Trent Polack's site for cats, games, game development, and undeniably powerful sociological insight all with a healthy dose of narcissism.
A Very Loooong, Wordy Look at Stardock's Latest Gem
Published on March 2, 2006 By mittens In Turn-Based
Since this is the first time I've done this in a while, let me just get this out of the way: when I say "review," I don't mean it like all the big, bad game journalists do. When I review a game I look at some of key components of it. I also discuss some of the flaws of the game. At some point, I'll write a few conclusive paragraphs and, then when you get to the end of this article, what you're going to find is a line break and then nothing. What you won't find is a single, definitive statement or score which gauges how I feel about a game that can rank it amongst the masses of every other game released ever.

Last week saw the big-name game from hybrid game studio/desktop software company Stardock. The game, Galactic Civilizations 2, has seen a number of iterations across numerous platforms (Including IBM's OS/2, back in 1994) and has been consistently been a great example of quality turn-based strategy gaming with every iteration being an improvement upon the last. I never played the great-grandfather of Stardock's star gaming franchise, but I did play the game when it was completely redone and released for Windows in 2003. I enjoyed it immensely. Hours up on hours of my first semester of college in later 2003 were devoted to sinking time into what was the first turn-based strategy game I had played since Civilization II for the PlayStation (A story which is briefly documented in an article I wrote about Civilization IV less than a month ago).

I got a good deal of enjoyment out of my time with Galactic Civilizations so it should stand without saying that I was fairly excited for its sequel. I did my best to avoid playing the early beta of the game at some point a bit more than a year ago, but I broke down at one point and tried out the second phase of the public-ish beta. I liked what I saw when I tried it out, especially how well the new graphics engine captured and expanded upon the classic GalCiv look and feel, but I didn't explore it too thoroughly (Wanted to preserve the fun for the final). I did, though, get some fun little screenshots of the second phase of the beta which should showcase just how far along the game has come. If you check some of those shots out you can see just how good the beta looked, even at a very early stage -- something that I see as a testament to how much Stardock values game prototyping and play-testing early on in development.

Enough chit-chat, though. Everyone who plays a turn-based strategy game does so for one reason and one reason only: the gameplay. And Galactic Civilizations 2 is a fine TBS that should make all space-loving armchair commanders proud. I'm one of the people who considered the first GalCiv to be just as its name implied: Civilization in space. The game really just reminded me of all the great times I had playing Civilization 2 and put it in a setting that I always greatly enjoyed (Seriously, who doesn't love space?!). And I'm not sure whether it was a completely conscious decision or not, but GalCiv 2 has very much evolved from its predecessor's Civ-centric similarities and emerged as a totally new game that is, without a doubt, the best 4X space strategy game I have ever played.

Stardock really just got its own formula right this time around. In Galactic Civilization 2 you can really play the game a number of ways to achieve victory in any specific skirmish game: conquest (kill off all of the other major races), diplomatic (form alliances with all the major races that you aren't at war with), influential victory (control over 75% of the galaxy), and a technological victory (research a specific tech tree in its entirety). Each of the victory types is just as achievable in a given game, so long as you don't try and piece-meal a strategy together and end up with a cobbled mess of a society. I actually find that I enjoy working towards a diplomatic victory just as much as I do any of the other paths. GalCiv 2 is one of the few turn-based strategy games I've ever played that actually make non-military focused gameplay fun.

Each of these primary four gameplay strategies has a number of strategic elements that all need to be kept in mind in order to play successfully, as any turn-based strategy should. For instance, if someone wants to play a military-focused game, he/she needs to keep in mind that there are three primary weapons types for ships: beam (laser, plasma and such), mass driver (railguns, graviton fields, etc.), and missile-based attacks. These weapons create a kind of rock-paper-scissors relationship between each other and can have counters based on the kinds of defenses a ship is equipped with (armor, missile defense, shield defense, etc.). And all of these technologies can be gotten from just a few of the hefty number of available technologies to research.

