Galactic Civilizations II
Space, the final frontier. Or, as far as video games go, the not-so-final frontier. There are a lot of space themed games, from shooters and RPGs to, of course, strategy titles. Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords was released on to a market where space themed strategy games were abundant, so how far does this title from Stardock go to stand out from the crowd?
Gal Civ II is, as you could have probably guessed, all about Civilization’s fighting it out in space. It is a 4X game: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. What this means is that, much like the Civilization series or Master of Orion, Gal Civ is all about playing with a choice. There is always a diplomatic, peaceful option – you don’t necessarily have to fight it out every step of the way. You will need to master diplomacy, trade and construction in order to prosper here; it is indeed a much more strategic affair than simply building an army and attacking.
The galaxy is yours to conquer, just watch out for the other races with the same idea.
Gal Civ has charm, lots of it. Everything from the races you can play as, their dialogue and even the research description pop up – everything is masterfully written and, at times, genuinely funny. The premise here is that you choose your race and start on your home planet, which for the humans – or Terran Alliance as they’re known here – is Earth. From here it is a race, of sorts, between yourself and all the other races on the map, to expand and colonise resource rich planets, all wrapped up into lovely turn based gameplay.
As with any 4X game, you don’t have to kill off all your rivals to win. There are several victory options, such as; having a large empire, researching ultimate end game techs, uniting the races diplomatically and several more. For all of these concepts to work together, the game includes a brilliant AI system – one of its biggest selling points. This means that, as you expand, colonise and research better technologies, your interactions with other Civilizations are extremely complex, detailed and different every time. If you bump into a peace-loving race of traders, then expect a warmer reception than you would get talking to the war mongering Drengin Empire.
The AI isn’t just limited to interactions it has with you either, throughout the course of the game an AI race may forge links with other nations and do rather clever things, such as unite an alliance against one particular race. If you attack with a fleet armed with laser weaponry, they will make a point to equip ships with shield defence. Stardock really have created something remarkable here, it often feels like you are playing with other people, the AI will outsmart you and make you feel genuinely impressed.
Diplomacy is deep and intricate, but don't expect any Mass Effect style space fumblings.
Another stand out aspect in this game is the ship design feature. Games set in space are often awe inspiring, a fleet of battleships engaging an enemy fleet, lasers flying everywhere for example. So it is nice that Gal Civ includes the ability to design your own ship. Here you select a hull, add components and improve designs based on the technology you have researched. Late game ships tend to be hulking behemoths, armed to the teeth with the latest and greatest in space weaponry and armour. You can also add near unlimited appearance options from a wide number of parts, meaning that your ships will be different every time. But do not mistake this feature as vanity, a ship designed yourself may prove more capable than what the AI has designed, tipping the balance in your favour even if you are on equal footing in tech terms.
Combat is remarkably enjoyable, thanks to the ship building and sheer expanse of the tech tree – with multiple branching paths. The turn based nature of the game means that battles are out of your control once ships engage, but they are a spectacle to watch nonetheless. The 3D engine used here looks amazing, with particle effects standing out to create an, overall, graphically brilliant game.
But combat aside, planetary management plays a big part of Gal Civ II. As you colonise planets and their population grows, you have more opportunities to build ‘planetary improvements’. This is how the economics of the game work. For example, you may decide to fill one planet and all its free slots up with factories, making it brilliant at creating ships fast, but not so good and pulling in income. Another planet however, may be filled with markets – meaning income will flow in. Each planet has a quality rating, ones higher than 10 tend to be the ones to go for. A planet with a quality rating of 22 for example, gives you 22 improvement slots. Managing a vast empire of sprawling planets and fleets can become slightly tedious. Thankfully, there is a comprehensive statistics browser, which allows you to see a list of all your planets and their income, making it easier to manage your empire.
You'll be seeing screens like this, A LOT.
The joy in this game is through AI interactions. I have already touched on this, but it needs to be reiterated just how complex and rewarding they are. An epic, dozen hour game on a large galaxy setting would deteriorate into boredom and tedium, if it wasn’t through the AI making things devilishly interesting along the way. You will find yourself forming alliances, breaking them and even bribing races into going into war with each other. You will smile with glee as your diplomatic plan to cause a war succeeds and you can step in to grab some high level planets. Then you will sit, awestruck, as the AI does the same thing to you and coordinates a two front war, whilst your ally leaves you to face the music. It is chaotic, but oh so much fun. The AI is what elevates this game from good to great.
So, a far reaching, complex strategy game with brilliant AI and lots of mechanics to master? This game really is a recipe for success and Stardock have created a stand out title. Whilst it share similarities with Civilizations IV, it does a lot of things better. Stardock’s title may as well have been an indie game when it released, but its surprising successes has shown that they are more than competent developers. If you want grand strategy in an epic space setting, look no further.
- Standout AI: The excellent AI makes this something different compared to its competitors.
- Suitably epic: The sound design and presentation are amazing, this looks and sounds suitably epic.
- Witty dialogue: Well written dialogue and brilliantly characterised races give this game something special.
- Strong diplomacy: Diplomacy is, for once, fleshed out and intriguing.
- Player control: Designing your own ship is a not-so-guilty pleasure.
- Tedious management: Management of your empire can become tedious at times, causing the game to drag.