I love sci-fi, it's probably my favorite genre of fictional literature and some of my favorite video games take place in a futuristic society full of space ships and aliens and political intrigue. Games like Mass Effect 2, Halo Reach being two of the ones that stand out the most in my mind for the quality of the story being told throughout the game. But I also like Real Time Strategy games, its an incredibly rewarding experience to have all the little pieces you set up fall into place in your Machiavellian scheme and I always keep an eye out for a sci-fi RTS game and if you're like me, then here are a few of the ones I've found over the years that rank among the best. Now the dedicated fans will likely recognize most of these but that doesn't mean they don't deserve some recognition. I'll be looking at games that have come out somewhat recently that are more accessible than others.
1. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
From Ironclad Studio, Sins of a Solar Empire is an old game, 2009 to be exact and I've been playing it for about as long as it's been out. In fact, it was the first PC game that I ever really played. But I'm not going to recommend you the 2009 Sins game, I'm going to tell you about the 2012 release, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion.
Rebellion is the culmination of the entire series and it hits all of my marks. It's a rare game even in its genre, its truly addicting and yet it is so relaxed and almost casual, there's no stress in Sins and its got an easy learning curve. The action is fast and fun, but you're never going to feel like your whole Empire is burning to the ground and you don't know why. Trust me, you'll see that enemy fleet warping into your home system well enough. I am genuinely surprised that when I bring it up, more people haven't heard of it, that's why it's top of the list.
There are six factions, two for each race. First there is The Trader Emergency Coalition is a collection of human planets that relinquished their sovereignty in order to fight the other two factions after 1,000 years of peace and prosperity and is fighting a war to preserve what they have least they loose everything under the assault of the other two factions. The Advent is the second human faction, returning to Trader Space after their exile exactly 1,000 years ago to exact vengeance for their exile. And finally the only truly alien fact, the Vasari formerly ruled a massive swathe of the central galaxy 10,000 yeas ago that lost everything to some unknown threat and is running for their life, cutting a bloody swathe through Trader space in a desperate bid to escape, and you've been fighting for thirty long years. In Rebellion each of these has spilt between Rebel and Loyal, hence the title Rebellion.
There are only 3 resources in the game, Credits (made by having developed planets and trade lanes), and crystal/metal (made by controlling resource-specific asteroids). It runs like your standard RTS but the one thing that helps it stand out is the Pirate system. You place bids in the pirate market and wage a brutal proxy-war against your enemies. But careful! the pirates get stronger the more they get paid, requiring a careful balancing act. The worlds of your map are connected via lanes, meaning that some worlds will have strategic value as natural chokepoints but little else to offer and forcing you to plan your expansion carefully, as each world has 2 or 3 lanes.
It's a solid game, I enjoy it even though after so many years, I've kind of burnt myself out on it. I like the setting that they've built, the lack of real concrete details really hurts them because I think they were on to something unique and great with the galaxy Ironclad was building and I want to see more of it. But a 2 minute video trailer giving you a run down of the universe and a few paragraphs on the Sins of a Solar Empire website are all we get.
Finally, the games visuals must be mentioned. They are excellent, not flashy but they just work. You zoom in up close and you can see every detail on the ship and if you zoom out you can see every one with a distinct icon, always letting you have the big picture image even when you've zoomed all the way out to view the entire star system. You can find it here on Steam for $39.99.
Stellaris from Paradox Interactive ran on the slogan of 'Make Space Great Again', and it did just that. Released back in April of this year, making it by far the youngest but in typical Paradox fashion the steady stream of updates and improvements the game sees means that it gets better literally every single day, and the very vibrant and active modding community means that you aren't lacking for fun.
The factions and races are entirely of your own design, with some 90 species portraits for you to choose from. You decide how it looks, what kind of traits it has and what its native homeward is and even what its language sounds like. There's just enough customizability to make your race feel unique to you but not so much that you'll be sitting there staring at the screen for 40 minutes struggling to come up with something. There's even a bio section, allowing for you to jot down a quick history of your race.
