Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords
It's A Well known fact that PC gamers love conquering outer space. You come home from the tragic monotony of work or study, and through the portal of that otherwise soul-sapping monitor, you transport yourself to the furthest reaches of the galaxy and the farthest futures of mankind. Obscure the fact your bedroom is a pigsty and you've surrendered the kitchen to the cockroaches with the distractions of terraforming class IV ice worlds. So welcome back Galactic Civilizations, take us away once more and transcend this mortal coil again by means of your turn-based space empire building.
Turn one, and your chosen species stands ready with a home world, a humble scout ship and a colony ship crammed full of interstellar asylum seekers. From here it's up to you to colonise new planets, mine resources and deal with your extraterrestrial competitors for universal domination as you see fit: shake their clammy reptilian hands in friendship, or ram a mass driver up their silky wormholes.
A Dark Matter
Galactic Civilization's game mechanics are straightforward, to the point of being second nature to any seasoned empire-builder. Building a military, researching technologies, expanding your colonies, trading with other civilisations: it's classic stuff, Sid Meier's Civilization in space. In fact, you can draw a line between many aspects of GCIIand Sid M's Civ, from the diplomacy screens, to the Special Projects (they'll be World Wonders) to the option of a cultural victory.
But these tried-and-tested mechanics are not served well by a poor interface. The tech tree is still sprawling and often incomprehensible ('What exactly is ploughing resources into Mini Balls II going to give me?'), unit stack management remains atrocious ('FOR GOD'S SAKE LET ME SELECT THE SPACE STATION!') and finding which units haven't moved this turn is a repetitive trawl. As Civ IV recently showed so clearly, a rejuvenated, intuitive interface can breathe new life into an old concept. Here, you want to be engrossed, you try to be engrossed, but you're prevented by sheer clunkiness.
The major renovation is GCII's 3D engine. Which is slightly misleading, actually, as the star map is still as flat as a pancake. From a certain angle, the jumbled clutter of multicoloured circles and beetling ships that is GCII's playing space appears as if an old lady has dropped her button collection. Space battles consist of clicking 'attack' and then watching a dreary 3D replay of the action, where the opposing ships float around poking each other with glowing red and green lines. Likewise planetary invasion, where your involvement is reduced to pressing a button at the start, then watching two armies pulverise each other in a poxy animation.
The disappointment of the 3D engine stretches to most of GCII's improvements -it all feels a little superficial really. Playing as different races doesn't alter the experience much, and the other trumpeted new features are interface tweaks that should have been addressed in a patch to the original rather than here in a sequel: grouping ships into fleets, having planets displayed on the star map, designing your own craft. A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this kind of last-generation gameplay would relieve the daily tedium. Now it's in danger of adding to it.
Take your pick
It may be dated, but the choices are nigh-on endless
One thing Dread Lords has in spades is game set-up options. Aside from your typical options such as number of opponents and size of map, there are many scenarios to choose from. Dread Lords on Parade unleashes the titular terrors on the universe, with you trying to unite the various races against them; while Battle of the Gods starts all races with all technologies, inviting one universe-wide slugfest There's also the Dark Lords campaign, a mission-based progression of games that gives you goals beyond booting the hell out of everyone else.
Lets Gloss Over our former reviewer's previous opinion of Galactic Civilization II, blame it on someone who's left and can't fight back, and reiterate the generally received facts about GCII this is the only really good challenger to Sid Meier's Civilization for the 4X strategy genre. And, as the word "galactic" implies, it's bigger, funnier and just as fine looking as its supposedly superior Leonard Nimoy-voiced cousin.
The game sees your race (chosen from the original selection of 10 highly differentiated races) starting out with a single planet, a colony, a survey ship (essential for exploring the myriad goodies), and a space mining vessel. Your aim is simply to dominate the universe, one way or another. How the map is set out depends entirely on what starting conditions you've chosen, from a simple small map with a couple of stars and races, to the imponderable measureless massiveness of the Immense map size, which frankly breaks weak minds asunder in its scope, as it features thousands of planets, dozens of races (major and minor), wormholes and asteroid belts. Thankfully, the universe is represented as a flat 2D plane, otherwise this would prove mind-bogglingly incomprehensibly complicated.
There's also a more limited campaign mode - the weakest part of the game, though it's still pretty damn fine - which drops you into a series of preset GCII maps with different starting setups (number of planets, allies, starting armies) and lists of objectives. But because of the enormous scope of GCII, it's very hard to focus on a target clearly and also irritating to start your whole research tree from scratch each level. That said, the story's well done, the scripting and writing of your alien compadres/foes is darkly funny, and the basic game mechanic is both addictive and endearing. And this contains all the campaigns of all three games. There's also a semi-multiplayer, called Multiverse, but it's more of a posh ranking table, so we'll skip past it.
The Endless Universe part of this release is a combination of two of GCII's expansions: Dark Avatar and Twilight of the Amor. This means there's a million little tweaks to the core gameplay in here; firstly, Dark Avatar brings the addition of mineable asteroid belts and a variety of horrible-yet-just-inhabitable planet types, to more important things like the Al-controlled Mega-Events (which can help to rebalance unbalanced conflicts) and customisable (but balanced) races to play against or as. Twilight of the Amor brings larger maps, unique technology trees for all 12 civilizations, and six editors.
In my last play through, as the End of the Zoners led by NotPorter, I destroyed the leading power in my galaxy without firing a shot. I built up my diplomacy skills so that every time the Drath threatened war I bought them off with new tech, whilst in the background paying the second and third strongest civilisations to attack them. Whilst they bled each other white, I built up my influence through starbases beaming cultural propaganda about our highly superior magazine industry near my borders. Soon, their armies were crushed and their planets were defecting in droves. The next time I played, as the Korath, my civilisation collapsed and entire planetary systems went turncoat as massive unsustainable debts created through an expansionist militarist policy led to a mid-game cultural stagnation.
Few games allow for emergent storytelling, but when they do they're the best of games: PlanetSide, Spore and Dwarf Fortress to name a few. Yet only Galactic Civilizations II has the amazing size and depth, intelligent, charismatic AI participants, and array of victories or failures to do this constantly and consistently. This game genuinely throws up new stories each time you play, on both a grand and a minor level.
Be warned though: buy GCII, and you may never need another strategy game ever again.
Could GCII be turned into Spore? Yes, easily.
As we all know, Spore's biggest innovation was making us, the paying plebs, do all the grunt work in the game by making the interesting creatures. Handcrafting that much content would take the lifetime of a design team, but Galactic Civilizations II has something similar.
All your spaceships are completely customisable. There are basic units always on offer, but you won't succeed if you don't take advantage of newly researched upgrades, and you can also build them from scratch visually.
All Stardock need to do is patch GCII to feed players' content to each other through the Multiverse ranking tables, so it randomly appears as enemy races on other player's games and make the whole thing a lot cuter, and you've got Spore. Or at least Spore's final level.
Download Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode