Over the years, I’ve made some startling confessions in this space—for example, the words “I love OS X” earned me more than a few hate letters. But now it’s time to brace yourself for my most startling confession yet: I’m addicted to “4X” games, the classic turn-based, universe-domination titles in which you eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. This genre was last popular sometime around (gulp) 1993.
When I’m at my local game shop, picking out a title, I don’t beeline for the 4X section, pining for better days. In fact, if you were to place a copy of Call of Duty X and the latest empire builder side by side, I’d probably reach for the shooter, because I know it will be eminently more fun. But if you somehow tempt, coax or coerce me into playing a good 4X game—from Master of Orion to Galactic Civilization—I'm in big trouble. This is when I start showing the signs of clinical addiction. A quick one-hour game invariably turns into a marathon session. I build my meager empire, one solar system at a time, subsuming aliens cultures weaker than mine—using overwhelming force if necessary. A negotiation here, a small-scale war there, and pretty soon it’s 4am and I’m wondering who drank all the Red Bull.
That’s when I decide I’m just going to take one more turn. Or maybe two. And then it snowballs even further. I’m zombieing through days at work and spending sleepless nights plotting my next move against the almighty Prophet Zarquon, who runs a three planet hegemony that’s the next stop for the United Federation of Will’s Flotilla of Love, Happiness, and an Array of Interplanetary Railguns On the Off Chance that Love and Happiness Don’t Get the Job Done.
So that’s my addiction, and it’s particularly topical thanks to a new game called Sins of a Solar Empire, which is going to do for the 4X genre what Dune 2 and C&C did for strategy games. By ditching turn-based gameplay for a real-time design, Sins retains the compelling depth and complexity of the 4X genre while removing the things that irked me, like waiting for your opponent to plan his turn. In return, you get glorious space battles, in which tactics, politics, and economy all matter. In short, it’s a game that I sit down to play and don’t look away from for at least four hours.
Sins is by no means perfect. It’s essentially a multiplayer-only game, single-player is limited to some rudimentary tutorial missions and a basic skirmish mode, where you can compete against a ruthless AI. Unfortunately, there's no campaign to gradually introduce players to the complex gameplay. While this is definitely a problem, the fundamental game design is brilliant and revolutionary, Multiplayer is just plain fun bordering on incredible. That Ironclad bet their company on this game, built something this compelling, and then chose to release it without any annoying copy-protection schemes shouldn't go unrewarded. Buy the game and you won't be disappointed.