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Review by: Richard Leader
Published: April 4, 2003
The only good developer is a dead one: a harsh reality for those wishing to add their names to the ranks of those who have contributed to the venerable 4X genre of strategy games. Even the so-called greats that have inspired numerous contemporary titles, such as Simtex’s 1995 Master of Magic, were all panned by critics in their own day. Each and every product is simply too buggy, too derivative, and just too shy of perfection for the impossible standard demanded by a genre grounded in nostalgia. Like mythology surrounding the genius of poets and artists who were impoverished throughout their days on Earth, only after the demise of a development house and many years have passed do many of these games receive the veneration that they deserve, fans clamoring in vain for a sequel. Managing to survive these troubled waters has been Brad Wardell and Stardock, the makers of Galactic Civilizations, whose combination of hard work, luck, and underdog status has allowed them to remain at the helm of their own franchise throughout the years, which was once the saving grace of IBM’s OS/2 platform.
Whatever imperfections that Galactic Civilizations might possess, it certainly has an impressive pedigree and it has recently been the recipient of two substantial windfalls. First, the addition of HyperThreading technology to Intel’s latest line of processors, allowing a single CPU to effectively emulate a system of multiple processors working together, has put Galactic Civilizations into the limelight for its deeply multi-threaded programming, something that has been a part of the series since its initial offering in the days of OS/2. This ability allows the software to employ a proactive AI that constantly has its gears in motion, even before the player reaches for the “next turn” button. Moreover, a publishing consideration pushed its chief rival, Master of Orion 3, also a product of Infogrames, out the door, first, and into the waiting hands of a volatile public who were largely dismissive of the changes made to the familiar franchise. The culmination of these two events has moved Galactic Civilizations from the periphery to center stage in the minds of many gamers, a publicity triumph, to be sure, that is tempered by the unreasonable expectation that it needs to fulfill two legacies: both its own and that of Master of Orion 2.
A prototypical 4X release (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate), every game in Galactic Civilizations is different, both the map and the starting conditions are randomly generated before play begins: It is up to the participant to give meaning to the virtual universe through his or her own actions. Players are cast into the role of the humans, a fledgling species whose discovery of hyperspace travel has severely unbalanced the precarious relationships between the galactic powers. Previously, travel was only possible by use of a series of jump-gates that required energy to be supplied at both ends, making war an impossibility as a gate could simply be disabled from one side, thwarting an invasion. With the arrival of the humans and their new technology, the race is on to colonize every habitable planet and construct starbases to extract the limited resources of the galaxy.
While the humans are the only faction that players are allowed to command, there are numerous ways to tailor them to a specific strategy, allowing for a wide variety of experiences. The first selection is that of the primary political party: from pacifists to a war party, each brings a number of natural advantages, provided that party remains in power. This is initially a forgone conclusion, as Earth is commanded fairly despotically, but with more advanced forms of government that bring substantial economic benefits through federalism, every few years a vote is called for. If popular opinion is dissatisfied with the current regime, another can assume control, negating all party benefits whatsoever. As a result of this, morale is an important aspect of Galactic Civilizations as it allows for these advanced forms of government or even just higher tax rates with the current one. As such, planetary improvements that improve moral are costly, as they function also as economic powerhouses, although more indirectly than banking centers and stock exchanges. This also has an effect on colonization as planets with low habitat ratings, less than the ideal minimum ranking of 15, have a substantial morale penalty associated with them.
Players are also allowed to choose a perpetual bonus, where they are given 10 percentage points to spend as they will across a variety of categories, such as research or population growth. Each civilization has about twenty different statistics tied to it, listed as percentiles, which govern its other attributes. These can be increased through research, developing trade goods, and by building starbases on resources to harvest them. Each of these modifies the base effectiveness of a given action, process, or unit. This is automatic: a high weapon rating increases the base attack of any ship by the appropriate percentage while an aptitude for social production is multiplied by any industrial structures a planet might possess. However, those 10 free initial points are statistically insignificant, and Stardock’s first patch for the product has created a more interesting system in the mold of Master of Orion 2, even allowing a “creative” option that gives a species the ability to research technologies that are often forbidden to them under normal circumstances. Perhaps the most powerful of these new additions is a bonus to planet quality, which can raise the initial rating of planets a whole fifteen percent, allowing the race to colonize systems that most other species would avoid.
Although the galaxy is not exactly teeming with life at the start of a game, there are five long-established species in addition to the humans. The Drengin and the Arceans are the oldest of these and harbor ancient animosities for each other, with outright war being a distinct possibility, now that hyperspace technology is available. While the Arceans are rather unexceptional, the Drengin are an evil and bloodthirsty race, posing a threat in nearly every confrontation. The Yor are a cybernetic species that seems to enjoy its status as an enigma amongst the other races, and behave rather chaotically, even as they remain self-serving. The Torians were once slaves of the Drengin but successfully rebelled; even so, they seem to hold no ill will towards their former masters, sharing many of the same belief systems, even if they are generally good. Curiously, the noble Altarians are almost identical to humans, although their home world is also host to an advanced reptilian life form. Angelic in demeanor, they will often come to the aid of those in need, the idea of “good” not being defined by pacifism.
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