Sunday, March 05, 2006

Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords Review

Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, developed and published by Stardock Corporation.
The Good: Lots of custom options, multiple achievable winning conditions, high replay value, custom ship designer, micromanagement can be eliminated, deep strategic gameplay, streamlined technology tree, AI opponents are very good and “fair”
The Not So Good: Steep strategic learning curve, no multiplayer, campaign is one dimensional
What say you? Strategy veterans will find plenty to destroy the remainder of your lacking social life: 8/8

Strategy games can be divided into several broad categories, one of them being the 4X game, where you explore (that one X), expand (that’s two), exploit (that’s three), and exterminate (yay!). There are many classic examples of these games, including Master of Orion, Civilization, Imperium Galactica, and Galactic Civilizations. Arguably, Master of Orion had the corner on the space 4X game (while Civilization takes the earth) until Galactic Civilizations was released for Windows in 2003 (it was released for the OS/2 in 1994, apparently). A small company made the original game and although it had really awesome gameplay (I constantly annoyed my significant other playing Gal Civ constantly), it lacked in the bells and whistles department, mostly due to its small development budget. There’s always more room for improvement, so Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords hopes to make some needed improvements to the original game and make the series competitive with the Civilization juggernaut.

Galactic Civilizations II has made some significant improvements over the graphics of the original game, and the end result is a very respectable looking game. Each of the planets is very detailed, rotating on their axis and possibly having a moon as well. The ships also look good, especially considering that you can customize the design of each of your vessels. There have already been some impressive designs using the tools included in the game by the users. Galactic Civilizations II doesn’t rely on cheap space effects to create an ostentatious galaxy; all of the maps look realistic and not overdone with nebula and background textures. The game zooms in for the space and land battles to show an up-close perspective of the carnage. The battles look good, but are not up to the level of cinematic chaos as Star Wars: Empire at War, although it can approach it with large fleets. The user interface is mostly easy to navigate; a lot of the most important information is available from the galactic map and assorted pop-up displays you can activate. Stardock uses its proprietary DesktopX engine to design the interface and make sure it appropriately scales with higher (and weirder) resolutions, instead of just making everything smaller. The game map also provides usable information from close and far perspectives. The graphics are certainly an improvement over the original game, but the sound is essentially the same. The sound does the job of serving up auditory clues of certain events and the catchy background theme (I occasionally hum the song, mainly to annoy), but not much else. Sound is never an area that is strongly needed in a strategy game, and Galactic Civilizations II does a good enough job so that the sound is not a hindrance to the game, but there is nothing memorable about the sound effects. Still, the game has made improvement over the original in the effects categories, so that Galactic Civilizations II actually looks and feels like a modern PC game.

Galactic Civilizations II features the sandbox mode (where most people will spend their time) and a ten mission campaign. The campaign is slightly story driven, but all the missions are military oriented, so there is not much variety. Considering that one of the highlights of Galactic Civilizations II is the multiple winning conditions to satisfy all kinds of players, this is pretty disappointing. Completing the campaign takes a while, mostly because the maps become really large at the end. If you are new to the game, you can watch the non-interactive tutorial videos that explain how to do most of the actions in the game. The problem for new players is that the tutorials explain how to do things, but not why or when to do things. Because of this, beginners must learn by trail and error, figuring out what do to mostly on their own. This is probably the biggest issue with Galactic Civilizations II: the game is a little bit hard on beginning players with its learning curve. Strategy veterans will not have as many problems as they can apply techniques learned on other games. Practice makes perfect, so as long as you’re not opposed to losing some games initially, you’ll do fine eventually.

