When it comes to space 4X games, we are downright spoiled. The last couple of years have brought us space 4X titles such as Stellaris, Master of Orion, and, of course, Galactic Civilizations III! Released before the current flood of space 4X games (May 2015), GC3 initially made quite a splash within the 4X community. Since then, the game has received one proper DLC, Mercenaries, and a total of eight smaller DLCs all priced at $4.99 USD. Despite the large number of smaller addons, the game remains in a state very similar to the original release.
The next big content drop, Crusade, will be a full expansion. However, we here at eXplorminate felt GC3 needed to be reeXamined again due to the amount of content that has been added since our last look. Read on to learn more.
What is new?
Before we delve into how all of these smaller DLCs have changed the game, it will be helpful if we outline exactly what has been added. So here, in chronological order, is a brief rundown of what the DLC includes.
Galactic Civilizations III’s first content push was the Map Pack DLC, which added some premade maps and, most importantly, opened up the map editor to players. It is a neat feature to have, but – and I admit this may be my inner Blizzard player speaking – I’m used to receiving my map editors included free of charge so paying for it was irksome at best.
The Mega Events DLC added more game-altering events. This was a good change from the standard “you get +X number of ideology points” results. It’s sort of a mixed bag though; when the Dread Lords show up, it will either make your day or ruin your game. For a military-focused empire they may provide a welcome challenge, even late game. However, the Dread Lords can be downright frustrating if you’re seeking a more peaceful road to victory and have invested resources in places other than military. I think this DLC was a step in the right direction for Stardock, but the game needed much more than this mini-DLC could have hoped to deliver on its own.
Next was the Revenge of the Snathi DLC which added angry space squirrels! In all seriousness, I think this was Stardock (or maybe just Brad Wardell) playing around. Kudos for that. I am of the opinion that games need more stuff that is just plain fun. However, while it had a solid core, the DLC really only added the scavenge ability for new races to pick from. While not bad, the game already had tons of ability choices and adding one more wasn’t going to redefine the experience.
After the space squirrels came the Precursor Worlds DLC, which added some spice to colonization and exploration by placing mega worlds in the game – real pinnacles of production whether science, manufacturing, or otherwise – providing a planet worth fighting for. I regularly find myself treating every planet the same: grow population, specialize production, then put it on autopilot and forget about it, so it was nice to have planets that felt different. These new worlds were something special in a galaxy filled with the dull space rocks you normally call colonies.
Mercenaries is the first and only full expansion so far. It added two races: the Torians and the Arceans. Both races brought new ship designs to the mix, as well as a few interesting racial abilities. The expansion also saw the addition of the Galactic Bazaar, a starbase where players can recruit one-of-a-kind mercenary ships. This was a neat idea, but it ultimately felt to me like a failed attempt to make up for the lack of heroes in the game.
If you love building ships for hours on end, the Builders Kit DLC probably took another 3 days of your life. It added in dozens of new ship parts. But even with the new ship styles added, similar to the Map Pack DLC, it kinda felt wrong to pay $5 for something that left me feeling rather “meh.”
Stardock later followed up with the Rise of the Terrans DLC – let’s go Humans! It added a new human faction to play as and included a scenario. If it seemed sparse it is because it kind of was unless you were eager for a new scenario. The DLC was basically just a $5 version of a race or civilization pack like you might find in other 4X games.
Then came the Lost Treasures DLC, which I feel was one of the stronger products added since the game launched. It added new colony events as well as planetary improvements and ship components that were noticeably stronger than those in the base game. These additions all had a great impact on gameplay and added to the exploration phase of things by giving you special goodies to find around the galaxy. While this was a strong DLC with lots of new flare, it still didn’t address any of the base game’s greatest flaws.
The final piece of DLC, the Altarian Prophecy, added ship parts and two new hull styles, as well as a 3-mission campaign. While the campaign didn’t really do it for me, to be fair I have never been much of a scenario guy for any 4X game. But I understand there may be those out there that have enjoyed them more than myself.
So that is a giant wall of text, but even with that barrier of words, the sad part is that the additional DLC doesn’t really improve the gameplay in major ways. The total cost of the DLC released to date is $60 USD. To look at it another way, that heap of DLC alone will cost you 150% of the base game’s price. For that amount of money, I’m expecting the additional content to bring completely new systems to the table rather than just refine the ones already found in the game while adding a few features that many games already offer for free. That being said, examining the DLC piece by piece is useful, but we still need to examine how all these additions work together.
Exploration can be the most satisfying part of a space 4X. Aliens, abandoned space stations, deadly anomalies, space monsters, or even a Leonard Nimoy character! Unfortunately, Galactic Civilizations III’s exploration wasn’t great at launch, and it has remained largely unchanged since then. While other space 4X games may shrink the map using star lanes and close proximity to help keep the galaxy from feeling empty, Galactic Civilizations III attempts to depict a more accurate vision of space – one that is massive and mostly empty. This design decision certainly has an upside, as it allows for sneaky commanders to circumvent enemy forces, which is great. However, the flip side of that equation is that if you don’t add things to find or do, it is just a big empty void. Currently this distance only seems to to slow colony ships, invasion fleets, and act as a barrier between races.
