Traditional turn-based play is cast aside in Pax Imperia: Eminent Domain, a real-time galactic conquest game that quickens the pace at the cost of its depth and complexity. Pax Imperia looks polished and attractive more often than not. The main gameplay screens, easily accessible via the keyboard's function keys, reveal valuable data regarding research, foreign affairs, domestic policy, and military with clearly labeled displays and useful data. At other times you'll be examining the star map and planning your course of action. This map clearly distinguishes all star systems, color-coding those occupied by your forces as well as your enemies and allies. Meanwhile, the game sounds fantastic on all fronts. Even simple menu acknowledgments are kind on the ears, while the soundtrack is a stunning arrangement of synthesized mood tunes, which help keep you occupied for hours on end.
Clicking on a particular system's sun shows you the lowdown on all the planets in its orbit, at which point you can decide whether any are worth colonizing or not. Don't take too long staring at the sky, however. Soon enough your opponent will go moseying into your territory, looking to expand his own. At this point you can intercept with your spacecraft and thereby declare war, or attempt a more peaceful solution by pitching your new friend a treaty. You can set up a handful of symbolic neutrality pacts with your opponents and exchange trade routes and other information, but it's only a matter of time before he double-crosses you or you do the same. An exchange of refueling stations is but an invitation for the enemy to ferry in his armada to the heart of your empire to make a calculated suicide run against your homeworld.
The goal of Pax Imperia is the genocide of all who oppose you. Expanding your territory and exploring new sciences ultimately serve only to further this dark purpose. When you get right down to it, Pax Imperia is a race to colonize as fast as possible to grow more population to contribute to further research and construction of newer, deadlier technology. With this in mind, the custom species generation feature starts to look a lot less attractive. You may feel awful creative what with your worm-like race of subterranean methane-breathing diplomats with a penchant for reproduction, but once that predatory scientist warrior race comes breathing down your neck you'll be at a tremendous disadvantage. Likewise, you can create a race that's very tolerant of adverse atmospheric conditions and can expand its population quickly, but only at the cost of neglecting a scientific and military advantage. So even as you quickly spread through the galaxy early in the game, a more discreet but technologically superior race will research a warship capable of snuffing out your entire species with little effort. Espionage can be used to some marginal success to cripple the opponent's progress, but it turns Pax Imperia into a game of chance rather than skill; you'll be crossing your fingers hoping the opponent's best planet turns coat on him all of a sudden, in which case he'll have no alternative but to nuke it and recolonize.
Given the game's emphasis on technology and warfare, you'd figure a great deal of strategy in Pax Imperia would reside in knowing just what to research when. Unfortunately, the game does its damnedest to wrest researching control away from you by automating the process. Each time you begin a new game, your scientists go straight to work on the EW-02 Gatling Laser and other low-level technologies. You can focus your resources with emphasis on any of the five categories from weapons to colonial enhancements, thereby compensating for your race's specific scientific advantages or shortcomings. But in the long run you'll need to advance each category at roughly the same rate lest you find yourself capable of constructing an all-powerful warship without any hope of actually paying for its parts. For no good reason, everything is researched in ascending order of cost unless you manually override the process. This means if some all-powerful gun is waiting to be researched in your potential technology list, the game will build several lousier weapons beforehand rather than skip straight to the good stuff. So in order to make intelligent researching choices, you'll constantly have to jump to the research window and make changes. A research queue would have helped.
If the research component isn't brain-dead enough for you, you'll want to take a close look at Pax Imperia's preposterous colonial management design. When searching for a new planet to colonize, you needn't weigh in factors like gravity and atmosphere. No, the game calculates all that for you, crudely ranking the planet with either a happy face, a neutral face, or a sad face as if to suggest that you're not competent enough to consider advantages and disadvantages on your own and require childish pictograms instead of specific data. You're also notified of a planet's basic population limit and its natural wealth, but the rest is left to the imagination. Once settled, construction on a planet begins immediately as your brilliant species starts working on the simplest structure first. Colonies are completely self-sufficient and focus on constructing one structure or ship at a time, though you can help them along with the rather abstract construction point subsidy where you pay money to speed things up. You have no control whatsoever over which building will be constructed next; while you can prioritize construction toward vague categories like Finance or Espionage, if you really want to build an N-Space Relay you'll have to construct a Signal Resolver beforehand. It's possible to go into the game options and create your own custom planetary construction profiles outside of the default settings, but this is a tedious alternative to an obvious solution. Adding insult to injury, every colony looks identical for every single species (that means huge skyrises for your subterranean diplomats), with the only difference being the color of the planet's atmosphere.
Research, colonization, espionage, and diplomacy are terribly basic in Pax Imperia leaving only ship design and combat to hold the game together. And indeed, the spaceship warfare in Pax Imperia is enjoyable and strategic enough to keep you interested for many hours on end in spite of everything, particularly if you're up against human opponents. At first you'll be limited to your stock Destroyer-class warship, but given enough time your scientists will develop dozens of new toys for you to try so you can produce a custom warship to suit any number of destructive purposes. You'll step up to Cruisers in the midgame, which outclass Destroyers in most every respect, but by the endgame you'll muscle in with a combination of Battleships and Carriers, which make for an interesting combination of firepower and support defense. All ships can be outfitted with any number of weapons facing fore, aft, port, and starboard. Each ship also needs an engine and a warp drive, armor, shielding, missile countermeasures, and swivel-mounted point defenses. You can also outfit your craft with miscellaneous add-ons from repair drones to fighter squadrons. The computer does a good job of selecting the best combination of available components for a ship on its own, but it's more strategic (and certainly more enjoyable) to create specialized designs from scratch. You're restricted only by your scientific progress, your wealth, and the maximum capacity of the ship's chassis.
While you can readily defeat a low-level computer opponent merely by producing the largest quantity of the best ship you can afford, you'll need more finesse to deal with a capable foe. A successful fleet might consist of a pair of battleships devoted to antimissile point defense and long-range planetary bombardment with another pair armed to the teeth with forward-mounted lasers and missiles while several cruisers hover in back and soften the enemy with a combination of light and heavy fighters. Combat resolves quickly and brutally, with opposing forces advancing upon each other and blasting each other with everything they've got until one side is routed or destroyed. Most of the strategy therefore lies in the preparation for battle, though the payoff is certainly in a battle's successful execution as the screen lights up with beautifully animated sparks and explosions. All this is not to say Pax Imperia's space combat is without shortcomings. Once a planet's orbital defenses are knocked out, even the most hi-tech homeworld is left utterly defenseless as nothing exists in the way of ground combat or surface-to-air attacks. Likewise, your ships remain perfectly efficient in battle even as they are pummeled by enemy fire, and ammunition is limitless.
Pax Imperia is not an easy game to learn, in large part because you'll likely spend your first few hours looking for research and colonization options that are not implemented. It soon becomes clear, however, that a great deal of the game's potential depth is sacrificed for the sake of speedy real-time action. To be sure, the real-time combat and management make for an enjoyable, fast-paced multiplayer game as all parties involved struggle to strike that perfect balance of population and research so they can build the best fleet first. But those seeking complete control over their galactic manifest destiny will feel confined and frustrated by Pax Imperia's base gameplay.