I think it is fair to say that all of us have, at some time or another, felt the urge to conquer countless star systems and build mighty industrial complexes on many a green planet. Using these newly created centers of production, countless starships bristling with weaponry would pour forth, making the galaxy tremble in fear before the unleashed power. Some games have tried to give us this experience, but lately not many have succeeded. Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords is one game that got it right. It doesn't have the nitty-gritty details of historical strategy that we all love but it does have galaxies available for your crushing pleasure.
Developed by StarDock, an experienced software developer that appreciates its customers, it is a fine sequel to the original GalCiv. Many improvements have been made, well-thought out and well-implemented. One change that didn't make it is multiplayer support: it still doesn't exist. Multiplayer would have been a fine addition to this otherwise exceptional space turn-based strategy game, but alas. To make up for it, the developers have created an AI so good, that I can honestly say I have never played against a better one.
Computer opponents that strive against you in the universe make good use of all their resources. Planets, stellar minerals, alliances, and technology all combine in the AI's cauldron to pour forth a hearty challenge. Playing on the highest non-cheating AI setting is good fun, but very difficult. In fact, the developers (who plan to release feature-adding patches and bug-fixes for a long time to come just as they did with GalCiv1) have already released a patch that makes the lower difficulty levels even easier by turning off more of the AI's algorithms. As I am a stubborn kind of individual, I always play on the highest non-cheating setting and these are some of the things I have experienced: AIs often trade technologies between themselves, offer you technology and ask for yours, your allies give you ships, your neighbors attack when you're weak, enemy ships will cut into your trade routes, every planet of yours will be scouted and undefended ones will receive an enemy troop-transport first thing, etc. The AI is top quality in every way and as a gamer who appreciates a fine challenge while playing against the computer, it's a real treat for me.
Another fantastic feature is the ability to design your own ships. You can take a base hull and add to it so many components, arranged in all possible angles and positions, that the end product can be a visual feast. The player-created ships shown off on the galciv2.com forums are astounding. Once you send your ships into battle, you can opt to watch them smack the enemy around in little cutscenes that are created uniquely for every battle. You cannot tactically control the ships themselves, combat consists of making a fleet of ships and sending them off to battle. The game is played only on the strategic level. The main variations in combat are the three types of weapons technologies you can have many levels of: missile, ballistic, and energy. Each has a defense that can be researched to a high quality if you want to put in the time and money, but you can only mount so many things on each ship. Do you put in more guns, but no shields? Flares and chaff against missiles, with only lasers as offensive weapons? Choose and choose well, your fleets will live and die by your decision.
War is not the one and only option, however. One can create a race (or pick a pre-made one) with a very high diplomacy skill that will enable you to cajole, swindle, and otherwise acquire diplomatic favors such as technology or another race declaring war on your enemies and helping you out. Diplomacy, due to the fine AI present, is very in-depth. One can buy or sell ships, space stations, technologies, unique trade goods or bribe others into giving up their planets, influence, or declaring war on a target you choose. Computer players that are friendly with you, especially ones with whom you have an alliance, will often give ships over to your direct control if you are fighting in a war together against a common foe. In addition to warships, they will hand over space stations built over galactic minerals that will enhance your industry, research, or military forces. Diplomacy is a large, well-integrated and implemented part of the game.
The game includes a gigantic technology tree that you can choose to traverse either very fast or very slowly by changing the settings while creating a universe to play in. Every universe is randomly generated, with the proportion of planets, stars, galactic clusters, resources and the number of opponents (of variable intelligence) that you specify. One can select different victory conditions such as technological victory where you rush up the tech-tree to claim dominance. Influence victory will see the entire universe bowing to your command, while the standard military victory provides a release to the warmonger residing in so many of us. In addition, you can ally with a number of species and conquer the stars together.
Influence is a system whereupon your clout is shown on the galactic map as a kind of blanket that spreads forth and covers rival planets. If you do manage to extend your influence over an inhabited planet you do not own, it is likely that they will soon enough revolt against their present government and join your side. Beware, for this can also happen to your own planets. It is a very powerful tool, and you can custom-tailor your race to produce a lot of influence for the express purpose of acquiring planets in this fashion.
All of this takes place in an easy-on-the-eyes 3D environment that you can pan and rotate. One can zoom out until everything is represented by counters, or zoom in to admire the weaponry on the smallest fighter. Moon cast shadows as they orbit around a planet, lit up by their star. The scenery is matched by a good interface that gives you the tools needed to manage a giant galactic empire such as rally points, switching production for all planets or one to whatever item you want, overview of trade routes and so on. There is no AI governor, which is a welcome decision for me since I never use them.
Zoom all over the place.
There are many other features such as trade routes to bring in cash, tourism that fills your coffers based on how much influence you have, espionage to watch the movements of other races and steal their technology, etc. As in all space games, you build improvements on the planets you have, and they produce ships, technological advancements, or influence for you. These fruits of your citizens' labor are then used to crush all those who oppose you. Good times.
Galactic Civilizations II is a game that is easy to recommend. Good AI, good graphics, good turn-based fun. Do you want to lead fleets of space warships to bloody victory or quietly foment revolutions and steal away your opponents holdings? Either way, look no further. GalCiv2 is here to stay.