Thoughts: Sins Of A Solar Empire — Rebellion.


Rebellion is a bit of an anomaly. It’s a real-time space-based 4X game where you gradually spread the tendrils of your empire out from your home planet into the galaxy at large. It features battles with first dozens and then hundreds of ships all blasting the titanium out of each other with mass drivers and lasers, while swarms of fighters and bombers flit in and out of the fray. It has a staggeringly comprehensive research tree, with no chance that a player will be able to complete all of it in a single game. It even has vestigial trade, diplomacy and culture elements. It should be right up my alley.

And yet, and yet. I bought Rebellion – pre-ordered it, actually – over a year ago. The seventeen hours Steam says I played indicates I invested a fair chunk of time into it. I couldn’t tell you anything about those seventeen hours, however, because it turns out Rebellion is spectacularly bad at leaving any lasting impression on the people who play it. It doesn’t have any of those memorable moments other 4Xes have: the time I launched a massive amphibious invasion of Persia to stop them from building the spaceship in Civ V; the time I spat in the face of the council’s declaration of a single galactic leader and fought a doomed war against impossible odds in Master of Orion; the time I played the undead in Age of Wonders and turned the entire world into an ash-blackened wasteland populated by skeletal monstrosities. One of the strongest elements of the 4X is that you end up constructing a story around your empire’s rise to power; it’s a critical part of the genre that’s almost completely missing from Rebellion, and it’s worth exploring the reasons for its absence since it explains why what is otherwise a very well put-together game can leave me so cold. Cold enough to not bother reviewing the thing for over a year, anyway.


Rebellion is played out over a map of one or several star systems. Planets, asteroids and other anomalies are scattered around each star, connected to each other by jump nodes. It’s your job to capture these hunks of rock for your empire, but since there can be literally hundreds of planets on the larger maps in Rebellion keeping track of everything would be a major pain if it hadn’t adopted one of Supreme Commander’s most lasting innovations: the strategic zoom feature. By using the mousewheel you can zoom all the way from a closeup of a single fighter squadron all the way up to a view of the entire star system. I should mention here that Rebellion’s zoom feature is just insanely good for something that basically uses one button; it intelligently identifies the things you want to zoom in on and centres the screen on them — and will even track them as they move if you give it no further input – and it never does anything you don’t want it to. It’s a masterpiece of design. However, it might also be Rebellion’s Achilles heel.

You see, the downside to including a strategic zoom in your game, as useful and necessary as it might otherwise be, is that players will often spend the majority of their time zoomed all the way out so that they can see what’s going on over the whole of the map at a glance. This reduces all the planets and asteroid fields, all of the nicely modelled frigates and cruisers and starbases, to just a big mush of icons. And icons, alas, do not tend to have a whole lot of character or personality about them. Even when you’re zoomed in to planetary scale your ships will just show up as a huge morass of icons because ship icons never go away. Once again this is a decision that’s been made for a sound reason, but this time the reason is that ships in Rebellion are next to impossible to identify by their appearance alone.  They’re lovingly modelled and when they get into a scrap the battle effects are pretty impressive; unfortunately most of the time you’re not zoomed in enough to notice any of this, and when you are the thing that you do notice is that they all look rather… samey, making it difficult to discern between a flak frigate and a repair vessel. This isn’t just limited to identifying units in the heat of battle, either; you’ll find yourself mousing over icons in the research and build menus too because you have no idea what these things are or what they do. The basic military ships are just that bland.


One seeming exception to this rule are the capital ships, which end up being the workhorses of your fleet. Capital ships are hero units which have their own population cap, are much tougher than normal ships, and take many more resources to build. They’re worth it, though; you could build eight or nine light frigates for the cost of one battleship, but the battleship could probably take them all out with little trouble and get a nice wodge of experience into the bargain. Capital ships gain levels and additional abilities the longer they’re around for, so even though you’ll only have three or four of them at any one time the rest of the fleet – which can consist of a hundred smaller vessels – exists to support them, and not the other way around. Keeping capital ships alive is important, and it’s not uncommon to go through an entire four hour session with the same battleship you started the game with. A nice touch is that they’re all given individual names, too, so differentiating them is a little bit easier than it would be otherwise.

