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Space Empires IV Gold

Review by Wraith

Space Empires IV Gold is the most recently released version of the long-running Space Empires series by Malfador Machinations. Although it is beginning to show its age by the time of this review, it is still one of the best space strategy games out there. Read on for a more in-depth review.

Starting the Game

A quickstart option is made available to players, so that you can jump right into the game with a prebuilt race, but more veteran strategy gamers are going to want to customize their race and the rest of the game to their own liking. This is an area where SE4 really shines, and a wealth of customization is available.

Race Setup Options
There are plenty of ways to customize your race.

For the game itself, you can randomly generate the galaxy to fit a number of different templates and sizes. A preview of the galaxy can be generated so that you have a better idea of what the game is going to look like. There is a scenario editor included in the Gold version of the game for those who want to specify exactly what they want their galaxy to look like. There is also a wealth of other options during game setup that can be altered, such as research speed, random event rates and severity, victory conditions, and more. You can also setup the game so that all players start out with empires at a certain level of development.

When customizing your race, you are presented with a huge number of options that may intimidate players new to the genre. You start out by picking a portrait and shipset, and then the preferred planet types of your race. After that, youíre presented with a long list of different aptitudes you can adjust, followed by more advanced traits which include access to special technologies, and then a culture and a few other qualities like demeanor and a happiness type. The happiness type is what determines how your populations react to the various diplomatic states that exist between you and other empires. In the unmodified game, your population is basically either peaceful, warlike, or isolationist. The extent to which you can customize your race is amazing, and even now few games can claim to match it.

Empire Managment

Planet Managment
Ships and facilities are queued up in one convienient screen.

Planets each have three different attributes that are important when deciding which to colonize. A planet type, either rock, gas, or ice, which determines what type of colony ship can land there, an atmosphere, which determines what races can use the full planet, and a condition, which determines the population growth rate on the planet. Each player starts out being able to breathe one atmosphere type, and to colonize one of the planet types. There are expensive technologies which can be researched or traded for to colonize the new planet types, but youíll need to use atmospheric converters or conquer another race if you want to get the most out of planets with the wrong atmosphere.

Every planet has space for a certain number of facilities that can be built upon it. This space is significantly reduced if any race currently on the planet canít breathe the atmosphere. You only have a handful of buildings to choose from to start out with, but as your technology increases more become available, including better versions of your starting buildings.

There is a lot that can be done to fine-tune your empire. In addition to managing your planets, you also have to manage your research, espionage, diplomacy, and move around all your ships. Many of these things can be queued up so that you donít have to check back on them each turn, and this certainly helps, but the amount of micromanagement that is required to do well in the mid to late game can get excessive. To help out on this front, the game comes with advisors, which you can set to automatically run certain parts of your empire. Unfortunately, the advisors themselves require a certain amount of micromanagement if you want to use them, and when combined with their poor AI, it makes them nearly useless.

Research

Technology Tree
A huge number of possible techs to choose from means that your research choices become an integral part of game strategy.

The research system is not too different from the ones you commonly run across in 4x games. Research points are generated by research facilities that you can build on each system, and go into developing each technology. After you accumulate the predetermined number of research points, you get the tech.

It is worth mentioning the huge number of techs even in the unmodified game. There are a number of theoretical techs that do not yield any immediate benefit, but need to be researched before you can begin researching certain other fields. Most of the technology fields have a number of different levels in them, each giving access to either different facilities or ship components, or improved versions of the facilities and components you previously had access to.

Certain fields of technology can only be researched by races that have picked a certain special attribute at the start of the game. This opens up more strategic options, since not every empire in the game may have access to the same tech tree. There are other technologies that can only be obtained by being the first to colonize planets that have ancient ruins on them.

Ships and Combat

Ship Design
Plenty of components to select from ensures a great deal of flexibility in your designs.

In addition to facilities, all planets and certain ships and bases can construct other ships and units such as fighters, drones, satellites, mines, and ground units. All of these can be designed by the player. The sheer number of components that you can choose from for each ship or unit gives you a lot of flexibility in how you design your ships. Right-clicking on any component will also bring up a more detailed description of the component, including its range, how much damage it does at each range, how much damage the component can take before being destroyed, etc.

The game also provides a battle simulator to test your designs can simulate a battle between your own current ships or known enemy designs. This can prove a valuable tool in determining whether your current design plans are good enough to put into full production, or exposing deficiencies in the ship.

Any flaws in your ship designs can quickly become apparent once you engage in battle with the gameís tactical combat system. Combat takes place on a large 2D plane, with any planets or warp points in the center of the map. You can move your ships around individually on this map, or you can group them into fleets and order them around as a whole. In a fleet, each of the ships actually still moves individually, but this is handled automatically to make controlling large battles easier. Even in a fleet, however, weapons fire must be targeted manually for each ship. Certain weapons, such as the point defense weapons, will fire automatically as soon a valid target gets within range. This happens whether your ship moved within range of the target, or the target moved closer to your ship.

Combat
Combat takes place on a large 2D plane which accomodates a variety of tactics and battle plans.

After you get within firing range of the enemy, it is usually a good idea to disband your fleets so that you can control each of your ships individually. While you can still do this with the ships grouped as a fleet, if you move the fleet leader before all of the other ships in the fleet have moved, it can cause the other ships to move in undesired directions.

The tactical combat system works pretty well, though sometimes the path finding for ships can get messed up, causing them to waste all their movement points pacing between two spaces. My biggest complaint against it is the lack of a retreat option. Sometimes you get into a battle where you are just completely outclassed, and there is no hope of victory. With the way combat works now, your only option in this situation is to run around and try to stay out of weapons range until the 30-turn time limit is up. With set borders on the tactical map though, you are bound to run into the edge before then. At this point unless your ships are significantly faster than the enemyís, you wonít have anywhere left to run and the enemy fleet will have several turns to shred your ship before you can get far enough away again.

Audio and Visual

Iíll be honest here. The audio and visuals in this game are nothing to write home about. Although this game was released several years before this review was completed, even for the time they were released they were already dated. After a short while of playing, however, you will be so involved with the intricacies of empire management and strategy that it wonít bother you any more.

Modifications

One of the features of Space Empires IV that has kept it around for so long is how easy it is to mod. This has inspired a large mod community, which is still active even today. Almost any problem that you may have with the vanilla game can be cured with the right mod, and at the time this review was written there are literally thousands of mods out there to choose from. Several good ones even come on the SE4 Gold CD, although most of them now have more recent versions on the internet and are thus out of date.

Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Deep gameplay with meaningful strategic choices
  • Excellent ship design system
  • Good, easy to use tactical combat
  • A huge tech tree, including some end-game techs like ringworlds and dyson spheres
  • Easily modified to your liking, plus a strong, vibrant mod community
  • Tons of replayability
  • Cons:

  • Subpar AI. This is easily fixed with many of the mods, however.
  • Poor graphics
  • The learning curve is somewhat steep. Not MOO3 steep, but steep.
  • Large amounts of micromanagment may turn off some players
  • The Bottom Line

    If you can get past the shoddy graphics and the learning curve, Space Empires IV Gold is an excellent strategy game, even by 2005 standards. All the mods available for the game ensure that the game has a lot of replayability. A play-by-web community has sprung up for the game as well, and they are still going strong, which ensures that you will be able to find someone to play with if you like the multiplayer aspect of the game.

    Even to this day, few games have managed to surpass the depth and content of this game. If you enjoy strategy games, you owe it to yourself to at least check out this game.





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