Great games are always more than the sum of their feature sets, and Galactic Civilizations II is a great game. Galactic Civilizations II does indeed boast a very impressive list of cool features, but it also has that extra "something" that separates pretty good games from Hall of Fame material. In the case of Galactic Civilizations II, an epic spacestrategy game set in space, that extra element is a design that is clearly focused on catering to the desires of the player, rather than on trying to stuff the designer's preferences down your throat. From installation to end game, it is clear that this is not only one of the best turn-based strategy games to grace a PC, but one in which the player is treated like royalty.
The first sign of this is during installation. There is no copy protection and no need to have the CD in the tray to play, and you don't even have to enter the serial number during the install (a blessing to those of us who want to reinstall a game in the future or install it on a notebook but can't ever seem to track down the serial number). This is quite convenient. The serial number is your key to updates and add-ons, which have traditionally, for Stardock, been plentiful, substantive, and responsive to customer feedback and requests (in fact, the first update is already available).
Galactic Civilizations II is a strategy game set in space in which rival races vie for control of the galaxy, via the traditional "4X" game style of exploring the universe, expanding your empire, exploiting your rivals, and exterminating your enemies. That may sound familiar, but right from the opening screens you're presented with the ability to create the gaming experience that you prefer. You can play as the humans or any of the other nine races, each bringing its own unique strengths, weaknesses, capabilities, and societal personality (trade-oriented, militaristic, evil, good, and so on). If that's not enough for you, you can create your own unique race with its own distinctive characteristics. You then select the type of galaxy in which you want to play out your space adventure. Do you want fast action? Play in a small galaxy packed with stars and habitable planets and several rival races, and crank up the speed of technological advances. Are you more in the mood for a long, epic space opera? Set up a gigantic galaxy (there are six different map sizes) with widely spaced star systems.
Multiple paths to victory also provide you with completely different gaming experiences. You can choose to be a benevolent ruler and eschew violence, spreading your cultural influence throughout the galaxy. Instead of invading a planet, you can let their citizens see your luxurious way of life, complete with malls and fancy restaurants, and sway them with diplomatic expertise. There's a special satisfaction in having a planet's inhabitants dump their leader and join your empire purely through winning their hearts and minds. Or you can choose to be the evil emperor, crushing the naïve civilizations that dare resist your military might. Throughout the game you are presented with ethical choices, such as discovering that the planet you just colonized has a primitive civilization that you can either protect at the cost of some progress, move to the equivalent of a reservation, or enslave to increase your production. Your choices will result in a moral "grade" for your culture--good, neutral, or evil--which will affect how other races deal with you. For example, if you are the lone evil empire in the galaxy, "good" races may form an alliance against you. These moral persuasions also result in different technological advances being available to your race.
While some games of this type purport to allow you flexibility in how you achieve a victory while ultimately forcing you to win by force, it is not only possible to win a game in Galactic Civilizations II without fighting, it is a fascinating and viable approach that feels like a completely different game than one in which you win via conflict. While good old military domination is certainly a path to success, you can win by achieving the ultimate technology, culturally assimilating the majority of the galaxy, or forging alliances with all remaining races.
Of course, you can also combine approaches: For example, if you have alliances with four of five races and the fifth race just doesn't appreciate the benefits of being your good friend, you can send some capital ships in and wipe them off the face of the galaxy, then join hands with the remaining races, sing Kum Ba Ya, and enjoy your diplomatic victory. Or you might give another race money or technologies to go to war against a specific civilization in your stead. You may start with the intention of pursuing one approach and find that circumstances and other races actions drive you in another direction. The only thing that is guaranteed is that, between choosing which race you will lead, the size and characteristics of the galaxy, how many and what type of races will populate the galaxy, the intelligence level of your foes, and the approach you decide to take, each game can feel completely different from any you've played before.
This leads to the issue of artificial intelligence, always a controversial subject in strategy games. The AI in Galactic Civilizations II differentiates it from other 4X games: It doesn't cheat, and it's very, very good at higher levels. It's also unique in that the AI doesn't treat the human player any differently than it does the other AI players. You can set the AI to a lower level to allow you to have fun while learning the game, but when you set it higher as you advance in your skills, the game doesn't respond by cheating. Instead, it employs more advanced (and devious) strategies, observing and adapting to your play. For example, at lower levels you could be trading and generally playing nice with a neighboring civilization that is rather weak militarily, while at the same time setting up military starbases and fleets of fighters in their vicinity, and the AI may continue to trust you. At higher AI levels it will recognize the signs of betrayal and take preventive or preemptive actions.
In fact, the AI will surprise you with the humanity of its style. You will be simultaneously surprised, pleased, and frustrated when you have almost defeated a civilization, are gloating over the resources that are about to be your spoils of war, and then see your victim surrender to another race that is more aligned to its ethical style just to keep you from taking it over. Or when you're at war with a race and are informed by a superior race that you're hurting their trade income and thus must be eliminated. The AI will watch you and adapt, and not always in a predictable way, even after having played many games. They'll seek out weaknesses and exploit them. At higher levels you'll be convinced that the AI is cheating, but it isn't: It is just diabolically clever at finding ways to optimize strategies. Perhaps the best compliment you can pay the AI in Galactic Civilizations II is that it will beat you in ways that you will respect and admire.
In addition to playing with the default ships included with the game, there's a very cool ship designer that'll let you make your own. And you don't have to use the various ships included in the game; you can design your own from scratch, using any combination of technologies that you have currently developed. There's also a large set of purely cosmetic parts you can use to create the ship of your dreams; users have posted screenshots of incredibly detailed and complex new ships that they have designed. Staying consistent with the theme of letting players play in their own way, you can successfully take the approach of designing fleets of small, fast, and pesky fighters that may be effective against larger capital ships if you choose your weapons wisely (defenses are effective only against specific weaponry). Conversely, you may prefer fighting with huge space dreadnoughts, or perhaps mixed fleets. Prudent investment in espionage can give you a crucial advantage in discovering what weapons system the enemy is building, so you can design the most effective weapons and shields to counter them. But be aware that the AI is likely doing some spying of his own.
While there is a plethora of game features that we haven't mentioned here, such as a galactic United Nations that raises issues that all races vote upon that impact your empire, extensive trade and diplomacy with other races, and much more, one that is worth highlighting and that follows the thesis of letting you have it "your way" is the completely open nature of the game's user interface. The game screens are stored in a directory and can be easily modified. The game is also designed such that there is no limit to the polygons it can handle; users are already showing off incredible Star Wars-based ships with extremely high polygon counts.
There are, as in any game, some nits to pick: The technology tree could use beefier data on future techs; it would be nice to have the ability to select random races on startup; and there is no multiplayer (yet). But Galactic Civilizations II is a game that provides that "just one more turn" compulsion, and that appears to have the ability to stay fresh, surprising, and replayable for a long time. One of the greatest compliments is the comparison to Civilization IV that many people are making. Suffice it to say that Galactic Civilizations II is different in many ways than Civ IV, but stands next to it as one of the all-time best 4X strategy games.