Summary: The continuing saga of the Galactic Civilizations universe as the Drengin Empire, rules of the galaxy, begins to splinter. Plus, new features like spies, Mega Events, and Super Abilities! But is it good?
Galactic Civilizations has been culling ideas from some of its predecessors for some time, while also developing its own. The trend continues in Dark Avatar. Like the Master of Orion games, players can not colonize all worlds from the start. There are water planets, heavy gravity worlds, toxic environments and radioactive wastelands. Before these can be colonized, the proper technologies have to be discovered – and then refined. Simply being able to colonize a heavy-G world doesn't mean you're going to thrive on it until more research is done.
The new campaign bears some similarity to Star Control 2. Dark Avatar continues the story with the Drengin Empire effectively ruling the galaxy, making slaves of other races. However, the Korath Clan of the Drengin Empire are more into extermination of their foes. Star Control fans will doubtless be able to guess where this is going.
Dark Avatar doesn't lack for grand ideas, however. The first and perhaps most noticeable are the mega events. These are seemingly random events with galaxy-wide consequences. For example, after conquering the Korath with my custom race focused on technology, my Influence level shot through the roof thanks to all the new worlds. With my technological advantages this only got worse, and even though I hadn't been planning a cultural victory, the game fired an event where other races accused mine of attempting cultural conquest. They got a huge bonus to their influence and I was left reeling, with many worlds now falling under the spell of the Krynn and Drath Legion. Fortunately, these Mega events are optional. They can and often do wildly change the balance of the game.
Super Abilities are another new feature of Dark Avatar. Super Isolationists keep their enemies going through their space at only 1 parsec per turn, Super Traders start with all trade technologies, and so on. There are asteroid fields in most star systems now, which can be mined for production resources. To make things more interesting, the fields can be assigned to any planet the player owns – meaning that resources can be focused as needed. Is a food/economy planet that's slow to upgrade its structures to the highest tech ones? Sending mining resources there will greatly speed production.
In the small refinements front, the interface has been cleaned up a bit. One noticeable improvement is in the tech tree, which no longer sprawls nearly as much as it did. Now, all “Laser” weapons fit into one block, which has sub-divisions for “Laser II”, “Laser III”, “Laser IV” and so on. This makes navigation of the tech tree much easier.
Opponents can be customized as well. Curious to see a “Good” race that is hell-bent on military conquest? You can make it happen. Or perhaps you'd like to see evil, genocidal Insectoids who are peaceful as lambs? All that is a slider away.
Players must also decide how much, if any, resources to devoid to constructors which will seize galactic resources that act as multipliers on various abilities – economic, research, influence, morale, or military. Constructors are significant investments early in the game, and starbases are free kills unless you dedicate more constructors to arm the starbase. More decisions face the player as he manages his tax rate and spending on military, social, and research projects. Some races are more suited to certain approaches, or they can use their natural advantages to counter-balance poor financial support in an area. Economic races, for example, can handle a lower tax rate which will improve morale, or they can try to maximize their income and trade money for technologies or influence.
All this is a solid foundation for what is a good match against the AI. The variety of AI settings will result in games that range from a cakewalk to an epic beatdown. My rust in the GC franchise showed through when I had the floor mopped with me three straight times on Normal. Finally, after swallowing my pride (it goes down easier with beer -ed.), I set the difficulty down to Beginner and proceeded to finally get far enough along in-game to take screenshots. The AI is as good as it ever was, and has adapted to the changes with the game quite well. It uses the new spies effectively, and more importantly, is intelligent enough to counter the player's spy usage.
The robust AI options are all present and have been supplemented with Research and Economic treaties, that give the receiving party a boost. These treaties can be one-way, the player can simply buy or trade for a treaty, or they can be exchanges. Trade is as important as always, and established by sending freighters to foreign worlds. The longer the trade route, the more time it exists, the more profitable it is. Once one considers the economic advantages of building a string of economic starbases all along a route to boost trade revenue, it becomes tempting to trade with a single world or power. However, this tends to imbalance the game, by making that AI state significantly richer, since trade goes both ways. On the bright side, such extensive trade ties boost relations to their peak.
Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar does have some warts, however. Mega events can be considered disruptive in the best of circumstances, but there are some cool ones that happen. Unfortunately, the game only permits the player to disable them completely. Also, games that progress well into the tech tree can really bog down a system even on a medium-sized map. It takes considerable horsepower to run the AI, apparently. The Galactic Senate also hasn't changed much recently, it still has the same old issues being voted on.
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