However (and of course there was going to be a however) while figuring out which of your two battleships is which is not a problem, figuring out the difference between a battleship and the six other capital ship types in the game kind of is. It’s not immediately clear by their appearance, it’s not immediately clear from what they’re doing on the battlefield because special abilities all pretty much look the same, and it’s not even immediately clear from their descriptions in the tooltips. Battleships fight and carriers carry fighters, but the rest of them have roles that are very poorly defined and it can be difficult to identify exactly what niche they fit into or why you should buy them over something that just shoots lasers or launches things that shoot lasers. It makes target prioritisation difficult, too; fights in Rebellion all too often devolve into two blobs of ships smashing each other to bits, and the only real action you can take is focusing your fire on one capital ship at a time, but deciding what exactly you’re going to be shooting at is next to impossible because you have no idea what anything does. The best you can do is just target on the basis of which ship has the lowest health and hope the thing you just blew up was important enough to cripple the enemy force.


I’m not saying this is always going to be a problem – given enough time with the game and each of the three races you’ll eventually manage to learn what all the ships are and what they do. That particular knowledge curve is a steep one, though, and it’s one that I haven’t managed to successfully scale despite those seventeen hours I spent playing the game. As a result my games always have a general atmosphere of confusion about them; there might be nuance to the combat in the game but I don’t know where it is and Rebellion doesn’t seem all that interested in telling me. The same is true of planets and planet upgrades. You have a limited number of logistic and tactical slots per planet which vary on the planet type; a full-sized planet will be able to support a large industrial base while an asteroid can only build one or two factories at best. While there is some flexibility built into the system what exactly you use a given planet for is mostly going to be dictated in advance by how much infrastructure it can support. Planets are where you build your ships. Asteroids are where you build your research labs. And choke points are where you build your fortifications, since starbases – your primary fortification building – are agnostic of planet type; every other defensive building you construct exists to support them in a fight, since they’ll just melt away once a Titan comes knocking.

Ah yes, the Titans. Factions in Rebellion can build two types of superweapon. One is a static cannon that can fire from star system to star system, with varying effectiveness depending on what your specific gun does (the Advent one in particular is terrible since it fires culture, which does nothing unless your opponent has been completely ignoring culture). The other is a Titan, which is exactly what it sounds like: a huge, tough and very expensive starship with a whole bunch of unique abilities and enough lasers to outgun an entire fleet of smaller ships.  The relationship of Titans to capital ships is the same as capital ships to normal ships; once a Titan is built, the rest of your forces fade into the background as this mobile juggernaut of destruction roams around the map smashing up anything that looks at you funny. Each player can only build a single Titan, but if it’s properly supported that Titan is capable of killing everything that’s thrown at it except the following.

  • Another Titan.
  • A fully-upgraded defensive starbase.

Starbases won’t kill Titans but they’ll at least slow them down for a while to give you enough time to bring in reinforcements; it takes time to redeploy a fleet in Rebellion so delaying an attacking force for five minutes while they chip away at a starbase’s shields is very valuable. Stopping a Titan mid-rampage is damn near priceless, which is why – although they are capable of doing other things, like spreading culture or trading – you only ever upgrade a starbase’s weapons and armour. Spending the limited number of starbase upgrade slots on something else is just not worth the tradeoff.


Now, it’s undeniable that Rebellion’s starbase/Titan confrontations are quite memorable. It’s absolutely nail-biting watching the enemy fleet slowly wear down you starbase’s health and hoping the relief forces get there in time. Unfortunately it does doom the game to that single dichotomy and no more; it’s easy to tech up to Titans, and if somebody techs up to Titans you have to tech up to starbases, and so you’re doomed to spend most of your resources on one or the other. I’d like to play a game where some of the other modules on the starbase got used, but unfortunately the rewards from diplomacy and trade, while considerable, take too long to fully mature – especially when you can achieve the same result with normal logistics buildings instead. Anyway, the main effect of all this is that planets end up being rather samey; they’re either ship construction with some starbase defences, or trade and research with some starbase defences.  There’s no terrain or unique improvements to inject a little bit of variety into the mix, and visually they’re nothing to write home about either, as the look of the planet itself does not change with its increasing population density. Planets therefore don’t feel like places, as they don’t have the same personality as cities in Civ or colonies in Master of Orion.

