Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords (GalCiv II), Stardock's turn based strategy space conquest game, is a prime example of what happens when a company sets out with one main objective: to make a fantastic product, complete with the features, design plan, and scope that the designers want rather than worrying about focus groups and bottom lines. The result is one of the best strategy games ever designed – and arguably the best space strategy "4X" game ever made; yes even better than Master of Orion and its sequels. Galactic Civilizations II is simply that good. It really is amazing just how much is packed into this game. This sequel takes the potential from the 2003 original and blows open the doors. From the graphics and combat to the AI and the diplomacy model, GalCiv II is the complete sequel. It's better in every conceivable way.
The most obvious upgrade is in the area of graphics and artwork. Gone is the static galaxy screen, the simple sprite based graphics, and lonely star systems. The playing field now looks truly alive with colorful suns and planets, small orbiting moons, and a 3D camera that allows you to spin, rotate and zoom in and out as you see fit. The enhanced graphic look is carried over to the combat viewer, as well. When ships collide in battle you are presented with a VCR-type viewer that allows you to sit back and watch the battles unfold. You can pause the action, switch the camera, etc. This not only looks cool, particularly when huge multi-ship fleets engage each other, but it also gives you a chance to view how your ships handle themselves against a certain enemy and if you need to upgrade a particular defense or weapon tech. It's important to note that you aren't commanding the battles or even giving basic orders; you are simply a spectator.
Another new element is the ship design system. Designing ships in the old Master of Orion games was a mini game in and of itself and that's definitely the case here as upgrading and redesigning the ships in your fleet is an absolute blast. You can literally spend hours of game time fiddling around in the shipyards, adding designs and tweaking a ship's setup. Do you opt for more engine power or better defense? You just researched this new super weapon technology but it takes up a lot of hull space. Do you forego shields and defensive measures in order to use your new toy? The ship design system is crucial in a game like this and GalCiv II's model is superbly executed.
Stardock clearly understands what makes hardcore strategy gamers tick. Not only is this evident in the game's brilliant AI but also due to the fact that nearly everything is linked to a custom option. You can rename ship designs, planets, space stations, and even custom create your own race if you aren't thrilled with any of the ten default cultures. The game is also very mod-friendly and allows you to import custom graphics in order to really personalize things. Stuff like this is overlooked by so many games but its importance cannot be underestimated. Also important, but not in terms of the game itself, is that Stardock has made the game playable without the CD. Again, this is a huge convenience. It's as if Stardock is saying, "Hey, thanks for buying the game." Just fire it up and off you go.
The game is also full of wit and humor, especially in the technology write ups after you reach a new tech or when in diplomatic sessions with another leader. If you try to make a silly tech trade with another race, the leader may ask if you're drinking again or ask if the universal translator is working. Again, it's not a groundbreaking feature but little stuff like this goes a very, very long way.
Being a futuristic strategy game, the technologies have the potential to overwhelm gamers if they aren't handled properly. Again, Stardock pulls this off by flatly describing what each tech does. Unlike the obtuse Master of Orion 3, GalCiv II tells you exactly what the techs do (and there are a lot of them) in plain English. Basic Miniaturization allows you to put more stuff on your ships. Miniballs are like space-bullets that are countered by Titanium Armor. Soil Enrichment allows you to build on previously inhabitable locations on a planet. It's easy, simple, and very effective. There is not one case where you look at a tech in the tech tree and are left thinking, "Hmm, I wonder what this does."
Getting back to the AI – this is really what makes GalCiv II stand out from the crowd. This game has some of the best enemy AI around. It's clever, doesn't cheat, makes mistakes, anticipates, and is generally wonderful. Each of the game's ten races behaves as separate entities and will treat you differently depending on the race you are playing. Still, what makes the AI so brilliant isn't that it's hard to beat, but rather that it acts more like a human than any other turn based strategy game around. It's programmed to guess what a human may do – and it'll flat out tell you that it knows what you're up to. It's borderline creepy. On the harder levels of difficulty if you leave the AI an opening it rushes through it, make a blunder and it jumps all over you, try to make a crazy tech trade and it'll laugh at you and tell you why, but it's also prone to making "human" mistakes. It's not perfect nor should it be. It's simply a brilliant AI game model and it ensures that no two games of GalCiv II will ever play the same.
If there's a downside it's that it lacks multiplayer and at times the normal game can take several turns to build up steam (although you can start an accelerated game to get the weapons tech moving.) Also, the game has crashed a few times, but with the autosave feature it's not that huge of a deal since your progress isn't scrapped. Also, the game has a fairly high learning curve. It takes a while to learn how the economy works in relation to your planets. It took several "start up games" before finally catching on to how everything works. Once you get past the initial difficulty hurdle (and it's not calculus, just a bit tougher than your average game) then it's smooth sailing.
Galactic Civilizations II is pretty much everything you could ask for in a turn based space strategy game: great AI, great diplomacy model, a ship designer, easy to understand techs, multiple races, multiple custom options, good graphics, solid interface, and a replay value that is through the roof. Between this and Civilization IV, turn based strategy gamers now have both the past and future pretty much handled and have very little reason to leave the house. - William Abner