Space-empire-building is one of the most intriguing premises for a computer game. Alien planets, interstellar conquest, futuristic weapons - many great games have used these and other epic sci-fi elements as a framework, and Space Empires: IV is another excellent addition to this genre. The game has a limited distribution, but it deserves a place alongside the best sci-fi strategy games.
As the name suggests, Space Empires: IV is actually the fourth iteration in the Space Empires series of games. The previous three were released as shareware, and they gained a cult following. For the latest version, developer Malfador Machinations has teamed up with independent publisher Shrapnel Games. This means that you still won't be able to find Space Empires: IV in stores (you can order it only from the company Web site), but the game now comes on CD instead of as a download. It also comes with a printed manual.
The premise of the game is simple enough, and it sticks close to the genre's fundamentals. Your race must expand through and conquer the galaxy while designing and building new ships, researching advanced technologies, and colonizing planets. Each system has a number of planets of varying sizes, compositions, and atmospheres, and warp points connect systems to each other. All the standard space-game conventions are present: colony ships to settle new planets, different hull sizes, plenty of weapons, as well as some extreme detail, like supply levels for individual ships.
The graphics in Space Empires: IV are clean and functional but still plain and unpolished, particularly the individual race portraits. The sounds fare rather worse - they actually wouldn't seem out of place in a space arcade game from 1985. These shortcomings may put off those looking for Civilization II in space, as the aesthetic elements of Space Empires: IV don't even match those in that 4-year-old game. But Space Empires: IV succeeds in spite of this because the developer knows its audience, and it was able to concentrate on the essentials.
Actually, the game has almost too much to it. Even a review five times this size would be hard-pressed to adequately explain all the features. Planets can support a multitude of individual structures and ships can take on a wide variety of designs; and there are different resource types (minerals, organics, and radioactive ore) to collect and manage. Planets can become unhappy for a variety of reasons, and they need to be kept satisfied - or problems will occur. You also need to keep track of mines, satellites, fighters and the carriers that house them, and seemingly a million and one other features and options you'll discover when you explore the game.
The tactical combat is reminiscent of the popular space-empire game, Master of Orion II, and it's just as complex. There is a "strategic combat" option in which the combat is automatically resolved by the computer without switching to the tactical view, as well as an "auto" function in which the computer takes control of your ships - however, you watch the battle on the tactical screen. The strategic function generates good results in that a fleet that would have won had the battle been played out tactically will also win with strategic resolution, but tactical combat can be important to determine how to counter an opponent's weapons. For example, if he's going heavy on missiles and missile research, you'll need to crank up the point defense systems. These kinds of considerations add healthy doses of strategy to every aspect of the game. There is even a ground combat element, although it isn't played out on a tactical map like space combat is, in which players can design ground combat vehicles with various weapons that are then taken into account in ground battles. The entire game system shows a great deal of detail on every menu screen.
In fact, the reason Space Empires: IV is such a good game is that it demonstrates a remarkable understanding for what its core audience is looking for in a computer game. Recent space-empire games such as Reach for the Stars and Imperium Galactica II have been criticized for stripping out detail, rather than providing additional detail and challenge to the conventional formula. However, Space Empires: IV spares nothing: It has depth, tactical combat, and as much micromanagement as you're likely to find in a space-empire game. The only thing that Space Empires: IV lacks is flashy graphics and special effects, but for the audience that demands involved strategy and micromanagement above all else, this is not likely to matter much.
Another feature that hard-core strategy game players expect is the ability to customize almost every important aspect of the game. Space Empires: IV lets you do so. The manual clearly describes which text files contain various data, and all of these can be edited, as can the game graphics themselves. As such, you could theoretically create a complete, custom mod based on the Space Empires: IV engine by using your favorite science fiction as the source material.
There is plenty of customizability in the game, even without the use of any additional files. Everything from the layout of the galaxy to the conditions required for victory can be adjusted. You can set the characteristics of opposing races and then assign them to the computer player. The number of starting planets, the cost and extent of available technology, and the frequency and severity of special events can all be adjusted. This, along with multiplayer capability, makes Space Empires: IV a game that can be played almost indefinitely without becoming stale.
It's important to note that this level of depth does come at a price, which is the extreme level of micromanagement required that can overwhelm the interface and the player alike when an empire gets very large. To mitigate this, the game has a system of "ministers," each of which has a specific duty, such as research or production. Some of these ministers are extremely helpful, like the supply minister who automatically assigns ships low on supplies to make for the nearest resupply point. Others, charged with more-essential tasks like directing research, can be problematic and should probably not be used.
One of the real shortcomings in Space Empires: IV is the manual, and this is doubly damaging because of the game's incredible depth. There are two sources of documentation: a 45-page paper manual (also included as an Acrobat file) and an HTML manual on the CD. Unfortunately, the paper manual is more of a "getting started" guide, and it barely scrapes the surface of the game; the HTML manual simply explains what all the windows and buttons do without ever explaining many of the core mechanics behind the game. There isn't even a description of the extensive technology tree. This makes the learning curve steeper than it should be.
Several problems crop up in the game mechanics as well. One is the diplomacy model, which seems to generate erratic results in that races are extremely fickle in their relations. You'll notice that races that have offered you a "treaty of partnership," the closest association in the game, will declare war on you two or three turns later. This makes it extremely difficult to manage diplomatic relations and makes alliance-building essentially impossible. For this reason, matches in Space Empires: IV tend to devolve into your having to battle every remaining race in the galaxy.
As you fight for control, you'll notice that because of the sparse graphics and sound, the alien races in the game don't really come alive in the way they did in other sci-fi empire games such as Master of Orion or Imperium Galactica II. There are plenty of options to customize the races, but the single tech tree and the lack of graphical enhancements make it all seem flat.
The game is great in multiplayer mode, when human opponents can square off for control of the galaxy. Unfortunately, there is no provision to play via TCP/IP or LAN - the only options are hotseat or play-by-e-mail. This will drastically limit the size of multiplayer games, as e-mail games tend to fall apart when a file has to be passed to a large number of people in sequence. There is a simultaneous-move mode in which players send their turn to a host who resolves the turn and sends the results back; however, this mode has some problems, one of which is the inability to see tactical combat. With tactical combat disabled (as it has to be, for mechanical reasons), it's impossible to adjust your strategy to counter opposing weapons because you don't know what he's using.
Rather than breaking new ground, Space Empires: IV builds on the basic foundation of Master of Orion (and the three previous Space Empires games) and simply adds more detail and options. However, the sum of these additions is a superb strategy game. It's definitely the most sophisticated space-empire game available right now. If you're serious about space strategy, you can't afford to miss it.