Summary: Master of Orion 3 entered the bottomless abyss of suckage and managed to make it even deeper. If gamers are a bit shy about even mentioning 4X strategy games ever again, we'd understand. Of course Jakub, being the masochist that he is, dived right into GalCiv without batting an eye and returned unscathed. Well, he's been foaming at the mouth whenever he mentions the Yor Collective, but we've got a good life insurance policy on him in case he has rabies anyway.
Look who’s daddy now
It must have really sucked to be designer/programmer/head marketing flak/swamp master Brad Wardell a few months ago, when MOO3’s ship date was finalized and coincided with Galactic Civilizations’. The effect was not unlike trying to release an independent movie at the same time as the new Star Wars. No matter how good your game sounded, everyone expected Master of Orion 3 to crush it.
What GalCiv is
In many ways, Galactic Civilizations is the anti-MOO3. Whereas Master of Orion 3 built on the complexity of Master of Orion 2 and added AI elements to help the player cope, GalCiv took a cleaner approach to the manner. Resembling Civilization and Warlords more than Master of Orion, Galactic Civilizations is a deceptively simple game with deep gameplay that belies humble graphics.
SIDEBAR: I’m really looking forward to E3 this year. Just pity the poor souls at the Denver airport if I have to suffer layover wait there.
GalCiv has some of the best AI we’ve ever encountered in a strategy game. Even vaunted titles like Civilization 3 had, in reality, terrible AI. The AI would cheat, constantly swapping technologies with itself even if two opponents were at war. It would know the locations of player cities and units despite fog of war, and discovered strategic resources with uncanny accuracy.
The AI isn’t just difficult, however. It’s communicative and, well, intelligent in a very human way. A player with great cultural influence might not declare war against someone, but he may decide to destabilize him to cause his planets to defect. If that opponent declares war, then the cultural power will try to bring in an ally. The AI recognizes threats and communicates about them. If one race is becoming too powerful, the player may get messages from other races suggesting that this one race is a mutual threat. A far cry from the days when the AI in games would indiscriminately focus on the player, no?
So what’s the secret?
There is both less and more to the AI’s capabilities than there seems. Its ability to keep up with the player is really nothing but choosing the right build order and technologies. Fortunately there are many, many build orders and paths to take to win. Indeed, the exact formula to win is not known and probably never will be. Does it pay off to build fusion power plants before manufacturing centers? Or should you put those off until you have a research center first? What technologies should you choose in conjunction with those? How much are you willing to compromise your military or your public’s happiness? What form of government will give you the most benefits, yet allow you to win enough elections? There are no perfect formulas, but there are guidelines to winning and the AI is very adept at following them. There truly are many ways to win – through trade and alliances, a cultural victory or good old-fashioned genocide. Except Alpha Centauri, no other game has truly managed this, and even AC’s non-combat methods of victory weren’t that exciting. With GalCiv, they’re often preferable to war.
Yet to attribute the success of the AI to simple formulas is incorrect. Other formula AIs (like in RTS games such as StarCraft) fail miserably after initial engagements; their grasp of the strategic situation is horrible. GalCiv delivers a very compelling experience, almost like playing another human being. The AI knows when your space station is there for trade or to beef up your military units. Should you upgrade a starbase to do both, sometimes the AI will tolerate your increased military presence in its sector in exchange for improved trade, sometimes not. The AI may also demand or offer tribute or trade – and everything is up for trade! All-in-all, GalCiv has set a new standard for strategy game AI and games will be compared to this for years to come.
SIDEBAR: Am I really running out of ideas for transition text to the next page so soon into an article? Tsk tsk.
AI aside, GalCiv’s greatest gameplay achievement is the Starbase. Starbases are somewhat of a unique idea as far as games go. The scale of their effect on gameplay is not unlike that of shrines and temples in Warlords, but the way they do it is completely different.
The bad, the bad, and the ugly bad
For all its strengths, GalCiv is far from perfect. The interface can be a bit clumsy, which is somewhat of a surprise as GC is designed by a company that sells improvements to the Windows GUI. Like MOO3, it often shows the player unnecessary information. Unlike MOO3, with a few games it becomes easy to discern between important and unimportant data. A planet’s exact population, like that of a city in Civilization, is irrelevant. What’s more important is the quality of the planet, the happiness of the citizens, and its improvements.
Finally, Galactic Civilizations isn’t exactly perfect on the gameplay front. While it may have adopted Civilization-style unit creation (ie, no customized units) and combat, it just doesn’t have the same zing to it as it should. Part of the reason is the unfamiliarity of the units – everyone can imagine an archer, a legionnaire and a rifleman. A space-borne battleship, frigate, or defenders are units without any character. Furthermore, there are far fewer units and unit types to play around with in GalCiv. A Battleship typically takes anywhere from 24 to 133 turns to build, depending on the planet. Since it is the first unit capable of assault defended starbases or planets, the combat that occurs before its appearance is not nearly as dramatic. To top things off, there are only two ships better than a Battleship – the Dreadnought and Ranger. Pardon us for lamenting the sorry state of combat even as we conquer the perfidious Torians with our trade goods and McDonald’s culture.
SIDEBAR: One would think that pillowball mounts mean a comfortable ride. Instead, these hardened aluminum strut mounts can induce a compressed spine, with a stiff-enough suspension.