes you for having colonies more than 4-5 jumps away from your homeworld. Call me weird, if you must, but my favorite part of any 4X game is the tedious micromanagement, especially if I'm still doing it in the late game. Some might regard the generic planetary improvements, limited number of orbital buildings and strict logistics limits as a boon to the game's speed and playability, but subtle nuances of infrastructure are the only things that interest me in these sorts of games, and they ran out far too soon.

In the end, Sins of a Solar Empire is a decent war-game. You assemble fleets of ships and throw them at other fleets of ships and the back-end of your economy is just complex enough that it feels like your decisions make a difference. It's not the game's fault that what I really wanted was a virtual garden to tend towards no particular purpose. However, I have games that are closer to what I want, so I'm likely only going to play this one for the sake of hanging out and chatting with my strategy-gamer friends.

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