One of the most powerful aspects of Galactic Civilizations II is the customization options when creating a new game. You can change pretty much everything when creating a new game, so playing a different game each time is a definite possibility. Not only can the map size be changed, but also the probability of habitable planets, stars, and anomalies. You can also speed up the game by changing the technology rate, so research can be completed more quickly. Galactic Civilizations II gives you the option of playing a scenario, which is a special set of initial conditions. Scenarios include an accelerated start, all technologies, slow technologies, taking on the Dread Lords, Good versus Evil, or conquering known space as a certain civilization. You can also pick from one of the game’s ten civilizations (in the original game, you were restricted to the humans) or create a custom civilization. Either way, you assign abilities to a large list of skills that provide your people with specific bonuses, such as improved defense, producing more military units, increased trade, or a bonus to tax revenue. You also choose a political party, which gives you more bonuses but only if you remain in power. If you have an advanced government type that requires an election and you lose control the senate (by having a low approval rating), you actually receive a penalty corresponding to the bonus the winning party provides. I knew I should have never given them the right to vote!

Another of the strongest points of Galactic Civilizations II is the artificial intelligence, which remains at the high level achieved by the original game. There is an advanced hierarchy of decisions that the AI can make, and the higher the level of the AI, the more advanced the choice. This is in stark contrast to most games, where high difficulty is made by giving the AI more money or letting it cheat (which is really cheap and insulting). The AI will exploit your weaknesses, form alliances to their betterment, and generally act like a real human. They also do no discriminate against you, treating you the same as all the other players. The AI can be turned down for beginning players so that they are easy to handle, but when the difficulty is turned up, the stakes are raised and they become very formidable enemies (or friends). The AI will actually insult you when they observe suspicious actions, like a whole bunch of ships arriving near their home planet. Reaching the myriad of victory conditions is very possible with the AI: I like to make alliances with as many as I can and then take out the rest through influence or military. It’s fortunate that the AI is so good, because Galactic Civilizations II doesn’t have any multiplayer. There is the Metaverse, where you can upload scores and see how you compare against other players, but that’s the most interactivity you’ll have with other people. Honestly, Galactic Civilizations II probably wouldn’t work as a multiplayer game anyway; turn-based games are difficult to implement online, and part of the fun in Galactic Civilizations II is spending 20 minutes designing your own spacecraft or delving into stacks of data to finalize your next move, and multiplayer matches really doesn’t lend itself to this kind of sporadic complexity.

The goal of Galactic Civilizations II is to dominate the galaxy, but not just through military means. You can win by taking over all the other civilizations, but you can also win by forming alliances with all the remaining civilizations, ruling the galaxy through your influence, or getting the top technologies. This means that any type of player can win at Galactic Civilizations II. I especially like the alliance victory; this means you can align with the most powerful civilization that holds your same beliefs and team up to eliminate the opposition. The galaxy is made up of several sectors that contain stars and planets. Unlike the first game, more than one civilization can have colonized planets around a single star, which can result in a dramatic tug-of-war for dominance in a local sector. There are no borders in Galactic Civilizations II: as far as the game is concerned, space is akin to international waters (now we can gamble!) and anyone can traverse through any sector. The galaxy is peppered with resources that provide bonuses (such as influence or economy) and anomalies that, when explored, can give small attribute increases. The first part of the game is spent finding suitable planets to colonize. Planets are rated on a scale that determines how many spaces they have for structures, ten being good. Some of the game is luck in finding the best planets early on, but a lot of this is negated later on with increased expenses coinciding with a large empire. A colony ship is created and then sent off to a prospective planet, spreading your righteous civilization throughout the universe. Manufacturing and research is conducted on your planets, where you build structures to increase attributes such as influence, food, and manufacturing rates. Food determines the maximum number of people that can live on each planet, so it’s important to save some building locations for future farms if you intend on expanding on only your existing planets. Each planet is rated according to how fast it can produce military units, structures, and research, and building appropriate buildings increases these rates. Maintenance costs prohibit most players from building all the structures on every planet, so some players will decide to specialize each planet to serve a specific role. Sometimes, there are special squares that provide large bonuses for constructing a certain type of building on that location, so that can determine what type of colony a planet will be.

