Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords PC CD-ROM
Published by Paradox Interactive
Developed by Stardock
Release Date: Out Now
Galactic Civilizations II, an introduction.
Being a huge fan of turn-based strategy games I've become accustomed to waiting a long while between games appearing. In fact there's usually a gap of a few years between truly great turn-based strategy games. With Civilization IV arriving before the end of last year, the last thing I expected was to be playing another new turn-based strategy classic within 6 six months and yet that's exactly what I have been doing thanks to Galactic Civilizations II. Before I go much further though, I have to make one thing clear. Galactic Civilizations II (or GalCiv II as I will sometimes call it for brevity) isn't a game you can fully do justice in a review. The game is chock full of content and to keep this review interesting I've only picked out some elements of the game.
What's the game about?
The year is 2225 and mankind has branched out into the stars. The humans are not alone in space however, and there are a multitude of different races that, along with the humans, have their intentions and designs on supremacy. Some of these races are agreeable whilst others, like the Drengin Empire are downright barbaric and lust for conflict. Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords gives you the opportunity to control one of 10 different races (or customise your own race) and through conflict, economic success or diplomatic means you can claim victory over your rivals. The game is a huge, sprawling turn-based strategy game (of the 4X style) where you can create your own skirmish game (choosing from a multitude of variables) or you can jump straight into the campaign. Whilst the campaign is fairly good it's the skirmish (selecting New Game from the main menu) mode that's worth its weight in gold.
What's good about the game?
GalCiv II has many impressive qualities about it but what stands head and shoulders above everything else is the quality AI which will impress even the most experienced strategy gamer. When played on Normal difficulty (the fourth of eight available difficulty levels) or above, the AI is superb and is just like playing a human opponent who knows exactly how to pick holes in your strategy. Customisation is also a key word when talking about GalCiv II. When creating a new game you get to choose the galaxy size (ranging from Tiny to Gigantic, which will take many hours to explore), the number of habitable planets, the number of anomalies (which are similar to the goody huts in the Civilization games), and the speed of research. There are a number of victory conditions and you can choose to win combat, alliances or cultural influence if you wish. There are also a collection of start scenarios which pre-configure the settings. Even when you choose one of the 10 races to control there's a wealth of details that can be altered to make each race feel different. You can choose their special abilities and political alignments as well as the spacecraft types (there are 5 different ship styles in the game).
Having played the game six or seven times now I've been surprised at how different each game feels. The AI really does react differently to the given situation and whilst their attitudes are the same every time, the way your AI opponents make intelligent decisions and like to pick at your weak points is superb. If you don't defend yourself you're ripe for conquering. The AI constructs effective fleets and seems to avoid attacking when it knows you are stronger. The AI doesn't cheat though and is beatable providing you make the correct decisions and don't start to get sloppy. You'll also notice that the AI doesn't simply bunch up on you. The various AI controlled races have just as much disdain for each other as they do for you which is comforting. AI races will not always fight until they are defeated and will align themselves with another race that's more sympathetic to the cause rather than surrender to an enemy.
Of course there are other aspects of the game that are impressive such as the ability to build your own spacecraft. Even at the beginning of the game it's possible to build spacecraft that are more effective than the stock ones. As the game progresses you can build more advanced spacecraft and you'll have acquired more advanced technologies. Existing spacecraft can be upgraded too although doing this on a regular basis can prove very costly. Other aspects of the game such as planet development and trading have all been executed very well and help to deliver a satisfying gaming experience.
What's not so good about the game?
There's not an awful lot wrong with Galactic Civilizations II. In fact the few areas where I think the game could have been better could be interpreted as being overly fussy. I would have liked the Civilization leaders to have had more personality. What I used to love about Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was the how leaders has such strong personalities. I really loathed Sister Miriam Godwinson and couldn't honestly bring myself to play as The Lord's Believers. Likewise you had the smugness of Morgan and the aggressive Sheng-Ji Yang, not to mention the superior attitude of Pravin Lal. All these characters really added spice to Alpha Centauri and the leaders are quite generic in GalCiv II by comparison. The various technologies could have been more interesting too. Very often the next item on the tech tree is a slightly more efficient version of the previous with nothing special about it. The names are quite uninspiring too. Take the tech Titanium Armour for instance. The following tech is Titanium Armour II and after that Titanium Armour III. The difference being as you progress the armour will become lighter and more effective. The tech tree doesn't allow you to pick pre-programmed research patterns meaning you'll have to choose your next tech every single time which feels a little cumbersome.
How does it look?
For a turn-based strategy game the graphics in GalCiv II are absolutely fine. Although the graphics are in 3D the action plays out across the one plane. This isn't like the Homeworld games which truly were in a 3D environment but nevertheless it would have been impractical and cumbersome to employ such a system in GalCiv II. In many ways it's clear that the developers have been influenced by Civilization III and IV with how the game has been presented. The Trade screen for instance is very reminiscent of Civilization III which is no bad thing. During dialogue you'll see animated leaders that react to the flow of the conversation (which is all in text by the way). The spacecraft all look good, even when you zoom in really close. You can rotate the space map if you choose as well as zoom in and out. When zoomed out the map will substitute the planet and spacecraft graphics for 2D icons which allows you to easily see what everything is. This is very important on the larger map sizes.
How deaf gamer friendly is the game?
Deaf gamers won't have any problems with Galactic Civilizations II. The tutorials are delivered verbally but text is also shown for them, so you'll have no problems with them. The game has around 19 different tutorials which cover all of the game's various complexities so it's great that deaf gamers can benefit from the knowledge they impart. All the dialogue within the game is in text and information is displayed through a mix of text and icons so again there are no problems.
The last truly great space-based, turn-based strategy game was Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (back in 1999 if I recall correctly). Of course Alpha Centauri was based entirely on the Planet's surface and if you wanted a space exploration turn-based game you would have to go back to Master of Orion II. Since then we've had Master of Orion 3 and the original Galactic Civilizations. Master of Orion 3 was a big disappointment (we gave it a generous 6/10) and Galactic Civilizations showed promise but needed work. In essence then we've had to wait a heck of a long time for a space turn-based strategy game to really deliver the goods. Galactic Civilizations II does deliver the goods and whilst I personally think the game isn't quite up to the standard of the almost perfect Civilization IV, it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Master of Orion II, Alpha Centauri and Civilization IV. For turn-based strategy fans it's a must and whilst we are only in March it's already looking like Galactic Civilizations II is going to be the best strategy game of 2006.
Overall Game Rating: 9.2/10
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Galactic Civilizations is quite simply one of the finest turn-based strategy games you can purchase. It's simply a must own title for all turn-based strategy fans.