And that’s my major complaint about the game writ large, really. It’s a triumph of cold mechanistic design over character; there are few features of Rebellion which I could point to and say “This is a bad idea, period,” but no matter how good those features ultimately are they end up being sadly wasted when the game’s remote nature and confused visual design rob the emergent narrative of the 4X of any meaning. Rebellion is a game which has reduced the clash of mighty fleets to watching two blobs of icons merge into an incoherent mess, and where expanding the empire to include a new colony has all the impact of claiming another square on a chessboard. It’s not entirely without charm and I’ve squeezed some fun out of it in multiplayer with friends, but playing single player games is a distinctly chilly experience that always seems to end in anticlimax as that expected 4X narrative hook never quite materialises. And as far as space 4Xs in particular go, while Rebellion has far fewer holes in its overall design than Endless Space I still think I’d rather play a game of Endless Space. In single player, anyway.

(Of course I’d still rather play MOO 2 over both of them, but that’s something we’ve been over on this blog before.)

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23 thoughts on “Thoughts: Sins Of A Solar Empire — Rebellion.

  1. Darren says:

    An interesting take. I always thought the game handled the clutter of icons well with the camera button that let you toggle all of that off to get a better look at what was going on.

    As for the capital ships, they are: battleship (front-line attack), colony (infrastructure and support), dreadnought (siege), carrier (miscellaneous support), support 1 (varies with race), and support 2 (varies with race).

    It’s interesting that you complain about the star base upgrades. In my experience, the other upgrades can be very useful, particularly the trade port. Since bases can be built around stars and dead planets (and I believe magnetic clouds) you can extend your trade network FAR beyond what you would otherwise be able to do, even across multiple star systems.

    Finally, you didn’t mention the pirates. I find that much of the early game is spent investing in and defending against pirate attacks, with lots of back-and-forth, skin-of-your-teeth fleet movement to avoid catastrophic infrastructure losses.

    Maybe my experience is different because I’ve never played it multiplayer (the pace and length just make me cringe).

    • Hentzau says:

      Yeah, I’m fully prepared for people to tell me I’m full of shit on this one, because honestly there is quite a lot to like about Rebellion — the pirates are a good idea that comes across very well in game, and there’s several other decent things I could have mentioned but didn’t for lack of space. I especially like the NPC ships that make colonising planets difficult unless you clear it out with an appropriately-sized fleet first; it’s a good solution to the normal 4X problem of the game going to the people who can get to the nice city spots first.

      I do find it interesting that you had such a different experience against the AI to me. Our recent “multiplayer” games were actually co-op comp-stomps, except because the AIs were all set to Hard it was actually us getting stomped. We simply couldn’t make any headway unless we went ultra-defensive and locked down the chokepoints in the way I described until we had the edge we needed to overwhelm the computer.

      The multiplayer by contrast was a little more sedate, since the people I was playing with were nowhere near as aggressive. We had a little more room to play around with the non-combat parts of the game there, but I must say that even the boosted versions present in Rebellion seemed a little bit vestigial. Trade you always want since it’s free money, but diplomacy is a really weird passive thing and it seems impossible to go for culture even if you’re the super culture Advent guys. So you just get locked into warfare. It doesn’t seem great.

      • Darren says:

        You’re not full of shit; your criticisms are all valid, and Sins is far from my favorite game. I could probably go from “like” to “love” if it had the personality of MOO2.

        You just have to remember that this isn’t really a 4x, it’s more like a very slow version of Warcraft III that’s masquerading as a 4x. For instance, culture is great if you go heavy on it early, but it’s worthless if you don’t back it up with aggression, because you’ll lose out on the offensive bonuses while your foes push back to recover from the economic penalties. Meanwhile, diplomacy really doesn’t offer anything except bonuses to help you drive your enemies before you etc. etc. tired old line.

        I’d say it’s kind of like a real-time version of Warlock: Master of the Arcane, as a cursory glance shows one kind of game while in-depth play reveals another.

