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PC Game Review: Galactic Civilizations II: DreadLords

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I used to be a gamer. I used to play some PC game just about every day, for an hour or two at least when time allowed. I enjoyed it, stayed pretty current on what titles were coming out when, snagged just about every demo out there, and felt that, while not as hardcore as some, I had my finger on the pulse of PC gaming. But I admit, I arrived on the scene late. I missed out on a lot of what are considered really classic games, and this is most pronounced in the turn-based strategy realm. I have never played a Civilizations game (though I have Civ III Complete), have never played a Master of Orion game (though I also have MoO II but have never played a full game of it), and probably have only played a handful of complete games of Alpha Centauri (loving every game of that one) and a handful of games of Galactic Civilizations (Windows version). So, when it comes to 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) games, I am very much a newbie.

[ADBLOCKHERE]Why disclose all of this? To put into perspective the following review. My hope is that someone who is new to 4X games, or even TBS in any form, can stumble across this and gain a perspective on the game from someone who is far from “hard core”. For you true hard-core 4X players, feel free to jeer and throw popcorn. But please, no tomatoes. I really hate tomatoes.

I followed the development of Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords with some interest, though it could be considered casual at best. Nevertheless, I had some idea of what to expect when it came to the game, having played and enjoyed the previous incarnation and its expansion pack. And when it came time for release, well, I decided to pre-order that game.

One of the many options presented when purchasing a game from Stardock is do you want the hard copy (actual boxed CD)? Or would you prefer to purchase the game electronically (with the option to pay additional shipping to get a hard copy or the ability to burn your own hard copy)?

Some people really love having the physical media, box and manual. I am generally one of them. However, I also really like the idea of online distribution. And that was how I opted to purchase Galactic Civilizations II. Digital distribution is accomplished via Stardock Central, a handy program that centralizes all Stardock software and allows you to easily select what to download and what not to download.

On the Gal Civ II forums there seemed to be some confusion about Stardock Central, but I found it to be very easy. To be fair, I have been using the program for a couple of years, so am comfortable with the mechanics of the program. It was a simple matter to select the game from the list of games I have purchases and hit the download button. A bit later, I had the game downloaded, installed and ready to run. This process was very smooth, with no issues seen on my end.

Selecting the game from the Start menu brings up the game launcher. From here you can easily select to launch the game, launch the game manual (in .pdf format), update the game or update your serial number. This seems the best time to mention one of the single greatest things seen in PC gaming in years: no copy protection. Period. None, nada, zip. There is no mistake about it, I find most currently accepted methods of copy protection to be incredibly insulting. Each game has a serial number, but unless you are going to download the game (for which you need the serial), you don’t even need the serial number to install the game. Once installed, no disc in drive, no CD checks, no SecuROM, no StarForce.

You do need a valid serial number to update the game and download bonus content, but the customer never is treated like a thief. Rather, once the game is registered with a valid serial, you have access to bonus content as well as Stardock’s famous patching. I have never seen a developer as responsive to customer feedback. Bugs are squashed and tweaks are made at an amazing pace. Honestly, in this day and age of invasive copy protection schemes, I believe this game deserves to be purchased on the merits of its anti-piracy methods alone.Once the game is loaded, the menu is simple to navigate and clear to use. Provided are a number of video tutorials. These are very useful to get the hang of navigating the various screens you will see in the game. However many of the complexities of the game, where you really could use a tutorial, aren’t adequately addressed. This is a game that would really benefit from a scripted, in game tutorial. But, I do appreciate the inclusion of these video tutorials. Also, one of the great things about the game is if you don’t want to install the tutorials, and save that hard drive space, that is perfectly fine. They game functions without these. Also, Draginol (aka Brad Wardell, the CEO at Stardock as well as the Designer and Project Lead for the game) has written up a good beginner’s strategy guide to help neophytes out.

Start a game and you are faced with what is, in my opinion, where Gal Civ II really shines. You are confronted with a host of different options. First choose the size of your galaxy, the type of victory possibilities you want, as well as other factors of the galaxy such as the number of planets, kind of star clusters, etc. This allows you to have the kind of game you want, from a fast, couple of hours game on a small galaxy, to a long, drawn-out game on a gigantic map (that will likely last days).

