Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Galactic Civilizations II: The Dread Lords (or, how to build really, really pretty ships)

If you have always wanted to conquer the galaxy with large flotillas of spaceships (and had your hopes squashed by Rebellion), then Galactic Civilizations II: The Dread Lords is the game for you. This game has such a weighty name; you wouldn’t believe that it is such an interesting and epic strategy game. It sounds almost comically dark and dangerous. In actuality, Galactic Civilizations II (GC 2 from here on in, that’s just a huge name to write) is an extremely complicated 4X space strategy game, so-called because there are four main ways controlling the galaxy: expansion, exploitation, extermination and exploration. Sounds like fun, right? It is, and it’s a testament to how fun and deep this game is that I have played multiple campaigns, each of them lasting many hours (the longest one I finished after playing off and on for about two weeks), and the thought of starting up another game is still an exciting one.

When you start a game of GC 2, you have the option of picking from a number of preset races or of making up your own. The races run the gamut of societal values: warlike, trade-obsessed, robotic (and therefore logical), human, technologically advanced, etc. Despite this roster, I created my own race, and was delighted with the result. Not only could I pick how my race would be represented (slimy green guy or crystalline monster?), but I also chose the color scheme of my spaceships, the method of government I would start out with, and the various specializations my race would have (I chose to make them brilliant traders and economists). From here, you pick the number, type and skill of the various opposing space faring races. Then, you are dropped in on a galactic star map with a mother ship and a colony vessel, and the game is all yours.

From here, you will colonize planets, send out scout ships, research various technologies, manage each planets economy, and manage your entire civilizations spending and production in general. In fact, you can win by trading exclusively, researching the most technologies, making the most allies, culturally brainwashing enemies, or by simply blasting them to bits. There are a slew of options, from allocating various amounts of your surplus money to research as opposed to military production, to terraforming, to universal translators, to espionage spending, to trade and negotiation. And honestly, that is a miniscule fraction of what you could do. You can set up trade routes, you can build secret space stations behind enemy lines, and you can send invasion fleets to take over other planets.

Despite all of these options, not everything is perfect. Each tech tree (for each civilization) is exactly the same, so while you might research different stuff as opposed to what the Drengin Empire researches, you get the feeling you are all racing towards the same tech tress. Some variation in technology would have been nice (in the expansion, race-specific tech trees were added), as well as the condensation of some humongous tech trees

Speaking of fleets, GC 2 has what may be the most impressive ship designer ever created. Not only can you outfit each ship with the appropriate lasers, shields and the like, but you can customize the look and size of these ships to an absolutely ludicrous degree. I’m not joking when I say I spent as much time in the ship generator as I did actually playing the game itself. I made my own U.S.S. Enterprise, a Star Destroyer, and a Borg cube. The catalogue of ship parts and add-ons is immense. They might as well be limitless.

So, with all of these toys to play with, does GC 2 provide the player with an adequate set of opponents and interesting gameplay? First off, the enemy A.I. can be as easy as pie on the lowest settings. You’ll be pulling dodgy trade moves under their noses, and snapping up prime planet real estate without a problem. Turn up the difficulty, and you’ll be in for a rough ride. At higher difficulty levels, opposing races will expand at a lightning pace, drive cruelly hard trade bargains, invade your territory if you give them an opening, and in general make the easy setting look like a joke. This is perfect, because after a game or two on lower difficulties, you will want to face off against an almost human level of competency, and GC 2 gives you that option. Still the options for espionage are not too deep (you control how much you spend on spying, that’s it), and since mid to end game power is based almost entirely on how many planets you gobbled up early one, the first couple of hours of gameplay de-evolve into a mad rush for planets. If you don’t do this, you will lose.

Sound and graphics-wise, GC 2 is pretty enough with nebulae and strangely hued planets making the blackness of space slightly less black. Ships are pretty detailed (the game’s engine allows for an endless increase in polygon level, as long as you have the computer muscle), in fact the only complaint I have about the graphics brings up another problem: the ship battles are intensely boring. Basically, you watch your ships swerve around each other firing off unconvincing collies of lasers or missiles. I understand that victory is dependent on ship quality and fleet construction, but did the battles have to look so bad? There are only so many times I can watch ships explode in the exact same way.

There are problems with Galactic Civilizations II, but in the end it comes down to this: the game is huge, and most aspects have been developed to perfection, excluding a few shortcomings. The game is deep, involving, and fun, and the fact that I just won a game by creating a culture so powerful and influential that other planets simply up and joined me is a very cool and rewarding victory to experience. There is already a sequel out, and another in the works. If you want to throw away weeks of time with a truly epic space conquest, get this game.

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