Videogame (2008). Ironclad Games (IG). Platforms: Win.
Solar Empire is a simulation of space warfare which fuses the conventions of the Real Time Strategy form with those of 4X Games. While many of the design elements it shares with 4X Games were borrowed by the earliest examples of the RTS form (and have become characteristic of the school), the events of Solar Empire play out on a much wider stage than those of a typical RTS, one that incorporates multiple solar systems. The gameplay is correspondingly slower and more detailed, in the manner of such turn-based works as Master of Orion (1993). Solar Empire does not have the emphasis on social development and political conflict seen in such games as Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (1999), concentrating instead on scientific research, economic development and military strategy. The player's time is spent controlling orbital structures and spacecraft in real time, while issuing more abstract instructions to entire planets and civilizations. One interesting predecessor is Star General (1996), which similarly concentrates on strategic warfare between small numbers of star systems with economic, technological and diplomatic aspects, though Solar Empire has no equivalent of the ground combat employed in Star General to model planetary assaults. The most significant differences, however, lie in the representation of space – Star General is essentially two-dimensional, in the manner of a naval combat game, while Solar Empire is three-dimensional, using the orbital plane of a specified star as a reference – and in the distinct traditions from which their designs developed. Star General owes much to turn-based board and counter Wargames, while Solar Empire is much influenced by the history of real time Computer Wargame development, and is ultimately descended from such Videogames as Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (1992) as well as the Board Game Stellar Conquest (1974). Interestingly, one significant inspiration for the design of Solar Empire appears to have been Buck Rogers – Battle for the 25th Century (1988) (see Buck Rogers XXVC).
The game is set in a Space Opera galaxy split between a human civilization formed by interstellar traders, an offshoot of that culture whose Psionic religion instructs them to absorb all sentient beings into a single collective consciousness by any means necessary, and refugees from an alien Galactic Empire who are fleeing an unknown enemy. A wide variety of both technologies and celestial bodies are present, from Antimatter to Wormholes and Asteroids to Gas Giants. Some science-fictional inventions also serve as justifications for important gameplay limitations; as in 2300 AD (1987), travel between stars can only be accomplished along specific roads through Hyperspace, creating a spatial geography with supply routes and defensible bastions. While the background is quite detailed, there is no predefined storyline; the setting serves only as a narrative frame for games played against the computer or other participants online. These games can be quite complex, but a well designed user interface combines with the ability to examine events on a wide variety of spatial scales to make the gameplay absorbing rather than overly demanding. As a game of space conquest, Solar Empire is compelling and intellectually challenging; as an exercise in design, it suggests a possible future direction for the evolution of the 4X Game form as a whole.
Related works: Entrenchment (2009 IG, Win) is an expansion pack which adds new weapons and technologies. Similarly, Diplomacy (2010 IG, Win) significantly enhances players' diplomatic options, making it possible to play a more cooperative version of the original game, while Rebellion (2012 IG, Win) divides each of Solar Empire's competing civilizations into "rebel" and "loyalist" factions. [NT]
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