Review by richardc_2074

"Old school can be cool"

Space Empires V strives to be the benchmark space-based 4X game. It doesn't come across as groundbreaking (the 5 in the title may have tipped you off about this) but I believe it contains enough original elements to avoid being classed as derivative. Despite this, being such a keen MOO* player myself, I can't help but see elements of those games reflected in SE:V and there's no question that has coloured my opinion of the game somewhat. Also, it should be noted that I haven't played any of the earlier SE games so I may miss some things that may be obvious to followers of the series.

My intention for this review is to provide a little more awareness of a game that, while not having access to the same resources as the blockbusters of today, deserves to stand amongst them. I must admit that one of the main reasons that I picked this game up is that it struck me as old school. There's a certain level of integrity involved with not trying to please everyone (though there are brilliant games out there that have both). The game itself is massive in scope, and what I give here are very much first impressions. Well, first impressions are often the deepest so I won't dwell on that too much.

The game does come with a few (i.e many) bugs and has drawn criticism for them. So far two patches have been released for the game (I think the first came along with the initial release). I'm fairly tolerant of this as the author has been active in addressing issues that have arisen. I think lots of the showstoppers are now out of the way, I have no reason to doubt a future patch will eliminate the rest. Still, for the impatient I would say hold off until it becomes more stable, because it would be a shame to get a negative impression of what is a very good game.

Graphics - 6

Compared to the standard game of today the graphics are definitely below average as eye candy. It would be a mistake to be put off by this, however. The graphics are pleasant and easy to look at, they don't get in the way, and, most importantly, they set the mood of space exploration and combat very nicely indeed. Ships and planets are drawn simply but effectively. Combats are fun to watch.

The 2D art is great, setting the scene wonderfully. The alien races are great, if slightly kitsch (so what? It's a space game, kitsch should be de rigour). There are some nice illustrations interspersed in some of the report screens too. A right-click on many of the images brings up a full-size window with the image, a somewhat frivolous function, but the drawings are nice enough that you will probably find yourself doing it a couple of times.

One area that could use some work is the generic interface objects; the buttons, checkboxes and progress bars feel a little clunky. This is disappointing as they do negatively impact the feel of the game, and that feeling spills over into the interface portion of this review (and I'm picky about interfaces so I take particular annoyance at that). Apparently alien empires are still using Windows 98 SE. (<- bad pun)

Sound - 6

The sound and music are probably exactly what we've come to expect from a space based game. To be honest I never* pay that much attention to sound as I often play my own music anyway, and I guess SE V makes it easy to customise your sound and music.

* with the possible exceptions of Homeworld, War of the Worlds and Alien vs Predator.

Gameplay - 9

The gameplay is, simply put, wonderful. A plethora of options to explore, numerous ways to deal with rival empires, ships to design, and techs to research. The model is effective, both powerful and playable. In this sense I can say quite confidently that SE:V does a good job of combining the best elements of MOO1, 2 & 3.

The tech tree deserves a mention because I've found it quite unique. It is divided into techs that improve what you've already got (Applied techs), by making it cheaper, faster, better, whatever, and those that give you new toys to play with (Theoretical techs). I like the system because it means there are more tactical decisions to be made while researching, as opposed to most 4X games that rely on strategic decision making in research.

It is a complicated game to be sure, but I immediately felt like I knew what I was doing. I sent out ships to meet and greet my neighbours. Got blown up a couple of times, and repayed them in kind. For this style of game it's all about creating the desire for 'one more turn' and SE V does that very well indeed. Fortunately, you can show the computer's time from the main window so you can stop whenever you need to (yeah, right!).

Interface - 7

The interface is adequate. There's a lot of information to display, and, for the most part, SE: V makes it easy to find out exactly whats going on in your empire. Lots of the graphs, for example, allow you to (A) filter out irrelevant data, and (B) choose the columns you want displayed. I really appreciate this level of sophistication and I think it shows that the author is an avid strategist himself. The tables are nice too, often allowing you to navigate directly to the item being examined, be it a planet, ship, colony, whatever. Unfortunately, it still has some kinks to be worked out ( I've been able to click on things I shouldn't and have ended up viewing an unexplored system on the other side of the galaxy).

One sometimes puzzling aspect of the design is the use of screen real estate. In particular, some of the report screens would be better if they took up more room on the screen. In many cases only about half the screen is used to display data relevant to the player. The interface is also impacted by the somewhat average buttons and similar widgets, there are a few quirks that will hopefully come out in the wash (buttons are selected when the mouse button is released for example).

Multiplayer - ?

I think a good multiplayer is what *makes* many games, single player is just the training. If I can convince my comrades to purchase the game I hope to be able to report back some positive news.

From what I've seen, multiplayer should be great fun. I'm already planning the strategies I'll try out. There's nothing more satisfying than reducing a friend's empire to asteroids and this game gives you so many ways to do that. On the down side, I don't think the tactical combat is enabled, which denies you those moments of glory as you pull off a sublime tactical maneuver to overcome superior numbers.

AI - 7

This may be a little unfair as I haven't tested the AI response to most things (there are just too many options to ennumerate), but it seems to do a good job of claiming sectors of tactical importance and defending its planets. However, it is a bit too easy to enter treaties with computer players, and often their treaty requests don't seem to have much sense behind them. In comparison to other games of the genre I haven't come across any glaring weakness in the AI either, weaknesses that are often (supposedly) made up for by giving the computer players insane bonuses. So the SE V AI (say that three times fast) seems OK pending further testing.

I have however been forced to dock a couple of points for (A) its slowness in taking turns, (B) the bug that occasionally prevents the computer from finishing its turn. Fingers crossed for an upcoming patch.

Replayability - 10

The game itself is massive in scope. The playable races are highly customisable and there are are hundreds of technologies to research, which means you'll never want for new strategic options to try or styles to play. Another great thing about this game is that it can be played as a skirmish or an epic galaxy wide campaign of conquest so it won't get stale quickly.

However, the modding capabilities are what makes SE:V truly stand out in this regard. Just a cursory glance at the data files suggest to me that modding will be both easy and powerful. Galaxy design, system layouts, tech trees and ship styles are just some of the things that can be changed through the modding system. I believe this will result in great community created content, which will give people a reason to keep coming back to this game.

Verdict - 7.8

Overall, I'd give it a 7.8, which could well rise to a 9 when the kinks are worked out ( and all signs suggest they will be ). Throw in a bit of community content and who knows.

If you're not into 4X space games, I'm impressed you got this far, thanks for reading!
If you are then pick one of the following:
Cautious recommendation: wait and see. Either the bugs will get fixed, the price will drop, you're friends will get it and nag you into playing, you'll forget all about it.
Optimistic recommendation: get it. The more people fork up the dough the more likely it is the remaining issues get fixed (and faster no doubt) and you'll be supporting more great games in the future.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 11/17/06

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