More than any other real-time strategy game of recent times, it's a game where choosing when to fight becomes the key issue. Fleets take a while to get where they're going. In terms of effective fleets, you can only be in so many places at once. The AI is especially evasive, refusing to fight and commit its resources unless it's convinced it's a battle worth fighting. Where to strike, how to strike, how long to push - these are the questions it asks, married to everything you'd be worried about in a normal RTS game, like the make-up of your fleet, and which Capital ships you've purchased (the latter are basically analagous to heroes, gaining XP and abilities as they continue). It's compulsive, massive and a genuine challenge, and essential for anyone with an interest in progressive strategy games.
Reservations? The main one is the complete absence of a campaign mode - despite the ripe background material inherent in the game world, it's not actually presented to you in a string of scenarios. This isn't a problem for me, personally, but others will want a structured way into the game's intricacies. As it is, the extra effort Ironclad has put into the skirmish mode, including the random maps, makes it clear that its peers are more the Civilizations and GalCivs of this world than Company of Heroes. Hell, if you're playing on one of the huge maps, I've played RTS campaigns that could be over before a single map is fought to victory, at least before you get the hang of it.
Which is my second main reservation, and a somewhat weightier one. This lengthy game works perfectly offline, but for multiplayer it's hard to find people who are willing to play a game without dropping out. A save option - which also auto-saves - means that if you want to re-arrange a continuance you can, but this is clearly more useful for friends waging solar war rather than random people on the electric internet. This is basic logistics of human time, and not really fair to critique a game over, but you should be aware of it. There's another side effect of the game's sheer length, too. Almost every RTS has as stretch where it becomes obvious who's dominant and then proceeds to crush the opposition in a tiresome slog to victory. The game's won, and you're just sweeping up. The difference is that since Sins takes longer, the sweeping-up period is proportionally longer. In multiplayer, this is actually less of a problem - players realise when they're a smear on a wall, but the AI that fights to the last can be a bit more tiresome.
It's worth noting though that this will be changed in a future patch. As with Stardock's GalCiv 2, Ironclad is impressively responsive to the desires of the fan-base. Since the release, it's already tweaked the game to make the Siege-Frigate-rush less tenable, reducing Pirate-raid frequency as well as adding the ability to speed up and slow down the game through hotkeys in single-player, so you can speed past periods that you consider too sedate.
Which is nice to have but, ultimately, a minor issue. I'd have recommended the game highly with no changes from the release code whatsoever. Yes, it's a little difficult to get into, but the only really bewildering thing about Sins of the Solar Empire is why it hasn't got a European retail distributor. It's well worth the digital download. It's one of those rare strategy games that actually has its own view of how the genre should work, which is entirely separate to what the rest of the industry is considering. You can file this next to the Total War games, the Ground Control/World in Conflict lineage, Defcon, and all those other glorious individualists who are implicitly against the tank-rush rush. Not that it's anything like them which, surely, has to be the point?
Space, famously, is a really big place. Sins of the Solar Empire lets you make it yours.
9 / 10