The Orion Sector On
SPACE EMPIRES V
By Robert Huntingdon and Wraith
From the moment I first picked up Space Empires V I was rather impressed with the quality of the game. Despite a zero-day patch to fix bugs quashed between "going gold" and the release date and quite a few lingering bugs even after that patch, the overall quality of even the raw release version was still pretty good. Although I knew a fair bit about what to expect from pre-release publicity, the demo, and past games in the series, I still was impressed. And the graphics, for a TBS at least, are outright excellent. I was highly impressed with the quality of the rendering as soon as I started up. That said, from the minute you start the game it's pretty obvious that at its core Space Empires V is essentially the same game as before, just a lot prettier and with several new features. This should not be surprising to fans of the series, each game before was similar in many ways to its predecessors, and each was a major improvement over the previous. Such is Space Empires V: it's a good game that is a major improvement over IV, but very little is radically different from previous versions. So I quickly found that the things I liked about previous versions were still good, but the things I didn't I still disliked.
The graphics in SE V are much improved from earlier in the series.
Starting the Game
Space Empires V, much like its
predecessors, is quite literally filled to nearly bursting with configuration options that can make for radically different games. You can configure the size, shape, and style of the game map with several options to choose from that can make for very interesting changes to strategy. There are many options that control how both your empire and your rivals start the game, how many rivals you face, and how fast the game will start-up and progress through the tech tree. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, there are many more general options, many optional restrictions on the way the game is played, and many options for victory conditions. This means starting a new game is not a trivial task unless you wish to simply reuse the same options from a previous game, but that is made very easy by an excellent system of saving and loading game and empire configuration files. While this area was quite buggy at release it has steadily become less so, although some bugs do still remain.
More setup options than you could ever need.
Empire / Planet Management
One area where Space Empires V provides significant improvement over its predecessors is in the amount of options it provides to control
your empire as a whole. Ships and planets can be placed under minister control and forgotten about (at least for awhile) as long as you select minister settings that mesh with your overall strategy. There are many things that happen automatically that can be configured to your
You can configure your empire summaries to provide exactly the info you want, greatly improving game speed.
personal taste as well. For example, no longer do you have to visit a planet to resupply a ship (although a full resupply will often take either many turns or a planetary stopover or both), and the order in which ships are resupplied can be configured to your preference. Setting up all these options can take a very long time if you tweak a lot of things from the defaults, but if you save your empire after you get them set the next game you start using that saved empire will load your settings instead of the defaults. And unfortunately AI has never been a particularly strong suit for Malfador, instead being often improved by modders. Apparently in recognition of this Malfador has included a scripted AI system that should even further enhance the modding communities' abilities to provide better AI than the native game provides, so I expect this area of the game to get much better over the next few months or so.
Plenty of auto-mangement options too, though not all are very effective.
Once you have set up whatever automation you want to use (if any) much of the game revolves around your planets and your ships. The planet management is fairly simple in the Space Empires system. Short of a completely unpopulated planet, no matter how few people you have you will always get the "base" planetary build rate of 2000 minerals, 2000 biologics, and 2000 radioactives, and then you gain additional production as you build improvements or gain more population. The improvements you can build start out rather limited and increase as you research additional technology. Until you research quite a long way down the technology tree to technologies that allow for atmosphere conversion, you cannot obtain more than a small fraction of use from a planet unless it also has the same atmosphere type that your race breathes. This can provide a large advantage
to players willing to capture rather than exterminate alien populations. However, it simultaneously can cause a major micromanagement headache trying to cart populations around between planets. Plus until version 1.13 you cannot move off the last 1 million of any race on the planet, so in order to get the planet "pure" you have to "scrap" the last 1M people, which is a very annoying (if minor) bug. On the other hand natural migration will help to some degree: once you have captured an alien planet some of them will move automatically, which reduces the micromanagement significantly unless for some reason you badly need to jumpstart the population on the alien-atmosphere world. In addition there are other variables to consider about the planet. The surface type determines whether your race can colonize it (by default, you can research technologies to colonize other surface types), and the value rating of the planet can determine what use you will put the planet to. A planet with a value rating of 10% in minerals is not somewhere you will build lots of mines. Ministers can also help out with this as well, or you can queue up orders and then let the game execute them over time as you deal with other items.
Many screens give a succint overview of your empire for rapid review.