And for those of you looking for an approach to victory that possess a bit more finesse and craftiness can look forward to trying to outsmart the fairly intelligent AI in the game. I generally played my games on the "Normal" setting, which is a rank five out of a possible twelve levels of difficulty, and even then I had to play pretty intelligently in order to best the computer... Something I was rarely able to do. The best part about the more advanced AI in the game is that there is not a single difficulty level in the game that actually "cheats" or gives the player a handicap (a big problem I had with Civilization 4). It's all done purely through logic and is something I wish more games would adapt. I also found that the AI was intelligent in its diplomatic dealings with me; I don't recall a single point in my playtime with GalCiv 2 that I actually felt that the AI was being unnecessarily harsh or soft on me.

Galactic Civilizations 2 takes an interesting approach to the city-building aspect of the game that I really found quite enjoyable. In the previous game (if my memory serves) as well as all the Civilization games your cities were never size-limited in terms of the number of buildings you were allowed to construct. In GalCiv 2, though, you can only build a certain number of buildings based on the "quality" of the planet that you are colonizing. As an example: if you play Human your first planet will be Earth, a Class 10 planet, and you can also colonize Mars, a Class 4 planet. What this means is that you can only choose to build nine structures (one is reserved for the "colony") of your choice on the planet surface, and perhaps you will be able to unlock one or two more slots once certain technologies have been researched. Similarly, you can only build three structures of your choice on Mars. The buildings you choose to construct will have a direct impact on the planet's "speciality," whether it be morale-boosting, construction, research, influence, economy, or another specialized aspect (such as increased health-points for ships). Take a look at a couple of screenshots below if you're still curious:

In case it's not clear by now, let me just say it: there's a whole ton of ways to play Galactic Civilizations 2. There are four different ways to achieve victory. There are a huge number of possible ways to construct a successful military. The amount of technology which players are given access to research is mind-boggling. And then there are even more possible ways to structure a successfully-operating planet. Hell, the game even has a dedicated "ranking system" called the Metaverse to keep track of all the stats of any player who plays a standard game while logged in to the system. There's no doubt about it: Galactic Civilizations 2 has content up the ying-yang... And despite all of this, I can't help but feel that there's something missing in the vast sea of possibilities. I don't really want to say that the game lacks "depth," but while there is a whole sea of possible ways to play this game as the player sees fit, I just can't help but feel that there isn't enough to do.

And now it's time that I bring up the blockbuster turn-based strategy game released in late 2005 that made the genre cool again: Civilization 4. I had this game ranked as number two of my top ten games of 2005 and while I was playing Galactic Civilizations 2, I couldn't help but think of Civilization 4 the whole time. There are a number of different ways I could compare and contrast these two excellent games, but I'm going to keep this fairly simple and short (Yeah, that's just so fitting of this behemoth of a review). I've held off on writing this review for a few days just so I could figure out what was missing from GalCiv 2 and while playing a game of Civ 4 over the last couple days, I figured out what it is. Civilization 4 has a certain richness to it that GalCiv 2 just doesn't have. Whether it is because Civ 4 does a better job of incorporating such a vast amount of depth, options, and history into a single game or whether it's simply because Civ 4 has more variety in terms of overall gameplay, I'm not actually sure. All I know is that if I had to choose a single turn-based strategy game to take with me to a desert island, I'd make it Civilization 4. I'd probably collapse into a fetal position and cry at the thought of leaving GalCiv 2 behind, but in the end I would realize I made the right choice. Civilization 4 simply has the ability to keep me completely addicted and entranced in a way that GalCiv 2 just can't; I have a near-impossible time not clicking the "End Turn" button in Civ 4, but in GalCiv 2 I have a hard time playing for more a half-hour at a time before I find myself wanting to play Civ 4.

