You might not think it to look at me, but I actually have something in common with James Bond. No, really. It's "The World is Not Enough". For Bond, it's a family motto. For me, it's more a symptom of my megalomaniac complex. Why would I want to bother piddling about conquering one pitiful little dirtball when there's an entire galaxy out there just waiting for my harsh, but ultimately fair, leadership? Sins of a Solar Empire offers just that opportunity of galactic domination you've been waiting for.
Sins of a Solar Empire isn't a standard real-time strategy, but what one of those self-consciously cool tech-evangelists would call a mash-up. It takes '4X' (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) gameplay, normally associated with turn-based strategies like Civilization, and marries it with a grand-scale real-time strategy, making the game play like a cross between Galactic Civilizations II and Supreme Commander. Obviously, the potential pitfalls of merging two genres like this are as huge as they are plentiful. Thankfully, Sins sidesteps the biggest ones, stumbling into only the odd interface niggle - but more on that later.
Like any self-respecting RTS these days, Sins features three playable factions: the Trader Emergency Coalition (TEC), the Advent and the Vasari. The TEC represent the typical hero-human society, having no real special powers to speak of, but being very industrious and having a fleet that lends itself to the mass production of ships. The Advent are a sect of religious nutters that were cast out by the TEC for worshipping "the Unity", a religion which heightens psychic powers. Naturally, they have a very different philosophy to the TEC, utilising energy weapons (rather than ballistic weapons, such as autocannons) and have a balanced fleet that utilises the strengths of their hive mind, being very mutually supportive. Finally, the Vasari are the dastardly aliens of the piece, being equipped with very tough (but very expensive) ships. The Vasari arguably have the technological edge of the three factions, having some weapons that will bypass a ship's shields entirely. The races are quite nicely balanced, and it will probably take you a couple of play-throughs before you find a favourite. Personally, I prefer the Advent, if only for the haughty cruisers which reply "We'll consider it" dismissively whenever you give them an order - a very nice touch.
The differences between each faction really manifest themselves in the tech tree, which is pleasingly complex. There are separate trees for military technology and societal advancements, plus a separate tree that governs your fleet capacity. Relatively few research items have prerequisites, so you don't need to slavishly plough your way through the entire tech tree if there's one particular thing you're after. However, there is a dependency on the number of research stations you have for each tree (military or social) to unlock each tier of research. These stations are relatively cheap to produce however, meaning that you can cherry-pick items from near the top of the research tree quite quickly.
Undoubtedly, the tech tree you'll most want to concentrate on early in the game is the one governing your fleet capacity. The two sub-branches of this tree increase the number of capital ships you can maintain in your fleet and the percentage of your income needed to supply your fleet. You may research these sub-branches at different rates, but since capital ships consume much greater amounts of your resource capacity than frigates or cruisers, it is in your best interests to keep both at a similar level; otherwise it is difficult to maintain a good balance between capital ships and the smaller frigates and cruisers. This balance is important, as a fleet entirely composed of capital ships can be overwhelmed by a massed fleet of a few dozen cruisers and bomber squadrons. Once these trees have been fully researched, you can field a force of sixteen capital ships and literally hundreds of cruisers and frigates, making for an impressive sight when you assault an enemy planet.
It's just as well you can build such large fleets, because you've got a lot of space to cover. Sins of a Solar Empire even outdoes Supreme Commander for scale; your view of the action is able to zoom right in to show a frigate until it fills your screen or - at the other extreme - taking you back out to give you an overview of a cluster of solar systems. You can move between both extremes of zoom with ease, with the zoom-to-cursor functionality allowing you to shift your view from one planet (or star system) to another with a quick move of the mouse.