by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Took 'm long enough
I think I’ve aged 10 years in the last week. I've spent that week digging into the nuts and bolts of Galactic Civilizations 3 and have seen a game that crashed every few hours on a path to glory.
The franchise has been on hiatus for almost a decade. Often mentioned in the same breath as giants such as Civilization, Master of Orion and Age of Wonders, it's been rather perplexing to see that it has taken Stardock as long as they have. Yet it's back, and it has already robbed me of 80 hours of my life which I watched it do with an ever growing smile.
Founding an empire
Galactic Civilizations 3 follows in its predecessors’ footsteps with almost pinpoint precision. You're thrust into the role of a would-be space empire and are about to find out that you're not alone. Your first colony ship sits besides your home planet, a survey ship stands by to explore space anomalies and a small scout is eager to be pointed towards the nearest star system to see if it sports any habitable planets. A cool 5000 credits in your pocket and a starbase waiting for orders complete your 'empire in a box' toolset. You're ready, the galaxy will be yours!
Well, maybe not so fast. Galactic Civilizations isn't hard to get into but there is a modest learning curve. Managing planets and ordering ships around the campaign map isn't too hard but if you want to enjoy the game at higher difficulty levels, you'll need to get intimate with the game's tech tree and ship designer.
A huge part of Galactic Civilizations' fun is in discovering different ways of doing things. There is no single path to victory and something that worked in a previous game may not work in the one you are playing now. The map generator lies at the heart of this wonderful randomness. If you are lucky to start near a few star systems with lots of great planets, you're probably off to a flying start. If you're not, it can be a real struggle to keep up. And even if you do, there's no guarantee that one of the AI civilizations won't have an even better start.
You may still muck it up too. Focus too much on military tech and you'll find your growth lagging behind. Without a solid economy, your shipyards cannot keep up with the speed at which the enemy churns out new ships and before you know it waves upon waves of modestly powerful AI ships are mopping up your fancy fleets.
Then, just when you think all is lost, a friendly civ pops up on your screen to tell you that they see no way out of their own war and are handing everything left over into your care. Your struggling empire doubles in size, striking fear into the civ that's been harassing you - a peace deal is struck and you can breathe again.
Nothing is ever certain in Galactic Civilizations 3. The tables can turn on a whim, and suddenly you're no longer the under but the overdog. Payback, as they say, is a bitch.
Exploration is generally fun and at times even exciting. In larger universes, the tension of the impending “first contact” rises with every turn and few things can compete with the elation over an early discovery of a usable ship drifting inside a pile of space rubble. Well, maybe the rush of finding a lush planet and getting to it first can, especially when you know your neighbours have seen it too.
Once colonized, you get to tailor the planet to your exact specification. If that same lush planet provides a manufacturing bonus, you could build factories and make it a sponsor to a nearby shipyard so that it can churn out spaceships that much faster. It may also have beautiful beaches that make it the perfect money-generating tourist trap. By grouping similar buildings close together, you can optimise their output and - if you love to micromanage - tearing down existing buildings to replace them with more suitable ones can really boost efficiency.
Colonizing new planets is the easiest way to obtain ideology points. Landing colonists invariably leads to a popup offering up a choice of what to do with the planet's special feature. Do you absorb the local life form into your midst to increase research in favour of growth? You'll probably get some points towards the benevolent ideology. Do you drive them off their land for a manufacturing bonus instead? Malevolent points for you. Once you've gained enough points, you can unlock all kinds of bonuses, like 10% extra research, or trade income, or perhaps some free ships.
Some of these bonuses come on top of the technology that comes out of your laboratories. Research is split over Colonization, Engineering, Warfare, and Governance. Many technologies lead to a choice between three specialisations which further enhance it in specific areas. Think hulls that can either be made stronger, smaller or cheaper to produce. Once a specialization is chosen, the only way to obtain the other two is through trade, making your choices especially meaningful when trade for whatever reason simply is not possible.
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.