The Technology Tree in Space Empires 5 is very similar to what was found in SE IV and earlier games. There are some differences, however, mainly in the depth of the tree. Previously the tech tree was extremely broad but not very deep, and you could (eventually)
run out of technology to research. Or at least you could run out of useful technology for your play style, there might be other stuff you could have researched that you just didn't want. As an example, if I play a warlike race that simply wants to enslave or destroy all rivals, there are a host of technologies that would be totally useless to me but which a race seeking to win on diplomacy might desperately need. Although in older games you could run out of useful tech to research, now that is at best extremely difficult. Even if you don't really need it, you can still improve your favorite weapons a notch or two. Or you can improve your mineral mining further (or research, or space yards, etc) so you can produce a few extra ships to speed up the endgame process. There are even cultural studies that you can research which globally improve one aspect of your empire (such as war tolerance, mining, production, ship Unlike some other games in the genre, in Space Empires you pick exactly what you want to research. This means if you want better weapons
|Lots to Research|
There are plenty of technologies to research for any play style.
experience, etc). These get very expensive very quickly so they are a useful drain on excess research points in the late game.
Lots of weapon types, some more useful than others.
than what you have you aren't rolling the dice as to what you get (or picking a single advancement out of a few possibilities like MOO 2). While this is nice in many ways it does also add to the already heavy micromanagement burden, albeit only slightly. On the other hand, if you don't select anything to research the game won't pester you to select a new research area the way MOO2 would, which is nice. In addition there are racial trait techs that can only be researched by races with a specific racial trait (crystalline, organic, temporal, religious, etc). Some of them can give rather interesting weapon variants as well as racial bonuses from "super-buildings" which can be helpful and sometimes even very powerful, but none of them are so overpowering that everybody absolutely "must" select that trait or they will always lose to somebody who does.
Ships and Combat
Both ship design and combat are VASTLY improved over previous version of the game. In earlier games I always ran the strategic combat, tactical was just not worth the time. In Space Empires V, however, sometimes I'll run tactical not because I want to control the units but just because it's fun to watch. The AI is improved significantly as well, now ships can move and fight on their own with little or no orders from you. That's not always a good thing, because if the enemy scatters your ships will follow one single ship to its destruction and then turn as a group to attack the next closest (often running out of time in the process). I really wish that when you select a target for the enemy the auto-move would immediately begin moving
your ship towards the selected target
|Wipe Them Out, All of Them|
Sometimes an enemy planet just isn't worth capturing.
no matter what else might be around. Perhaps that will come out in a patch or a mod someday. Even with the latest patches if you want to be sure to clean up all the enemies ships you have to micromanage four or five different ships (or groups of ships, depending on the weaponry power you need, though this is more rare since it's usually the non-combat ships that flee rather than ships that could stand and fight) spread out over fairly large distances chasing ships that are doing everything they can to evade your pursuit. It can be a micromanagement hell in many ways, although the latest improvements do ameliorate the problem somewhat, but they also make it that much harder to kill off an enemy's units. Of course you can just let those ships get away since no victory condition *requires* you to finish off all enemy shipping. So despite the annoyance factor I have to consider this a minor problem, aside from which the combat and ship design are very well done.
|Blow Stuff Up|
The combat graphics are excellent and can be a lot of fun to just watch even if you just let the AI fight.
One especially neat feature of Space Empires 5 is the ability to place your components in specific positions. While the effect on actual combat effectiveness seems rather minimal at this point, this does play a huge role in the order components are damaged. Thus for a ship whose primary mission is to run away, putting less critical components (like sensors and supplies) to the rear and engines to the front may
mean your ship might outlast a more powerful enemy long enough to avoid destruction. Of course, being faster than the enemy is better whenever possible, but sometimes it is not, and sometimes a few extra seconds of survival means reaching the retreat point before the enemy destroys your ship. For a more defensive-minded ship (or base) you might instead put less critical components (ordinance and supplies, perhaps) in the outer hull slots and put at least some weaponry in the interior. With a few supply and ordinance components in the interior as well this would allow such a defensive structure to keep on firing up until it's about to be totally destroyed. Such an ability could be very valuable indeed if it manages to kill the last enemy in time, thereby saving your homeworld from destruction. Other than that, however, the actual component placement isn't terribly critical at this time, but the ship design is still very powerful even ignoring that bit of "fluff". What weapons you select to carry can make a big difference in the combat endurance of your ship. A weak weapon that uses a lot of ordinance might mean your ship can only fight a battle or two before having return to home territory for reordinance. A ship with low supplies can't travel very far before needing the same.