  2. Janek says:

    Speaking of incoherent blobs of icons, I’d be interested to see your thoughts on AI War at some point.

    • Hentzau says:

      Ah, AI War, the game where the tutorial mission took me six hours to complete. I don’t think I’ll be going back to that one any time soon!

  3. Smaug says:

    Is Sins really a 4x? It does not play as one.

    • Gap Gen says:

      It’s sort of too long for a normal RTS, but too forgettable to have the same impact as a 4X. It’s just sort of cluttered, and much of a game is about building a single blob fleet and pounding it through enemy systems. It’s a 4X in the sense that you expand to different systems over the course of many hours, work through a tech tree and engage in terrible diplomacy with fairly dim AI opponents.

      So, I dunno. I liked the game, but it has no character, is mildly confusing and like Hentzau says doesn’t really have the same feel that gives other strategy games the feel of narrative taking shape out of the individual units and places. Like Hentzau says, something like Endless Space has less detail but ultimately is a more enjoyable game to play and feels more like you’re presiding over a space empire – I agreed with the comment that it needs less 7% increase in laser power and fewer tech choices that mean more. I agree that the pirate mechanic is pretty fun, if indeed your fleets would stop trying to fly through the pirate home system and getting swatted out of the sky.

      It is more fun in multiplayer, but then everything is, and I suspect that there are other strategy games I’d rather play in multiplayer. I recently read an article by Quinns about how board games work better than computer games in terms of generating multiplayer experiences that are fun for everyone regardless of who’s winning, and I suspect he’s right. There is a niche for a satisfying space empire multiplayer game, but I can’t think of any videogame I’d recommend for this. The presence of an algorithm running your empire means that game designers can be less purist about design, and Rebellion stinks of just jamming stuff in there for the sake of it. Hell, Scourge of War is one of my favourite multiplayer strategy games, and it has three unit types and no unit upgrades.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Actually, following this, it’s sort of interesting to see what Endless Space did with the latest expansion. They took out a lot of the incremental weapons upgrades in favour of more diverse options like bombers and planetary invasion options. So far my current game has played rather like the previous version, but I haven’t really touched the new tech tree yet. I kinda like that Endless Space is a different game every time I fire up a new campaign.

    • Hentzau says:

      It is, I think. It’s just that many of the more comprehensive elements you’d expect to find in a typical 4X are very light in Rebellion, such as diplomacy and infrastructure. As Gap says, it more correctly falls into the gap between classic RTS and 4X, but I’d say it’s closer to the latter.

      • Gap Gen says:

        I think another difference is the faff. In a TBS, you can take the time to tweak the build queue on every tiny system, but in a RTS you’re asking yourself why you, Space Emperor, are having to manually place mining equipment on Asteroid Bumfuck-546N. And again, this is where boardgames excel – paring down decisions to the most essential and interesting. One of my open-ended goals is to make a relativistic 4X game, so you have no hope of controlling every system manually – you fire out fleets and try to second-guess reports coming in decades late, and your space empire is effectively you managing a network of loosely connected city states. Exactly the kind of thing Jim would hate, but eh.

  4. innokenti says:

    TOP RIGHT, not top left.

    • Hentzau says:

      You’re talking to a man who has to think for a second before he can figure out the difference between right and left. PhDs in Astrophysics do not necessarily confer good spacial awareness.

  5. Anonymous says:

    will you be fielding any science questions as to how any of the absurd Rebellion weapons might actually work?

    • Hentzau says:

      Alas, probably not. It’s the sort of thing I end up handwaving away as space magic, because it is.

  6. Rolly says:

    If you do filed questions on the super weapons start with the culture bomb. Lots of mini advent flags and “We <3 Advent" t-shirts fired from a perfectly good bombardment weapon?

    My own experience of AI fleet whack a mole was terribly frustrating.
    The global population cap on the fleet was never enough to secure more than one entry point at a time which left my fleet moving back and forth across my space in defensive actions without an opportunity to push back until your fleet was on hand to support.
    I think if capital ships became less powerful with experience but consumed less of your pop cap(as they gained level) you might be able to fight your way out of a situation like that without first sitting through almost an hour an a half of repetition.