Since your ability to produce massive fleets or research new technologies is all dependent on your economic output, there is no reason not to colonize everything you find. There is no happiness penalty or real upkeep cost beyond the improvements you place on any given planet. You will only really be exploring until every possible planet is colonized. Exploration is simply a means to an end or more specifically, a move to find planets you can colonize. After that, the only exploring that might be helpful is performing reconnaissance on neighboring empires. Of course, you will also explore to find other races, search for anomalies, locate resources, and scout for pirates but all of these are so basic and forgettable that their effect on the game is negligible.
To be fair, I am being a little pessimistic as some of the bigger map sizes would take you somewhere between a few hours and forever to actually reveal the fog of war on the the entire galaxy. The sheer size of some of these maps is impressive but Stardock has yet to implement a system that would leave me wondering what is on the other side of the galaxy beyond another empire much like every other I have encountered.
Besides the occasional goodie hut or locating every last strategic resource, the only other interesting find in the galaxy is space pirates. Hurray! While these pirates provide good harassment in the early game, with only minimal military buildup they can be easily cleared. Unfortunately, much like colonizing worlds, when the pirates are gone they are gone, leaving behind a perfectly unified empire with no real challenge. I’m not saying I want a dozen fleets of titan ships spawning outside my capital world in the late game, but it would be nice if pirates would regenerate in some form to add variety.
The major addition I have encountered while zooming about the galaxy is precursor modules or improvements. These are limited to only a single copy and provide a nice little bonus. You won’t, for example, take a planet producing minimal science to the top of your empire with a single improvement, but these artifacts offer yet another bonus to make a specialized world even more effective. It is a good start – but only a start for now.
One improvement I would love to see that could spice up the exploration phase would be hidden derelict space stations in asteroid belts, or around the map in general, which could provide interesting bonuses to your race either temporarily or throughout the game. I believe the inclusion of asteroid mining bases is a good start and demonstrates how they can make the map (space) more interesting in between the worlds you squabble over. I don’t even care if these bonuses are hard to find or require a lot of investment in terms of constructors or credits but I would love a reason to enjoy exploring the galaxy. There could be so much more but so far all we have to enjoy is a rather uninspired galaxy.
The expansion portion of the game is still a simple flash in the pan, going from your sole focus in the early portion of the game to nearly no importance far too quickly. Expanding in the game still focuses on two primary goals: find and colonize new planets, and develop their population and infrastructure. Colonization is largely the same with the exception of the aforementioned new precursor planets. These are relics of the past that have massive pre-existing worldwide infrastructure. These have some pretty significant bonuses beyond the +50% food or +25% tourism that are commonplace on most worlds. The precursor planets are one of the best additions post-launch as they add real variety to the possible places you can colonize.
Along similar lines, you will want to construct starbases in order to occupy precursor relics, grab artifacts, mine asteroid belts, and, of course, claim and exploit strategic resources. Durantium, for example, is used to boost specific weapon modules as well as fuel special factories which can give you a leg up on manufacturing early on.
A much-needed addition to the starbase system is the inclusion of an automatic queue feature. Now, selecting a module you would like to add to a starbase will automatically queue up a construction ship at the nearest shipyard and autopilot it to the starbase where the module was requested. I cannot stress how much this was needed and I’m glad Stardock implemented such an easy and effective fix.
However, starbases could be so much more! I would still love to see more variation between military and economic stations as well as requiring players to destroy them to attack a planet (think orbital defense). They can be upgraded to be pretty beefy, but why would you ever attack one? Even after vanquishing an enemy I have sometimes left their starbases for the rest of the game as I didn’t want to waste the time to fly a fleet down to crush them. These weren’t even starbases built in the middle of nowhere – they were within a few tiles of a conquered planet. The economic side of the upgrade path thankfully feels more useful as you can boost morale and all types of production on planets through new tech and upgrades. Maybe it is just the fact that Rogue One is all I can think about, but heck let me build a starbase that will actually strike fear into the hearts of my enemies!
In terms of science, the game still seems like a mixed bag to me. The four tech trees have a lot to them and ideally you can benefit from the vast majority of the techs. Outside of the government techs, which again just seem like a placeholder for things to come (or at least I hope), I am usually stuck deciding which of four or five techs will help me the most at the moment.
Alongside the inclusion of the precursor planets and goodies you can now find around the galaxy, there are some new technologies that further augment precursor planets. Nothing tremendous, but I’ll take improvements no matter how small. Research generally provides access to a better planetary improvement – think tier 1, 2, 3, and 4 factories as your research progresses – which works and feels balanced. Some techs are a little more exciting, allowing you to terraform worlds or unlock bigger ship hull sizes. The hidden gem is still the flavor text associated with each piece of research. I am not exaggerating when I say that the writing is some of the best I have seen in a 4X game. My only complaint with it is how easy it is to miss! Considering the work that has gone into crafting the prose, Stardock really should consider some kind of event page that pops up like in the Civilization games.
