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Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Timely Review of Galactic Civilizations II

While strolling through Wal-Mart recently, I found a heavily discounted copy of the Galactic Civilizations II:The Dread Lords Collector's Edition hiding behind a stack of copies of Ford GT Racing Unlimited (bleech). Since GalCiv II has received a bundle of awards, including an Editor's Choice award from Computer Gaming World and GameSpot, I naturally snapped it up.

As I've discussed previously, I'm a big fan the space strategy 4X genre. So, I had purchased the first GalCiv game with high hopes, especially since it got some really glowing reviews. Although it had some good ideas (like the dual military/social production queues, something which really, really, really needs to find its way into Civ IV) and the AI was quite good, for a variety of reasons (too many to go into detail here) I really didn't think the game was that fun. Ultimately, Master of Orion II found its way back onto my hard drive, and I was kind of leery of GalCiv II.

So, I'll just get this out of the way right off the bat: I played both games extensively, and GalCiv II is a dramatic improvement from the first game. It's a fun, highly balanced and replayable strategy game.

The galaxy that you play in is completely customizable; you can have the star systems clustered into arms like a spiral galaxy or more evenly distributed (MOO-style) in a globular cluster type formation, and you have a lot of control over the attributes of your civilization and the strength of your opponents. I liked being able to set how your opponents felt about you. I'll note at this point that I've only played it in sandbox mode and haven't tried the story-drive campaign mode yet.

However, the biggest single improvement is the fully scalable 3-D window showing the disposition of colonies, ships, fleets, and starbases in your galaxy. Amazingly, it's completely functional while zoomed all the way out--there are well-thought out symbols that instantly indicate what you're looking at (it looks a lot like the tactical display in Harpoon, actually). But when you zoom in, you see beautifully textured planets, plus wonderfully rendered starships and starbases with nebulae and stars in a nicely layered background. You can actually see continents on Earth, for example, and there's even a little Moon that's in orbit around the Earth, passing into and out of the shadow. The transitions between the "Harpoon view" and the "eye candy view" are spotless. It's gorgeous, and although it's 3-d, it works really well even on my little Inspiron. In fact, the hardware requirements for GalCiv II are completely reasonable; the game runs very well on my little Inspiron, although it has had some trouble in late-game situations in Huge galaxies with abundant habitable worlds [Quick side note: The completely reasonable hardware requirements of GalCiv II, which like Civ IV is an epic turn-based strategy game running a 3-d engine, shows pretty definitively how absolutely ludicrous Civ IV's hardware requirements are....].

Which brings us to the starship designer, which is almost a game unto itself. You can spend hours twiddling with all of the various configurations available to you. This part is actually very similar to Simon & Schuster's Star Trek Starship Creator: You pick a hull, then you select the components to kit it out and attach them to hardpoints on the hull. The Collector's Edition includes a lot of new components for the ships, and endless configurations are possible. I managed to make a reasonably decent approximations of both an Imperial Star Destroyer and the USS Enterprise, which was neat. Definitely a highlight of the game. You can watch the battles that unfold in 3-d mode, but unfortunately the rumored 3-d tactical combat mode was removed from the game in preproduction. I gather it might appear in GalCiv III.

The planetary management view has been significantly improved as well: Unlike other 4X games like GalCiv, MoO II, Birth of the Federation, or Star Wars Rebellion, where you're essentially building Civ-style cities in space, the planets in GalCiv II feel, like, well, planets. You see a nice randomly generated texture map of the planet (which matches what you see in the big 3-d view) and you select where you want to put individual improvements. Certain tiles have special bonuses, such as Precursor ruins (A nice nod to Star Control! In fact, like GalCiv, this game is full of tongue-in-cheek references to other works of science-fiction) relics or fertile farmland. The dual production queues are thankfully still present.

Managing your civilization is also very well done: You can instantly determine the status of your colonies using the spiffy "Colony Management" screen (which would be an excellent template for replacing the useless city advisor mode in Civ IV, hint, hint...). You can also issue blanket orders for unit production using the "colony governor" screen, which is handy.

Diplomacy features a Civ III- style diplomatic table with a complete range of bartering options; not to sound like a broken record, but this is the diplomatic interface that Civ IV should have had. The AIs are smart, and present a challenge even on the lower difficulty levels.

I'll also give Stardock a special kudos for their excellent support of the game; they issue frequent patches. Plus, the game isn't protected by any sort of dubious, StarForce protection scheme that inhibits CD player functionality or causes the computer to crash, and registering with the serial number is optional (although it's worth it, because you get access to some nifty goodies). It's a refreshing change that I hope other developers emulate.

There are still some problems with the game, although for the most part they don't interfere with the fun to a large extent. First, although there's a colony governor screen, it's just used to issue blanket commands to all of your colonies. GalCiv had a MoO-II style system of installing leaders of colonies to manage production which is completely absent (or just buried enough that I couldn't find it) from GalCiv II. As is typical for 4X games, without some system of autonomously running a most of the colonies the late game can get kind of twiddle-intensive.

Second, managing colony and constructor ships is still twiddle intensive; the hotlink that supposed to show you the list of your colony and constructor ships doesn't do much, so it's hard to see where your colony and constructor ships are, not to mention where they're going.

Third, I was personally quite annoyed that they divided the functions of the starbases into four separate classes (military, influence, mining and economic) starbases, each of which has their own improvement tree requiring the use of constructor ships. This is the only case of a regression from GalCiv: Starbases just aren't fun anymore. I can see why the designers did this (in GalCiv, the planets were virtually secondary to the powerful starbases), and I don't necessarily disagree with their reasoning. But, after trying it, having four separate kinds of Starbase doesn't actually improve the game. It only adds more twiddling. My solution: I only built the mining and influence starbases.

Fourth, there's no way to upgrade classes of starship directly from the upgrade screen (at least, I couldn't find it). Instead, you have to find an individual from the class of ship to be upgraded, double click on it, hit upgrade, then check off "upgrade all ships in class" and hope you have enough money to cover the bill. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that there's an upgrade function, but wouldn't it have made more sense to just let you do a blanket upgrade from the shipyard?

Fifth, there's currently no multiplayer mode. I gather that originally this had been scheduled to be added in a patch, and then was dropped entirely. Here's hoping it shows up in GalCiv III.

Finally, and most importantly, the technology tree is an absolute mess. You hear frequently (and incorrectly) that SMAC had an incomprehensible tech tree. That's absolutely untrue, but I suspect that even the most die hard hater-of-SMAC would freely admit that GalCiv II's tech tree (despite the big poster that comes with the Collector's edition of the game) really is incomprehensible. The names (like Laser 3 and Shields II) really don't tell you much about the technology you're researching, and the entries describing the techs do a perfectly awful job of both describing the technology and illustrating what you'll get out of the research. There's no Civ IV-style "Galactopedia" (there is a user mod that adds something like a Galactopedia, but you have to Alt-Tab out and the game isn't fond of Alt-Tabbing). They really need to simplify the tech tree, too: The one time thus far I researched the ultimate technology victory, I was only halfway through the tech tree for the weapons and the shields! This is one area where GalCiv II really could use some improvement, quickly. Fortunately, a Galactopedia functionality is on the list of things that will be included in the expansion pack.

However, when you consider the total package of GalCiv II, this is easily the best space conquest game since Master of Orion II. In many respects, it's better than last year's Civilization IV, and it's my favorite strategy game of this year thus far. I heartily encourage both fans of 4X games and strategy gamers in general to run out and grab a copy, if they haven't already. You won't regret it.