Next you get to pick your race. You can choose from one of nine default races, each with unique abilities, personalities, and attitudes (which will all affect how other AI players interact with you), or even create one of your own. Once you have selected your race, you can then even customize this further, by choosing special attributes and bonuses, your political party, name and appearance. Each one of the factors does have some influence on the game (with the exception of the appearance). Strategy is involved in every step.

Gal Civ II truly can become the game the player wants, and it can be very different each time you play. One of the most significant aspects of this is seen in the types of victory. You can choose the good, old-fashioned kill ‘em all conquest style victory, you can choose to exert your diplomatic muscle and form alliances with all the civilizations (or combine the two and kill off those who refuse!), you can research a tech victory, or you can spread your culture far and wide and convince the rest of the galaxy that you are simply too important for them to not accept your cultural dominance. And what is perhaps most important is that each of these victories is entirely plausible. In my time with the game, I have achieved victory with each of these methods. No two games are alike, and mixing up the victory styles can be very satisfying. Likewise, if you find one type of strategy isn’t working, all is not lost as you can redirect your efforts in another direction.

Two of the most important screens in the game are the research screen and the planetary management screen. Your victory or defeat can hinge on how well you manage these aspects of your empire. The tech tree in Gal Civ II is immense, with many, many paths to follow. Depending on what type of victory you are going for, you are going to focus on certain branches of the tree more heavily than others. However, neglecting certain aspects of your empire entirely will most certainly spell doom, so you do need some balance, especially early in the game. This is one area I feel could use some help. While the techs mostly have comprehensible names (thankfully!), it can be difficult figuring out how they are going to fit together in the grand scheme of things. Updates have helped this, with more information, particularly for ships.

The next screen you see is the planetary management screen. Here you need to plan what you are going to build on your planets and where. Usable tiles appear green, and the number of them reflects the quality of the planet. Yellow, orange and red tiles can eventually be upgraded to green if you research the required techs. One of the nicest things about planetary management in Gal Civ II is the ability to queue up whatever tiles you want at once. This allows you to get things in the cue and then step away. If you research techs that will upgrade currently built techs, “Governors” will automatically upgrade those buildings when possible. Both of these points help to streamline planetary management greatly and reduce the monotonous micromanaging of checking every planet every turn or two.

Okay, so let’s start playing the game. Once you have made it past those initial screens you see your home planet and the very near surrounding area. You have a couple of ships, one to explore and one to colonize. But you need to find planets to colonize first. Here is where the first X of a 4X game comes in: eXploration. Your survey ship can investigate anomalies that are around the board, with some surprises in store. The beginning of the game is really a race to churn out colony ships and find planets to land on, to help build your empire. This is, for me, one of the most frustrating and exciting parts of the game. I love finding a great 20+ level planet with my survey ship, sending a colony ship off to grab it, only to be beat out by the AI, by often only a turn or so. Okay, so maybe I don’t love that, but that initial land grab is certainly exciting.

Once all the inhabitable planets are snatched up, then it is really time to focus on maximizing what you have and working on your strategy. Resources are spread throughout the galaxy and can be mined with starbases to help strengthen your empire. These can be invaluable. Also, starbases can be built to extend your influence, strengthen any military units in the vicinity, and help to strengthen your economy. Appropriate management of starbases and resources can be essential to victory.

The 3D engine used in the game is really great, if you ask me. If you zoom in closely, things look detailed, sharp and very cool. If you want a more strategic view, just zoom out and get a good look at the whole picture. The engine scales immediately and smoothly. Once my empire is starting to spread, I spend more time out at the tactical level, zooming in for important events. Being able to move so smoothly from one to the other is a welcome addition that simply wasn’t possible in the previous incarnation.

When looking at the big picture, there may not be much to look at. But, hey, this is space, right? There is supposed to be a lot of empty, well, space. But zoomed in, explosions are colorful, planets rotate, ships move around and fire identifiable missiles or lasers, etc. And when looking at these screenshots, please realize you are looking at ancient hardware running the game (ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 with 64 megs). And things still look great and run extremely smooth.