With Sins, there's only one way to play and that's war. With Stellaris you have much more options. Are you the peaceful explorer, boldly going where no man has gone before? The violent expansionist who ethnically cleanses every alien world you come across?
You start off with one world and work your way up as a species that just discovered interstellar travel, and you'll run into space faring amoebas and primitive societies of various technological levels, even massive stagnant precursor empires. That's not to mention the rich galactic history you get to build. All those little research projects help to tell a story that you're writing. You discover alien terraforming equipment on your planet. Do you dare activate it? What happens to you if you do? It's honestly fun and makes sure no two games feel the same.
It's quite a bit more complex than Sins, with all manner of types of space travel, research abilities and resources you can find on your travels. While its much simpler than other Paradox games, it does have something of a learning curve but Paradox does a good job of holding your hand through it. Diplomacy takes on a much bigger role as does the species that inhabit the galaxy. Some will be smarter, some will be faster and some will be physically repugnant and some of them you'll just want to force into extinction.
Now it's still a young game, less than a year old so there is lots of room to improve but Stellaris is far from unplayable. It's a good game, and it's first DLC is going to be coming August 4th which introduces new portraits, it's a cosmetic DLC not a content one. You can find it on Steam for $39.99, so it's the same price as Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion but far younger and with more room to expand and grow.
3. Endless Space
Endless Space from Amplitude studios is the only one of the trio that is turn based but the game isn't any better or worse for it. Released on 2012, it is the one that I have the least experience with but I can still recognize after five minutes of playing that it is a good game. The universe is more fleshed out and creative than either Stellaris or Sins and I'd say its about as complex as Stellaris is in terms of gameplay and while it may seem to be a complex mess, its a remarkably balanced game, more so than the other two are and rewards the creative player, and while it lacks the recognition of the previously mentioned it games it is just as smart and polished as the other two. Now if it's rapidly approaching sequel, Endless Space 2 were out we'd be talking about that one, but alas it is not. Trust me though we will be talking about it eventually.
There are eight major factions from you to choose from, the majority of them some kind of human but some of the standard troupes are present. The Hissho are the Klingon-esq honorable warriors and your giant bugs called Cravers that exist to consume but there's a fresh enough coat of paint over all of it to make it interesting and unique. It seems to me that its almost a blend of the first two, the openness of Stellaris combined with the storytelling ability of Sins but lets talk about what makes the game stand out from the other two.
It explains things far better than Stellaris or Sins, you hover your mouse over something and you've got an explanation of how it does something and why, very rarely does this trick not work which makes it even more frustrating and micro-managment is a bigger aspect in this game than in the other two, another somewhat frustrating element but the slick interface makes it bearable. But perhaps the biggest flaw? Combat.
Combat in Endless Space is the worst of the three, with a rock-paper-scissors element to it that I really hope is not going to be in the sequel, but other wise I hope that the majority of the mechanics are left untouched and the formula in Endless Space is found in Endless Legend, a game I am very fond of. There are 5 resources, each of them controlling a different aspect of management. Science is for research, Food for generating pop, Dust for purchasing things and Industry for your buildings and planets, and Influence for diplomacy. That's not mentioning the specialist resources you'll want to unlock and will have to work a bit harder for. Nothing special, nothing especially unique but what little I've played is fun.
It features ship design just like Stellaris does, you can customize the build out of your ships and just like Sins of a Solar Empire it isn't a very diplomacy-focused game. Like Sins, you travel down lanes to get from planet to planet. Like Stellaris, its got a very streamlined UI. Make no mistake, it is it's own game and it is the cheapest of the three, at $29.99 on Steam and is a safe purchase despite its age, if you mention it people will most likely know it and it serves as a good launch point into some of Amplitude's other works. I would recommend you save your money though for its sequel but if you absolutely must have it, know that it's not going anywhere anytime soon.