It has been nearly six months since Galactic Civilizations III launched to mostly positive reviews. I gave it a “Recommend” on the eXplorminate rating scale. While the game hasn’t slid backwards since launch, I fear that stagnation may have been just as detrimental to the overall experience. The allure of GalCiv III has long since worn off and I find myself hoping Stardock really pushes the proverbial envelope with the upcoming expansion.
Stardock has released four major updates and three DLCs since the game launched (we’re on version 1.4). On top of this, they published a public “roadmap” for future improvements, which I really appreciate. It not only informs players of what’s to come, but also adds a degree of accountability. I certainly have some critiques regarding the improvements to the game, but Stardock’s level of support and engagement is not one of them.
What Has Been Added
With all the updates that GalCiv III has received since launch, there have been only a few major changes. The AI has improved to the point where I have had to play a couple difficulties lower than I’m used to and still, at times, have been steamrolled. Planetary governors are more trustworthy, but could still use more attention. The introduction of Steam Workshop support has brought user-created mods to everyone and that’s never a bad thing.
Since the latest patch, the AI enjoys fewer economic benefits because it no longer needs to rely on them. The AI finally seems to have the competence to construct planetary improvements in a way that actually makes sense, resulting in higher output rates.
These improvements also mean that planetary governors are significantly more useful. While I still don’t trust the governors enough to to terraform my planets and have full control, their respective focuses do seem to be fairly capable. To the delight of many fans, this has allowed Stardock to roll back some of the so-called advantages that the AI needs to compete in most 4X titles.
Unfortunately, the downside to these advances is that they often leave me with nothing else to do. Other than hitting “next turn,” and occasionally queueing up a ship or a new tech, there isn’t much to keep the player busy. That isn’t to say I prefer tons of micromanagement, but I feel the systems within the game offer far less compelling reasons to keep playing once you’ve figured them out.
One of the largest improvements to GalCiv III is the implementation of support for Steam Workshop. I admit I haven’t used it much, but in the one game where I used a community-built ships mod, it was pretty cool to have Star Destroyers go wreak havoc on the Yor. I’ve seen plenty of people compliment this addition on various forums.
As one would expect, there have also been a host of bug fixes with each patch. Stardock has updated its tooltips making systems like production and happiness easier to understand. These fixes are beneficial overall, but not game changing. Despite all the modifications, GalCiv III just doesn’t have the power to keep me engaged for hours on end anymore.
What Hasn’t Changed
The combat, victory conditions, diplomacy, and most of the core gameplay have not evolved very much. I’m optimistic that combat and victory types will be addressed in the future because neither are currently all that engaging. It still bothers me that diplomacy is mainly locked behind techs that enable agreements and treaties. According to Stardock, this system will be updated soon. Like many parts of the game, the core is there, but it just needs a little more in order to elevate GalCiv III.
Let’s begin with the combat simulator. While the three damage types in GalCiv III may seem overly simplistic, there is enough variety when mixed with ship modules to give players a sizeable selection of choices. It also seems to be a little more inspiring than combat in other games such as Endless Space (which really was not my cup of tea). That being said, ship configurations don’t seem to offer enough variation in combat. At the start of a battle, initial ship placement puts combatants too close to one another, so missiles’ superior range doesn’t amount to much of an advantage. Similarly, the lack of range for kinetic weapons isn’t a big factor in a ship’s combat performance, either. However, at the end of the day, you will typically choose the damage type your opponent lacks defense against. Simply switching out five beam weapons for five missile pods doesn’t exactly scream “in-depth strategic decision” to me. On a more positive note, ship design can still be fun, allowing players to maximize a ship’s efficiency while building elaborate fleets. Bottom line: combat needs an overall revamp.
Planetary invasions haven’t fared much better. Currently, the game handles invasions in a very sterile manner – it appears to compare some defense values against the number of invaders and then arrives at an abrupt conclusion. That’s it! You can pay 500 credits to bomb a very fortified planet but clicking invade, seeing a percentage and then winning? Right now, the whole process is anticlimactic and undermines the amount of effort required.
