by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
While it may be every company's dream to see their competition falter and disappear, too many find themselves stumbling around in the dark without that enemy over their shoulder. And space exploration and conquest games have gone out of fashion of late, leaving little current competition to start with. Master of Orion was the king of the genre, at least until the third installment failed miserably. The game was too complex and lacked any form of fun entirely. Even the most die-hard fans like myself could not bring themselves to continue playing the game. Anger and disappointment reigned supreme... but there was light at the end of the tunnel... At about the same time, underdog Stardock released a space exploration game. It might not have had the depth of Master of Orion III, or lets face it, even Master of Orion II for that matter, but it was fun! and accessible!
It was a consolation prize for many disgruntled MoO fans. As people lost interest in Master of Orion III, Galactic Civilizations picked up the slack and gave us at least a little of what were yearning for. Stardock has recently released Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords. While I don't expect to see Master of Orion IV anytime soon, I for one am glad that someone is keeping the genre alive; the question now is whether or not Stardock stumbled or soared, without any real competition left to drive them to improve with their second installment. Let's take a look at what the game has to offer.
The story is as simple as ever. Your civilization has just invented the Hyperdrive, allowing it to explore space and spread its seeds throughout the universe. The story is told in the campaign but however way you look at it, it's not very strong. On the bright side however, it doesn't need to be. A game like this is best played in single missions.
The road(s) to victory
Upon starting the game, you be asked to select one of 10 races. Each race has its own specialties although none of them are unique and they just serve as a starting point. After making your selection you can tweak your race by awarding a handful of extra points so it fits perfectly to your preferred style. In addition you can select your political viewpoint if you will. The eight different political like War Party, Industrialists and Technologists, each give you a bonus in a particular direction. This advantage is lost if you cannot keep your people's approval rating high enough so it is important to keep people happy. When you are done, a galaxy is generated based on your galaxy preferences and off you go.
You start off with one planet and a handful off ships. Your actions will greatly influence the outcome of the game (as it should be) and you'll have to weigh every decision carefully. Will you jack up your industry and pump out new ships? Or will you focus on your economy and buy them instead? There are four ways to achieve victory and there are a number of ways to get to any of these goals. What's great about Galactic Civilizations II is that it's not just 'saying' that you can win in different ways, I've managed to pull off a conquest victory using almost no ship production and have tried a game buying my research discoveries rather than researching myself and even if I didn't win that one, I came very close. Whatever direction you choose, victory 'can' be achieved.
When shit hits the fan
If you take enough time for diplomacy, keeping up with the Jones' isn't too difficult. Trading technology can be time consuming but is necessary to stay from falling behind. If you play your cards right you'll get new techs and earn some spending money to boot. But diplomacy isn't just about trading technology. It's possible to grease palms here and there to increase your popularity and if you do it well, you'll be able to enter into alliances once the technology for that becomes available. This is where things get interesting.
You see, there are no borders in this game. Technically there's a border that shows your influence range and like Civ, influence can extend into enemy territory. Planets can peacefully change hands as the pressure of this influence builds on its population but the border does no more than that. This means that enemy ships, as well as your own, can traverse the map freely. Having an ally surfing along your planets isn't all that scary but what if your ally happens to have a heavy presence near a planet of a race you'd like to subjugate? Allies almost always seem to honor their pact with you and declaring war would mean your ally is in a perfect position to overtake that planet.
The game offers a lot of opportunities like that but you'll have to strategize to get the most out of diplomacy and alliances. If you do your homework, your plans will work out well but everything can turn sour in a hurry too. A great example of how bad something can go was when I noticed that three of the largest races were allied. Only the smallest remaining civilization along with some of the minor races were unaligned. Even if I'd ally up with all of them, I'd be hugely outgunned. I did so and then shit hit the fan. The race I had been wanting to kick out of the galaxy almost since the start declared war on a minor race. I felt obliged to honor my alliance and before I knew it, everyone was at war with everyone and the universe descended into uncontrolled chaos. A definite "uh-oh" moment. Great fun!
No Pros and Cons at this time