Galactic Civilizations III Early Access Review

For testing purposes only. And they really mean it.

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GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.

At least it's honest. The alpha version of Galactic Civilizations III currently available on Steam is remarkably up front about what it has to offer, loading with a splash screen informing you that the current build is just for testing. Confusing the experience ahead with having fun apparently leads to nothing but "tragedy." And just in case you're a forgetful sort, a helpful blurb is permanently tacked to the top of the main game screen reminding you yet again that this alpha build is intended solely for the test-happy crowd. So if you somehow wind up enjoying yourself, apologies all around, but the fun is purely accidental.

Floating space junk worth a random number of credits. You'll see this a lot.
Floating space junk worth a random number of credits. You'll see this a lot.

OK: some of these warnings are undeniably tongue-in-cheek. But they are also dead-on accurate, because the latest addition to Stardock Entertainment's long-standing 4X space sim family is awfully slender right now. Only the barest bones of the eventual space epic are visible in the current build. That means you can play solo and with others (although you need to manually set up matches right now, which makes it very tough to find opposition) with four races, including the usual milquetoast humans, the whiskery Scots-lizards known as the Drengin, the Altarian Resistance, and the newly playable Iridium Corporation, but all of the other options are grayed out. So you can't build your own ships, peruse the metaverse, or take on any individual scenarios, and even customization features are missing in action. You can't make a galaxy any bigger than "small" or "tiny" right now, difficulty can't be adjusted, and none of the victory conditions are working.

Getting into a game reveals that clicking on many features brings up nothing but "Coming Soon" icons. You can't engage in diplomacy, check out planet info when trying to govern your colonies, and so forth. You can automatically make enemy ships go boom simply by sending your own vessels at them and approving the battle, which isn't exactly challenging even while it does allow you to build an empire on demand. A new combat system is apparently being planned for inclusion once the game moves beyond alpha development, but there is no evidence of this new system in the current build. All in all, you're stuck in a developer-friendly sandbox (which, in fairness, pretty much sums up the average alpha build of a game), able to try out the basics of exploration, colonization, starship building, and tech research, but nothing more.

Everything looks very good, but also remarkably similar to the eight-year-old Gal Civ II.
Everything looks very good, but also remarkably similar to the eight-year-old Gal Civ II.

Ideology is the one interesting new feature. This alignment-style tweak lets you embrace peaceful, pragmatic, and warlike philosophies (old-time D&Ders will call this trio lawful, neutral, and chaotic) that sculpt your imperial development with various bonuses. Not all of the possible options are included in the alpha, but what's here functions like an additional tech tree. Instead of techs, you pick societal options like forced labor, which increases factory production, or interplanetary sports, which boosts tourism income and unlocks starbase modules like the zero-g arena. This holds huge promise for customizing empires and adding replay value, so it will be fascinating to see how it works in the full game.

Enemy artificial intelligence comes with a room-temperature IQ at present. Your rivals are just sort of there. They colonize the odd planet, scout around various systems, and even threaten you with destruction during first contact, but they can't fight you due to the MIA combat system, and they are too lazy to even pick up all of the random space goodies strewn around their home planets. You barely notice your alien foes as you gallivant around the galaxy, colonizing planets and setting up starbases right under their noses.

A new combat system is apparently being planned for inclusion once the game moves beyond alpha development, but there is no evidence of this new system in the current build.

Repetition is another issue with the alpha. Every planet that you colonize, for instance, comes with either sentient pods that can merge with your citizens to offer enhanced intelligence at the cost of blinding agony or (more rarely) an ancient vessel trapped beneath the ice that you can free at the cost of flooding out inhabitants. Both scenarios are cool, but are derivative of at least a couple of Star Trek episodes and The Thing. The galactic goodie bags that you encounter in space are also problematic. Mysterious alien hardware grants you a 25 percent bonus to research/beam weapons/sensors/whatever, and scrounging through a debris field results in enough space junk to earn you a random number of credits. Then, a wormhole throws you across the galaxy and you do it all over again.

Everything looks and sounds good, at least, with pretty map visuals, a smooth interface, and an applaudable lack of bugs and crashes. The look and feel are surprisingly similar to the game's eight-year-old Galactic Civilizations II predecessor, with the fonts, main star map (even with the addition of a new hex-based grid), and planetary management screens carrying over many of the earlier game's iconic visuals. That said, there isn't anything here with the presentation values that would seem to demand the 64-bit operating system that the game requires, so all of that horsepower must be needed solely under the hood.

In space, no one can hear you yawn.
In space, no one can hear you yawn.

There's a catch, however, and it's a big one. The only option to buy the early access game right now is to pony up $99.99 for the Founder's Elite Edition that serves as a lifetime subscription for all things Galactic Civilizations III. That one price buys you this alpha, all subsequent builds including the final game, and then all of the many planned monthly downloadable content packages and full-fledged expansions. That's a lot of cash up front for a game that likely won't be finished until 2015 (the current production schedule shows beta development right into October of this year), although it could pay off in big savings for hardcore fans who would otherwise purchase all of the content as it is released. Still, you have to have a lot of faith in Stardock to put this amount of money down today, given what you're actually able to play at the present time.

Right now, Galactic Civilizations III is more of a billboard than an early access game. This is an ad aimed at hardcore fans who don't want to wait any longer for the next chapter in this 4X epic. You can see everything that this alpha has to offer in no more than a couple of hours. It's a very brief teaser that doesn't tease nearly enough of what the upcoming game will offer--a preaching-to-the-choir release geared solely to hold over diehards until a more meaty build can be finalized.

What's There?

Alpha 1 is very limited, with most of the game options and features unavailable at the present time.

What's to Come?

New civilizations, larger maps, customization features, scenarios, ship building, and much more remain to be added sometime in the future.

What Does it Cost?

$99.99, available via Steam, a price that includes this build and all content to be released for Galactic Civilizations III in the future, including monthly DLC and expansions.

When Will it Be Finished?

A final release date has not been announced at the present time. But based on the limited content in this alpha build and the design schedule available online, expect to see a 2015 release.

What's the Verdict?

It's impossible to come to any conclusions based on how little of Galactic Civilizations III is in this early access release. The game clearly has potential, but that's based mostly on its outstanding pedigree, not on much that is playable right now.

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