Galactic Civilizations 2: Twilight of the Arnor Review

By Nick Breckon, May 27, 2008 12:07pm PDT It would be very easy to ignore a series like Galactic Civilizations II. I am living proof.

Consider that I am a huge fan of space, strategy, and space strategy PC games. In other words, I am a huge nerd. But sitting down to play Galactic Civilization II: Twilight of the Arnor, having never played a game in the series, I figured this old, low budget, turn-based title wouldn't interest me. I always thought of it like I do outdoor sports: I'm sure the game is fun, but it looks like way too much work, thank you.

Just a few turns, I figured, then back to Liberty City.

But those few turns gave way to a hundred. Then a thousand. Countless hours melted away before my eyes, replaced by burned-in images of battlecruisers, research trees, and galactic maps.

I woke up sometime in the future, on the other side of a time warp-hole, behind on my work and really, really in need of a bathroom. It was then that I knew I'd discovered the most addictive game since, well, that other Civilization series.

Of course, I am very late to the party. In that sense, this review is more of a belated invitation. Stardock has gotten a lot of attention lately for publishing Ironclad's hit RTS/strategy hybrid Sins of a Solar Empire, but as their name subtly indicates, the company has been steadily building its own space strategy games for years. The original Galactic Civilization II: Dread Lords was released back in 2006, and Twilight of Arnor marks the second, and final, expansion.

The series has been a quietly celebrated one, and it's easy to see why. Focusing purely on turn-by-turn galactic conquest, GalCiv sets itself apart with an impressive AI and a deep set of features. This isn't about fancy real-time 3D battles, or elaborate multiplayer modes, or any of that extraneous nonsense. It's about slowly developing an empire from nothing, exploring the outer reaches of space, and then, before the other aliens, conquering that space with an iron fist.

As in other 4X titles, achieving success in GalCiv is all about finding a balance between conquest, research, culture, and diplomacy. At first, this can seem intimidating. While not as daunting as something like Space Empires V, Stardock's title is not exactly user-friendly at first glance. It seems a mess of buttons and option boxes and graphs, a galactic spreadsheet of a game.

After about 30 minutes, however, anyone familiar with Civilization-style games will have it down. What at first seems an overly complicated mess of buttons quickly turns into a manageable mix of planetary governance and spaceship command. You colonize a few worlds. You do a little research. You build an improvement on this planet, you launch a spaceship from that one. You hit the "turn" button, watch your rivals counter every move you made, and then you do it all over again--all to the sound of a calming, spacey score. That is, until your nextdoor neighbor launches an interstellar invasion.

As your galactic influence pushes your borders outward, some other intelligence is likely to take notice. Making war in GalCiv is another balancing act. Battleships and fighters will act as troop transport escorts, neutralizing enemy fleets and planetary defenders before the invasion.

The method of invasion is the most important decision, ultimately determining how much of a planet you are willing to destroy in order to level the playing field for your side. Information warfare leaves the planet intact, but costs cash, and may not tilt the odds in your favor. Gassing or plain bombardment is a surer way to victory, but you risk substantial damage to the final prize. Once landed, actual troop combat is totally simulated in what amounts to a die-roll. It's a little anticlimactic, but given the alternative of a shoehorned RTS component, I prefer Stardock's solution.

Outside of pure domination, galactic administrators will be faced with choosing planetary improvements, directing the flow and rate of territorial taxes, building up starbases to increase your influence, and other endless tasks. But where the game excels is not in its basic functionality, which is nothing radically new, but in the surprises and little touches.

As an interstellar ruler, you'll occasionally be forced to deal with various disasters and discoveries. Always given the option of an evil, neutral, or good choice, your decisions will directly impact your universal approval rating. Choosing to eradicate a newfound alien race may swing you closer to the dark side, but allowing them to thrive might negatively impact any number of variables, from your wallet to your planet's population.

The actual simulation offers some of the best AI routines in the business, with convincing strategies being thrown at you from across the stars. In fact, messages from opposing civilizations can often seem eerily intimidating. At one point, after thinking I was on the verge of surprising my nemesis with an invasion fleet, my wily enemy countered with his own show of force, before sending this prompt communique: "You may think you can build up a force on my border without me noticing, like in some video game, but I am a sentient being. I just wanted you to know that I know what you're doing."

Oops.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_ The initial taste of the game's widespread customization will come with the scenario setup, including options for overall map size, habitable planet frequency, victory conditions, etc. Players then have the pick of 12 default races to play as--with, of course, the option to create a custom race, tech trees and all. You can also dictate your leader's abilities a la Fallout, pumping points into various traits such as courage, diplomacy, or luck.