Money is earned in the game though taxes and trade. Balancing you budget is very straightforward: your tax rate determines (partly) your approval rating, and you can also set the amount of money that goes into production and research. Ideally, you want your empire to be operating at 100% efficiency, but sometimes this is not possible if you need to have lower taxes for a higher approval rate. You can also set sliders to determine how much of your income is spend on building military units, structures, and research. Later in the game, a lot of income will come from trade with other civilizations. Trade is done by first researching trade, then building freighters and sending them to a distant planet. The trade is then automated and a set income is applied to your coffers. You can also earn money through tourism, which is directly related to how much of the galaxy is under your influence. This is a really neat idea that rewards players going for the influence victory.

Speaking of the influence victory, influence is calculated from your civilization’s population, bonuses, technologies, and influence-related projects. Planets can become yours without even firing a shot: if a colony is in an area where the influence is four more times than the influence it generates, it switches sides. As you can see, this makes a non-military victory a viable alternative. Another victory condition is technology, and this is reached by conducting research. Galactic Civilizations II has a very streamlined technology tree, unlike a lot of games (namely Civilization IV) where one future technology requires four or five older technologies. Most techs in Galactic Civilizations II have just one prerequisite, which makes determining how to proceed with your research that much easier. It is difficult, however, to determine the requirements for various kinds of units in the game. For example, if I wanted to make a Battle Axe, I would want to know what I need to research in order to get it, but the game is less than forthcoming about this information. It seems that the best way to conduct research in the game is to concentrate mostly on the techs for the kind of victory you are trying to achieve (for example, research diplomatic technologies for an influence or alliance victory). As for the weapons and defense, I arbitrarily pick a type of weapon to concentrate on (they all cause the same damage) and then try to figure out (through espionage or seeing what they’ve researched) what the enemy is using and research the appropriate defense. When you research the larger ships, you can include more than one type of weapon (harpoons plus singularity drivers) to confuse and destroy the opposition. Suckers! For having such a large technology tree, Galactic Civilizations II makes it as simple as possible to navigate through the maze of technologies.

Unless you’re playing with yourself (he he!), you’ll need to interact with other civilizations at some point during the game. This is done through the diplomacy screen, which is a straightforward screen where you can request and send pretty much anything you’d ever want: money, treaties, units, technologies, and planets. The game gives a clear indication of whether the AI civilization will accept your proposal (by displaying a green or red text message), which is greatly appreciated. The AI are not stupid negotiators and will not accept lopsided proposals or give up technologies that they deem really advanced, just like human players would. You can learn more information about the enemy by spending some money on espionage; this information is very useful in determining what kinds of military units they are building so that you can construct appropriate counters. Making close friends in Galactic Civilizations II is much harder than the first game: before, you could just throw money or technologies at them and they would join an alliance. This time around, you must impress them over a long period of time by conducing profitable trade, fighting their enemies, and having the same ethics. Based on decisions you make during the game, you civilization can be good, neutral, or evil. These decisions come from random events; typically, the good option costs money and the evil option is best in the short term. It is easier to conduct diplomacy if you are a good civilization, however, so players attempting that kind of victory should be wary of giving in to the dark side. Each ethical alignment does come with certain bonuses: good civilizations are less likely to defect, neutral civilizations have more content citizens, and evil civilizations can siphon money from trade routes, just to name a few. Just to complicate all the diplomacy matters further is the United Planets, which votes once a year to institute some sort of galactic law. The number of votes is proportional to the amount of influence you have. Agreements usually deal with a tax on certain things or outlawing something, typically a way to screw over the most dominant civilizations. Thank you very much, democracy.

