Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords

"In the game of chess, you can never let your opponent see your pieces." --Zapp Brannigan, Futurama

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
Official Site
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

Comments

And the best part? No Starforce protection!

Great review, Kat. This one's on my list.

Yay, a pc review from Katerin!

Great review, though why buy GCII when you've got CivIV?

Com'on baby eat my time. After Oblivion, that is.

Thanks for a good review, sounds like a winner to me!

I can't tell if you being serious dejanzie, but I can think of a few:
1) In Civ IV, you can build one starship. In GalCiv2, you can create aramadas of different starships.
2) In Civ IV, you conquer the past. How bold. In GalCiv2, you determine the future.
3) If you preferred Star Wars over Indy, I predict you'll like GalCiv2 over CivIV.
4) Possibility of using newly found sentient species as a food source. Ok, I made that one up.

Great review, Katerin. You had me at calculus. Now to invent the 30 hour day so I have time to play this..

Very nice, very professional review. < Sidenote: Certis, she's a keeper!>

I've only begun exploring the capabilities inherent in the game, but I like what I've found- and think that this review is a good one.

The Tech Tree is very similar to the original GalCiv 1, so I'm used to its linearity...that being said, there ARE some branches where, investing in some technologies- especially economic- open up some nice advances across the board in Production facilities, for example.

Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords (or, more commonly, GalCiv II) is the videogame equivalent of calculus.

And with that statement, Kat forever burned the bridge leading to EA advertising.

dejanzie wrote:

Yay, a pc review from Katerin!

Great review, though why buy GCII when you've got CivIV?

Booty touched on the main points, but in the end, I think it comes down to personal preference, in the same way that some people like pie and others like cake. I meant it when I said GalCiv II is like Civ IV in space, and by the same thinking, I'll also say Civ IV is like GalCiv II on one planet. They complement each other well, I think. You could play Civ IV until you slaked you thirst for landbased conquest, only to then turn on GalCiv II and start subduing entire star systems.

Whenever an article starts off " X is the videogame equivalent of calculus. " it gets a dodeca-secret A+.

I do wish the tech tree had some element of randomness about it. I really dislike starting a new game and having my first dozen choices already plotted out. I can't offer any good suggestions on how to go about satisfying my idle fantasy, so I guess I'll just be happy with an otherwise excellent game.

Oh, I don't like multiplayer games much myself, but in GalCivII, there's always a possibility they could have allowed co-op play against AI civs, which would have made my heart sing. If it had, you know, lips and such. I'll be done now.

Actually, from what i understand, the Creativity perk offers some additional/semi random research choices. At least that how I read the Creativity description, I havent had a chance of observing that myself.

Great review. StarDock also seems to be very good at releasing timely patches/addons that enhance the game. Beta version 1.1 came out today and has enhancements like the option to prevent tech trading, the ability to rotate components in the ship design (yea!), auto-pilot path shows on the screen and AI tweaks. This is the first product I have bought from StarDock, I feel the I have more than got my money's worth out of this game. It also seems like they won't abandon the game by putting 2-3 patches out and then moving on to the next project.

And as Fletcher said, NO STARFORCE!

Good read. As a long time supporter of StarDock from GC1 onwards I urge you to buy this game. And as everyone has already noted, kick Starforce in the nuts while you're at it.

Great review. Just so you know, you can have a semi-hotseat multiplayer game in GCII. It is in their wiki, under the cheat section:

http://galciv.wikicities.com/wiki/Ho...

Again thanks for the thorough review.

Great review, I just picked up the game on your word and am enjoying it thoroughly. Actually, this will be the first turn-based RTS I play extensively (I've dabbled in Civ2 at some point) and I can clearly see why you said it might not be nub friendly, but I actually found that learning the game only added to my enjoyment. Maybe I'm just masochistic...

Yes! Yes! Yes!
No game has hooked me like this since the days of Civ II and Diablo! The ability to have it installed guilt free on my desktop and work laptop are a bonus.
Everytime I play I learn some new trick to make the experience just a little bit more silky smooth.
Well worth the money and well worth supporting!

Great article, Kat!

Tried GalCiv II, but I must admit, it's not the breakthrough hit I was expecting... now I am a turn based strategy nut... I enjoyed the early versions of Master of Orion, and was thoroughly disappointed with MOO3 like most strategy fans. I saw GalCiv2 on the horizon and waited patiently, but it simply is not as good as Civ4 and I (like most people here) cannot give it enough time to it while Civ4 is on my hard drive.... poor release timing I think, but it did fairly well regardless.
Biggest issue with me was the fact that the map seems to dictate the outcome of the game much more than the starting location in Civ ever did. Also, the units and cities don't have the same character as those in Civ4. These are necessary things to keep my simple mind focused on the game. Rome Total War is one of those strategy games where I can sit back and smile as my legions march down the field towards victory.

I'm such a nerd.

KaterinLHC wrote:

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).

You forgot about the baseball cards in the spokes! That alone added 2 mph.

Good review.. the only bad thing I see in the game is the "Explore, colonize quickly, or die" nature of the early game. The ships range's need to be modified so that the game is not decided simply on the the fact that one empire can push out colony ships faster than the other. Thus the fatal flaw in Civ III has been translated to Gal Civ II. Thank goodness the game is so moddable.