Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords
"In the game of chess, you can never let your opponent see your pieces." --Zapp Brannigan, Futurama
Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords (or, more commonly, GalCiv II) is the videogame equivalent of calculus. At first glance it appears arcane, its learning curve is steep, and some people may never quite understand what the big deal is. Yet, if you do manage to figure this game out, you've unlocked an entire world--or, in this case, galaxy--for your secret amusement. You'll spend afternoons huddled over the intricacies of planetary colonization, or giggling about some ludicrous pun the Drengin ambassador dropped in your last trade meeting, or sweating over a ship design that looks remarkably like a Cylon raider. Like higher mathematics, GalCiv II is not easy, but once you get it, the game is easy to love.
GalCiv II is a turn-based strategy game in which you, as leader of a space-faring nation, vie against nine alien races for control of the Galaxy. As in other "˜4X' games, you achieve galactic dominance through exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. Victory comes in many forms: cultural infiltration, diplomatic excellence, economic hegemony, industrial might, and military strength. To win, you must construct your tactics around some or all of these skills. (If it sounds just like Civ IV in space, that's because it is.)
The game offers a campaign option about the eponymous Dread Lords, but who cares? The point of these games is not to finish them but to build the coolest castle in the sandbox, and GalCiv II gives you one hell of a sandbox to work with.
The level to which you may customize your gameplay experience is staggering. At the start of the game, you choose the size of your galaxy, the frequency of habitable planets, the tightness of star clusters, the speed of tech advancement, and even the rarity of anomalies like wormholes. You also pick from one of ten races (or build your own custom race), as well as how many nations you'll compete with and which ones. These initial decisions will, in effect, define the rest of the game. Small galaxies crammed with stars and several unfriendly races will lead to an afternoon of fast-paced diplomacy and quick warfare. Large galaxies with open star clusters and fewer races require long-term strategic thinking over days or even weeks. It all depends on your mood. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword: on one hand, you have complete control of how you play; on the other, you may find it difficult to change your tactics midway through the game, should you change your mind.
Due to a few non-intuitive programming choices and a tricky interface that gives even veteran players pause, GalCiv II is not the best turn-based strategy title for a beginner. For whatever reason, the concise video tutorials are not accessible in-game; therefore, if you have a question about, say, rally points, you must exit your game to watch the rally point tutorial. The complicated menu system is stuffed with buttons that don't necessarily take you where you think they should take you. And figuring out how to maneuver within fleets can be ridiculously complicated. To many novices, GalCiv II will be frustrating and off-putting.
That said, the game offers plenty to reward the veteran gamer. For instance, one of the loudest criticisms of the original Galactic Civilizations was the lack of a starship creation system. For GalCiv II, the developers remedied this oversight, and the new ship construction is one of the highlights of the game. Assembly is simple: on a base hull (ranging in size from "Tiny" to "Huge"), you place engines, weapons, and other machinery. As you learn more from the "Galactic Warfare" technology, you unlock further parts for your ships. Of course, the real fun comes in decorating your custom model with artistic extras, such as pylons and blinking lights (because, as we all know, blinking lights, like stickers on bikes, make ships go faster).
Experienced turn-based strategy players will certainly appreciate the honest AI. Too often in these types of games, AI will either cheat or suffer from masochistic stupidity, with little subtlety in between. But in GalCiv II, you can customize the intelligence of the AI to a remarkable degree, and the AI genuinely follows your orders. If you request "Fool" Drengins, you'll get an unobservant race too concerned with supply shortages to either notice or deal with the fact that you've placed seventeen raiders in orbit around their homeworld. If you ask for "Genius" Yor, you'll be lucky to build even one military starbase before the Yor organize a galaxy-wide trade embargo against you.
It's a good thing the AI is so well programmed, since you spend so much time interacting with it. Everything you do in the game affects your relationships with other races, and a substantial portion of the game is spend in diplomatic relations: talking, trading, declaring war, and making peace accords. The ambassador dialogues are particularly well written, peppered with funny quips and clever off-hand remarks, and the speech adds authenticity to the whole experience.
So why worry so much about the AI? Because GalCiv II offers no multiplayer option. Yes, there's the "Metaverse", where you can upload games to indirectly compete against people online, but that's essentially just a scoreboard. Whether or not the lack of multiplayer is a turn-off is subjective. The AI is certainly challenging enough that you won't need to play against another human to construct complicated, realistic strategy. But, at the same time, a single-player strategy game is much like single-player chess; it can be done, but for most people, it's beside the point. As for me, the lack of multiplayer was not a problem, since for the most part, I hate playing with other people. But you might not be so curmudgeonly.
What is an objective flaw, and a very obvious one at that, is the Tech Tree. Although the Tech Tree provides plenty of new technologies you can learn, the paths connecting these technologies are, for the most part, linear. Like an overly pruned bush, it mostly consists of straight paths from beginning to end. Also, instead of learning new and distinct skills, you mostly just upgrade the ones you already have. Worst of all, the Tech Tree doesn't provide much information about upcoming technologies; you're given roughly one sentence to help you make decisions about which technologies to learn next.
Still, the Tech Tree is just one chink is an otherwise substantially satisfying game. The greatest success of GalCiv II is that it provides a consistently organic experience; the gameplay offers so many options and so many possibilities that you will never play the same game twice. In a genre where enjoyment is measured not in playable hours but in empires constructed, GalCiv II could easily delight you forever.
GalCiv II is not for everyone, but then again, few turn-based strategy games are. What it does, it does well, and sticking with the game rewards you with a lingering, complex pleasure difficult to describe. If you love meaty, thoughtful strategy games, then GalCiv II is godsend, and you'll find yourself whispering "˜One more turn!' for months, maybe even years, to come.
Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords
Released: March 2006 (PC)
System Requirements: Windows 98 or up; Pentium III 800MHz or better with 512 MB system memory; 3D video card with at least 32 MB video memory; DirectX 9C
Developer: Stardock Entertainment
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment