I need some advice. I'm reviewing Sins of a Solar Empire for the Phoenix. You may have heard of this game -- it combines elements of real-time strategy and turn-based strategy in an intergalactic setting, on what the box promises is an "unrivaled scale." It's been reviewed well elsewhere, with a Metacritic score of 89.
And I don't have the slightest idea how to review it.
I've argued before that an encylopedic knowledge of games is only part of the equation for good games criticism. But obviously a writer needs to have a solid foundation in the genre he's playing if it's to be an informed and balanced review. When I play an action-adventure game, I'm drawing on decades of experience with that style of play. I can zoom right up the learning curve, without getting hung up on the basics.
That's not the case with strategy games like Sins of a Solar Empire, whether we're talking about real-time or turn-based. I've never played a Civilization game or a Command and Conquer game. I've spent about five minutes each with Warcraft and Starcraft. I know so little about strategy games that I can't even think of any other ones off the top of my head. And I'm spending my time not on comparing Sins of a Solar Empire to other strategy games, but on learning how to play it.
I see from the Metacritic page that Sins was streamlined compared to its brethren, but you could have fooled me. The instruction manual is novella-length. For people steeped in the genre, it might feel like the most user-friendly interface ever designed. For me, it's like learning a foreign language. My biggest fear is writing a review that comes off as dumb and uninformed -- to write the RTS equivalent of a review of an action-adventure game that sounds baffled that you press the A button to make your character jump. And yet... I am uninformed.
So what do I do? It would be unfair to the game to review the genre by proxy in place of a detailed discussion of its unique characteristics. But it would also be unfair to the readers to pretend I'm an authority on strategy games, or even that I would have paid any attention to this game if I weren't getting paid to do so. I'm thinking it'll take some combination of a forthright admission that I'm not an expert with a focus on those things that I really do like about it, even if they may not be intrinsic to what most strategy fans are looking for.
But I'm not sure. How would you approach it?