Thursday, March 08, 2007

Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar Review

Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar, developed and published by Stardock Corporation.
The Good: Improved AI that takes advantage of dual core processors, more customization options and lots of new ship parts, enhanced graphics, consolidated technology tree, additional diplomatic options including spies
The Not So Good: Add-ons won’t appeal to casual users, $30 for an expansion is a tad pricey
What say you? Lots of meaningful additions makes this a must-have for fans of the sequel: 7/8

While expansion packs have added more content to existing games, their relative value is sometimes questionable. Add a new campaign, a couple of new units or races, and maybe a new gameplay addition, and most developers will call it a day as they sleep on piles of cold, hard cash. Luckily, Stardock, the force behind the successful Galactic Civilzations series, strives to up the ante of the expansion pack with their addition to last year’s wonderful 4X space strategy game with Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar. In this review, I will assume that you are familiar with the original game, so if you are not, flog yourself immediately and then go read the review of the Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords to get you up to speed. We’ll focus on the improvements made on the base game in Dark Avatar and find out if Stardock has made enough additions to satisfy their legions of fans.

Unlike most expansion packs, Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar actually improves the graphics beyond adding new units. Almost every unit in the game has undergone a visual overhaul, with more detail in the ship design and explosions. Plus, Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar has added a whole bunch of new ship parts to the game for custom ship design along with having unique templates for each race (instead of three being shared between them). And if you zoom in far enough, you can actually see your ships orbiting planets. These kind of graphical enhancements are greatly appreciated, and because of the open nature of the graphics in Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar, the sky’s the limit. There is also some new music and additional sound effects, which goes even further for making Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar worth it.

So, what’s new? Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar adds a good number of things to the existing game, beyond the typical new campaign or race that is present in many expansion packs (although both are added here). I usually don’t focus on the single player campaigns, but Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar does offer up a new campaign for your enjoyment if you’re into more structured gameplay. I enjoy more open-ended skirmish matches, and the enhancements made here are appealing. First, your AI opponents are better. You can enable the AI to use more advanced strategies, which makes use of a dual-core processor. Finally it’s used properly! The AI is really good, and it’s probably the best of any strategy game. The fact that Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar does not have multiplayer doesn’t matter, because the AI players are probably better than you anyway. You can also design custom opponents and add them to the slew of existing (and two new) races. Each race also has a “super ability,” that will grant them a bonus in a certain area. This is meant to make each race more distinctive. For example, the Terrans are good at diplomacy and the Thalan produce units faster. Each of these advantages has a drawback, however. The super abilities are a nice addition, although it tends to make each race’s strategy a bit more predictable.

Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar has “borrowed” inhospitable planets from Space Empires V: half of the planets require a specific technology (which your race might possess at the beginning of the game) to colonize them. The effect of this new rule is an increase in multi-race systems, as somebody usually has the technology for all of the planets in the game. Because you are even more limited on your choice of colonizable planets, you’ll want to set the probability of good planets higher now. Except on hugh maps, researching the colonization techs is a waste of time, as you’ll be far behind in the other tech areas and someone will probably colonize the planet before you’re finished anyway. Speaking of technologies, the tech tree has been streamlined: a lot of repetitive techs (Laser 1, Laser 2) have been combined to make the tree smaller and more manageable.

Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar has added a new source of income: asteroid fields. A mining unit is sent to a field and constructs a mining base on it, which then beams resources back to a friendly planet. The further away the planet is, the fewer the resources, so most people will just end up mining asteroids in their sector. Resources don’t have a huge impact on gameplay, but the bonuses they provide can tilt a close game. Each game can also be subject to mega events, which are similar to the contextual events of Europa Universalis III. They are an optional addition, but mega events can make each game more unpredictable and subsequently interesting.

There are a couple of diplomatic additions to the game. The first is spy units, which are used on a specific building on an enemy planet, effectively shutting the building down. This is a neat addition to the game, as there is a sub-game of sending and killing off spies. Going after key enemy installations (those built on bonus locations or major galactic achievements) can damage their economy, as it will reduce some facet of their empire and require them to invest resources to recruit counter-spies. There are also new treaties available in the game that share income or research. These are strange as treaties are only unidirectional, meaning the receiving nation gets a boost but the donating nation receives nothing (other than improved relations); treaties are really just another diplomatic tool rather than a key strategy in the game. There are also a bunch of small balancing changes to the game that are not as evident but still enhance the game beyond the original.

For those people who play Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords extensively, Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar is a must-have title. Those people who only sometimes play the game won’t get as much out of this expansion pack, but the number of additions made in the game is still more than in most expansions. There is nothing in Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar that makes it required for owners of the original game, but the changes are notable and beyond what is commonplace in expansion packs these days. The game has gotten slightly more involved, with additional colonization concerns, diplomatic options, and sources of income. Despite this, Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar is still not overwhelming to play, and the amount of customization given to the user in creating new alien races and detailed ships is great. Some people will complain that there still isn’t any multiplayer, but I don’t care because the AI players are very competent. Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar offers more than the typical expansion pack, and fans of the series will be satisfied with its significant content.