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PC Gaming: GalCiv is Not a Weird Girl’s Name

posted Aug 30, 2012, 12:36 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: October 21, 2009

I’m off to wondrous Hanford, CA for GMT Games Weekend West first thing tomorrow, so a few quick thoughts will have to suffice as my appraisal of Galactic Civilizations 2, the most recent iteration of Stardock’s classic 4x sci-fi PC game. I’m currently on hiatus from my third game, the first at the Beginner setting and the next two at Normal, and all of them using the Classic Galaxy parameters, so that I’m playing the Terrans against four other set civilizations. As is my wont, I’m trying to work my way up the difficulty ladder and using the same parameters each game, to make sure I’m learning through apples-to-apples comparisons between each game.

When I said that GalCiv 2 does a fine job of stealing ideas from other 4x games, I meant that as a sincere compliment. Just about everything about the game reminds of some other colonize ‘n conquer game, but only the good ones — and when you come down to it, this is such a venerable genre by now that there really isn’t a great need to re-invent the wheel.

My first pass at the Beginner level was really absurdly easy, but the Normal level provides more substantive challenges. In fact, by halfway through my third game, I had concluded that, even more so than the first two Master of Orion games, success in GalCiv 2 depends very much on your luck of the draw. With star systems and habitable planets distributed somewhat randomly, you may find yourself very badly screwed if there are not enough of both within easy reach of your starting homeworld to keep you competitive with your peers. GalCiv 2 adds a couple of interesting asset types — anomalies and resources — that can be exploited without colonizing planets, but ultimately there is no substitute for having planets as platforms for ongoing production, revenue and research.

I found myself badly outclassed by the Acreans in my first game at Normal because most of the star systems that I could reach in the exploration phase were duds. With only a couple of major colonies, I could never catch up to them in any important facet of the game. Ultimately, I surrendered and started another game rather than die a lingering death.

My luck of the draw in the next game was little better, and I found myself running a distant 4th in a 5-player race. However, I found that GalCiv 2 gives you some interesting outs if you’re relatively weak. One is the existence of minor races. The Classic Galaxy setting provides one at the start of the game, and they can spawn spontaneously as the game goes on. When they spawn, the appear in planets that were previously uninhabitable and instant convert them into premium habitable worlds. If one pops up close to or in your territory, it’s a fairly simple matter to conquer it and add some prime real estate to your star empire. I was able to do so, and it gave me just enough leverage to strengthen my military and overpower the 5th place Torians, which gave me yet another premium colony. Suddenly, I had doubled my production capacity, which made my position respectable.

Another nudge that the game gives you is the sudden appearance of ancient, powerful technology in the form of big warships. It seems that if you’re running behind in military strength, archaeologists from your faction will discover these ships, your engineers will dust them off, and they join your military out of nowhere. They pack a punch, so they’re useful.

As with Master of Orion, I find designing your own ships to be strangely satisfying, as you need to min-max within the space limitations of the basic hull designs, and according to the purpose of the ship. However — as was also the case with MOO — it generally takes so long to build a state-of-the-art ship that by the time you’ve launched enough to make a difference, you’re already researching the next generation of technology.

Unlike MOO, however, there is no tactical battle mode that allows you to turn a game in your favor through tactical brilliance and moxie. But the balletic, splendidly animated battle animations almost make up for it. Because they vary according to the exact composition of forces, they’re fun to watch, even if you can’t do anything to affect the outcome.

One last thought: GalCiv 2 offers a variety of paths to victory, like a lot of 4x games. You can exterminate your foes, turn them all into allies, gain overwhelming cultural superiority, or complete the entire tech research tree and become as gods. However, unlike some 4x games, you really get the feeling here that each path is just about equally viable. For instance, with just about all of the Sid Meier’s Civilization games, I have always felt that the space race path was easily the most viable and the others were just too difficult to actively pursue. In GalCiv 2, however, you feel as if you really do have a choice, and it’s not just based on which faction you choose to play.