Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords Hands-On - The Spiritual Heir to Master of Orion II?

We play around with a near-final version of Galactic Civilizations II to see if it's got what it takes to be the next king of turn-based space strategy.


Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords

For many turn-based space strategy fans, the pinnacle of the genre remains the classic Master of Orion II, which is a bit depressing considering that the game is 10 years old this year. However, that could change soon, because it looks like someone is finally coming out with a faithful successor to Master of Orion II. Stardock announced this week that it has finished work on Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, the follow-up to 2003's strategy gem Galactic Civilizations. The first Galactic Civilizations was a great strategy game with excellent artificial intelligence and deep gameplay, but it wasn't quite full-featured enough to be a proper heir to the Master of Orion throne. Stardock took note and went back to the drawing board, and as we discovered while playing with a very late version of the sequel, Galactic Civilizations II looks like the Master of Orion heir that everyone has been waiting for.

Galactic Civilizations II has a very clean, sharp look to it. It's also got plenty of deep gameplay.
Galactic Civilizations II has a very clean, sharp look to it. It's also got plenty of deep gameplay.

So what makes Galactic Civilizations II such a promising game? It takes all the great ideas found in Master of Orion II and expands on them to deliver a deeper and richer experience. In this turn-based strategy game, you'll play as one of the galaxy's primary races, or you can create your own custom race, and you'll attempt to expand from a single star system to conquer the galaxy peacefully or militarily. It won't be easy, though, because there's a whole lot that can happen between the start and the finish of a game.

There are so many basic similarities to Master of Orion II in Galactic Civilizations II. Both games are set in galaxies where an ancient precursor race once ruled, only to suddenly disappear, and now "younger" races are in a battle to fill the voids. In both games, you race to explore the galaxy, colonize new worlds, construct facilities on planets, research new technologies, design and construct starships and warships based on the fruits of that research, engage in diplomacy and trade, and, if necessary, wage war on one another. However, it feels to us that Galactic Civilizations II takes many of these concepts further. And while bigger doesn't necessarily translate into better, we're finding that the features in Galactic Civilization II are well thought out.

Let's take the technology tree, which is downright big in Galactic Civilizations II. In Master of Orion II, the tech tree was also big, but you could research everything on the tech tree pretty easily. We're not getting that feeling with Galactic Civilizations II, because the tech tree feels bigger, which means that you can focus in on one field (such as laser technology), but at the price of not researching other fields as deeply. Or you can spread your research out so that you research everything, but risk seeing your opponents race ahead in a specific field. These are the trade-offs you'll have to make. If you move ahead in a specific field, you'll be in trouble if another race develops the technology to counter yours (high-powered lasers are no good if the enemy has researched equally powerful shields). Then again, if you research more evenly, you risk seeing one race get ahead on a key technology.

The game is filled with all sorts of strategic choices. You'll find yourself trying to figure out a way to best develop the limited amount of space on each planet, balancing budget priorities, figuring out the best design for a starship while also being limited by weight restrictions, and more. The budget in particular can be a big factor, because Galactic Civilizations lets you get into debt quickly by offering that age-old lure: credit. For example, if you're in a hurry and you need to build a ship immediately, you can buy it in a single turn for a huge price instead of waiting an umpteen amount of turns for the construction process. But, of course, that cash price is going to be huge. However, you'll also be offered different payment plans that let you pay a smaller down payment, but with a varying number of credits per turn for a variable number of turns. And, since you often need to build more than one ship quickly (especially if you're in a war), you can suddenly find most of your revenue going to service your debt load, which the game gleefully informs you of when you do.

You'll have to make all sorts of strategic decisions, and you'll have to ask yourself if the good of the many outweighs the good of the few.
You'll have to make all sorts of strategic decisions, and you'll have to ask yourself if the good of the many outweighs the good of the few.

Galactic Civilizations doesn't just borrow ideas from Master of Orion. There are also elements from other strategy games present here. In particular, there's a concept of influence that feels very much like the culture concept in the recent Civilization games. Essentially, your borders are determined by your galactic influence, which is a measure of many things, such as your military and economic power. The more influence you have, the farther out you can push your borders and vice versa. If you want to make a push on a certain border, you can also construct huge, massive star bases to help expand your influence, as they can increase trade and commerce as well as serve as a huge fortress in times of war.

Then there's stuff you can't control. Like Master of Orion II, Galactic Civilizations II is filled with all sorts of random events that can suddenly change the dynamics of a game. For example, our human faction was lagging behind in the military race when our archaeologists discovered an ancient abandoned starship on a planet. Suddenly, we had the most powerful warship in the galaxy, and belligerent neighbors quickly backed off on all their extortion demands. Or, at least, they did until they built up their militaries to match ours. In another case, a mysterious wormhole suddenly bathed the galaxy in a strange radiation, which doubled the reproduction rates for all races. However, there's more to it than these kinds of "instant," random events. You'll also encounter ethical dilemmas in which the solution that you choose will have benefits and costs. For instance, a distant colony might accidentally activate a hidden cache of precursor defender droids, and they begin killing off your population. You can do the "good" thing and spend a lot of money to have the droids destroyed, or you can do the "bad" thing and let the droids continue to kill so that you can study their technology. In that case, you'll lose a chunk of population, but you'll get a boost in technology research.

This is just a sample of the gameplay options and strategic depth in Galactic Civilizations II. There's a ton more, like the intergalactic council that votes on all sorts of varying resolutions that can affect the game (such as a tax on the two richest economies to "help out" the lesser races). You'll find that you'll need to have good diplomatic relationships with a few potential allies if you want to ram anything meaningful through that body. The AI is no slouch, which isn't surprising considering the Galactic Civilization games have been known for their excellent AI since the series started on the IBM OS/2 operating system. At the default, normal difficulty level, we found that the AI races quickly colonized the galaxy and sped ahead on all fronts. In no time, they quickly sized up the weaklings of the galaxy and began mopping them up, including us. Even if you decide to start a new game on an easier difficulty level, it still will be a struggle to keep up with the AI. This cutthroat and ruthless AI will be important, as Galactic Civilizations II has no multiplayer component, so it looks like the computer will be able to bring it on and hold its own.

You can conquer the galaxy one of four ways, but keep in mind, your opponents can do so as well.
You can conquer the galaxy one of four ways, but keep in mind, your opponents can do so as well.

While the gameplay looks great, it also helps that Galactic Civilizations II has an incredibly clean and crisp graphical presentation. The new 3D engine won't impress you with fancy graphical effects, but it still features some very sharp visuals. Zoom in on a system and you'll often see a beautiful blue oasis of a planet standing out in the blackness of space, complete with a tiny moon orbiting it. Needless to say, the graphics are a big step up from Galactic Civilization's bland 2D presentation. And the user interface itself is an improvement over the original game, as it's simplified a bit and borrows some smart interface features from other strategy games, most notably Rome: Total War.

It has been said that the good ones borrow but the great ones steal. If so, then Galactic Civilizations II has every indication of being a great strategy game. Yes, it liberally borrows many ideas from Master of Orion II and other excellent games, but since strategy fans in general have been waiting a decade for the next big turn-based space strategy game, we'll doubt that they'll mind. Galactic Civilizations II will ship later this month.

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