Galactic Civilizations III is a massive game that encompasses a myriad of activities: space battles, sprawling tech trees, excellent empire management, fully customizable races, biological warfare, space pirates, giant sharks, and pretty much anything else you can imagine that might show up in outer space. GalCiv III has rekindled my love of the 4X sci-fi genre by merging two things I am crazy about – space and strategy. Having played the game since Beta 1, I have seen it flourish and, while it is not without a few missed opportunities, I would strongly argue that the game lacks any major pitfalls. GalCiv III perfectly captures the stereotypical “one more turn” gameplay that will drag you in and won’t let go.
GalCiv III is the continuation of the widely acclaimed Galactic Civilizations series that ended with the development of GalCiv II nearly seven years ago. The game will take you into the depths of space where you wrestle for control of the galaxy in a number of different ways. Although some 4X games specialize and attempt to focus on a few parts of the genre over others, Galactic Civilizations III doesn’t shy away from any of the staple features of 4X.
Before I go any further, I should mention that GalCiv III is my first plunge into the series. So, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what the game is all about. Let’s catch up on the story. Humanity has been split in two. One part is stuck behind an impenetrable shield surrounding Earth, and the other has formed a fleet that further split after several bitter defeats at the hands of Earth’s enemies.
GalCiv III has matured and grown with the addition of massive maps, untold AI enemies, 64-bit gameplay, and multiplayer, but it does forego some of the more advanced systems of previous iterations. I realize this might be an area where longtime fans disagree with me, but where the game may lack in innovation, it more than makes up for in solid 4X glory! For me, GalCiv III is, in a sense, a homecoming; it tickled my 4X appetite in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time.
As I frequently mention, the Civilization series has long been my personal measuring stick when comparing new 4X games. With GalCiv III, I think Civ might have finally met its match in the cold depths of space.
eXplore: At its core, eXploration in GalCiv III offers something different than the typical searching for locations to “set up shop.” Beginning with the search beyond your home system, you will find resources, asteroid belts, space junk, more asteroids, gas giants, dead planets, even more asteroids, and finally that sweet, sweet habitable planet or even a relic. Since any inherent bonuses possessed by the planet and an overall rating are visible, you will never quite be certain what, if any, possible empire-wide boosting resources may be on the surface or how landforms available for the construction of improvements will be situated. A nice little surprise awaits with each planetary colonization.
No matter the difficulty level, it is important to expand early on. Humanity’s inadvertent sharing of hyperdrive technology has led to constant run-ins with other civilizations that are also trying to expand their empires. I would say that, while the game doesn’t force you to expand, it will punish you to a degree if you do not. That is a given for most 4X games I have played, but the punishment in GalCiv III seems to be more visceral than in other games.
During your galactic exploration, it quickly becomes apparent that planets in GalCiv III come in all shapes and sizes. Some are devoid of life, like the massive gas giants, while others will allow for various levels of colonization. Your eXploration will also yield the discovery of planets that will only become colonizable with technological advancements in the later parts of the game.
These advancements provide an interesting change of pace from many other 4X games, in which it is not uncommon for all possible territory to be inhabited by the late game. The planetary class system returns from GalCiv II where each planet is given a rating from zero to twenty-five, with zero representing an uninhabitable world and the double digit planet representing an essentially perfect world. The highest rated worlds will also have the most exploitable tiles. The fact that each newly explored solar system is a gamble of sorts that makes exploration a wonderfully infuriating experience. In some playthroughs, you might explore a number of systems finding nothing useful, while in others, you have a class twenty five planet right next to your home world.
Even during the early stages of exploration, your faithful explorers won’t be free of potential harm; thats right, thaar be pirates in these here parts! Everywhere actually. Pirate ships frequently fly around in small groups attacking your scout, colony, trade, and constructor ships. Pirates are more of a nuisance than a serious threat as your starbases and shipyards will go largely unchallenged by the privateer scum. Their bases are formidable enough, however. So much so that you won’t be able to destroy them until you can amass a rather large fleet. As far as new additions go, I like it.
