Developed and published by Stardock. Released May 14, 2015. Available on PC. Review copy provided by publisher.
Note: The review build of Galactic Civilizations III provided by Stardock did not include access to the campaign mode. This review pertains exclusively to the game’s sandbox and multiplayer modes.
Pushing its way into a crowded stage of turn-based strategy with similar mechanics, Galactic Civilizations III makes big promises for massive universes, hordes of enemies, customization, and ease of use. It delivers on all of this, but doesn’t quite introduce a lot that’s new and exciting into the genre, nor does it do too much unique aside from “bigger.” Sometimes, though, that’s enough, and Gal Civ III fulfills much of what it sets out to do – it provides the core space strategy game that others will be compared to for the next few years. So strap in, because there’s a lot to cover here – from old presented in a new way to attention lavished on elements of strategy that usually go wanting, and the most ambitious ship designer I’ve ever seen in a game.
Gal Civ III‘s interface is a notable upgrade from many other strategies, making use of the increased screen real estate from the required 64-bit architecture to be sure they can fit lots of information in any given area. The game’s primary sidebar, over on the right, includes the kind of full map display with filters alongside lists of units, planets, and stations that are usually relegated to separate screens. With nice big tooltips on most interface elements, you can usually understand where a bonus or number is coming from and what temporary modifier is affecting it. On the other hand, most technologies and effects that provide a permanent bonus to your whole empire aren’t listed anywhere clear – so try your best to remember which ones you researched that one time in that one game so you can find them again. The planet management screens, where you place buildings, are often varicolored green hexes over green continents, and can have such high contrasts they hurt to look at. This one is not entirely colorblind friendly – though most planets and ship types have varied and obvious shapes or numbers overlaid for identification.
Interfaces aside, the game’s graphics are about average, and the look of ships and stations only has a few model sets – though they’re hilariously customizable with the ship designer – so eventually you’re going to see everything that there is to see and want more. On a lower end PC, or one meeting the minimum requirements, the largest games are going to get very low frame rates very fast, so you’ll spend a lot of time in the zoomed out strategic map view where models aren’t rendered too closely. Even a powerful PC can have stability issues, and there are certainly some game-crashing bugs or memory leaks still around in here: I found on several PCs that the game averaged a crash every four or so hours of play. Autosave makes this little more than an inconvenience, multiplayer aside, though load times can be quite long enough to grab a glass of water and visit the restroom on any but the smallest maps.
Gal Civ has quite a collection of lore around its races, with backstories, interactions, and such. None of that really matters in skirmishes and scenarios – they all fall into archetypes you can easily understand. Ultimate warrior jerks, ultra-capitalists, religious fanatics, sexy blue space elves – you know the drill for Space Opera games by now (and if you don’t here’s Generic Space Opera 101.) The nice thing about Gal Civ III is that these factions are partially to wholly asymmetrical, each having its own tech tree and slightly differing building selections. You can also build your own races to spec with a point-based system that equal the provided ones, and in a lovely twist teach the AI how to play them with a few selector switches. So if you don’t enjoy the generics just build your own galaxy of wholly unique generic space goons to battle.
The game’s economy and basics are laid out like most every other turn-based 4X game you’ve played. An initial rush of expansion and initial skirmishing is followed by entrenching, building up armies or economies, and fighting off your opponents or pushing for another victory type – with a dash of diplomacy and “united planets” voting for bonuses thrown in. There’s not much innovative in how the game’s economy works, with standard food, science, and money production coming from worlds. In fact, you’ll pretty much exactly understand it if you’ve played a 4X in the last five years – and for me that was more than a little yawn-inducing at times, though the game includes lovely cinematics for many of the major events like colonization and building capital ships. The only exception is that your fleet units are always built at shipyards, which work by pooling production from up to five different worlds. The economy can be handily managed from the game’s governance screen as well, directing planets to focus on economic, social, or research goals on a simple sliding interface. Knowing how close you are to an influence, war, diplomatic, ascension, technological, or other victory is as easy as clicking a button on the screen. There’s finally choosing an ideology, which puts you into a category alongside other races of that same ideology and gives a few meta-faction bonuses based on your reactions to galactic political events and events you get upon colonizing new worlds.
The usual problems of managing a large empire are handled quite elegantly by much of the game’s design. In early turns of the game you’ll do quite a bit of micromanagement for your individual units, making sure they end up precisely where you need them to, and you’ll carefully manage building on each of your few worlds. After that, though, you’ll be able to move through turns only reacting situationally as your preplanned moves pan out. As the game goes on you’ll build up larger and larger fleets, and more planets, but the scaling stays the same: A turn of intensive planning, then four or five turns of making a few small decisions and watching plans play out. By turn fifty or so you’ll have unlocked most of the basic buildings for planets, as well, so every time you colonize turns into a fun minigame of laying out the full extent of the planet’s infrastructure based on its random hex layout. Then you never have to look at it again unless you’re placing unique or special buildings – the basic buildings automatically upgrade to new levels you research if you leave a basic box checked. Easy, and pretty fun, since you optimize building placement for adjacency bonuses that buildings give. Beautifully, you can do much of this work while the game processes others’ turns – give orders and build or choose research alike – which is a huge boon to multiplayer gaming.
