The Orion Sector On
GALACTIC CIVILIZATIONS 2
Galactic Civilizations II is Stardockís latest entry into the Galactic Civilizations line of space strategy games, dating back to OS/2 days. The following review is pretty long and in depth, so if you just want the bottom line you can find it, predictably, at the bottom.
The game comes with two primary ways to play it. There is the normal game mode where you are pitted against a number of computer-controlled opponents vying for galactic supremacy. Then there is the campaign mode, which allows you to run through several missions with unique goals and predefined setups.
Either way, after the game starts you are presented with a wealth of options you can use to customize your race. While you are restricted to playing the Terran in the campaign mode, this does not make any significant difference, as you can still customize your racial abilities any way you would like.
Most of the players time will probably be spent playing in the skirmish mode, which is the basic game played on either a random or pregenerated map. There are four different victory methods in the standard game, but you can also pick different scenarios to activate new victory methods. Prior to starting the game you can do plenty of fine tuning of the game parameters to get things the way you like it, such as tweaking star densities, anomaly rates, or research speed.
The largest part of the game is the random galaxy generator, which throws you and the opponents of your choice into a random galaxy which is generated according to your specifications.
Quite simply, all the options from Galciv I are here... and there are a great many additions. After starting a game, configuration options are given for the entire universe. After tweaking the galaxy to your specifications, you tweak your own race, and finish with your opponents. There are a lot of options, both returning from Galciv, and completely new. You can customize the galaxy in everything from overall size to frequency of habitable planets, however, some of the new options steal the show.
There are now certain semi-random scenario choices, such as simple Allies or Duel games, to more complex scenarios such as "Dread Lords on parade", which throws you and the rest of the galaxy against the Dread Lords, merciless conquerors with a massive technology lead.
You can now choose your own race, or make a custom race according to your specifications. Like before, you also choose a political party which adds bonuses to your race.
After you have customized your race, you can choose your opponents and their own intelligence levels. The game has an overall difficulty rating which updates as you make changes.
After all these choices, the galaxy is created, the races are placed on the map, and the game begins.
There is no longer the random choice for difficulty rating, however, I expect to see it possibly as soon as patch 1.1... which at Stardock's rate of patch releases, should have come as I was typing this review.
Overall, the new choices are very good, as is the great amount of customization possible in the galaxy. The only thing missing is a map editor. It would be very nice to create your own little sandbox to play in. Fortunately, this omission did not stay on my mind long.
The empire-wide management aspects of the game will look very familiar to those who played the first GC. From the empire scale, itís almost a direct copy. You set your tax rate, and your spending rate, and then set up how you want to allocate the percentages of your spending between military, social (building construction), and research. At low approval ratings, your population growth can stop, or even start to decrease, but above a certain point the population grows at a constant rate.
You can also create trade routes between you and your neighbor to increase your income. This also has the added bonus of strengthening the bonds between you, and AI empires will be less willing to go to war with strong trading partners.
The primary difference between GalCiv2 and its predecessor comes in at the planetary level. Instead of allowing you to build one of every building, each planet has a class number which corresponds to the number of regions available to build on. Each building you want to construct takes up a region. There are six basic types of buildings which youíre able to place on the planet. Factories, laboratories, farms, economic buildings, cultural buildings, and entertainment buildings. Each of these has its own branch in the tech tree which allows a series of upgrades as itís researched, which your governors will automatically begin building if you let them. In addition these basic types, you can also build a number of other special buildings and projects, such as an economic capital or harmony crystals. There are also a few buildings that will help against military attacks, such as the orbital fleet manager which allows all orbiting ships to act like a single fleet.
One nice feature players might easily miss is the ability to prioritize certain spending areas on a per-planet basis. Small buttons near the top of the planet screen allow you to shift spending to either social, military, or research, in exchange for a lower output in two areas roughly equal to your gain in the other. This helps the problem the first game had with not being forced into a one-budget-fits-all type of planetary management. It still would have been useful to have a little more control over the spending, but this makes the game a lot less frustrating.
