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Galactic Civilizations 3 review

Galactic Civilizations III review

There was a nice, clear sky last night. When I looked up at it, I did have to wonder if, above me, an alien race was attempting to culture flip Earth so that they could use the planet as a staging post for a massive invasion into the territory of a group of sentient robots who have nothing but hatred for organic life. 

When my dog finished his business, we went back inside so I could continue playing Galactic Civilizations III, the source of my paranoia. 

Stardock’s latest turn-based space 4X game has removed any romantic notions of space from my mind. It’s all industrial giants clashing with corrupt zealots, giant single-minded armadas launching warheads at each other, economic wars and planetary invasions. Space is exhausting, but running a vast galactic empire is absolutely worth the effort. 

The fundamentals of Galactic Civilizations haven’t changed. If you were to summarise the first few turns in both II and III, you’d have two nearly identical descriptions.

You send your scout and survey ship out to explore the galaxy, searching for life, anomalies and resources. Then you send out your first colony ship, avoiding the second inhabitable planet in your solar system (it’s always terrible), and probably start building another colony ship so you can snatch up choice worlds quickly. With that done, you choose what you’re going to research and start building on your homeworld, probably a manufacturing or research facility, which you’ll rush buy.

That’s really just the first turn – there’s a lot to do – but the following turns share just as many similarities.

It’s in the details where the extra Roman numeral is earned. These actions, researching, constructing, are now richer in meaningful decisions, allowing would-be space emperors to more finely tune their galactic empire.

Research, for instance, is still full of branching paths complete with fanciful sci-fi and more grounded, speculative technologies and race-specific research, but there’s now an extra layer of choice. Many research projects offer a greater degree of specialisation by making galactic dictators choose between multiple bonuses. A research project related to ship hulls might be split up into specialisations that beef up the hulls or lower manufacturing costs, and how you’re developing your empire will determine which bonus is the best fit.

The race-specific tech trees already conferred a lot of personality and variety to Galactic Civilizations’ tech tree, so this extra layer does threaten to over-complicate an already excellent system. The new tech tree ladles on all these extra decisions right from the get go, meaning that you absolutely need to have an idea of the direction your empire is going in extremely early on. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s too much. It certainly forces players to appreciate that the game requires a lot of forward thinking, but it is very daunting.

Before you even start hoovering up planets across the galaxy, before you even load up a map, there are a multitude of agonising choices to make. How big do you want to make the galaxy, and what shape will it take? How often do you want to bump into pirates and minor races? Who will you share the galaxy with? How quickly do you want the game to move along? There’s even the terrain of space to consider, the nebulas, black holes and resource rich moons and asteroids. Stardock’s lavished the game setup screen with so many options that you have more control over the galaxy than in any previous Galactic Civilizations installment, and it’s only really outdone by Distant Worlds.

The “insane” galaxy size is, perhaps, going to be Galactic Civilizations III’s claim to fame. While the smallest galaxy size, “tiny”, can be mastered in a couple of hours and barely has room for one proper space empire, the largest galaxies will take weeks, possibly months, to play through. While you can play with any number of races, the most gargantuan of galaxies are really designed to contain a lot of different species. If you want to play a game with 100 races, then you’ll probably want to do it in an insane galaxy.

To get a sense of the scale, here’s where I started off with my Drengin empire in an insane spiral galaxy:

And here’s the camera zoomed all the way out:

That covers maybe 1/6th of the whole map. Each red dot is a sun that could potentially host habitable planets. If you were to only play with Stardock’s eight official races, then you could play for days and never even meet them.

It’s an endurance game, playing on an insane galaxy, testing your patience and you explore the galaxy at a painfully slow pace. And it doesn’t feel like empires were meant to spread out as far as these massive maps allow them to. There are approval penalties that punish empires for growing too large, and these penalties don’t appear to scale with the size of the map.

A smaller galaxy ensures that you’ll make contact with other races quickly, and it’s the interactions with aliens that drive Galactic Civilizations III.

Gal Civ 3 starts off with eight races. That’s less than its predecessor – though a flexible in-game race designer and mod support means that the actual number of races can be much, much greater. Even so, the standard races cover all the bases. You’ve got the Altarians, a bunch of very pleasant, blue humanoids, famed for their culture and benevolence, and on the other end of the spectrum are the Drengin, a race of militaristic conquerors whose empire is built on the backs of slaves. In between are expansionist zealots, masters of trade, robots and even insects from the future.

Stardock’s races are blessed with a rich history and distinct personalities. When controlled by the AI, they act as you would expect them to given the lore surrounding them and their in-game description, and they are generally consistent. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of being devious or surprising, though. The peaceful Altarians can become the aggressor in a war, if pushed, and I’ve seen the Drengin attempt to conquer a planet through the force of their influence rather than an armada.

The game is a race, a marathon, with the finish line being a variety of victory types: conquest, influence, research, time limit and ascension, where your race transforms into higher beings if you collect a bunch of crystals. So even if you’re not throwing your weight around with a huge fleet of capital ships bristling with the most advanced mass drivers, you’re always competing, and the galaxy is always hostile, even if all the aliens are smiling and making deals with you.

Choosing a victory goal is something that should be done early on, as it informs how you develop your empire, but that focus on the end goal doesn’t prove to be limiting.

As the Terrans, I attempted to win the galaxy over with my incredible charm and cultured ways. Peacefully. I built influence-generating buildings on my worlds, constructed starbases with culture modules and researched tech that made my empire lovely and appealing. The game ended in a galaxy-wide war and trillions dead.

