Video Game Review: ‘Galactic Civilizations III’

As longtime readers (VERY longtime readers, considering the last strategy game you covered was last year… -ed.) probably will already know, I am particularly fond of strategy games. To give just two of the most obvious examples, I am a huge fan of the XCOM reboot and Sid Meier’s Civilization V remains one of my most played games in the strategy genre (he’s not joking: he actually has more than a month’s worth of hours put into the game, as he has 879 hours on record on his Steam account for the game and the longest months have 744 hours in them! -ed.). Another favourite of mine is the Galactic Civilizations franchise, which has a rather interesting history to it: originally starting out as games on the OS/2 operating system, the versions of the games that most people are familiar with were remakes of those games that were created by Stardock (who people might be familiar with for also creating The Political Machine and Elemental franchises, as well as 2001’s The Corporate Machine and publishing 2008’s Sins of a Solar Empire, 2009’s Demigod, this year’s Offworld Trading Company and this year’s Ashes of the Singularity, the latter of which they also co-developed).

The first two games (2003’s Galactic Civilization and 2006’s Galactic Civilization II: Dread Lords) were highly regarded games that still hold up surprisingly well now and you can get both games (along with all of their expansion packs) on Steam for a not entirely unreasonable £18.99, which I’d certainly recommend if you’re curious about giving the franchise a shot. Surprisingly, though, Stardock would not release the next game in the franchise until 2014…in early access. Since early access games tend to be riddled with issues and there is a disturbing trend for developers of early access games to just abandon games and never finish them, I was, understandably, rather sceptical about the game and so decided to wait for the game’s full release before talking about it. Luckily, Stardock did not let the game become abandoned and the finished release of the game came about in May of last year. Since it’s had more than enough time to do all of the necessary patches to make everything work properly and I felt like talking about something which wasn’t Assassin’s Creed, I figured I might as well take the time to look at the game now and see how it holds up.

Let me start by bringing up something that REALLY bugged me about the original launch of the game in early access: when the game was originally released, it was at a rather ridiculous price of £76 (which is a rather ridiculous amount to charge for a triple-A game, let alone an unfinished game). The big question I have to ask is simply this: “Why?” For those who didn’t play the game at the time, then here’s the thing you have to remember: at the time of that launch, it barely had any content. All you had to begin with was a sandbox mode of the campaign and there were only 2 playable civilizations. That’s a pretty poor showing for any small indie strategy game, let alone a game that is naturally as big and expansive as a typical 4X strategy game by a fairly large (if, admittedly, still independent) company, and the price that was being asked for that tiny amount of content was pretty farcical! Sadly, this tends to be the default state of games when it comes to early access games in general and I personally think that is a pretty bad sign for the video game industry as a whole that this is nowadays being seen as one of the best ways to help develop games, because it’s so open to abuse and it’s very rare that an early access games comes out which is actually worth the amount being charged for it, considering the developer is asking the consumer to purchase what can sometimes just be an alpha for a finished product as if it is a full priced game (incidentally, this is why the site does not cover early access games until they have actually left early access: early access games can change so rapidly in development that there’s little point in covering them because an article could become redundant very quickly and the game could end up never being finished, hence why we wait for a game to be confirmed as finished so that we don’t get burnt should a game never get finished or change drastically during development. It’s the same basic approach that Eurogamer has, for the record, so we’re hardly making a unique principled stand with this decision! -ed.).

Actually, it’s while I’m writing this that a thought strikes me: when it comes to pricing early access games, why not just have a price set which reflects the status of the game’s development, like a third of the planned full release price for the alpha build and two thirds of the planned full release price for the beta build? That would give a good incentive to check out the game earlier in development and help shape it properly through offering feedback, but would allow the consumer to feel like they’re not losing too much if they get the game earlier and don’t like it too much!

However, that’s all unimportant now, considering the game has had its full launch now. So, let’s stop talking about the initial launch of the game and start actually talking about how the game holds up now.

First of all, let’s talk about the story mode. It pretty much picks up where the second game left off, so you might want to be familiar with the story of the previous games before you jump in with the game, otherwise some things might not make a lot of sense. Basically, humanity is on the brink of total annihilation and its allies aren’t faring any better. You start off as the admiral of what remains of Earth’s fleet and you are tasked with bringing an end to the occupation of Arcea, which belongs to your allies. It’s not really a deep story, admittedly, and it’s kind of a cliche story (if you’re familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 lore at all, this is probably going to sound very familiar), but, considering this is a real-time strategy game (which isn’t really a gaming genre which has deep storytelling as a standard part of it due to how many factions tend to appear in the games) and it’s part of the sci-fi genre (which doesn’t exactly have the best of reputations when it comes to high quality storytelling to the average person…quite unfairly, I might add!), it actually is pretty reasonable for what the game requires it to do and it is handled fairly well.

There’s also a custom campaign mode, which gives you a huge sandbox to play the game in. Considering how big the galaxies in the original games were, I’m happy to note that galaxies in this game can be just as big as the ones in the original games: it would have been so easy for Stardock to shrink the galaxies down in favour of enhancing the graphics as far as they could manage (also known as “the Square Enix approach”…OK, maybe that was a low blow, I’ll admit!), so the fact they didn’t take this route is actually a really cool thing. While this isn’t really important to the game itself, I feel I should commend Stardock for their willingness to embrace the modding community, because the modding community is incredibly active with this game, creating some truly excellent mods for the game which not only are lore friendly, but also add some unique ideas onto the game which I can’t help really enjoying. This is certainly one game which is worth looking at the Steam workshop for even if you’re not usually all that keen on modding in general, because there’s so much on offer that it’s worth taking the time to give it a shot!

The combat has been changed somewhat from previous installments in the franchise, being done more in the vein of Endless Space instead. For those of you not familiar with Endless Space, it’s somewhat like a 3D simulated space battle in which you only have minimal control, effectively demanding that you make a battle strategy and then watch the battle unfold in a manner somewhat similar to what I imagine it would be like to be a manager watching a football match (so, players in football matches are at risk of being atomised during matches? Huh, football’s changed a lot since I last watched it… -ed.). While this minimal control may be a problem for some players, I find that it really encourages you to weigh up your moves carefully, as it’s very difficult to correct an error should things go badly wrong and it makes you realise just how risky a move can be if it leaves you open to an attack. This can make losing ships which take a long time to build all the more painful if you lose them to poor strategy as a result, which I can’t help respecting because it makes you appreciate that, while these ships have a lot of power, losing them means that you won’t be able to replace them easily, encouraging carefully considered strategy with them.

The graphics have had a massive overhaul and it REALLY shows: it’s definitely the best looking game in the franchise to date and is a beautiful game. This does come with a downside, however, as it’s a game which requires a decent system to run properly, which will make gamers with weaker machines unable to play the game. You need at least a quad core processor and 6GB RAM for it to work properly, so, if you are wanting to purchase this game and don’t have a top range gaming PC, you should definitely take the time to check your specs and consider whether your system will be able to run it before you consider purchasing it.

So, what do I think of Galactic Civilizations III overall? Well, the game somewhat shot itself in the foot upon its first release in early access due to the farcical cost of a game that was then VERY much incomplete and lacking in most of the features that it needed to have to be worth investing time in, but it has definitely redeemed itself since receiving its full release and it now is a very solid game which, while probably deviating from the original playstyle upon which the franchise was built more than it probably should have done for the comfort of longtime fans, has certainly proven itself to be a very enjoyable experience with a huge amount to offer. If your machine can run it and you’re a fan of this sort of game, you should definitely take the time to check it out, as it’s more than worth the price of admission!