How could they make the process even more tedious you wonder? Easy. Add single purpose transport ships. These sitting ducks not only use up a planet’s population, but they also require some smart flying so they aren’t intercepted en route. You also need a further investment of credits so that more advance invasions types are available. This system is very hands-on and not the least bit satisfying. I would love to have a planet buster module on a ship or anything else, actually.
On the bright side, the updated invasion viewer is finally scheduled to arrive almost 10 months after the game’s release. It is too bad players will still have to deal with a sub-par experience for that long, especially since it was something Stardock was talking about fixing even before the game was officially released. At least it is now on the horizon.
Combat may have room to improve, but it still fares better than the other available victory types. I am sad to report that Galactic Conquest is still far more interesting than a diplomatic, economic, scientific, etc. victory, since those mostly only require you to click next turn again, and again, and again.To be fair, many 4X games suffer from the same fate. Still, it would be nice to see the development team attempt something new as just about anything would be an improvement. For instance, a culture victory could be made more interesting with a more active system that required exploration and the collection of artifacts.
My other major issue is the underutilization of starbases. Their main purpose is to slightly augment various outputs on your planets as well as to claim and mine strategic resources scattered around the map. Both of these are useful, but I would like to see starbases play a bigger and more imaginative role within the game. They could have additional uses like planetary defense platforms, off-world habitats, a barrier to enemy fleet travel, and many others. Currently, starbases simply aren’t very inspiring. It feels like a missed opportunity. I am excited to see what changes are implemented this coming February.
The “Wheel” of Doom
What is this “wheel” I speak of, you wonder? A new/old/much-copied contraption which allows the player to determine how to focus their production of manufacturing, research, and economic growth. At launch, many people (myself included) felt that the wheel required too much micromanagement on a planet-by-planet basis. This tedium becomes very evident when managing empires of 50, 100, 300, or more systems!
Optimizing the wheel quickly took up the majority of the player’s time. That all changed with the 1.4 update when the wheel was disabled on a planet-by-planet basis – though it still existed on an empire wide scale. While that seemed to solve the matter of local micromanagement, it diminished the advantage of specialized planets. If a player wanted a world to only churn out battleships, some of the overall production would be lost due to the fact that manufacturing probably wasn’t set to 100% on an empire wide level. For some players, especially those who like to micromanage their empires to the ultimate heights of efficiency, this is really frustrating.
Brad Wardell of Stardock gave a lot of thought on how to fix this issue, and has temporarily reinstated the wheel to appease micromanagers. While I won’t go into the specifics, he has two separate discussion threads which map out his view on a possible solution. I believe the issue won’t be fully resolved until new mechanics such as government types are implemented into the game. Though, with the release of patch 1.5, an updated “wheel” is making its triumphant return. Will we be seeing the “village mob” with their torches and pitchforks? Or the galactic senate with its “hail to the victor” chant? It’s too early to tell.
Souls for the Dead
Another major shortcoming of Galactic Civilizations III is its lack of a “soul”. Honestly, when I hear other gamers complain about “the game feeling soulless” I kind of roll my eyes. For me, 4X is less about narrative and more about numbers, tech trees, and endless decisions that keep me up far too late. Yet, for GalCiv III, I feel it’s warranted.
I think that this “soulless” feeling comes down to the fact that the special events in the game often feel like little more than generic flavor text. It’s hard to really feel engaged by a major event when all it results in is something banal and undefinable like a +15 increase to my current ideology. Remember the end of Star Wars when the Rebel Alliance got +10 to production for ten turns for destroying the Death Star? Exactly. Now, I do have to mention that I do not own the mega-events or any other DLC. It’s possible that these mega-events add to the overall feel of the game, but they would need to bring a lot more to the game in order to immerse me in the setting.
Part of what makes the game feel so empty the fact that, if you don’t constantly expand, you’ll quickly get left behind. This then becomes a war game where players are always on the receiving end of undue aggression. For me, 4X is about creative expression as well as attaining strategic mastery. The scale of GalCiv III is huge and its various mechanics reward territorial control as much or more than territorial development. I have, at times, run into an empire that dwarfs mine a few hours in. War is declared, and I fight valiantly. But alas, not long thereafter, I am extinct. As a result, I am unable to play a small, trade-focused empire with any hope of competing. I really can’t keep up with the AI in regards to tech unless I have a comparable number of worlds. If you aren’t the biggest fish in the pond, the pond will be the least of your concerns. This means you have to expand fast or fall behind, which ultimately takes away the ability from players to craft their own narrative as they play.