Another aspect of the game that deserves particular mention is that of the ship-builder. You can completely customize your ship. See those little red arrows? You can stick something on any one of those. And just about everything you stick on a ship is going to add more of them. I am still a ship-building novice (as evidenced by the ugly behemoth I just cranked out for the express purpose of a screenshot), but there are some who are really taking this to a new level.

Just head over to the official site and be amazed by the work some of the players are doing. This feature alone is simply stunning, and is one area of the game in which you can sink way too much time. Not only do you get to place essential parts on your ship (weapons, defenses, etc.), but Stardock has given you a ton of zero space pieces of ship “jewelry” that you can add to your heart’s content. I think Stardock has even been surprised at the success of the ship builder. But it isn’t just for looks. Serious strategy comes into play in designing ships. If you have spied on your neighbors enough, you can build ships specifically to counter what they have. Just be fast in using them, lest the AI beat you at your own game.

Diplomacy is a central part of the game as well. You interact with the AI opponents, make deals with them, convince them to attack others, bribe them, muscle them into bribing you. Additionally, there is a United Planets that meets every so often, in which you get to vote on galaxy wide issues that can benefit or harm you. If you are muscling the rest of the group, you can be assured they will bring up an issue that will affect you the most and then vote against you. If they are in your good graces, they will often vote in such a way to help themselves and you as well. Diplomacy is key, it can make or break you.

You just can’t talk about a strategy game without mentioning the AI. In many games it really doesn’t matter. I mean, come on, in most shooters the AI is considered good if it doesn’t stand still while you blast it. But in strategy games you want a challenge. And let me tell you, at the harder AI levels it is challenging. Let’s just say I get my butt handed to me in a doggie bag.

The AI will be obsequious, snarky, aggressive, petulant, standoffish and sometimes downright funny in the way it deals with you, all depending on its relation with you and the its race. It will connive, scheme, trade, and wheel and deal behind the scenes to beat you. And it will do all that while not cheating. At higher levels the AI does get some economic bonuses, but it still has to play the game by the same rules. That’s it, they just have more money. This is one game where the AI actually feels, well, intelligent. I can’t give it any more of a compliment than that. It is excellent.

Final thoughts: I could keep talking about many aspects of this game, but I wonder how many even made it this far. So I will wrap up with some final thoughts. The music is beautiful. It is very well done and adds to the game. I love listening to it. The interface is very complex, as befitting a complex strategy game. But it is navigable and really feels intuitive quite quickly. The random events throughout the game add a lot, keeping you on your toes as to what will happen next and how you will use it to your advantage. I have already mentioned that I think the graphics are great and fit the game perfectly. Personally, I have found the game to be very stable, without a single crash of any sort. I have run into a random bug here and there, but they have been so minor, and have already been addressed by updates. You know the game won’t sit there with problems that just don’t get addressed, and as a customer, you will get much more than your money’s worth. But the real question is: How is the gameplay?

Brilliant. It is engrossing, exciting, engaging and way too addictive. This is one of those TBS games that just keeps you thinking “one more turn”, until suddenly you realize it is 4 in the morning and you need to get up in an hour or two. But what really tells you how great this game is is the fact that you don’t even care. You just keep playing. The humor, the strategy, the excellent AI, the multitude of options all combine to make Galactic Civilizations II the most fun I have had playing a game since Rise of Nations and Age of Mythology before that. That alone should tell you just how fantastic of a game Gal Civ II is.

Galactic Civilizations II: DreadLords is a rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Language, Mild Fantasy Violence.

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  • http://greenreaper.co.uk/ GreenReaper

    Glad you liked the game! Oh, and if you thought the AI was good already, wait until you try 1.1 . . . *grins*

  • http://progged.blogspot.com Progged

    Hey GR! Thanks for the comment. I have been following Brad’s commenst on the AI tweaking, sounds like it will be lots of fun.

  • Boogle

    I’ve always seen GalCiv as a rip-off of Space Empires. Admittedly, Malfador is taking their time in releasing Space Empires V, but it should outshine GalCiv II methinks…

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