Reviewed: June 23, 2006
Released: February 21, 2006
So there are these ancient space faring empires, right? One of them wants to live in peace and harmony, bringing more civilizations into the fold through enlightened discourse, helpfulness, blah, blah, blah. The other, of course, is bent on nothing less than bloody domination and burning entire planets Ė you know, as an example. Well one thing leads to another and just as both sides are about to get down to it. Suddenly they vanish.
Fast forward a few millennia and humanity has just joined in the whole galactic community bit. Species meeting and trading, warring and negotiating, etc, etc. Hyperdrive has just been invented, so get out there and start having fun. Otherwise youíre likely to be crushed in the land rush known as Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords.
Itís always kind of weird talking about game play with strategy games like Galactic Civilizations. Honestly there isnít much ďplayĒ to the game in an action sense. You point your ships in a direction and off they go, or say that a certain structure should be built on a certain part of the planet. It isnít much different from any other game of its type though; basically youíre playing a glorified spreadsheet with some pretty pictures.
Of course you donít play Galactic Civilizations for white knuckled action any more than you play chess to see a bloody good regicide. Galactic Civilizations is more about out-thinking your opponent, so the real question is, how good a galactic dictator would you be? Me? Iím all for conquest over the ashes of my opponents, but that doesnít always work. Sometimes the spineless worms sue for peace, or surrender to my enemies, or sometimes they are actually more powerful than I and then I have to form alliances (booooring). Ultimately though, Iím just not very good at the whole thing, so that may color the review a little. Apologies beforehand.
As mentioned before Galactic Civilizations is basically a spreadsheet with pretty pictures, the good news is that Stardock has gone to great effort to streamline things as much as possible. I mean, sure, if you want to go to every planet every turn something is completed and micromanage the galaxy then you can do that. If youíre more like me though you can simply queue up what you want to be built on the planet and let the digital citizens take care of the rest. While the serious armchair generals out there may say that my way isnít getting the most out of the game, it works just fine.
The interface to the game is pretty slick too, not very obtrusive, and itís fairly easy to work your way through it. Most everything is intuitive, the only real problem I had was that the screen where you can opt to buy something rather than let it be built over time had the ďacceptĒ button on the lower right. I never accidentally clicked on it, but I just always thought that was the ďcancelĒ button rather than the ďacceptĒ. A small complaint in the grand scheme of things Ė but hey, if I didnít nit pick, I wouldnít be a reviewer.
My big complaint though, and I suppose this would make it a different genre of game, is that I canít actually control the space combat. While it is nice to be able to actually see my hand crafted ships blow the opposition to so much space debris I find it frustrating that I canít actually have a hand in what happens. Combat is all math and no fun.
Ok, so I lied, I have two big complaints. The first is that mentioned above, the second is that while it was nice that there is a campaign mode included where there is an actual story to the game, when the AI is nearly impossible to beat that sort of removes my desire to play said campaign. The campaign mode starts off easy enough, but about three levels in an ancient race of unfathomable power has been released upon the galaxy and you have to fight a holding action until you can find a way to defeat them.
Think something like youíve been fighting with a bunch of kids your age and holding your own when one of the other kids brings in a squad of fully armed Navy SEALS who have been eyeing this particular playground for years now and youíve got the nail in about the right place. Also, the tech trees are restricted in the campaign mode, so maybe its more like you have to fight the SEALS with one hand tied behind your back. In the dark. They have night vision goggles too.
Otherwise the single player mode is fun, engaging, and can be built to challenge whatever skill level you happen to be. The scaling aspect to the game is probably one of its strongest features. Not only can you scale difficulty, but also as mentioned above, how hands on you are when running your conquest, and in building your fleets. There is a wide range of stock ships available to build when you have all the technologies necessary to build them, but if youíre looking for something a little more exotic then hit the shipyards and design your own vessels using all the parts you currently have available.
This interface is very slick as well, with a quick and very easy to use method of slapping parts onto ďhotspotsĒ on whatever hull you are currently building with. As with everything else in this game its intuitive, user friendly, and fun to play around with.
The ďpretty picturesĒ part of this game lives up to its name, too bad for the most part you donít get to appreciate them. What is a real bonus as far as ease of use is concerned is that the game is mostly played with icons. In other words, you scroll out far enough and instead of looking at a bunch of really small planets and really small ship graphics you look at simple icons for planets depending on who owns them or what quality of planet they are and different images for ships. At a glance you can determine the basics of what is happening on any part of the screen.
The down side is that you are playing a game that looks like something that came out with the Atari 2600 almost. This is unfortunate because if you scroll in you get beautifully rendered planets, brilliant suns, and ships that look just like you designed them. Admittedly you can scroll at will with a simple roll of the mouse wheel, but Iím a busy galactic overlord, I donít have time to stop and smell the roses (Sshhhhhhhhh, I know itís a turn based game and I can take all the time I need, but youíre ruining the mood).
The few cinematics that I ran across were very well done, with smooth video and some nice special effects, as you would want in any space epic. Maybe no one can hear you scream in space but they sure can appreciate you blowing up pretty. The same can be said of the combat seen in the battle viewer. Sure the ships just sort of meander around the combat area and fire every few seconds. It isnít the most graceful of displays, but a lot of flack can get thrown around and with three different weapon types youíd almost think youíve opened a box of Lucky Charms and that wee little leprechaun was in the middle of a firefight.
A good soundtrack is something that is often overlooked in gaming, so itís always nice when you get one. While Galactic Civilizations II presents a very limited selection of tracks, what is there is gorgeous, very much in line with Halo or Advent Rising in terms of sort of nebulous haunting vocals and orchestral back up. It does a wonderful job of setting the mood. Each species has its own theme, which plays whenever you go to talk to them. It gives just that extra spot of personality that is necessary since there arenít any voice actors, and, honestly, Iíll take good background music over bad voice acting.
The only thing thatís bothersome about the sound is that the mix is a little weird, as combat on the galactic scale is pretty quiet, but once you go down to planetary invasion it gets a lot noisier. Otherwise the sound effects arenít annoying, and even if you insist on authenticity, I still prefer it when things make noise despite being in a vacuum.
I didnít time it out, but I probably spent 12 hours or more on one ďsandboxĒ game alone. The amazing thing is that even if I had exactly the same parameters for the game at the outset it would still be completely different. Now if you include all the variables you can throw into the set up: galaxy size, abundance of planets and stars, intelligence and number of your opponents, speed of technology increases, etc, and you have a game that plays pretty much as long as you are interested in playing.
The customization doesnít stop there either. You can build custom scenarios, play online, and there is even the single player campaign mode if you feel your ego needs a little trimming.
If you are into strategy games then Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords is right up your alley. Vast customization and randomization features ensure that youíre not going to get the same game twice. It is the definition of value in gaming as far as Iím concerned even if youíre not completely sold on the genre.
Dread Lords isnít a game thatís a must have for everyone, but itís a very strong title, especially from a completely independent company.