The exploration phase does not necessarily end once you have spread your empire to the edges of your rival empire’s systems. Depending on your map size, exploration can essentially last the entire length of the game itself. On the larger maps, you simply won’t encounter many other civilizations for a very long time. Even a few hundred turns into a medium-sized map can result in surprise encounters as the minor races return. While they should never be a threat militarily, they can be useful to oil the cogs of your empire. For instance, you could utilize them to maintain higher income levels via trade routes or sign a treaty with these lesser factions. You will discover them, interact with them, but most probably forget about them. They aren’t useless, but nor are they particularly handy. They are an interesting option that you can choose to explore or not.
Personally, I love the fact that I can keep exploring many turns into the game as there is no telling if you will run into a rival or a potential ally. You might be the current big dog in the known universe, but things can quickly change if you run into a civilization far more advanced or powerful than your own.
eXpand: In GalCiv III eXpansion isn’t just characterized by finding those space gold nuggets, otherwise known as gaia planets. Besides simply searching for habitable planets and precursor relics (needed for ascension victory), it is important to secure strategic resources through construction of specialized starbases nearby that will become increasingly useful as the game progresses. Certain space rocks distinguish themselves through their Durantium or antimatter deposits as well as their proximity to the edge of black holes. Such resources can be used to construct special ship modules and planetary improvements. A Durantium factory or Thruliam data archive, for example, each require a specialized resource in order to provide a significant adjacency bonus in addition to adding to the overall production or research on a planet. These types of improvements are a must in the early stages of the game.
I have a love-hate relationship with starbases. They are definitely a necessity because, without them, it would be impossible to gain access to any of the resources which can only be found floating around space. Upgraded starbases can also be useful in that they can give economic or influence boosts to nearby planets. Starbases are quite strong and won’t be in any real danger until your opponents are able to develop strong enough fleets to destroy them. Yet in spite of their strength and military potential, they just won’t ever really factor into play beyond a few boosts that they grant to ships within their area of influence. Why waste the time or resources destroying them in the first place? Instead of starbases, I would suggest a planetary defense grid or orbital platform to protect your planet and nearby fleets since the A.I. ignores the starbases anyway.
Starbases might have missed the mark in some regards, but Stardock has freaking nailed it when it comes to the research system. First off, the tech tree is ridiculously massive with all of the techs nested within one of four – that’s right, four – tech branches! The amazing thing is, while that might sound like a little much, each is valuable in its own right, and you will often find yourself trying to decide which tech to grab next because there are multiple techs you would want to have in all four branches. Does this sound familiar at all?
There are four tech trees in GalCiv III: colonization, engineering, warfare, and governance. The colonization tech branch focuses on planetary manufacturing, food, and research production with a bit of terraforming. The engineering branch is where you will find everything from engines and sensors to the size of your ships and how many can operate in a single fleet. The warfare branch includes all forms of weapons and defenses for your ships, specialized modules to boost their effectiveness, and all tech related to waging glorious war upon your opponents. Finally, the governance branch contains your diplomacy, influence, approval, and commerce techs. The particular branches may have slight alterations in name or organization depending on the race as they each reflect the unique improvements each race can employ, but overall, they are similar from race to race.
Besides having a ton of technologies to research, Galactic Civilizations III implements an interesting pacing system that prevents anyone from simply researching everything in one tree. The game is broken into three “ages” – Age of Expansion, Age of War, and Age of Ascension. At first, I thought the system would be overbearing. Transports, for example, which are used to invade other planets, can’t be researched until the Age of War. The best weapons, planetary improvements, etc. will not be unlocked until the Age of Ascension. You have to research “x” number of techs before investing in any technology within the final age. The separate ages feel more akin to smart balancing because of the existence of multiple tech trees, rather than a single design path that takes away from a player’s freedom to choose. Stardock has done a tremendous job pacing the ages so it doesn’t feel limiting.