One of the more unique features in Galactic Civilizations are the starbases, which have returned from the previous entry. This time, they are split up into four different types: influence, military, economic, and mining starbases. The first three give bonuses to what their names imply. Influence starbases can help increase your influence throughout an area, increasing tourism income and encouraging other planets to peacefully join your empire. Military starbases can aid your ships in battle by increasing their attack or defense ratings, as long as they had at least one point in either before hand. Economic starbases can increase your income from trade routes, and increase all the output from nearby planets.
The mining starbases can only be built on resources which appear on the galactic screen. Each of these resources gives some type of empire-wide bonus, which increases as mining modules are built into it.
The inclusion of the starbases adds a good deal of strategic depth to the game, as you can usually only afford to build a handful in the early game. The player might have to decide between building a military starbase to help their ships defend their planets, or an economic starbase to increase income and ship production. Since starbases arenít very useful until several modules have been built onto them, even if you had the money to afford two, you often wonít have enough constructors to build up both to the point where they are useful.
Like Galactic Civilizations, you command planets, spaceships, and starbases, and your eventual goal is to conquer the galaxy; fortunately, there are some welcome gameplay changes to the original formulae.
Sliders are still your primary way of controlling overall galactic spending and tax income, however, you can now focus each individual planet on Military production, Social production, and Research. It no longer feels as if I am receiving hundreds of BC from my good planets to throw away hundreds on my colonies. My good colonies produce massive amounts of research or production, and my poor ones produce less.
The planet quality system has been completely re-designed. Planet quality means one thing only; how many sectors on a planet can have buildings built on them. Also, there is a population cap in place, where the population cannot exceed the amount of food produced on the colony. I really, really enjoyed seeing this after Galciv I, where I had to keep building transports to reduce the population of a colony because I could not keep it happy.
Now, if you want more production on a planet, build some factories. Want more research? build some labs. each of these adds to the industrial capacity of a planet, which means that if you are running at 100% of capacity, your factory worth 8 industry will make 8 points of industrial or social production, depending on your spending sliders.
Galactic Civilizationís research model will not be new to players of previous 4X games. There are a large number of technologies to research, each arranged along different branches of the tech tree. Occasionally a tree will split off and have multiple directions you could proceed in, but theyíre not exclusive so you could research both new paths if you wanted to.
The entire tech tree is laid out graphically in a section at the bottom of the tech tree that can be expanded so that it takes up the whole screen. Each entry is viewable in advance so you can see what future techs do what, though the details of what some of the components they enable are not explained. This seems like an unusual choice, since the tech tree never changes, and as soon as you have played the game a few times you will know exactly what each component will do. Hiding that small bit of information when everything else is out in the open end up only really affecting the newest players.
One nice feature is in the form of the tech, Xeno Ethics. During the game, you are often presented with choices which could give you bonuses or penalties to a particular planet, or to your entire empire. Along with these bonuses and penalties, they also affect your empires alignment. Typically, taking the penalty or avoiding any bonus is the Ďgoodí choice, with the other two choices shifting your alignment towards either neutral or evil. In the first game it was difficult to get far enough along the ethical axis to ever reach either good or evil, even if you consistently picked a choice corresponding to one of the alignments. The events just did not happen frequently enough to make a difference. This is also true of GC2, but after researching Xeno Ethics you are allowed to choose between the three alignments and have your alignment instantly shifted dramatically in that direction. Each alien empire reacts better to races with the same alignment, and there are also differing bonuses your empire can get depending on your ethics, so being able to make this shift is very helpful.
The tech tree is big. Really big... So big it just screams "Look at me, I'm Big". Quite often, the game will be decided before you really get too far down it. I like that, because I just loath running out of technologies to research. Suffice it to say, I doubt I'll ever run out of things to research here... although, if you like that sort of thing, there is the "Battle of the Gods" scenario choice where each player starts with all technologies known.
There should be more information on the technologies completed, such as a big "galaxopedia" entry on each technology, as it can be confusing the first few games as you try to find out exactly what you get from each technology, or what you need to research for a certain improvement, or building, or Starbase Module.
Ships and Combat
Rather than being stuck with a few premade designs as you were in the first Galactic Civilizations, the newest version of the game allows you to design your own ships. There are three types of weaponry that you can use: mass, beam, and missiles. Each has a corresponding defense that can be built into the ship so you can design your ships to specifically counter enemy designs.