My attempts to win over the populations of other worlds had not gone ignored by the other empires, two of which promptly declared war. In an effort to defend Earth and my colonies, I had to rapidly build up defensive fleets and research new, deadly weapons. The war dragged on until I was finally able to start fielding capital ships. Eventually I destroyed my enemies, and I found myself with considerably more influence than before thanks to the new worlds I’d conquered. My vastly expanded empire was able to more effectively spread Terran culture, and it wasn’t long before I won the game with an influence victory. Thanks, war.

While aggression can take many forms in Galactic Civilizations III, from trade competition to tech races, war will inevitably flare up, and that means you’ll need fleets. Each race comes with a small array of pre-designed ships that cover the different weapon types and ship classes, and it’s perfectly possible to win a war by just relying on them. It’s just that it’s nowhere near as satisfying as building your own ships and sending them out to burn the galaxy.

The ship designer is an incredible tool, allowing for the customisation of both the ship’s appearance and its weapons, engines, defensive modules and support features like cargo holds for colonists, soldiers and trade goods. Every component can be resized, duplicated, repositioned and, if you fancy, made to spin.

Here’s a ship I made in beta:

And here’s an Altarian ship I made when I wasn’t being puerile:

Big ships with big guns and troop transports full of burly space marines are great, but they’re useless if the enemy can counter them. A fleet specialising in lasers and protected by defensive shields won’t fare well against an opposing fleet sporting mass drivers and heavy armour. It’s the rock, paper, scissors formula, but with the added complexity of worrying about mass and miniaturisation.An empire focused on miniaturisation and reducing the mass of its components can, simply put, throw more stuff onto ships. They might have inferior weapons, but they have more of them.

Wars feel appropriately tense, and aggression is tempered by a need to protect so many assets. The loss of a world can herald an economic collapse if war as already strained it. Empires are littered with customisable starbases, too, and they are big targets. They mine resources, spread influence, protect borders and improve trade — they are absolutely necessary and the destruction of one can really harm an empire.

Ship-building facilities are now off world rather than being bound to worlds, which is a small change with a significant impact. There’s a benefit, since various worlds can now sponsor a single shipyard, but they can also being targets, floating out there in space. Losing a shipyard is obviously devastating in the middle of a war, and they don’t have their own defenses.

A quirk that’s been carried over from Galactic Civilizations II can unfortunately put a bit of a dampner on conquest. AI empires, when faced with defeat, can just give up completely and offer all of their worlds up to another faction. In one game, this happened to me twice in a row, so all these worlds I was about to conquer suddenly ended up in the hands of another empire. It rendered the war pointless, because even though I’d won, all I had really done was empower another potential enemy.

What made it so frustrating is that, at no point, did either of those empires attempt to make peace with me first. It’s not a problem if they are down to their last world, but sometimes it happens when most of their empire is intact. A tweak to make it less likely for a big empire to give up so easily would nip this in the bud.

The thing is, I rarely want to completely wipe out an empire. I usually like to settle things after I’ve grabbed a few worlds. There’s a meaty diplomacy system to play around with, where a long list of treaties and alliances can be brokered, gifts can be given, tithes can be demanded, and resources can be traded. The empires can also gather and pass bills in a galactic parliament, where they can attempt to exert their will across the entire galaxy and, if they are in charge, even decide what bills to put up for a vote. It’s a popularity contest, and one that pays significant dividends like the ability to redistribute the wealth of rich empires or end wars with a vote.

How an empire reacts to a diplomatic offer depends on a lot of factors. Empires that share borders might feel a bit threatened by each other, they won’t be too pleased if influence starbases are being used to culture flip one of their world and they might think another empire’s a bit rubbish if they have a weak military. All of these factors are clearly displayed on the diplomacy screen. The UI and tooltips have come along way since Galactic Civilizations II.

Another serious factor that plays into how empires view each other is ideology. There are three ideologies in Galactic Civilizations III: benevolent, pragmatic and malevolent, and empires generally won’t be too keen on aliens who don’t share their ideology – though it’s not a dealbreaker.

Random events, which are guaranteed to pop up when a new world is colonised and can also crop up at any time, result in points being earned toward a specific ideology. It’s where you can do a bit of empire roleplaying. An event offers up three choices, each one representing a specific ideology and offering unique bonuses and trade offs. A newly-colonised world might host a strange alien artefact that kills people but also could be valuable to the empire’s scientists. A benevolent leader would, of course, destroy the artifact, perhaps leading to an approval boost, while a malevolent one would be unlikely to care how many people die, as long as the research rewards are reaped.

Ideology points can then be spent on handy bonuses. One of the first rewards that you can unlock in the pragmatic ideology immediately gives you three constructors, which can be used to build starbases and shipyards. In the benevolent ideology, you can get a free, fully-loaded colony ship instead. Either of those options are a huge boon for a growing empire, but choosing one doesn’t lock out the other. It will be harder to reach the highest tier bonuses, but the option to dabble in multiple ideologies is there.

I get a bit lost in Galactic Civilizations III. Not the type of lost where you wander aimlessly, a clueless shambles, but the type of lost where you’re exploring and you just forget what you were meant to be doing. So much can happen in a single turn, and a tiny tweak to the circular economic slider – it’s split between wealth, manufacturing and research – can have a dramatic impact, making the difference between going bust and getting back in the black, or researching a desperately needed technology now, or in four more turns when it will be too late.

So I fiddle and change and tweak everything. A turn can take an hour when I’m adjusting the weapons on my latest ship or going through each planet and moving the economic slider on each individual world before even moving a fleet or giving my worlds new build orders. I bounce from menu to menu, immersing myself in the governance of my burgeoning galactic empire.

I worried that, after years of playing its predecessor and all of its expansions, I would be too familiar with Galactic Civilizations III. I worried that I’d get a bit tired of it too quickly. This hasn’t remotely been the case. I’m hooked in the same way I was with the last game, and not because it’s stayed the same, but because it’s managed to strike that balance between the comfortingly familiar and the refreshingly new.