On top of having massive research trees, the game also forces you to choose which bonuses to select with its frequent specialization techs. A research specialization tech may, for example, give the player the choice of increasing research by 10%, decreasing the cost to construct research improvements by 10%, or decreasing the maintenance cost for all research improvements by 10%. Once the player researches one, the other options are only available through trade with foreign civilizations.The specializations not only provide useful boosts, but require the player to sometimes make a hard decision. I am often left looking at the tech tree pondering which tech specialization to go for, just like with Master of Orion II.
eXploit: GalCiv III does not skimp on the options to abuse your opponents. If you are looking to take what I refer to as the “peacemonger” strategy, focusing on generating influence (the game’s equivalent of culture) can be effective, perhaps too effective. On the larger maps, this effect is all but mitigated, but on smaller maps, I have found that influence spreads too quickly. The A.I. is either unaware or ignorant of its impact.
As I alluded to earlier, the planetary management system is phenomenal.. There is a level of depth to how you develop your empire that is not always found in many other 4X games. Each planet has a certain number of hexes which you can improve with factories, research facilities, farms, military facilities, entertainment hubs, trade buildings, and the list goes on. Since researching terraforming technology allows you to “unlock” only a few more hexes than are available by default, what you see when you colonize is, to a degree, what you get. Adjacency bonus exploitation is another must for good exploitation.
While many of the improvements will be adding to a planet’s overall manufacturing, economic, or research output, it isn’t a simple game of adding up how many factories to determine manufacturing output. Within each planet you are provided the option of allocating your population to focus more or less on each of the three areas. Need a planet developed quickly? Have your population only focus on manufacturing output. Doing so will give a large boost to your manufacturing output, but provide no additional income nor research for the time being.
In case that isn’t enough control over your economy, if a planet is supporting a shipyard, you must also determine if your manufacturing output will be focused on the planet itself, or in producing ships for your fleet. I know this might sound like a lot but, in practice, it is a relatively straightforward system which allows you to really specialize your planets.
When you aren’t exploiting the resources available to you, you will be determining the heart and mind of your empire. Ideology plays a good, if perhaps convoluted, role within the game as a whole. Three choices are available to pursue: Benevolent, Pragmatic, or Malevolent. Each choice has four sub-categories with five choices each. Unlock one, and more powerful options become available within the sub-class. The seventy-five ideological choice combinations feel meaningful and provide some significant bonuses. My problem with the system is perhaps less to do with how it is implemented and more with how one gains ideology points, which are chiefly gathered via galactic and colonization events.
Galactic events are random occurrences that present the player with three possible outcomes along ideological paths. Each option leads to a different bonus. Even though galactic events provide ideology points, many points, at least initially, will be earned through colonization events. How will you treat the native species or how far will you investigate a strange anomaly? The flavor texts associated with the colonization events are well written, and funny. Sometimes you are forced to make some funny choices, like the time I had to bully a living planet to get at its secrets.
While the ideology tree allows players to gain significant advantages alongside making strategic decisions, the interstellar governance techs are simply a disappointment. Early in the development of Galactic Civilizations III, it was made clear that governing parties would not make it into the vanilla version of the game, so, adding the techs now seem silly. As pure place-holders, these techs merely add small economic bonuses to your empire.
Sadly, diplomacy doesn’t seem to work all that well either. I realize that typically this is where most 4X games tend to fall short, and GalCiv III is not any different. The AI doesn’t value diplomatic exchanges. Trying to trade with the A.I. is difficult at best. This means you have to gift the necessary technology to the AI so they can perhaps form a treaty with you. Not only is this annoying, but it is also clearly broken. Compound this issue with the fact that tech can also increase your standings with other races and it actually becomes hard to have someone even dislike you. While some features such as espionage were never slated for the base game, I would like to see diplomacy fleshed out with a little more depth than it currently has.
eXterminate: In Galactic Civilizations III, space combat is a creative blend of beauty and strategy. Once the two fleets engage, you do not have any control over the combat.,All the “decisions” are made by your ship composition within any given fleet and the stats of the individual ships (which you may or may not have customized beforehand). At first glance, combat seemed very barebones to me.
As it turned out, I was wrong. The combat is not just a simple unfulfilling game of rock, paper, scissors. The entire system hinges on just three weapon and armor types, each possessing slightly different damage, range defaults, and rates of fire. Each ship is given a rating: threat, fortitude, and value that ultimately determine their role and behavior in combat. Put more guns on a ship and its threat will go up, more armor or shields and its fortitude increases. As a ship leans more towards dealing damage, providing defense, or support to the fleet in general, it will be assigned one of six ship roles.
While the behavior patterns of individual ships within a fleet are permanent once built, you decide what they’ll be. Add in various support modules to increase accuracy, rates of fire, and make weapons hit harder, increase your ship’s tactical speed, or… well, you get the idea. The system itself allows for a lot of user specialization and customization by including stock ships of all sizes and armaments. Should you choose to skip ship customization, you won’t be at a disadvantage against the AI, but you will be missing out on a level of depth and strategy within the game that the developers really improved upon since early beta
I can’t just move on past specialization that quickly, though, as it is truly amazing what you can do. Take some time to customize the ship appearance then give it an epic name and place it within an grandiose sounding fleet for the full experience. There are countless ways you can manipulate base ships or make your own from scratch. Throw a ton of sensors on a ship and spy across large swaths of space. Want your battleships to cover incredible distances at a high rate of speed? Slap on six engines and there you go. Again, let me reiterate that you can skip all of this design and customization, if you wish; but if you do, you’ll be missing out.
Since winning space battles will be key to your overall success, you won’t expand your empire very far unless you are willing to cleanse planets of the “locals” and make room for your empire’s citizenry. Planetary invasion centers on assaulting planets with transport ships, each loaded with the patriotic “volunteers” of your worlds. Moving population from one planet to attack another works as a game mechanic, but it bothers me that I could grab five billion people off one planet who were previously engaged in research and commerce, and then suddenly they’ve become five billion soldiers killing off the inhabitants of another planet. It’s a personal pet peeve, but the mechanic works.
Each race utilizes conventional invasion methods, meaning simply that you hope your guys can kill the defenders who may or may not have additional defenses. This default method will be costly as it may take multiple transports to conquer a planet. Eventually, you will be presented with the choice of specializing your planetary invasions by utilizing either bombardment, information warfare, or biological warfare. This creates a balancing act, and as you wish to effectively blitz a few planets, you might need a significant cash reserve in addition to superior fleets. I don’t particularly like the simplicity of invasions, but it’s a work-in-progress. A cinematic would be nice too.
The combat system the developers have in place adequately satisfied my lust for battle, even though the developers have clearly stated they didn’t want GalCiv III to only be about combat. Well done, Stardock.
eXperience: Stardock paid attention to detail in a lot of ways throughout the development cycle. One of my favorite features is the flavor text describing each technology that you will research. They are outright hilarious, and it might be something many people overlook. Having received a massive facelift, the game also looks really good. The suns and the planets are gorgeously rendered, and space battles are a beautiful spectacle to behold. The campaign picks up from where it left off previously in GalCiv II, but we haven’t had time with it just yet, so I won’t really cover it until the Audible eXtension.
Up to this point, I hope I have painted a picture of just how well crafted Galactic Civilizations III is in many regards. However, a game requires more than just solid mechanics to make it fun. One of the most exciting features of the game (for me) is the ability to create your own custom factions. You can name them, determine their appearance, select their ship style and color scheme, chose their traits and perks, and finally, their technology tree. You can even write a history for the race and it’s leader. The system works well, and allows you to do virtually anything you want with the race, even add your own pictures and insignia. I enjoyed the factions provided with the game at launch, but it was really nice to create my own race simply because I was given so much control. Rather than spend a few more paragraphs on this point, I will leave it with this thought: the custom factions work amazingly well and are one of the gems within the game, adding substantially to its variety and replayability.