Obviously, Galactic Civilizations II wouldn’t be much of a space game if it didn’t have any ships, so Galactic Civilizations II has ships. A large difference from the first game is that you can now customize your ship loadout and design. As you progress through the technology tree, small improvements in weapons, defenses, and shields will be discovered. The game won’t upgrade your ships by default, so you’ll need to design a custom ship (or upgrade an existing ship) fitted with all the latest technology. This is actually pretty fun, as the game allows you to attach a lot of pieces to the craft to make each ship look unique. As I mentioned earlier, this can result in some spectacular designs if you invest enough time into it. The game has three types of attacks and three defenses for each attack. The game does come with the default ships that we saw in the last game, but in order to get the most out of your research, you’ll need to upgrade your ships. Better techs of a certain type (like Stinger III vs Stinger II) take up less room on your ship so you can cram more stuff on it, and a new weapon has one more hit point it can deliver in a nice little package for the enemy. Generally, ships have specific roles (according to the modules attached to them), such as explorer, scout, fighter, colony ship, or constructor. Constructors are used to create starbases, which are important later in the game once all the available planets have been colonized. Starbases can be constructed anywhere on the map, and can serve a military, influence, economic, or resource gathering role. Constructors are expensive to build, which cuts down on the amount of starbases on the map (thankfully), so choose your locations wisely. As for your military units, they can now be organized into fleets, the size of which is determined by your researched logistics level. Fleets have the advantage of attacking all at the same time, essentially adding their attributes together. This is important because before, ships attacked one at a time, even if you had a large stack of units at a single location. Fleets makes it possible to destroy more powerful single units with a fleet of smaller but more numerous units. Fleets are also treated as one unit, so moving around endless stacks of units like in other games (namely Civilization IV) is not a problem. When ships do attack, combat is automatically conducted (this is not a tactical game), but you can watch the action unfold and cry as your precious little planes explode. Once you have successfully crippled your enemy, it’s time to invade. Planetary invasions are conducted by researching the appropriate technology, building a transport, and sending it over to an undefended planet. The invasion is automatically conducted (this is not a tactical game) and a winner decided. Planetary invasions are not my favorite aspect of the game, because you need a whole lot of troops to invade an enemy planet, sometimes four or five separate transports (of course, you can fleet these together). It just seems like too much work to get rid of an obviously inferior opponent. Of course, this means that planets will not be changing hands back and forth during the game (unlike Civilization IV). Did all of this sound like too much to keep track of? Thankfully, there are governors in the game. They aren’t really AI, just specific instructions on what units to build and where to send them once they are done. This makes handling a large empire easier, but you can still manage each planet individually if you’d like.

You can usually tell how good a game is by how long my review is. As you can see, Galactic Civilizations II is pretty great. The game makes enough improvements over the original to warrant buying this version if you have the original, and it presents a lot of strong strategic gameplay for all players. Galactic Civilizations II prides itself on its customization and AI, and both of these are in full force. Add in multiple winning conditions to fit all playing styles, the custom ship designer, and a streamlined technology tree, and a very complete strategy game results. Galactic Civilizations II is not the easiest game to learn for newcomers to strategy games, but you’ll learn the ropes eventually. People might complain that there is not any multiplayer, but the game wouldn’t be as fun and wouldn’t be able to include all of the same options. Plus, I’d rather have an awesome single player experience than half-assed single and multiplayer modes. There will probably be a lot of comparisons made with Civilization IV and people wanting to know which is better. Since I’ve played and reviewed both of them, I’ll offer my opinion. I think that Civilization IV is geared more towards beginners and Galactic Civilizations II is for advanced players. Civilization IV is much more approachable initially and newbie-friendly, but Galactic Civilizations II has many more options that more experienced players will appreciate. Galactic Civilizations II gives you the freedom to play the game the way you want it. Civilization IV has multiplayer, but I was never a fan of playing turn-based games online anyway. I see myself playing Galactic Civilizations II more in the future than Civilization IV, mainly because I am an experienced (although perhaps not good) strategy gamer and I like all the custom options that make the game different each time. So go out and buy Galactic Civilizations II. The Dread Lords are waiting to fry your brain with their giant lasers.