Review by clowning

"Master of Orion's little brother"

Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate (4x). This is what Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords is all about; a turn-based science fiction galaxy conquest game in the style of the great classic franchise, Master of Orion. Since buying it, I have logged far too many hours late into the night playing it, but the many hours have taught me a few things about this game, both good and bad.

The non-essential aspects of the game are its graphics (not to be confused with interface and presentation) and the music and sound effects.

Graphically, the game looks nice, though a bit dated. Planets do not orbit around their suns, but moons do orbit around their planets. While the galaxy map is actually played on a 2D board, it is transparent and has some background artwork mimicking deep space and stars, so it looks "deeper" visually than it really is.

The interface is not too big, very clean, and tells you pretty much what you need to know. It has a mini-map and getting to any piece of information you need in the game is only a button or two deep, so there is no need for deep drilling activities to get to custom ship building screens or anywhere else.

Controls in the game are also pretty straightforward, though I did notice some problems with ship selections after breaking up a fleet or a stack of ships where the ship that was highlighted when I gave it a command move was not the ship that moved. Not a major problem, but it does require selecting a ship that is already highlighted and LOOKS selected.

The Music in the game was mediocre, I thought, but of course, this is a subjective comment. Comprised of several theme pieces, some I liked, some I thought were terrible, but again, that's just a matter of taste.

The sound effects are nothing special. They are not bland or bad, but laser blasts or whooshes from missile launches and explosion sounds are not all that exciting, even if they are good quality, which these mostly are. A pleasant female voice takes you through a few tutorials to teach you the controls.

The game play is a mixed bag of good ideas well implemented, missing features, a solid AI as far as I could tell, and some outright uninspired aspects. The game plays out on a turn by turn basis. Basically, you tell your planets what to build, tell your ships and fleets where to go, then hit the "turn" button and your commands are carried out simultaneously with the AIs'.

Perhaps the best feature in this game, is the ship design. It is an excellent design system where you select a hull covered in hard points to which you can affix various components. Some components are just for looks, and have hard points on them as well. Examples are wings, fins, pylons, and more of various styles and looks that can give you quite a range of ship designs in terms of the ship's appearance. All of these components (as well as weapons, engine modules, etc.) can be "sized" using a slider that has convenient tick marks to help you keep things equally sized relative to one another. None of these cosmetic alterations affect the ships size class (tiny, small, medium, etc) nor do they take up space, so you can do pretty much whatever you want. Weapons, engines, defense systems and so on, do take up space, and these are attached to the hard points just like the cosmetic components. If ship design interests you at all (like it does me) you can easily spend a lot of time on the design page, especially at first as you learn all the things you can do.

You can also design your own custom race, if you would rather not use one of the existing races in the game. The galaxy in which you play is also malleable, and you can control star density, galaxy size, planet density, tech research rates, and more.

The game also has other features one would expect of this type of game.

Diplomacy screens allow you to invest in espionage, trade tech for tech or money or systems, form alliances, demand others attack someone else and sue for peace. You can build various types of space stations (War, Economic, Influence) to support your colonies, your ships, or to spread your culture to other races in an attempt to convince them to "see the light" and join your side. You can also mine resources found basically floating in space. You can invade planets, build up colonies to engage in research and construction, build special structures that have effects ranging from diplomacy and cultural influence bonuses, to ones that improve your soldiers' combat skills or your ship hit points. And, of course, there is a research tree where you can research weapons, defenses, diplomacy, economics, etc. All in all, a solid game that has all the basic features of planet colonization, development, and war, be it a cultural, diplomatic, or military war.

Despite all of these excellent features, some are lackluster, while some features are not present at all.

Take the espionage system, for example. All you can do is invest in it on a per race basis. You do not build an intelligence community, nor can you use your spies to do things like sabotage. All you do is invest money every month, and over time, you reach higher and higher tiers of intelligence in that one race, opening up ever greater access to information about that race. At the highest tier, your spies will on occasion steal a technology for your empire. It's not really bad, it's just not entirely complete, feeling more like an add-on than a fully fleshed out system, especially given the excellent ship and race design systems.

A feature completely missing is the ability to breathe life into and colonize "dead" planets. Depending on the game settings for any given map, you will have more or fewer planets that are uninhabitable. Depending on your settings, you may have many star systems filled with nothing but dead planets. These planets cannot be colonized or mined, they cannot be terraformed with the terraforming technology. They might as well not even exist, because they are 100% useless in the game except as something to see.

The tech tree is enormous, but is rather dull and uninspired. Some things are just dull by nature. For instance, researching beam weapons is researching beam weapons. You miniaturize as you develop the technology further, you make more powerful ones, etc. Unfortunately, no attempt was made to build innovations in weapons. For instance, you cannot build "auto cannon" type weapons that act like machine guns, firing multiple "rounds" per "shot". The weapon and defense design system, in fact, is very unimaginative, consisting of a very simplistic rock-paper-scissors method, where one defense counters one type of weapon, but no others. Unfortunately, this over simplified design, detracts from the excellent ship design system by limiting potential variety and uniqueness. Another tech problem is that you have to research silly things that are mere filler. For instance, in order to research beam weapons you have to research a few techs that basically inform you that space is dangerous and we need to have weapons in case we meet hostiles. While that is certainly indicative of the bureaucracy of an empire, I'm not sure it is a technology, nor does it necessarily have to have a place in the tech tree.

Another technology issue, is one of government. All races start out as dictatorships and can advance to republic, democracy then federation. While I'm not certain that a true democracy is better than a republic, I am certain that this sameness reduces the uniqueness of the races. Instead of having races with different types of governments, each with advantages and disadvantages all their own, everyone is the same and can be the same given the progress on the research tree.

Rather than have political depth, though, the game tried to offer moral depth. This takes place in two ways. One is by researching the tech tree and basically picking if you want your race to be evil (self-serving) good (self-sacrificing) or neutral, which is basically evil for nice guys. Each choice has unique advantages, which is good. However, the second aspect of the moral component, comes in a series of "problems" that arise randomly throughout the game. These problems have three possible solutions--good, neutral, evil--each of which has a specific effect on your empire. The problem is that, almost without exception, choosing anything but "evil" will weaken your empire, or at least not strengthen it.

Finally (because I'm running out of space) the combat is very weak. What I mean, is that all battles are automated. In reality, because the technologies for ships are so simplistic, there really would be only a small bit of tactics to apply anyway if you could play out the battle yourself, so in a way, this might be a good thing. But to simply not have the ability to conduct your own battle is annoying to me, since I know the AI just runs a numbers game with my precious ships using its simplistic rock-paper-scissors system.

There are other things I could bring up in this game in greater detail, both good and bad, like planetary invasions, the space stations, and more, but space is limited, and I hope what I did mention can help give you an idea of this game's pros and cons.

Overall, it is a fun game, though a bit simplified in ways. Many fans of this game have said it is MOO 2.5 (Master of Orion) or said that this is what MOO3 should have been. I disagree with both sentiments. Master of Orion 2 had a deeper espionage game, a deeper colonization system that allowed you to colonize any planet in the game, even create planets out of asteroid belts! It had a far more intricate combat system, greater weapon and political diversity, better race distinctiveness (races could be water dwellers, immune to radiation, etc., unlike GC2), more intuitive ship construction in terms of ship components and equipment, and you could conduct your own battles using tactics built on your ship designs, which are much deeper than anything in GC2 (ships could extend shields over other ships, you could have carriers with fighters, and more, all unlike GC2). Galactic Civilizations is Master of Orion's little brother. Not as mature, as deep, or as smart in many ways, but it has enough good things to warrant a purchase and play.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/03/06


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