Jon (chairman_mo) wrote in vg_review,

Galactic Civilizations (PC) - 8.2/10

Galactic Civilizations (GalCiv for short): If ever a game has benefitted from the failure of another, I'm not aware of it. Almost immediately after Masters of Orion 3 was released, people started posting on Moo3 boards about a game made by a small company in the genre Moo3 was supposed to be (but wasn't). They said that the game was very fun and had a lot of good features and was reasonably priced, to boot! I checked out the GalCiv boards and liked what I saw, in particular that a lot of the more intelligent people from the pre-release Moo3 boards who left them shortly after it came out were now regulars in GalCiv. After a couple weeks I finally accepted that there wasn't going to be a patch that fixed Moo3's horrible, horrible problems anytime soon, so I went ahead and bought GalCiv. If only I hadn't needed to purchase Moo3 first to find out about it :)

Graphics- There is a lower amount of unique artwork in GalCiv than most any similar game released by a bigger company, but this is forgivable and does not detract significantly from the experience. The majority of your time playing you will be looking at the main galactic map. The graphics here are VERY spartan. While modern 3d graphics would have enhanced the visual appeal, the nature of the game is such that the pretty, easily distinguishable tile-based graphics work fine. It uses an overhead view, versus the generally more attractive isometric, but the art is otherwise on par with other recent games in the genre. The interface graphics (which change to match your alignment) are clear and easy to use. The hand drawn ship close-ups as well as the rendered alien races and improvements are all detailed and interesting. The cutscenes are not technical marvels, but are well rendered and fun. Miscellaneous graphics (the opening flash screen and opening menu screen, ground invasion screen, the united planets screen, the science robots, etc) are all excellent and lend a lot of mood to the game. Overall nothing spectacular, but nothing bad either.


Sound- Light, airy background music, the ambiance of which changes to match your alignment and any diplomatic situations you find yourself in. No catchy tunes, but all unobtrusive and pleasant enough that I generally left the sound on. It has the nice additional feature of being able to load your own mp3 playlists, which the game will then cycle through. Sound effects are fairly sparse and unremarkable. No voice acting (none really needed). So while the sound is generally bland, the ability to load your own playlists helps compensates.


Interface- One of the nicer I've used. It helps that the game is fairly simple, but in both the galactic map and the menu navigation the programmers did a great job keeping everything intuitive and fast. All screens can be accessed from one of the main menus at the bottom, which have large and explicit icons that designate their function. Within these menus are submenus, similarly accessed by single-click buttons, that nicely summarize all the pertinent information in the game. Very little space is wasted, but nothing is so cramped that it is difficult to use.

The galactic map is simple point and click, with the sort of annoying Black and White style "click and drag" to scroll around. Fortunately, you can scroll around via the minimap. Almost immediately I found myself using the minimap to do just about everything. It is without a doubt one of the best minimaps I have ever seen, with a bevy of features, zooming capabilities, and very concise display of information.

There are some glitches, all eminently fixable in future patches, that detract from the score of the current build: enemy ships can be a pain to click on (you have to double click, which only works about half the time). The summary window in the lower right of the main screen is very tempermental, and seems to reorder itself at random (it is essential for later in the game, when you could have dozens of things being built per turn). On the largest galaxy size, the minimap is much more difficult to read (alleviated by zooming, but still irritating that it's nearly impossible to distinguish ships from starbases, or enemy ships of similar color). The research completion screen can behave oddly. Sometimes the animation showing what research has finished doesn't display, and sometimes it will skip right over the selection screen for your next research... if both these things happen you can find yourself researching something that you didn't want to. None of these are anything beyond annoying, but they combine to give the interface a rough-around-the-edges feel that can wear on you over time.


Replay value- It's too early to tell for sure, but GalCiv seems to have Civ2/Moo2 level replayability. There are four possible routes to victory (conquering the galaxy, conquering the galaxy in an alliance, cultural victory and scientific victory). Each ranges in difficulty based on many factors (small galaxies are easier to conquer but harder to culturally dominate, and MUCH harder to achieve a research victory in, for example). Artificial intelligence and alignment settings are selectable for each of the five major alien races (also can make them random). This gives you an enormous amount of control over the challenge level of any game, far beyond the blanket difficulty setting most games have. Looking for a major challenge? Try setting the Dregnin or Yor, both naturally aggressive races, to an evil alignment and a high intelligence, then play in a small galaxy. It's simply brutal, but unlike most games of the sort you never get the feeling that the computer opponents are flat-out cheating (save for their remarkable knowledge of where all the good stars are at the start, but even that can be explained away by plot elements, see below). They just make very smart decisions and are much more clever diplomatically. So while tentative, I have little doubt that the perfect score in this category will be well deserved, and that I will still be playing GalCiv years from now.


Gameplay- The lead designer of GalCiv knew where to put most of the effort, and took the wise route of learning from the past successes in the genre and incorporating some of their strong points (influences of Civ2 and Alpha Centauri are heavy and noticeable) but adding enough totally new features to make the game feel fresh and unique.

Superficially, the game seems to be an analog of Civ2/AC to a galactic rather than terrestrial environment. This, probably combined with its name, have led many to deem it "Civ in space" and thus sell it very short. Of course, there are enough similarities, superficial and legitimate, between GalCiv and Civ2/AC that people who have played one of the latter will have very little learning curve with GalCiv. Production, city structures, "wonders", the "small wonder" concept of Civ3, combat, research, trade and diplomacy are all similar but with some major improvements.

There are two production queues, military and social, and you can balance spending between these and research to change your civilization's overall expenditure focus. This beautiful bit of macromanagement does what Moo3 needed a dozen different sliders and screens to handle.

Wonders and "small wonders" work pretty much the same as in the Civ games, with the nice addition of trade goods; these are copyrighted material goods that provide civilization-wide benefits and may be used as barter in inter-species negotiation. An interesting twist on wonders and trade goods is that the minor civilizations of the galaxy tend to build them, even on lower difficulty levels, which contributes to them being factors in many games.

Research is almost identical to Civ2, although your alignment affects the technologies you are able to research (evil civs can research some brutal techs, good civs can research kinder, gentler techs). Space combat is extremely basic, essentially a simplified version of AC's ground combat. Ground invasions are a little more interesting, with options to use assorted costlier tactics to increase your advantage or decrease the enemy's advantage. Trade consists of sending a freighter to a different civilization's system, which establishes a trade route with them that will benefit both races with per-turn income. The catch is that other races don't want your humans to be running too many trade routes, so initially the number you can have is limited and persuasion technologies are needed to open more (this a clever piece of realism, think of the tarriffs and boycotts of recent times).

Diplomacy is one of the game's most shining accomplishments. Diplomatic communication is incredibly well done, with races remarkably holding to the large number of variables that determine their personality. Each race's base preferences, their alignment, their intelligence, their current financial and military prowess, how your alignment and prowess compare to theirs, past dealings with you, positioning of military forces and starbases (unlike most games, if you park a fleet just outside of their realm of influence they WILL notice, ditto if you build starbases in or near their territory to influence them), and the difference in your respective diplomatic abilities all play into how the race communicates and negotiates with you. Top this off with an impressive variety of barter options (lump sums of cash, cash over time, influence for galactic elections, star systems (which unlike other games races will actually trade or surrender, especially when under major duress), technology, treaties, ships and starbases are all possible to trade) and the diplomacy doesn't feel like the chore or nuisance it does in most games. My only real complaint in diplomacy is the relative ease at which the minor races can be exploited; if you are so inclined you can get through an entire game without worrying about your economy at all just by selling technologies to the minor civs, who always have cash and are almost never a military threat (nor do they seem to ever trade the technologies to the other minor races, allowing you to exploit those ones as well).

The game also brings some fresh ideas to the table. Alignment is a major one: players are regularly presented with moral quandaries, choosing the evil path is always advantageous (sometimes extremely so, it's only possible to get the best quality planets via an evil event choice), the neutral path either mildly advantageous or without effect, and the good path generally hinders you, sometimes significantly. If you make consistent good or evil choices your civilization's alignment will shift in that direction. When you become good enough or evil enough your interface and music will change, you will gain or lose access to certain technologies, and other races will start treating you differently diplomatically (this is where being good is advantageous... evil civilizations tend to get little sympathy from anyone, meanwhile a good civilization tends to get better deals when bartering, and has a high chance of receiving aid from other good civilizations if attacked). Also, to ally with another race you must have a comparable alignment. Since alliances in this game are extremely advantageous, this can be a major consideration for which path you follow.

In terms of races, the game uses an AC-style set of predetermined major races, each with their own basic personality (the noble and fair Arceans, the expansionist and unbalanced Dregnin, etc). All five will be in any game played, regardless of galaxy size. Meanwhile, there are also "minor races", which control either a single star system or a single sector. They generally aren't capable of much, but if one gets a technological edge (generally because you've given or traded to them the tech) they can be a military problem for a major civilization. More interesting is the "I-League" that tends to arise, essentially a minor civilization formed by unhappy systems rebelling and joining together. The I-League can actually become very powerful if a few nice systems join up with them. Single-system minor races can also arise during the course of the game, sitting on a nice system and generally knowing all the currently discovered technology in the galaxy, making them a good source for settlements and techs.

