Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Space Empires V Review

Space Empires V, developed by Malfador Machinations and published by Strategy First.
The Good: Tons of choices in ship design, diplomacy, empire creation, research, strategy, and more
The Not So Good: Complexity equals steep learning curve, unwieldy and outdated user interface lacks useful shortcuts to important information, early game exploring is tedious and boring due to excessively large maps, painfully slow pace, major alien civilizations start as hostile
What say you? Experienced players will appreciate the vast number of options, but most people will find it too tiresome and complicated: 6/8

Reports of the death of 4X space strategy games have been greatly exaggerated. While Master of Orion 3 tried to bury the genre, there have been numerous new released in the past year, including Galactic Civilizations II, Sword of the Stars, and the fifth iteration of the Space Empires series, coincidentally titled Space Empires V (an apparent combination of the game with aliens from the movie V). The Space Empires series appeals mostly to veteran strategy gamers, exhibiting lots of depth and options for expanding your budding empire. Will the new version of the game build upon previous versions, adding additional features while still keeping true to the spirit of the title?

While Space Empires V has taken the leap to the world of 3-D and it definitely looks better than Space Empires IV (an apparent combination of the game with emergency medical care), the game is less detailed than other space strategy games, such as Galactic Civilizations II. The planets and objects look fine, but lack the overall detail found in other titles. For example, the geometry of your ship does not change in the game if different parts are applied, unlike Galactic Civilizations II. More importantly, the user interface is outdated and frankly horrible: important things are buried within menus that take up the entire screen, even at high resolutions. Accessing frequently used data is way too difficult and requires much more clicking than necessary. Building queues for each planet are stored on a separate page; in order to access them, you must select the construction queue page, click on the planet, click on “add to queue,” then add things. Of course, you must repeat this process to remember what exactly you have queued at each planet. The problem with a game with this many options is making all of the pertinent information easily accessible, and Space Empires V fails at this fairly important task. The sound and background music are quite generic, and squarely fit into the “space game” classification. The music is not quite as memorable as other games of the genre, but it’s better than dead air. Space Empires V definitely looks and sounds like they were made by a small developer, and I wouldn’t have a problem with this if it weren’t for the cumbersome user interface.

Like most 4X strategy games, Space Empires V involves colonizing new planets, forming a military force, constructing resource-producing buildings, and kicking the ever living crap out of some aliens. The game features robust options for starting a new game, some of which we’ve seen before (map size and shape, general values for technology speed and starting resources) but others that are above and beyond other titles. Space Empires V has numerous options for customizing your empire, including name, physical type (insect, anyone?), native planet and atmosphere, government, society, initial technologies, and positive and negative traits. The tools available in the game let you come up with pretty much any type of civilization you’d want to play as (or against). Space Empires V allows for multiple victory conditions and multiplayer over the Internet or e-mail (an advantage over Galactic Civilizations II). Space Empires V has equal or better game customization options than other 4X strategy games, and as you’ll see, the flexibility of the game is its greatest strength and obstacle.

Unlike Galactic Civilizations II, Space Empires V restricts colonization to native planet types (at least initially; you can research to colonize more planets, but it’s super expensive). The best colonial candidates are those planets that have the same atmosphere and surface, but you can build on planets with incompatible air (at the cost of less building space). These restrictions also mean that most planets will not be useful for you, but they will be for the enemy, which can result in some interesting skirmishes in solar systems. Exploring is typically the least exciting portion of a strategy game and it takes an exceedingly long amount of time in Space Empires V. This is a result of the absolutely huge maps in the game (even using “small” settings), and scouring the depths of space looking for habitable worlds takes forever. Although you can construct your own warp points later in the game, maps can consist of literally hundreds of planets scattered over numerous solar systems, and since detection ranges of scout aircraft are small and each individual solar system is huge (no matter how large the galaxy is), it takes 5-10 turns to explore one system. Multiply this out and the beginning portion of the game, which should be quick and painless, is the definition of tedium.

After you have survived through the monotony of exploring the galaxy, it’s time to build some ships. Space Empires V features a ton of options for completing custom ship designs, where you place some required and optional components (living quarters, engines, weapons, cargo space) on the ship up to the weight limit for the hull design. This creates a lot of flexibility to create more defensive, offensive, or speedy designs; this might overwhelm the beginning player, but the game can auto-complete designs based on your current technology and what role you wish the ship would play. The game allows for multiple types of ships: colony ships, frigates, capital ships, satellites, drones, troops, fighters, and a whole bunch more. There are a number of facilities to create on each of your planets; these conduct research, extract and store resources, construct ships, transport goods, or grant bonuses. The three resources in the game (minerals, organics, radioactives) are used to construct and maintain your empire; it’s pretty easy early on to turn a profit (in fact, you won’t even have enough storage space for your excess resources initially) but as you’re empire grows larger, increased maintenance will become an issue.

New units, weapons, and upgrades are found through research, and Space Empires V has a large research tree. Unlike most games, you can conduct research on more than one topic at a time, dividing your funding over as many areas as you want. Most research topics have several levels that grant ever-increasing bonuses to your empire, and they can unlock more advanced options later in the game. The research tree is pretty linear and rarely does a future component require multiple prerequisites. Of course, all of this research and construction would be pointless without some enemy to worry about. Space Empires V’s diplomacy options are staggering and much more than a simple peace proposal or exchange of technologies. The treaty options are very inclusive: you can negotiate trade, cultural exchange, allowing migration, sharing sensor information, disallowing cloaking of ships, and more. The AI empires of the game come up with some semi-advanced treaties on their own, which is a nice touch. You can invest in spying on the enemy empires if you’d like to know more about them as well. Unfortunately, Space Empires V treats each newly encountered civilization as hostile instead of neutral, so your scout and colony ships will most likely be destroyed while exploring the universe. This is really annoying, especially for new players who are just learning the game. Can’t we all just get along? When you do engage enemy ships, you can play the battle from a strategic perspective (where you just watch the action) or you can control your ships in tactical mode. Simple commands, such as movement and weapon firing, can be given, but most of the battle plays out automatically and the battles are not that interesting to watch; I normally just skip through them. While Space Empires V has all of the right components of a quality strategy game, it may be too huge for its own good. It should be great, as it has all of the features you’d ever want in a space strategy game, but from the beginning of each game, Space Empires V is full of repetition and monotony; most people will get turned off before the game even really gets going. The slow pace of the game doesn’t help matters, as it can take several hours just to explore the entire galaxy. Issuing movement commands to units is not my idea of a good time. Space Empires V is definitely not a pick-up-and-play game, and you have to invest a considerable amount of time in the game to get to any sort of reward.

Space Empires V includes many more options than any other 4X strategy game, which works well for experienced veterans of the genre but not so much for new players. Even though you are given many options, the game is actually one of the most boring strategy game’s I’ve played; if it wasn’t for the completely monotonous beginning game, Space Empires V might be entertaining as a whole. This is one of those games that you want to enjoy, but it just isn’t fun to play. The overly large maps and user interface makes the game difficult to recommend to any player that isn’t passionate about 4X strategy games. I like all of the customization and strategic options present in the game (empires, ships, treaties), but I enjoy the flow and relatively quick tempo of Galactic Civilizations II a whole lot better. Space Empires V has all of the options and features you could want in a 4X strategy game, but it’s just too boring and repetitive for all but the most dedicated of players.