The game also allows you to greatly customize the appearance of your ship through a number of structures can be added to your designs for free. Even the size of these structures can also be adjusted to make sure your ship looks just right.
There are six different hull sizes you can build, although only three are available at the start of the game. Additional sizes are available in a fairly expensive branch of the tech tree. Aside from this, you can also research the miniaturization technologies which increase the available space on a ship by a certain percentage.
Combat plays out fairly similar to how it worked in GalCiv 1. It uses a combat system very similar to the Civilization series, where ships fire at each other from the map screen, and take damage based on their stats and a random number generator until one or the other is destroyed.
You can also organize your ships into fleets, up to a size dependant on your logistics ability and the size of the ships used. Fleets are usually more formidable than single ships, which means itís to your advantage to organize your ships in this fashion whenever possible. When two fleets enter combat with each other, the player is treated to a graphical display of the two fleets flying around the screen and shooting at each other. You still donít have any control over the combat, but it makes nice eye candy the first couple times you see it, and the numbers which scroll by at the bottom can be useful in future shipdesign. But most players will probably just end up skipping most of these scenes.
Military starbases can increase the stats of the various ships, but only if they already have weapons or defenses already. A ship with no defenses wonít get the starbases boost to shields, armor, or point defense for example, while the same applies to weapons. You donít need to have a defense in the correct area, a point of shield defense will be enough to get an armor bonus, but this is still something to take into consideration when designing your ships. These bonuses also apply on a per-ship basis, with a certain number of bonus weapon points being added to every ship, which means that large fleets of small ships can see more of an advantage from military bases than a small fleet of large, powerful ships.
Combat works much differently than in Galciv I. There are now three types of weapons, (beam, missile, and gun) and three typed of defences (shields, point defence, and armour) to counter them. One might think this leads to a galactic game of rock/paper/sissors, but I think it works very well.
You can now form "fleets" with your ship. This is where you take a stack of ships, group them together, and join them in a "fleet", which is limited in size according to your logistics. These fleets are incredibly useful, as having several ships pounding on the same enemy vessel really increases survival rates. Unfortunately, the interface stumbles a bit, as it can be quite difficult to handle stacked ships on the same square. There really should be a more enhanced fleet manager to deal with issues such as a constructor, a starbase, and several ships all on the same grid square.
I love the ship editor. It is an extremely addictive feature. I often find myself getting greatly worried about a new trend in the weapons of my enemy, decide to design some new vessels with different defences, and even though I want to quickly build them so I can issue the new orders to my factory planets to start cranking them out... I tweak here and there... add some extras to customize the view... don't like the look of the ship with this mounted there... move it... place an extra to change the look here... and a half-hour later I'm looking at an ass-kicking vessel with a big smile on my face.
Sadly, version 1.0 has some significant bugs associated with the ship editor. Fortunately, patching fixed most of these, but the initial instability of the feature really irritated me.
The campaign runs you through a number of missions welded together with a background story involving ancient races, high technology, and other staples of science fiction stories. Without giving too much away, the story largely centers around the ancient Precursors and the titular Dread Lords.
The game starts off fairly easily and quickly ramps up in difficulty once the Dread Lords make an appearance. With their technology being so vastly superior to yours, defeating them can be tricky, and requires a shift in strategy from what you have been using up until that point.
After you get past that point, the campaign falters. The rest of the campaign feels slapped together and lackluster. After the difficult battles against the Dread Lords, the game returns you to more mundane conflicts, where the odds are either stacked on your side, or the goal is very simple.
The story that plays out in the background seems to be trying to convey a sense of urgency and desperation, but the missions themselves feel more like a victory march. The final mission has you taking a single planet, and itís easily beaten without facing any resistance. The story then ends as anti-climatically as the gameplay while setting itself up for a sequel.
Audio and Visual
The game gets high marks in the audio and visual area. Everything is beautifully rendered in 3D. The background music is also pleasant and appropriate without being intrusive. The sound effects, while not spectacular, are also quite good and work well with the rest of the game. Itís easy to tell that a lot of effort was put into this aspect of the gameís creation, and it has paid off. This is easily one of the best looking turn-based games out there, though it still lacks the graphical splendor common of other genres.