Another interesting innovation is the use of bonus percentages to govern almost every aspect of your civilization. This allows an incredible amount of initial customization, and spurs on another neat addition: the survey ship. The survey ship (which looks suspiciously like the Enterprise) starts off as a wimpy, slow ship, but for a long while is the only one that can explore "anomalies". There are anomalies scattered across the galaxy, not unlike the huts in Civ, but instead of being either unbalancingly good (in Civ terms, giving you a free tech or city) or utterly useless (giving you a pittance of money or surrounding you with barbarians), most do one of two things: either slightly improve one of your bonus percentages, or slightly improve the stats of the survey ship. This means that with diligent surveying, you can both significantly boost some of your civilization's abilities, as well as turn the survey ship into an very viable military vessel. Later in the game you'll get battleships that survey anomalies, and these have the potential of becoming second to only the ultimate ship (which is nearly impossible to get) if there are still a lot of anomalies around by the time you build them. One weakness in the AI is the computer's failure to aggressively pursue anomalies, often sacrificing their survey ships early in the game and never building more.

The micromanagement and macromanagement handling are always a big question in this genre of game. As noted above, GalCiv handles the macro side very well. Your economy is controlled by five easy to understand sliders. You can group units into fleets and move them as one. You can set up four different master build queues and assign each planet to use any of the four, and even make it so if you shift the queue order the changes will be immediately reflected in planets' current projects. Espionage is simply a matter of assigning funds to either gather intelligence on or destabilize a rival race. Micromanagement is similarly well accounted for. You can override build queues at will, assign some portion of individual planets' incomes to keeping their own people happy rather than contributing to the economy, set the game to not auto build military projects or social projects, and change your government pretty much at will. Besides a few complications from previously mentioned interface problems, there wasn't anything in my civilization that I didn't feel in control of on both a small and large scale.

There are four legitimate ways to win the game. One is the standard "conquer everything", which is assisted by the fact that utterly whipped civilizations will usually just give in; so you don't have to spend the time steering transport (planet-invading) ships across many parsecs of space to capture their last planet or two. Allied victories are military victories in conjunction with an ally and are very satisfying and fun. Technology victories involve researching VERY far down the tech tree, and unfortunately aren't all that interesting. This is in part due to the fact that if you've stayed alive long enough to get that high in the tech tree, you could easily win one of the other ways, and in part just due to the insane amounts of time it takes to make it to the ultimate tech. Still, it is worth doing at least once as the game puts a lot of humor into the higher level techs. Finally, the Influence or Cultural victory, which involves producing enough cultural influence (a combination of population, planetary improvements, and starbases) to have cultural control of 90% of the galaxy's sectors. This is unfortunately rather easy to do until you get to very high difficulty levels, at which point you are probably just going to get creamed regardless.

To top off the fact that the gameplay of GalCiv is some of the best thought out and polished of any turn based strategy game I have played, you can add the fact that the lead developer is very active in the game's online community, and has already smoothed over several minor gameplay complaints in patches. The development team also plans to use the Metaverse, an online score-tracker, as a means of determining artificial intelligence in future versions of the game (ie- player strategies that seem to work best will be the ones that smart alien races attempt to use). This ongoing innovative spirit, absent from so many big-name titles, is very refreshing.

(14/15), only a few minor AI deficiencies and the lack of balance in victory conditions preventing a perfect score

Enjoyment- Some games you put dozens of hours into then look back and say "Holy shit, I just wasted a massive amount of time!" GalCiv is in the small brotherhood of games that, after wasting dozens of hours playing, you can look back and be proud of your accomplishments. The only detriments to the enjoyment of the game are the interface issues, the fact that the game can really drag on after you've clearly won, and the occasional ridiculous things that are voted for in the United Planets (some of which can essentially end your game, depending on your strategy). The sheer size of large galaxies can also be problematic, if you have two enemies to defeat and they are at opposite corners, you can end up spending a half hour just clicking the turn button and waiting for your fleets to arrive at their destinations. Since the game doesn't have any instant-transportation structures like most other games of the genre give you high in the tech tree, I came close to quitting games I had de facto won just because I didn't want to deal with all the fleet movement. Generally, though, this is an extemely enjoyable game.


Swear rating- Very low, I swore more in this review than I do in an average session of GalCiv.

Overall- 8.2/10, not a technological marvel, but if you like turn-based strategy games then this is a worthy purchase (especially at a mere $30!)
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