by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Diplomacy can be a pretty strong tool if you play to its strengths. If your focus is on war and expansion, some of the more powerful agreements will likely only become available mid-way through the game. Military alliances, for example, take some time to research. If you're an active enough lobbyist, though, forgoing the sword in favour of the pen is often a perfectly viable early-game strategy. Just stay out of your neighbour's hair, butter him up with a gift or two and trade goods to keep the relationship warm until he's ready to get into bed with you. Once tucked in, the threat of war from others diminishes as your combined strength grows.
Still, unless you are the dominant species, it's unlikely you will get through to the credits screen without tearing up an enemy or two. The AI is very capable as a builder and a more than fair economist, but it's not the best at - preparing - for war. Where a human player would position his fleets in favourable places, AI civs will declare war without taking any note of where their forces are. This is one of the few edges the human player has, as the AI is generally quicker to get mining operations going for special resources, colonizing nearby planets and building fleets of any reasonable size. Once war is underway, though, the AI is perfectly capable of piling on the pressure, sending out fleets to harass your defences and landing troop transports on your planets.
Another possible advantage is ship design. When not ravaged by recent wars or severely behind in technology, enemy civs will put forward capable fleets in considerable quantities. Using Galactic Civilization 3's ship designer - a modern marvel that allows users to create any ship they could possibly think of - you can design ships to your exact specification. Small, well designed fleets can prove to be very effective.
For the actual combat, the game asks its players to take the back seat. Whether ordering fleets to engage in space or dropping soldiers on enemy soil, your involvement is pretty much zero. Space battles feature a battle viewer which allows you to spectate and get some insight into the strengths and weaknesses of its participants. It all looks a bit comical and I doubt anyone will watch more than a handful of these. For ground combat, only a results screen informs you of your failure or success. There are mid-game technologies that add defender-mellowing bombardments and biological warfare to your invasion choices but that's as far as it goes.
The devil in the detail
Just a week ago, the game performed dreadfully on my system, but over the last few days things have improved dramatically. The game is now stable, though it does run out of steam if you play all day. A restart fixes that, so no biggy there. Zooming in and out on large, densely populated maps tends to go with a few hiccups but not to the point that it starts to irritate.
There are, however, some things where I think Galactic Civilizations could have done better. One of the diplomacy layers, the United Planets, allows the galaxy's inhabitants to vote on topics like colonizing planets within each other's territories. It works but there are not enough topics and there is no way to influence the voting behaviour of others. As a result, it is a bit lacklustre. Sticking with diplomacy, minor race leaders are not animated and even the major ones are a little boring if you have first-hand experience playing StarDrive 2 and dealt with its disturbingly brilliant aliens.
More importantly, the AI seems to lose the plot in the end game. It is absolutely great at keeping you on your toes while you are in the lower to middle ranges of the power ladder but once you are comfortably leading the pack it seems as if it loses its fighting spirit. Playing on higher difficulty levels will intensify the early struggle and thus alleviates the problem but those looking to play a more casual game will find they can roll over the AI perhaps a little too easily.
Yet even without those improvements, Galactic Civilizations 3 is a phenomenal game. Like its predecessors, it brings something unique to the 4X table that goes beyond the sum of its parts. It oozes personality and no two games are the same. My best games over the last week were ones in which I was bullied around by the big guys, only to come out on top either through pure luck or sheer determination. How can you not love that! These are the experiences that make a game stand out, and stand the test of time.
Ship designer is a modern marvel and the game is wonderfully unpredictable. AI very strong during the early game.
Stutter during zooming. AI seems to lose its smarts later in the game.