Friday, May 16, 2008

Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor Review

Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor, developed and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good: Unique technology trees and buildings for each race, four game editors, automated custom ship design, more detailed graphics with better performance, insanely large galaxies, new campaign, improved AI, new music, a bunch of smaller stuff
The Not So Good: AI hates people going for an ascension victory too much
What say you? The swan song for Galactic Civilizations II is an excellent, feature-filled expansion that delivers more than most full-priced sequels: 8/8

Turn-based strategy games have a small, dedicated, rabid following on the PC. This goes for a number of other genres (racing and flight simulators, to name a few) as well, so while they might not have the sales figures that the carbon-copied, rehashed console games designed for 10-year-olds do, they are still popular if you ask the right people. A good example of a company that caters to this crowd is Stardock Entertainment. Their recently-released real-time strategy game Sins of a Solar Empire has overshadowed their strategy series that was first, Galactic Civilizations. The second and final expansion has been released for the sequel, titled Twilight of the Arnor, and it hopes to further enhance an excellent turn-based 4X experience. Does Twilight of the Arnor prove to be a fine twilight for Galactic Civilizations II?

Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor makes some slight improvements to the overall presentation. First, the default ship designs have been overhauled and include more detailed textures and animated parts for a more immersive feel. The game actually performs slightly better as the developers have altered the way textures are stored so the game uses less memory than before, so it has that going for it. Battles also have better weapon effects for more space-based destruction. I play from the zoomed-out icon view for the most part so I didn’t notice the enhancements for the most part, but people who like their strategy up close and person will be pleased with the upgrades made here. The sound has also been enhanced with some new songs that fit the game well; more variety is always better. You can’t ask for much more improvement in the graphics and sound of an expansion pack than what Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor delivers.

Since Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor is an expansion pack, this review will focus on the improvements made since the last time. First off, we get a new campaign. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of campaigns (the fact that Sins of a Solar Empire lacked one didn’t phase me) and the one contained in Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor is similar to the ones in past versions of the game: a series of skirmish levels with non-random galaxies and some text story to tie the mission together. It’s not the most intriguing campaign seen in a strategy game, but the additional content is nice. I like the fact that the campaign starts out relatively easy as the game does not assume you have completed the previous two campaigns. New to the series is the suite of editors that allow you to change pretty much everything in the game. Although some level of customization was present before (in the form of custom races), Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor lets you make your own maps, scenarios, technology trees, and planetary improvements. You can imagine that it won’t be long before mods that mirror notable science fiction series start to appear. Letting the user completely customize their gaming experience is great for longevity and the editors are a find addition. You can also use the new extremely large galaxy size “immense” (possible because of the performance increases) and play others in tournaments through the metaverse (the online scoreboard).

The biggest addition made in Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor is the unique technology trees. Before, the various civilizations were different only in morality (good versus evil) and color: everybody had the same ships, buildings, and research paths. While this made it easy to new players to transition from one race to another, the game tended to get repetitive after a while as the same strategy would work for all races. Now, every race (all twelve of them) has a drastically different technology tree that mirrors their overall theme. For example, the evil Drengin have an emphasis on weapons while the Thalan has a drastically reduced tech tree because they came from the future and thus know a lot already. Each race does share a lot of the basic techs, but you will find plenty of unique technologies for every civilization to take advantage of. This helps the game immensely as each side has a unique strategy. Included with these technology trees is unique buildings for each race, from the basic structures that are available when you start to more powerful versions further down the line. This addition is very awesome and well-done, providing twelve different ways of approaching the same game.

In addition to the standard array of victory conditions (research, alliance, influence) from previous games, Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor adds ascension. Here, you need to place starbases (using constructors) on several ascension crystals scattered around the map. Once you place one starbase, you are 1,000 turns away from victory and each additional ascension crystal cuts the time remaining in half. This is the worst aspect of Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor. You will probably reach one of the other victory conditions first (I almost always get an alliance victory first…I guess I am friendly) and all the ascension victory does is get everyone mad at you. Even if you are 800 turns away from victory, all of the AI players will hate you and relationships will deteriorate quickly. The AI puts way too much importance on an ascension victory, to the point where capturing two crystals is suicide. I don’t mind the other players ganging up on someone when 100 turns are left before the end, but the instant you have the most crystals (no matter how many turns are left), you had better be ready to take on everyone else as an enemy.

The ship designer is a big part of Galactic Civilizations II, as you need to incorporate newly-researched items into your designs to make your fleet as effective as possible. But wouldn’t it be nice if the computer did it for you automatically? Twilight of the Arnor does! Computer-designed ships are automatically created using the best weapons available, and they do a pretty good job incorporated the latest developments, even using incremental upgrades along the way. The computer designs don’t serve up the best variety (I’d like an all-offense, all-defense, and average design) and basic ships (freighters, colony ships, constructors) are never improved, but they are a good starting point for beginners. Speaking of ships, Twilight of the Arnor also includes the “terror star,” a slow-moving spherical monstrosity capable of destroying an entire system (I wonder where they got that idea from). Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor has smarter AI (yeah, like the computer opponents needed to become even more difficult) that will make you weep. Also, the budgetary requirements for colony improvements and ship maintenance have been drastically increased, making it much more difficult for smaller empires to afford a large military and lots of buildings. If you are preparing for a fight, you had better have a robust economy that can afford the increased ship count. Since you can very easily out-produce your income with ships, I’ve had to be much more careful with my money in Twilight of the Arnor than with previous versions, where balancing the budget or earning a hefty monthly profit was relatively easy. This means that small empires won’t get completely steamrolled and spies (they disable buildings) are even more important.

Simply put, if you have any version of Galactic Civilizations II (and even if you don’t), you need Twilight of the Arnor. The additions made here are far beyond what we see in most expansion packs, and the amount of content is more like a sequel. The unique technology trees alone would justify purchasing this game, as they add varied strategies for each race and increase replay value dramatically. But there is even more new content in Twilight of the Arnor: more detailed graphics and additional music, even better AI, and new game editors, just to name a few. There is really only one thing I hate (the ascension victory condition) and that’s because the AI overreacts to the side closest to victory, even if they are hundreds of turns away. But since you can turn ascension victory off, this is really a non-issue. The turn-based nature of Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor lets you experience the game at your own pace and the experience never drags since you can quickly skip through the boring parts, something that can’t be said for the first half-hour of Sins of a Solar Empire. As a whole, I like Galactic Civilizations II more, and it’s the best 4X strategy game available. If you have the original Dread Lords or the first expansion Dark Avatar, then Twilight of the Arnor is definitely worth it. If you are new to the franchise and enjoy 4X games like the aforementioned Sins of a Solar Empire but want more varied options, then getting the entire collection for $60 is a bargain considering the amount of replay value and content contained herein. Galactic Civilizations II: Twilight of the Arnor puts all of those repetitive sports franchises to shame with the amount of new, meaningful improvements it has. More than just a handful of new maps and a couple of new units, this is how expansion packs should be.