The only real bog down comes from micromanaging ships and where they’re going. As you get into having tens of warships, a few trade ships, construction ships, and colonizers, there’s not really a good interface to keep the ships sorted by function, location, or group – only by individual. You can park a trade ship on a world while waiting for your travel range to expand and forget about… well… forever. It’ll just get lost in the big list of ships and you, frankly, will forget it’s there until well after you’ve actually won and clicked the “keep playing” button. There’s a few things like this, such as finding the entire list of specific values for a planet or ship in the interface, that will be hard for new players to get. Simply put, macromanaging your ships never gets fun or easy if your memory isn’t good enough to remember everywhere you’ve stashed them – and despite the game’s time-saving tricks it’s still part of the game.
Some of this macromanagement can be negated through a useful tool provided in the game’s governance screen – a mass selector and manager of sorts. Through it, you can pretty easily give orders to literally every ship of a class or planet of a type in your empire. By selecting, say, every Firebird Mk1 in your fleet, you can order them to converge on a given world. Once they’re there, go back into the same tool and order every single one to upgrade to Firebird Mk3, or whatever the latest version you’ve created is. It’s a simple to use plain text column based interface and does wonders for cutting down macromanagement, though it lacks finesse for moments where you need to keep your defensive fleets spread out among frontier worlds.
The game’s interfaces are so filled with time and effort saving tricks, in fact, that there’s one aspect that sticks out like a supernova: The research screen and tree. Going into the research screen gives a set of four trees, each with all the techs currently available to research visible. You can also click into a tree view to see every tech at once. Techs have their names in big bold letters, sometimes with a description, and a line of small symbols that show the kinds of things you’ll get from the tech, but not precisely what they are. That leaves you, then, to look at each tech individually to see what you’ll get – the summaries are rarely helpful. The tree itself is also rather large, and you can’t zoom out, so you’ll have to scroll over and read a bunch of techs to be sure you’ll get what you want later on. There’s not a way to queue research either… so you need to remember the precise path you were on to get where you’re going. God help you if you want to research a bunch of early game technologies in the late game. You’ll have to load up the research screen and pick a tech every turn.
Of course, no matter what your research goal or victory condition of choice, you’ll eventually want to interface with the combat mechanics. For some, this will be defending your stations as you spread your culture and flip opposing worlds to your cause, or defending your colonizers from pirates. For others, this is demolishing stations and escorting transport ships to invade foreign worlds. Fleets are composed of a handful to many ships, depending on a player’s logistics score, and those ships fight and move together against opposing single ships. There are three attack and three defense types, which cancel each other out over time during fights before moving to hit points. It’s a fairly simple rock-paper-scissors mechanic of seeing your opponent relies on missiles and has no kinetic armor, so you build ships with counter-missiles and big guns, so your opponent starts packing lasers – and so on and so forth. You can watch battles in 3d, pre-rendered detail to see how your weapons and tactics perform so you can change them up, or you can simply quick resolve the combat on the world map.
The reason you’re watching battles in real time between AI is because of the ship designer, where you can do an absurd amount of customization to your ships’ appearances in game and the tech they’re carrying. Everything from placing new engine points, weapons, purely aesthetic doodads, spinning things, flashing lights, even moustaches and top hats (I did this and I have no regrets), is available to you. Customizing the actual game stats is a bit more constrained, focusing mostly on combat behavior, attack, defense, combat speed, map movement, and range – alongside a handful of specialized modules such as exploration or colonization. If you don’t care for this, the game does a great job of automatically creating a few premade designs and upgrading them with your latest tech over time.
Fights between relatively equal foes are interesting and fun, if they do grind into a stalemate on occasion, but if one side has advanced war technology it’s often a complete steamroll – so keep your military tech up to snuff. The lower tier AI has a lot of trouble with this, often rolling and getting wrecked at the hint of a threat. The higher tier AI, in true Galactic Civilizations tradition, is murderous even though it doesn’t receive artificial bonuses, and promises to learn from players’ tactics by recording every game we ever play in a central database (you can opt out of this, of course.) Thankfully for lower AI the civilizations will often surrender to a nearby power as you really gain a decisive advantage – ceding their worlds and ships to either you or, more often, your strongest opponent. That’s a huge mercy too, since the most boring part of most 4X games is the long slow slog to victory after you’re more powerful than everyone else – in Gal Civ III, there’s always the chance a new superpower will form out of your enemies even late in the game.
On the matter of complexity, Galactic Civilizations III is a bit more complicated than other games on the order of Civilization V, but doesn’t feel like it because the interface is pretty clear and the time saving tools work well. The learning curve is a pretty linear until you get into a higher difficulty than medium, where understanding of shipyard placement, starbases, territorial expansion, research balance, and ship design become necessary. That’s an exponentially more complicated territory. Thankfully, there’s a pretty discrete number of subsystems to learn, so there’s a plateau after climbing that cliff where you know what the game can throw at you. Of course, there’s shakeups when you switch to a different race with a different research tree and playstyle. Add that to the potential for players with high end computers to go for an “Insane” size map, with a hundred rival empires, tens of minor species, and half a million hexes of galactic territory? Galactic Civilizations III gives players thousands of hours of game. Before multiplayer.
The game also has a campaign mode with a story and pretty cinematics. Check back with us later on that – it wasn’t in our review build. I didn’t even need or want it, though. I was blowing up aliens and converting heathens.
Bottom Line: It innovates from prior games in the series, and is undeniably fun, but Galactic Civilizations III isn’t the clear leader in a packed genre.
Recommendation: If your machine can squeeze the insane potential out of Gal Civ III, or you’ve got a multiplayer partner, give it a whirl. Strategy fans already know whether they need a new thousand hour 4X or not, so I’ll say this one’s worth your time if turn based is your thing.[rating=4]