When compared to some other 4X games, I feel that the player is punished for choosing to remain smaller than other empires. You have to build wide, since you can’t build tall. GalCiv III does not empower the player to do this. I understand that a village should not be able to conquer the entirety of the Roman empire – without help, that is. Yet, in the multitude of my Civilization 5 games I wasn’t always the “biggest kid on the block” and still managed to avoid getting crushed as there were other ways I could harass and weaken my enemies. Unfortunately Galactic Civilizations III seems to lack balance in this regard, which, more times than not, funnels players into destroying neighbors in order to increase their territory.
Let’s talk DLC. Almost every major patch has been accompanied by DLC. The first one offered a number of pre-built maps as well as access to the game’s map editor. Cool. The second offered mega events. Some seemed really cool such as the Dreadlords coming to invade. Hurray! Oh wait… crap, better build more ships! The most recent piece of DLC introduces the Snathi as a playable race. The Snathi may or may not be exciting depending on your phobias and the cool factor of “Evil Space Rodents”.
Each of these DLCs checks in at $5 apiece. For a more in-depth rant about these offerings, check out this article I wrote awhile back. Needless to say, I feel that, so far, GalCiv III’s DLC has been lackluster at best, but at least the game is continuing to get a lot of support. I have faith that Stardock will continue to improve the game year after year, just as they did with GalCiv2.
Onward and Upward
Going forward, players can expect an update to diplomacy before the end of the year. Then, February will bring a new expansion with two new races and other, as of yet unannounced, content. Hopefully, this future expansion will flesh out some of the weaker parts of the game with additional gameplay. The expansion will also bring updates to both invasions and starbases. Personally, I’m looking forward to these improvements since the current systems feel like little more than placeholders.
Much like the base game for Age of Wonders 3, or Civilization 5, GalCiv III feels underwhelming at the moment. Expansions, DLC, free updates, and whatever else Stardock happens to throw at us should only help this venerable franchise reach its potential.
Rob’s Additional Perspective:
I think what holds Galactic Civilizations III back more than anything is its complete lack of innovation. The base game is, for all intents and purposes, a solid experience. However, it’s a game I’ve played before in Galactic Civilizations 2…now with better graphics and a better engine. What’s even worse for the third iteration in this franchise is the fact that GalCiv 2 had more content, more innovative mechanics and much more personality for its time.
Sure, the AI update was welcome and the newest patch, 1.5 (currently in opt-in status on Steam), brought a couple diplomatic options that I wanted (though it still falls short: I want a “Close Borders” command, for the love of all things good), but the DLC and patches haven’t fixed the core issue of… dullness that’s pervasive throughout the game. Again, I’ve played a better version for hundreds of hours already: GalCiv 2.
I still think that GalCiv 3 has serious potential. The presentation is above par, the UI is very competent and Stardock has both the ability and history of trying things differently. The game just needed to get there sooner than it has. There is some serious competition coming from the Master of Orion reboot, Endless Space 2 and Stellaris. If Stardock doesn’t find ways to differentiate the experience VERY SOON, GalCiv 3 will be gobbled up by those likely powerhouses.
TL;DR: If you’re looking for an all-new experience with even a hint of innovation, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a solid 4X foundation that plays decently, albeit way too safely, GalCiv 3 can still be fun. Consider it the space version of Civilization V: the game is pretty and competent, but woefully underwhelming. It will need expansions to fulfill the promise of its heritage.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You enjoy ship design
- You enjoy a more warmongering approach to games
- Flavor text is one of your favorite things
- You are looking for a good introductory game to space 4X
You Might NOT Like This Game if:
- You are looking for GC 2.5
- You enjoy maximizing economic output and the micromanagement associated with that
- You are looking for a next-generation space 4X
- You are looking for the last space 4X you will need for the next 5 years
Dallin has played over 150 hours of Galactic Civilizations III on Windows 7 – 3.8GHz CPU, R270 video card, with 8GB of RAM