“Time dilates as the speed of light approaches. To the extent that light consists of particles, it is in its own way timeless. Through simple perturbations of the temporal manifold, we can refract or repel photons most efficiently.”
— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Now We Are Alone”
And the manipulable temporal manifold Zakharov speaks of must be a feature of the extension of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity that’s presumably described by Applied Relativity. So, again, Reynolds is able to pull off the trick of describing a crazy-futuristic speculative technology in the words of the people who supposedly understand it, such that the audience might have some idea of what’s going on.
In terms used to describe science-fiction shows like Star Trek, this is pure, uncut technobabble. But it goes down so smooth. The secret is that it doesn’t feel like Reynolds, through Zahkarov, is trying to put one over on the audience. And he can get away with that because of how he’s easing the player through the tech tree. The wonder slowly ramps up as the technologies build atop one another in what feels like a natural progression.
For instance, the player has already come to identify armor with materials science. But it’s easy to go to the well too many times. So what’s cooler than even-more impossibly thick armor plating? Generations of science fiction authors have come to the same conclusion: force fields! By now it’s the traditional, time-honored solution to the problem.
But it is precisely the inherent cool-factor of the technology that affords Reynolds the luxury to let Zakharov undersell it. After all, by this point the player has already had Zakharov explain some well-known real scientific principles to him in the same fashion. So it’s the undersell itself – the somewhat dry technical explanation of how such an amazing feat might be accomplished – that makes it feel like there’s a real futuristic world hiding under the game interface.
It’s also worth taking a moment to note that the other requirement is the previous armor technology. By now, the pattern has been established that armor techs follow a strict ascending pattern. Interestingly, the same is not true for weapons. For instance, it is possible (and possibly likely, for some factions) to get six-strength missile weapons before the five-strength Gatling Laser.
In practice, this advance doesn’t generally make a whole lot of difference to individual combats. Going from four-strength armor to five-strength armor is rarely the crucial factor in a mid-game war. The main practical effect is to make top-line defenders get odds on eight-strength Chaos Gun attackers with a doubler (like Perimeter Defenses or AAA Tracking) where their Silksteel brethren would generally lose.
If a player is ahead enough to be winning, most of the time his units will be attacking fast, making his armor technology mostly irrelevant. And if he’s behind, chances are he won’t be able to reach for high-level armor techs, because he’ll be pouring cash into psi units or spy actions to try to salvage the situation instead.
It turns out that the real strategic effect of improved armor technology is a little paradoxical. It mostly enables the winner of a war to cheaply hold his new conquests against his rivals. The AI will commonly oblige by tossing big stacks at one of its recently lost bases in an attempt to recapture it. Good armor technology makes it so that just a few correctly placed defenders can exhaust a whole faction’s reserves.