    • Hentzau says:

      The whack-a-mole was bloody awful. It’s a little too easy to withdraw a fleet after you’ve committed it, I think; even with warp interdictors they can jump out in seconds and they have the HP to weather the punishment you can throw at them until they do. Slowing that down would make battles more important, could open up a role for light frigates as ships that can spin up their drives quickly and make hit and run attacks, and would generally fix a lot of the single-player bumf.

  7. Please tell me: is that MOO2 of yours worth to try if? I like Endless Space, remember liking Galactic Civilizations (thought it lookes like a game about numbers-numbers-numbers). Endless space may not feel finished, but it’s coming there and races now feel very unique and interesting. What can MOO2 give me? In your praise of it you mention variability, choice… But of all of this ES now only lacks some grand events maybe, and it’s not the most important thing, isn’t it?

    • Hentzau says:

      Having replayed Endless Space just this weekend, I can say it still lacks character. I can’t see the aliens as anything other than a collection of bonuses and penalties with a unique ship design; aside from a fuzzy hologram on the diplomacy screen you never get to see the aliens themselves. In MOO they’re depicted in charming cartoon graphics on the diplomacy screen, and even in miniature on the colony management screen so that you know that colony of Silicoids you just captured isn’t just a bunch of numbers.

      Also, as ridiculous as it is I find the Space Dragon a far more entertaining random event than “-50% science for twenty turns”. Endless Space has some great tech and improvement descriptions and they’ve really done their homework on the planet types, but it’s just not enough for me.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Right, I hate it when Endless Space is like “oh, I’m going to gimp your science now for no real reason, deal.”

  8. Anonymous says:

    Although I agree it is blob vs blob you COULD zoom in if you wanted to so i am not too bothered by it. What I find less than stellar (sorry) is how cramped space feels.
    I will never get used to small chunks of space connected by gates or warp portals, hyper space lanes or some other contrived method of fast travel. (looking at you too, X3!) To infinity and beyond? More to that gate over there and back. I prefer accelerated time. Although that makes multiplayer problematic. I find EVE has the mix spot on.

    • Hentzau says:

      It works from a purely mechanistic view, but my objection to it is that it homogenises the galaxy into a bunch of identically-sized gravity wells.

  9. G says:

    Forgive the thread bump, this post is very old now (perhaps your views have changed?)
    So one thing is true, no game is perfect, Sins of a Solar Empire Rebellion (SOASER) included.

    I just wanted to bring your attention to the lore of the game. SOASER is set after Diplomacy and Entrenchment, where the attempts to find peace through diplomacy have failed. So according to the lore, it’s understandable that in game the diplomacy is weak.

    SOASER players can suffer from tunnel vision, which leads to “blob battles”. The principles of war dictate a lot of what you see occurring. Concentration of force. If the AI goes for the “blob” strategy, then a SOASER player can either decide to fight fire with fire (blob fest), or use his head to counter that tactic.

    The problem of spamming and the arms race is a perennial human problem. The game just gives us the sandbox to act that out.

    Of course these “blobs” are fleets, the size of those fleets are dictated by the game settings – fleet size. Have a play around with those settings, see if having small fleet sizes changes your experience.

    I agree that star systems are a little bland, and ships can be a little monotonous. But there is a strong modding community that has a plethora of content to change that up. The Star Trek Armada 3 mod is jaw dropping.

    The only thing that I would like to see is the option to have AI take over parts of the game on your behalf. For instance an interface which allows me to assign planets, research, fleets or individual ships to AI control (like in Hearts of Iron 3), and give the AI missions and directions. This allows me to focus on smaller fleets, tactics etc. I think that would be a very positive addition.

    But here is the crux of the problem; scale. With such a massive scale, the late game becomes more of a Grand Strategy Game (where it naturally disassociates from the individual “characters” of ships or even fleets) rather than a 4x game. But because SOASER requires the player to handle everything, I think late game results in (macro) information overload and so players will struggle to use the micro tactics needed to break the deadlock. This has an adverse effect on enjoyment. SOASER was not designed to be a Grand Strategy Game.

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