Though, sometimes, I'll keep playing Galactic Civilizations 2 for one single, simple reason: the game has the most amazing ship designer I have ever seen. As the player makes his way through the tech tree, he will continue to unlock newer, smaller, and even more technologically amazing parts which can be used to piece together his very own unique ship in the versatile Lego-like ship builder which is accessible within the game. I don't want to say too much about this, simply because it's something that every self-respecting gamer who ever played with Legos as a kid needs to try, but let me tell you this: designing a ship and seeing it fire its weapons at an opposing target is a fantastic feeling. Check out some of the screenshots below of the designer (the far left screenshot) and my various creations to its right:

And although I'm really running out of room in this review (And, by "running out," I really mean "going way, way over the limit") Galactic Civilizations 2, I figure I out it to Stardock to say a few more paragraphs worth about some of the non-gameplay aspects of the game. First, as is fitting of a company which makes half of its business on desktop modification software, the interface of the game is a marvel. I'm not a big fan of the UI's main in-game bar, but all the planet management, ship creation, graphs, and informational menus are absolutely a brilliant sight. And that's not even to mention that the color of the interface is completely customizable in-game, as well as other features of the UI being customizable using some out of game wizardry (which I understand to be very simple as well). The entire game is very easily controlled with the mouse alone, and I especially like the fact that the camera can be dragged around with the left-mouse button -- I've never been a big fan of the idea of moving the cursor to the screen borders to scroll the mouse.

Galactic Civilizations 2's graphics are definitely not the snazziest you'll ever see in your career as a gamer, but given the fact that so many aspects of the game is completely customizable, they're still quite amazing. The game should be able to run on fairly low-end systems without a hitch and any system which was built in the last two years won't have a single speed hitch running the game at full detail. The move to full 3D suits GalCiv better than I could have ever imagined and is actually one of the few games whose 3D interpretation of a 2D classic actually has more detail than the original 2D art. The only real qualms I have with the game are that the combat and explosion special effects leave much to be desired, but Stardock is nothing if not for the unsurpassed excellence in support for their games, so I have no doubt that every complaint I have about the game's visuals will be addressed at some point or another.

And let me spend one of the last paragraphs of this article to talk about Stardock's support of this game. The fact that this game is easily purchased and downloaded over the Internet (It can also be purchased in numerous retail stores) is a real testament to the importance that digital delivery systems will begin to play in the gaming industry. And in my experience in purchasing and downloading the game, Stardock seems to have navigated through a typically horrendous launch ordeal that some other companies have experienced in this kind of delivery system (Yes, Half-Life 2, I'm looking at you and... Steam) with utter ease. And if there was anyone that had problems on launch day, problems that I certainly didn't experience or hear of, they could simply go over to the game's official forum and either find or receive a quick answer to his/her problem. Any of the major complaints/bugs that people had were most likely addressed in the game's first patch, which was released three days after the game's launch.

Galactic Civilizations 2 still has yet to surpass Civilization 4 in terms of my turn-based strategy game of choice, but it will still certainly see a lot of game time from me... Even if it's solely due to the incredible ship designer. Though the game feels a bit lacking to me at the moment (At least in comparison to Firaxis' latest gargantuan incarnation of their famed franchise), that does not put Stardock's opus down for the count. The excellent support that Stardock always provides their games may very well mean that this game could evolve into something that may eventually topple the might giant.
on Mar 02, 2006
Very nice article Trent

Let us know next year where the game ends in your "top ten of 2006"
on Mar 02, 2006
I agree with most of your review Trent, But I never found myself sucked into a 13 hour session of Civ 4. That has happened to me at least twice with GCII and will probably happen this weekend. The only reason it has only happened twice is that I have classwork, work work, and other assorted projects that have a short suspense period.

This one envelopes your being completely! Prepare to be assimilated!
(Would I dream of new strategies literally if it didn't make my brain go into overdrive?)
on Mar 02, 2006
Yeah, I'm not quite sure exactly what it is, but the basic fact for me is that I get more out of a session of Civilization 4 than I do GC2. I'm not ready to make a definite statement delcaring that one game has more depth than the other, but I'm very tempted to say that of the two, Civ 4 does a better job of making the depth more accessable.
on Mar 06, 2006
I find myself in similer opinion to SSG Geezer, I'm not sure why, but GC2 just seems to play better then Civ4 for me, both are great games, but GC2 seems to win out for me. Maybe I just have a bad history with the Civ series. Nice article Trent, need more shill accusations in the comments though.