Almost everything about the game has a variable attached, from basic rule sets to UI behavior. Don't want a message to pop up every turn telling you about newly discovered meteors? Turn it off. Want to play a game on a universal map that takes months to complete? Call in sick. Maybe avian flu.

Probably the best example of the game's flexibility is found in the starship creator, a sort of Spore-like spaceship builder that allows you to attach hundreds of parts to hull hard-points. Engines, weapons, and even spoilers and other unnecessary flamboyances are at your disposal. Each component can be sized up or down, slapped to dozens of points on a ship skeleton and molded into a unique craft. It strokes the LEGO spaceship nerd in all of us.

While the game also lacks a real RTS component for space battles, it does allow you to simply watch your ships duke it out in 3D. It's a nice feature, but you'll make use of the "skip" button more often than not. This is a game about grand decisions, about strategy and planning. The realization of those plans isn't so much a reward as it is an afterthought, another minor step on the way to overall victory. I'd love a way to command my customized fleet, but in truth, even in games with strong RTS components like Total War, I end up automating most of the combat anyway.

Another area that GalCiv shines is diplomacy. It's a standard trading menu, but the simple indication of green or red text makes it very easy to tell the other party's inclination, cutting out all the annoying guess work usually involved in these types of systems. Paying 100,000 credits to have someone else fight your battles has never been easier.

A United Nations-style galactic council will submit proposals every now and then, dictating everything from the number of weapons allowed on freighters to the location of the next galactic Olympics. The size of each race's empire dictates the weight of the vote, but larger races can be beaten by calculated compromise. Faced with allowing the dominant Yor empire to dictate the vote, I decided to cast mine in favor of the second-largest race, guaranteeing that our combined power would keep the Yor in check. I'm in your council, nullifying Yor votes.

But enough about that stuff. Isn't this supposed to be a review of the expansion?

Twilight of the Arnor, which requires both the previous expansion and the original game to run, adds all sorts of improvements to the GalCiv II base. Other than improved graphics, the world-destroying Terror Stars, and the "Immense" month-destroying map size, the most significant of these is the diversification of research trees. Whereas before each race's tech tree was identical, now all 12 are wholly unique. Often a pathway to a particular technology is simply different, but there are also a number of technologies that will be specific to one race or another.

A new avenue of victory has also been added in the form of Ascension crystals. Building starbases on enough of these points will trigger a countdown to victory, the first race reaching 1000 Ascension points becoming the winner. While some have noted that this victory condition seems removed from any overall conflict, I found it actually ends up sparking conflict. Like a country developing nuclear weapons in real life, it forces you to act preemptively, starting wars in order to smash the other race's crystals and stave off defeat for a few hundred more turns.

There are a dozen other bullet points to Arnor, including map, tech tree and planetary improvement editors. The campaign mode also presents the final chapter in the three-arc story, progressing in an increasingly difficult list of scenarios.

Unfortunately, Stardock still hasn't added a multiplayer component. This particular exclusion doesn't bother me so much, but others will surely be disappointed. What irks me more is the game's crashing upon an alt-tab. Tasking out is a major part of my PC gaming life, and any title that isn't alt-tab friendly earns a black mark in my book.

And while I'm being irked, I would be remiss in glossing over some of the game's bothersome traits. For one, it is a little cumbersome in design, not nearly as streamlined and snappy as, say, Civilization IV. The game can also become a little overwhelming, especially as your empire expands on larger maps. At times I found myself knowingly disregarding urgent issues, moving on to the next turn just to keep the pace up.

Perhaps most dangerously, GalCiv can be downright harmful to your health, to the point of needing some kind of label. Warning: This game has been shown to increase the chance of prostate cancer in men. Bathroom discretion is advised. Stardock recommends an emergency bucket at all times.

That's about it for half-hearted complaints--back to the praise. Like the best of strategy games, GalCiv's many options and unexpected variables make for endless amounts of scenarios. At a cover charge of only $60 for the original game and its two expansions, Stardock is selling more hours of entertainment per dollar with this package than even the best page-turner of a book. If any of this sounds interesting in the least, you owe it to yourself to give this series a shot before it fades into obscurity.

Just make sure that bucket is within reach.

Disclaimer: Nick Breckon grew up down the road from Stardock HQ in the lovely town of Plymouth, MI. Go Whalers.

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