Reviewed on PC
→ May 14, 2015
In Galactic Civilizations 3, I first saw Earth as a pale blue dot. Not as the image of serenity and fragility that so captivated Carl Sagan back in 1990, but as a blip on my intergalactic map that popped up as the fog of war surrounding Mars and Saturn cleared. I was the leader of the orc-like Drengin Empire, a rough bunch prone to chomping on other sentient beings, and it signaled that we had some conquering to do. In future playthroughs, I would woo the Terrans with trade and treaties in the guise of different civilizations, and the existence of those options is of course welcome. But I relished in taking my blue home world by conquest, and that was the first big sign that GalCiv III gets the basics of exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating so right.
But let me be frank—there’s not a lot here that’s truly different from 2006’s beloved Galactic Civilizations II; instead, we have polished forms of the genre’s conventional trappings. The broad strokes should be familiar. You start out with only a single planet and a couple of ships, and you’re expected to exert your influence over everyone around you across dozens or hundreds of turns until you control the whole shebang. However, Galactic Civilizations enjoys such a wealth of victory conditions and customization options that the experience feels new with every playthrough.
For starters, there’s the inclusion of six victory conditions, including everything from basic conquest to yes, the ascension to a higher plane of existence. Then there’s the bevy of map options, which can start you out with a “tiny” parcel of space that you could maybe conquer in 200 turns or less, or with a sprawling “insane” map that spans lights years in any direction. The latter is big, even to the point where it occasionally caused my GTX 780 to stutter and complain when I zoomed in on some of the busier stuff, and I never did see it at its full potential. Over 155 increasingly tedious turns in, all I ever saw were the annoying pirates I’d signed for during map creation, and the five other civilizations I specified at the start (out of a potential 100) might as well have been extinct. That’s the kind of map that could keep me busy for a year, although I worry that the ridiculous approval penalty for having a large empire would cause my empire to collapse from within long before I won.
That’s to say nothing of the options to set the frequency of black holes, stars, and galactic events that affect the lives (and passive bonuses) of all the races in the galaxy. This wealth of customization extends right down to the races themselves, to the point that you can create your own Stormcloak faction and upload a high-res photo of the Dovahkiin as your faction leader should you so desire (don’t judge). But even the stock cast is fun to tinker with, as each comes to life with its own bonuses, personality, and quirks which reveal themselves in everything from the text prompts for trade and treaty negotiations to hidden humor in the tooltips. Playing as the evil Drengin, for instance, I saw that the research tab explained the Universal Translator as a “way to communicate with our food.” These personality traits factor heavily in the enjoyable but generally skippable campaign, which focuses on a militant group of humans hell-bent on making the Drengin pay for past actions. The campaign wasn’t released until this morning, but aside from some auto-filled options in the massive tech trees, specific objectives, and some pretty cutscenes, it doesn’t seem to deviate too much from the core sandbox based on my three hours with it.
I especially enjoyed how the personalities of each civilization allowed me to inject some roleplay into my actions when I colonize other planets. Each time this happens, a scenario pops up that allows me to choose between three options. In one case, a planet I found had some marsupials that the colonists had taken to riding around, and I was asked what I wished to do about that. The Drengin being jerks, I naturally chose the third option to make the poor creatures suffer while being ridden. This netted me a bonus to manufacturing, a bonus to malevolence, and honestly, several internal conversations as to whether I should even confess this.
“Malevolence” is an actual stat, though, and it factors into Galactic Civilizations III‘s Ideological Traits tree, one of the few features that’s entirely new to the game. Your choices during colonization net you points you can put into one of three trees, but one drawback is that the going will be fantastically slow if you’ve chosen one of those sprawly maps with few habitable planets. That’s a bit of a shame, since the resulting bonuses are so useful that you can turn the tables quickly in a bind if you use them correctly. Indeed, the option to points in specific ideologies sometimes pops up in conversations in the campaign, allowing you to get ahead a little faster than you would in the sandbox. A single point in the branch of the Malevolence tree, for instance, is enough to secure a free warship; a couple of points in Pragmatism, on the other hand, will win you a 50 percent boost to approval on your home world.
I found I enjoyed the bonuses best when tackling some of the non-combat approaches to victory, as the bonuses lent some force to what I found to be the comparatively humdrum and passive acts of winning over alliances or spreading influence. As welcome as the addition victory options are, I personally never enjoyed them so much as taking the planets by sheer military force. That’s not the fault of the AI, which seems uncommonly smart and never once fell for ridiculous trade offers and which attacked my fleets with almost frightening tactics. The only drawback I can think of is that I almost won a game entirely by influence merely because the opposing civilizations weren’t spreading enough influence of their own. It’s a very specific complaint, and a rare slip for AI that’s generally decent.
Aside from the business of conquest, I found myself having an unusual bit of fun in the act of actual world building. Galactic Civilization III gives all players a hefty head start thanks to a generous starting budget, and I found this allowed me to make smart, key decisions when placing structures on the homeworld. The entirety of GalCiv III is hex-based now in contrast to the square grids of the series’ past, and this allows for some new strategic adjacency decisions as you position, say, key workshops next to research labs. World building also benefits from the removal of some needless micromanagement, such as the way shipyards now loom in space in order to skip the step of clicking down to a planet’s surface.
Part of the reason why I enjoyed the conquest avenue of the game springs from the ship designer, which is so robust that you could create just about anything given the time. On the Steam forums, for instance, someone proved that you could create Miranda-class starships from Star Trek with the tool, and my own ships looked somewhat like flying axes. It doesn’t hurt that the associated UI is a model example of intuitive design, and it allowed a feature that briefly intimidated me to quickly become my favorite. It’s a pity, then, that watching the ships in combat isn’t as fun as it could be. You get to see the shields and weapons you’ve equipped in action, sure, but in practice you’re just watching ships revolve around each other against a bland backdrop, pew-pewing until one dies. Even when I had the camera zoomed out to its maximum limit, sometimes ships were stuck off-camera in the top-down mode, forcing me to switch to “cinematic” in order to enjoy the show. No moment during my playthrough made me sadder than when I started letting such battles auto-resolve.
I especially found myself using the auto-resolve in the multiplayer mode for the sake of speed. Multiplayer games haven’t been as popular as I’d expect considering the demand for them in the past, and even today, mere hours after launch, I’ve only managed to get in one game since everyone seems happier playing in the sandbox mode. Naturally, that one match promptly crashed moments after I saw my Drengin leader staring me in the face. C’mon, he’s not that ugly. Crashes and lack of players aside, it’s also unfortunate that customizable races have been removed while Stardock irons out some more bugs associated with them, so for now you’re stuck with the Terrans, the Drengin, and their occasional pals.