Placement of ship components can be fun and make at least some difference in combat.
Audio and Visual
Although the A/V in Space Empires 5 may not quite be up to the standards of fast-action FPS games and the like, compared to other TBS games (including its predecessors) the graphics are vastly superior to anything I've seen -- and surprisingly bug-free. Modders will have to work hard to improve on the stock graphics quality, although they will likely come up with many interesting skins and similar options. The audio, however, is not nearly as good, and surprisingly buggy by comparison, though far less so as an absolute standard. Music volume is difficult to control and varies wildly within individual tracks from excruciatingly loud to whisper-soft, making it nearly useless in my opinion. One ship passing through a warp point sounds kind of neat, 50 nearly wrecks your speakers by overdriving them. Ship destruction sound effects are spotty, sometimes they play, sometimes they don't. And the standard "bleeps and bloops" of clicking on various buttons and controls are of rather poor quality. Perhaps to some degree that's comparative, the graphics are SO great that the merely average sound effects seem horrible by comparison when they aren't quite so bad after all.
|Good graphics all-around|
Even the non-combat graphics are well done.
As mentioned earlier, Artificial Intelligence has never been a strong point of the stock Space Empires games. Space Empires V is better than its predecessors but it is still no genius, although it can be fairly nasty (if ploddingly simple-minded) if you give it huge advantages to work with. That said, I expect this problem to be quickly fixed by the modding community as they explore the scripted AI system added for this game.
Modifications have always been popular for Space Empires games, and SE V promises to be no exception. Even before the release of the game beta testers and others who managed to get preview copies were hard at work on translating some of their favorite old mods to the new game. Indeed one might actually say that the Space Empires games are almost a shell -- well written and well designed, but still a shell -- into which fans slot the data they want to drive their game. That's probably overstating it a good bit, but it's not entirely inaccurate either.
In recognition of this, Malfador has traditionally provided both lots of opportunities to mod the game and large amounts of support for modding. Previous games have even included a "modders guide" that listed every single file that could be modified and what each file was used for in the game as well as even what each data node controlled in a file. With Space Empires 5 a very basic version of this was included in the basic manual but the node descriptions are not yet available. Perhaps that will come in time; if it's necessary that is, as it is likely many of the nodes are the same from SE IV and StarFury. One very excellent feature which I believe is new to SEV is a much better debugger for the mod text files, syntax errors and such are specifically identified by file and line, making fixing such problems extremely easy. That won't help to fix mods that are syntactically correct but don't function the way they were intended, of course. Nevertheless this is something I wholeheartedly consider a major improvement and one I expect to be greatly appreciated by modders.
|Built-In Mod Support|
Play any mod with ease, even on a reloaded game.
Pros & Cons
- Large, sprawling tech tree that is also very deep
- Great customization options
- Easy to mod
- Greatly improved mod support
- Excellent graphics
- Fun and extremely flexible ship design
- Malfador has historically provided excellent customer support
- Relatively inexpensive
- Poor Stock AI
- Horrible Stock Sound/Music
- Micromanagement heavy
- Turn processing can be slow
The Bottom Line
I really feel that Space Empires V is a good game, despite an incredible level of micromanagement and almost an overload of detail in some areas. The "base" game is really well done, although the "subgames" of diplomacy and espionage are unfortunately extremely overcomplicated to the point of uselessness (unless you're an extreme die-hard or masochist). And it does suffer from numerous bugs, especially in the unpatched release version. This does detract a fair bit, but such is regrettably becoming extremely common in computer software. Given Malfador's traditionally excellent customer service -- over the years they created more than 90 patches for Space Empires IV, though not nearly all of those were public releases -- I expect the worst of the few remaining major bugs to be fixed in the near future with the minor ones following reasonably soon afterwards. Furthermore I expect the modding community to step up and provide the AI that the game lacks very quickly. Unless you absolutely hated the previous versions this one is worth a try, and odds are good you will at least like it even if you don't totally love it.
About the Reviewers
I've run this site since Leiavoia stepped down a few years ago. My taste in games is pretty specific: I've played lots of other games and types of games but my one true love is turn based strategy. Although I did play Space Empires IV some I never got into it all that much, so in many ways Space Empires V was a wonderful new toy for me.
Pentium IV 2.4 Ghz
1024 MB DDR Ram
256 MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5500
Running on Windows XP
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
1024 MB DDR Ram
256 MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5600
Running on Windows XP