Stretched across the stars, my empire carried the burden of centuries of war. Yet we had few alternatives. Recently liberated from occupiers, we were desperate for peace, but also for freedom. At our darkest hour, we looked to a legion of guns for hire to turn the tide and finish the fight. But soldiers of fortune make for the most tenuous of allies, and ultimately sour Galactic Civilizations III.
Galactic Civilizations III had a drawn-out campaign of careful planning and steady expansion, but Mercenaries drops bombshells on that formula. The central conceit of the expansion is that you have access to a galactic bazaar where you can hire new and powerful mercenaries. Each of them brings a ship with a variety of bonuses, like a 50% boost to the defense of every ship in your fleet or tons of extra research points for the nearest planet. These war machines are stunning and can upset almost any skirmish on their own. But, there's a catch--two actually: They are expensive, and they don't scale or upgrade alongside the rest of your fleet. That makes the addition an odd one, as it clashes with almost everything that made Galactic Civilizations III special.
In the base game, I'd cobble together whatever unusual or awkward ship I needed for special missions. My favorite was my Borg series, which I kitted out with a dozen or more hyper-drives and lots of troop carriers for large-scale invasions. That process had some weight to it; it was more than the standard strategy game rigmarole of cranking out pawn after pawn to join your burgeoning army. The new Bazaar in this expansion, and its catalog of guns for hire, coaxed me away from that delightful, creative rhythm.
Instead, I leaned on Mercenaries, though not entirely out of choice. I wanted to keep tinkering with my ship designs and churning out fleets of specialized fighters, but if I didn't buy up mercs as soon as possible, my opponents would. And, with their unique and tough-to-match bonus abilities, that frequently put me in a tough spot. These dreadnoughts and their masters shatter the excellent pacing and clean, refined structure of Galactic Civilization III by robbing you of any incentive to spend time modifying your own designs.
It limits your strategic options, and criminally narrows the range of viable strategies in multiplayer.
Mercenaries are somewhat akin to real-world nuclear weapons. You almost have to buy them to keep your enemies from using them against you, but their high cost and special abilities keep them relegated to highly specific missions. Most of the time, they only serve to strengthen the advantage of the strongest players. After all, they tend to have the strongest economies and the most cash in order to cement their lead. In a few rare instances, I was able to hire additional help when I needed it. But those were limited to the times when I had scant defenses of my own and, surprisingly, enough credits on hand to have an instant army while facing an impending invasion.
Those kinds of scenarios don't crop up often, though, meaning that for the most part, the addition of the Galactic Bazaar only drags Galactic Civilization III down. It limits your strategic options, and criminally narrows the range of viable strategies in multiplayer. As Sid Meier himself so famously put almost two decades ago, games are a series of interesting choices, and when it comes to big strategy, that means having lots of engaging ways to finish. Galactic Civilizations III was fine on its own, but Mercenaries pushes a more militaristic/economic angle that holds purchasing these powerful ships as the single best tactic.
While the addition of Galactic Bazaar is, understandably, the star of the Mercenaries expansion, the other add-ons are much, much better. The expansion adds two factions that have quite a bit of history in Galactic Civilizations lore, but have thus far been absent in the third game--the Torians and the Arceans. The former is an aquatic race that can settle water worlds with ease, while the latter is an ancient civilization of honorable warriors. Both contrast well with the currently available factions, and have their own histories with the series' primary antagonist, the slaving, genocidal Drengin.
There's a new campaign, too, to help flesh out the Torians' role in galactic politics. With the Drengin caught up in a massive war with other factions at the close of Galactic Civilizations III's base campaign, the Torians have a golden opportunity to throw off the shackles of their ancient oppressors and begin carving out their own empire. This basic arc serves as both an introduction to the two new factions and something of a tutorial for the mercenaries as a new resource. You'll have a series of missions to complete that involve cutting chunks out of Drengin territory, hiring mercs of your own, and bringing your people back onto the stage of galactic politics. It’s a short (a few hours) but worthy inclusion that helps flesh out an otherwise light and disappointing expansion.
Galactic Civilizations III understands space. You have to earn the right to stretch out into the stars, with new hyper drives and commanding ships. You build your empire in layers. The sheer power and expense of this galaxy's mercenaries makes them an awkward inclusion that breaks a good chunk of the core game. You'll have access to bigger, badder ships far earlier than you should, and instead of adding something valuable in the way of new strategic options, their addition rewards strong economies while excluding most everything else. While it's not a complete waste, Mercenaries is a disappointment, and it left me second-guessing my allies in war.