Another way in which GalCiv III has attempted to differentiate itself from its predecessors was the inclusion of multiplayer. The ability to play alongside or against friends is a long sought after feature in modern 4X games. The early problems appear to have been resolved. The game is stable and it doesn’t buckle under heavy loads, but still in need of some balancing and polish.
The game overall, while not perfect, does a lot of things right. The AI is more than capable on the highest settings, even if it doesn’t take advantage of all the customization options a player may come up with. I look forward to continued balancing and improvement to the AI, as it challenges me, which is what I’d expect from a solid Stardock title. Even with its shortcomings, I cannot stress enough how much there is to GalCiv III. Exploration, combat, empire management – so many of the things I love about the 4X genre are all present.
A common criticism I have heard time and again is that the title doesn’t do a whole lot to differentiate itself from Galactic Civilizations II. Since I played very little of GalCiv II but over 100 hours on GalCiv III, I would suggest that while this critique may hold water, the game itself is one of the most holistic 4X games to be released in my recent memory. With the ability to play on truly insane size maps (and yes, they are actually called “insane”) and over one hundred AI opponents, the game is setting the groundwork for something even greater in the years to come. That is not to say that Galactic Civilizations III is a boring game by any means, but it will be in future expansions and DLC that we see, perhaps drastic, departures from what long times fans already know and love about the series. As for now, the game welcomes a host of new improvements, but don’t expect Galactic Civilizations III to have changed a significant amount when compared to its predecessors.
Rob’s Additional Perspective:
Many people are going to wonder if this iteration is any better than GalCiv II. I can’t definitively answer that, though it is better in a lot of ways. It has embraced 64-bit technology, therefore future-proofing it in many ways, it has multiplayer, its take on strategic resources is great, and its graphics are far superior to GC II’s. Those are all pretty good reasons to move on. However, it’s difficult to compete with the series’ previous iteration when there were two full expansions to fill in the holes and shore up its weaknesses. Not to mention, the additional content brought to the base game by those expansions has firmly planted the whole package in the “4X Classic” category.
No doubt, GalCiv III needs better invasion mechanics, espionage, and I’d love for the political system to return before I can see this game reaching “eXemplary” status. Not because that’s what I expect out of every 4X, but it is what I expect out of the Galactic Civilizations series and the absence of those game mechanics is noticeable. Not to mention, the battle viewer is clunky and feels a bit out of place. You need to start somewhere, though, and I think that GC III is a better vanilla package than GCII was at its release. It brings enough new mechanics to the table to feel fresh, but remains firmly planted in its heritage so as to not alienate returning players. I had doubts that Stardock would pull it off as recently as beta 5, but the 6th beta finally polished the rough edges enough to reveal the jewel inside. Perhaps, a couple of expansions would make GC III the best entry in the series and that, above all else, is probably the highest praise I could give it. An easy recommendation.
TL;DR: Galactic Civilizations III is a wide reaching strategy game that does not shy away from any of the staples of a great 4X game. Yet, in spite of the game possessing almost all the elements of a great 4X game, in this case, unfortunately, some parts were left on the cutting room floor. While gameplay may not be as robust as the final Galactic Civilizations II package, the gameplay that’s here is well executed. Multiplayer seems stable enough and should extend the life of this title considerably. GalCiv III not only captures the immensity of governing an empire stretching the extent of space itself, but also challenges players to make strategic, and often difficult, choices. Have no fear, GalCiv III is a worthy addition to this series.
You might like this game if:
- Empire management makes you giddy and is important to your enjoyment.
- You enjoy customizing your leader, your race and the very ships you command.
- The idea of fighting over 100 enemies on an insanely large map sounds like fun.
- You want an updated GalCiv II with some understandable caveats.
You might NOT like this game if:
- You prefer less emphasis on empire management.
- You are looking for a drastically different experience from GalCiv II.
- You prefer combat-centric strategy games.
- You need an all-new or truly innovative 4X experience.
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Dallin has played over 103 hours of Galactic Civilizations III on Windows 7 – 3.8GHz CPU, R270 video card, with 8GB of RAM