Earlier this year, Stardock announced that it was delaying Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar, the expansion to its successful turn-based space strategy game, until next year. The reason was so that the company could add in a number of large new features that were recommended by fans. We recently got to check out this new and expanded expansion, and we discovered that many of these new features make the task of trying to conquer the galaxy a lot more interesting and challenging.
In Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, you take control of a human or alien faction and must use diplomacy, force, or economics to become the most powerful faction in the galaxy. One of the many new features in the Dark Avatar expansion now gives you more customization options in creating opponents, including selecting their personalities. Another thing that we noticed in the game setup is the new mega events feature, which is turned off by default. Mega events are huge, game-destabilizing events that are designed to really shake up whatever strategy you might have been relying on. For instance, with mega events turned on, there's a chance that all the empires can suddenly fracture into different pieces, causing chaos on a wild scale.
Upon starting the game, we noticed one or two major new features on the galactic map. For instance, most solar systems now have asteroid fields in addition to planets, and you'll start with a mining vessel that can create an asteroid mining base in the field. Once that's done, a line connects the mining facility to your planet, indicating the flow of resources. Each field can supply only one planet, though, and as we discovered while playing the game, even if you build an asteroid mining base there's no guarantee that you'll get the resources. That's because the mining facilities seem to have wills of their own, and they can switch which faction they want to supply. For instance, we built a successful and influential empire, at which point some of our neighbors' mining facilities decided that we were the stronger and better empire and redirected their resource output to our planets.
We became aware of another major new feature when the game informed us that one of our facilities had been infiltrated by an enemy spy. Yes, espionage is in the game, and the way it works is that you can allocate money during each turn toward spy production. Over time, you'll build up a small army of spies, though keep in mind that each successive spy costs more than its predecessor, which means that eventually you'll get to the point where it becomes cost prohibitive to make more spies. Now, if a spy infiltrates one of your facilities, you can send one of your spies to neutralize it. If you lose a spy, it's lost forever, and since replacements become more and more expensive, you'll have only a finite number of spies available. You can also plant spies into enemy facilities, where they can attempt to work their way in and steal technology, though some races have a super spy ability that makes them immune to espionage. If one of your spies hasn't been caught, you can remove the spy and return it to the spy pool.
Another thing that we noticed about the galaxy is that there are now worlds that are habitable only if you acquire the appropriate terraforming technology beforehand. First you need extreme colonization technology, and that lets you research the different technologies to colonize barren, radiated, toxic, aquatic, and heavy-gravity worlds. And speaking of technology, the tech tree has been a bit more streamlined than before in terms of presentation. You can still research dozens of different technologies, like all the different laser weapons, armor, propulsion techs, and more, but the tech tree is a bit more organized, giving you a clearer idea of how the technologies branch into different fields.
These new features add a fair amount of depth, especially when combined with the existing strategies. For instance, we were able to use espionage to stay ahead in the tech race by pilfering secrets from our neighbors. At the same time, we used the enhanced diplomacy features to trade some lower techs for ones we didn't have. The result was that we kept technological superiority, which allowed us to create better warships, which beefed up our military rating, which made it so no one wanted to mess with us. We played as a fairly benevolent power and didn't invade our neighbors, though you could use the same approach to building up military superiority and then attacking.
Visually, the Dark Avatar expansion doesn't seem to add any graphical enhancements, though Galactic Civilizations has never really been known for its looks. The interface remains clean and simple, and the nice thing is, all this new gameplay depth has been added without adding a lot of interface clutter. There's an extra tab or two in many of the screens that let you access espionage tools, though that's about it. Dark Avatar has an impressive amount of new content, enough really to merit it being a sequel. This is an expansion, though, so you'll need the original game to play it. Still, fans should be in for a reward when it ships next year.