Strategy games are a funny lot. If you ran a poll of PC gaming fans, asking what genre needs the most redefining, I’m betting most would vote on this genre. While a few advances have been made with titles like Age of Empires III, Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth, Rise of Nations, and Civilization IV, let’s face it; the ground-based strategy game has been developed to death. Yet, how many truly excellent space-based ones have we had (excluding Homeworld, that is)?
However many that is (and it’s not a large number), you can now add one more to the tally. Acting as publisher and developer, Stardock Entertainment has unleashed Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords. As a sequel to 2003’s warmly received but publicly skipped-over Galactic Civilizations, GCII sets out to right the wrongs of the first game, while at the same time providing a new experience unlike anything other games in the genre have created.
Yes, even phallic-headed aliens inhabit this galaxy– quick, someone call Carl Sagan!
The back-story is fairly standard Space Opera fare: In the year 2175, humans invent Hyperdrive, a futuristic technology which allows many different sizes of starships to travel great distances into the galaxy. Fifty years later, the Hyperdrive has been perfected, and the humans set out from Earth to explore the beyond, hoping to colonize other habitable worlds. Unfortunately, they find that many other civilizations throughout the galaxy also have the same intent. The other beings range from human-like figures to huge, hulking, wrinkled, blue-skinned aliens, all of which are racing to claim the majority of the galaxy as their own.
Unlike the first game, GCII now allows you to play as any civilization, human or alien, for conquest of the galaxy. The player has the option to lead their chosen race to either a military, technological, cultural, or political victory. However, it isn’t wise to focus solely on just one strategy, for the race that cannot defend itself from aggression will not survive long enough to advance technologically. Each race has a distinct advantage, however, which can help the player chose a winning strategy.
While GCII does improve on almost every aspect of the original, however, some elements still could have used a bit of work. For example, even though the new 3D engine is fairly good-looking and is a vast improvement, the actual camera movement within the main game screen is very limited. You can never move the camera below the 2D plane of play. Speaking of the plane of play…why is there one? If you’re going to make a space game with planets, stars, and anomalies, why would you limit play to one plane? I’m sure it was meant to simplify play, but surely there could have been a way to make the galaxy 3D in both looks and game play.
Even the developers admit that they love Civilization IV and accept any comparisons to that excellent title. While we could easily see the resemblance in both the game engine and core game play to other strategy titles, one area in which GCII totally breaks away from the pack is in its shipyard. Here’s where GCII truly reinvents and establishes itself. The shipyard is your one stop shop for all your starship needs: from mounting weapons to applying cosmetically impossible protrusions. Starting with a choice of hull-size, you then make decisions on which external engines to install. After you’ve got your engines mounted, it’s time to outfit that bad boy with some weaponry and surveillance options. These options aren’t free, however, as installable hard points are based on hull size and pricing restrictions. Sure you can design that dreamy battleship cruiser, complete with 15 different kinds of offensive weapons…but can you actually afford to buy one after its built? With the option of adding lights, wings, and girder extensions, you can create some truly insane designs.
It looks snazzy, as if everything's in 3D, but in reality everything moves on a single plane…
The planets that you will explore and visit are classed from 0 to 26, with Class 10 to 14 planets designated as “Earth-like” and Class 0 planets being unusable (think Pluto). This class designation also relates how many building tiles will be available to use to build structures. The AI that guides opposing civilizations has been greatly improved from the first title. In fact, we felt that at times it was almost TOO good. In most difficulty settings, the computer controlled opponents are so efficient in exploration and colonization that they nab most of the planets before the player is even able to climb up the technology tree. Not climbing the tree means that the player will not have the starships they need for habitation.
The AI is a powerful opponent in battle, as well. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t capture a single enemy planet in a raid. Either this is a true testament to the quality of the AI is, or shows just how bad I suck. Even in the face of these defeats, however, I have to admit that I rather enjoyed getting stomped into stardust across the galaxy, but most players will probably want to turn the difficulty WAY down, at least until they master the intricacies of climbing the tech tree and combat.
GCII really shines in its core game play and replay value. A lot of the game’s unique draw comes from the addictive shipyard, the place where you’ll probably spend 75% of your time tinkering. Fleet battles, in which assigned groups of ships battle in a glorious 3D battlefield, is nicely done and offers substantially more camera control than the main game screen. All in all, GCII is a worthy predecessor to a franchise which has a lot to look forward too.
Here's my latest design: "The Big Ass Gyroship ™". You can attach stuff like guns, missiles, or anything else to any red arrow!
Gameplay – 8 Tons of reasons to replay the game, a very tough but nicely put together campaign mode, and the ability to play as any race (or even to design your own) trumps the vision set by the first title. The myriad elements that you have to control and oversee are a bit daunting at first, and even after all the play time I had with the game, I still never learned how to use every function reliably and effectively. This makes for a pretty high learning curve, but you’ll be having great fun along the way.
Graphics – 7 Above average graphics carry the space battles and map navigation well. Other than that, it’s mainly menus and stat screens that you’ll be gazing upon. The play map itself could use a bit more camera control and depth. Let’s move the next game in this series into true 3D, Stardock!
Sound – 7 If a ship blows up in the vacuum of space, can you hear it? Evidently you can, and it sounds pretty cool. Other than the sound of battle, there really isn’t anything else to hear. A decently orchestrated soundtrack fills out the voids between battles. They music is very “Halo-like”, and I consider that a good thing.
Value – 9 GCII carries a $39.95 price tag, which we feel is a great value for such a beefy gaming experience. With no other Homeworld sequels seemingly on the horizon, this is just about the only strategy-based space game you’re likely to find. Luckily, Stardock has crafted a good one. It must be stated, however, that there is NO multiplayer mode available at the moment, but Stardock is quick to point out that the groundwork for this capability has been laid down. We hope that they decide to release an expansion offering such an option soon.
Curve – 9 I love a good strategy game and Stardock has a gem here. If you’ve ever wanted to have your own little personal Star Wars at home, do yourself a favor and pick up Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords. With a little more polish in a few key areas, we could’ve had an almost perfect turn-based strategy space simulation. Until then, you’ll just have to settle for a really good one.