The only obvious problem with the graphics is with the minimap. The colors that Stardock chose for each empire makes it difficult to see planets, ships, or starbases when they are inside the ownerís borders. Of all the empires, only the Altarians have the right colors to be seen easily when one of the minimap overlays is up.
Stability and Performance
As of the writing of this review (version 1.0D), the game had several serious issues in the stability and performance departments. Crashes to the desktop can happen alarmingly frequently. If you load or create games too often in one session, you can usually expect a crash. Other crashes are less predictable, and seem to happen almost randomly during the game play. Some players have also reported that these crashes can corrupt your saved games. It is probably a good idea to increase the autosave frequency to avoid frustration. The autosave system keeps the last two autosaves around, so even if the most recent one is corrupted, you can at least go back to the one before that.
Performance for the most part is pretty good. However, if you can avoid the crashes, it begins to seriously degrade during longer play sessions. While at startup you can zoom around the galaxy quickly, after an hour or so everything starts getting slower and slower to react, especially when there are a lot of ships on screen at once. Since rebooting the game usually seems to clear this up, it seems likely that itís more a result of poor resource management by the game than the hardware being pushed to the limit. This means that a powerful rig will only help put off this slowdown, it wonít avoid it completely.
The UI overall is pretty good, but there are still some quirks in the system, mostly in the ship design screen. Putting components where you want them can be difficult at times, and when redesigning old ships components you deleted can spontaneously reappear.
In the past, Stardock has been very good about supporting their games. They are much better at this than most other developers. It is probably safe to expect that future patches will resolve the above problems, but for now they can negatively impact your gameplay.
The game runs fairly quickly, with framerates dropping with increased numbers of ships and fleets on the screen. The turns go quickly, even in a Huge galaxy with ten alien races on it, and five hundred ships flying around. Sometimes the framrate can drop irritatingly low, but those times are usually few in between.
Stability, the game at version 1.0 is a large disappointment. There are a number of CTD's, a save game corruption bug (Which I have yet to see.. but I do enjoy the two autosave slots), and numerous bugs associated with ship names and designs. Fortunately, many CTD's are already fixed by version 1.0X, and most of the ship names/design bugs (but not all). I expect to see many of the remaining bugs fixed, as Stardock is usually very, very good at product support. Still, instability and somtimes lacking performance are my biggest concerns with the game.
Galactic Civilizations 2 was written to allow modding by the player community. All the files used by the game are available in XML format in the game's data directory. One caveat is that you can only participate in the metaverse, which is a ranking system for GalCiv2 players, with the unmodded game. Still, modability is often key for the long-term playability of any modern game, and it was a good move on Stardock's part to make sure this game had it. While there are not many mods available for the game this early in its lifespan, it is probably safe to bet that this will change in the future as the user community gets active.
Pros and Cons
The Bottom Line
The game is a definite improvement on Galactic Civilizations I. Fans of that game will feel right at home in this new entry to the series, and are almost certain to love it. Those who didnít like the first may find the problems they had with the first resolved here. While it is not perfect and despite some technical issues, the game delivers a high quality and solid experience that most strategy fans will probably enjoy.
Galciv II is a very, very good 4x game. It lacks a little polish and isn't the deepest gameplay, but it has great potential for strategy, along with an impressive experience due to the quality graphics and immersive music. The AI is so strong, it almost overwhelms the feel of sameness the galaxy can have. I sometimes got the feeling that the galaxy was the least important part of the game experience. It is the opposition that decides what kind of game experience you have, and the AI does not dissapoint. And ultimately? That's what makes the difference.
I would recommend that players inexperienced with this type of a game start with the easiest difficulty level, where 4x players should start at least at easy, and maybe at normal.
About the Reviewers:
I have been a fan of turn-based strategy games since the first Master of Orion, and have played most of the well-known games in the genre. I'm also the person currently running the Space Empires and Galactic Civilizations sections here at the Orion Sector.
Pentium IV 3 Ghz w/HT
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