The only major change in the expansion department since the game’s initial release is the addition of the Galactic Bazaar. Added as the main component of the Mercenaries expansion, the Bazaar allows players to spend cash and resources on specialty ships. These do provide some great bonuses early on, but the ships seem to lose their edge as the game progresses. Honestly, outside of adding some variation to how the early game goes, I haven’t found the mercenaries to be all that exciting and would prefer a fully fleshed-out hero system over what we currently have.
While mostly unchanged since launch, planetary management remains one of the stronger points of the game! The basic hex system along with building adjacency bonuses still continues to operate well. If understood and managed correctly, this is as strong as any form of city/planetary management in the 4X genre. There is a good mix of “one per planet” and – even better – “one per empire” improvements that provide more than the normal boosts.
While players can potentially find themselves managing dozens if not hundreds of planets, the addition of planetary governors has taken some of the weight off their shoulders. Not only will the governor run a planet for you, they actually do a decent job at it. It isn’t perfect and I still question some of the AI’s choices, but it is a definite upgrade from where the system started. I hope the AI continues to see updates making the game less dependent on “cheats.”
One thing I continue to enjoy is the level of control you have over colonial production. It has been interesting to watch the developers completely change the system and then revert to the original after some backlash. As it stands, a player can force the inhabitants to focus completely on manufacturing or science but there is a “coercive” debuff the more you specialize. This means you can control your populace, but they grow unhappy and are less effective the more you specialize the planet. It is a fair system but I do feel like it could benefit from a fleshed out government system as in some other 4X games. It makes sense that as a Drengin overlord you can force your people to do your bidding – when an Altarian does the same, it doesn’t quite fit the lore. While I could see an overhaul to planetary management in a future update, for now we will just have to wait and see.
I do need to mention that the underlying system for planetary output is great. Players split population – the main driving force of production – between manufacturing, science, and wealth. It is straightforward and simple but allows players the versatility to develop planets to suit their empire’s needs. The fact that there are more specialized or bonus buildings to place than most planets will ever have room for is a good indication to me that the system is robust. Any time a 4X game forces you to make a tough decision, it’s doing something right.
Combat within GC3 has remained pretty much the same outside of the addition of mercenary ships. The worst part of combat is that, at the end of the day, it is a game of rock, paper, scissors. Let me rephrase that, it is a game of “if you pick paper and your opponent chooses scissors you are dead, period.”
I hate the 3-way hard counter of weapons and defenses that seems to be somewhat common in 4X space games. GC3 is perhaps the worst offender. From a practical standpoint, it makes no sense that a spacefaring race capable of colonization and terraforming numerous planets gets annihilated by enemies with missiles instead of lasers. You can build a ship that is almost 20 times the size of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in space but you throw your hands in the air and die ‘cuz you chose the wrong weapon?
Even when you are steamrolling your enemies it isn’t fun because there is no strategy to it, no tactics. The combat needs to be more than a simple “if A than Victory; if B then Death.” Now, my personal desire for a more in-depth combat system is perhaps a little more than what the designers are aiming for, but the level of customization you have over ships in terms of both appearance and stats leaves an awkward disconnect with the fact that battles are conducted through a hands-off combat viewer.
All ranting aside, I do enjoy the level of control I have over my ships including both the design and equipment side of things. The integration with Steam Workshop – allowing players to freely share customized ships – is a fabulous idea and it never ceases to amaze me just how creative some folks are. Despite how critical I am overall in terms of how lacking extermination is in the game, the visual customization really is top notch for those who want to make beautiful/terrible/hilarious looking ships. It is easy to use, intuitive, and allows you to easily add animations or movement to various pieces. The biggest hurdle is that, outside of a few ships I constructed during Early Access, I haven’t invested time in making ships look awesome because combat is so unsatisfying.
The different ship roles remain in the game, which allows you some degree of control over creating defensive ships and those that will fulfill more of a support or attack role. Again, the fact that I can have a guardian loaded with defenses and its sole purpose is to protect my squishy, glass cannon attack ships is a fabulous idea that seems to fall short due to the disappointing combat system.
Not to bring the mood down too much (even further?), but if combat is disappointing, planetary invasions are a huge letdown. When the game was in the final stages of Early Access, I remember the developers posting that the invasion mechanics were just a placeholder for a better system that would be implemented a few updates later. While I could stomach that at the time, we’ve seen no meaningful change in the last 18 months. The system is vague at best and the only real way to improve your odds of victory is to bring more troops or to spend credits to launch an orbital bombardment, biological attack, or a similar variant. A bombardment, for example, will leave infrastructure damaged as opposed to a biological attack (which won’t) but at the end of the day neither choice differentiates itself from the other all that much. Ironically, I think the battle viewer would almost be as good if not a better fit for planetary invasions – even if it is a few generic planet skins you see each time. Let me watch as my Drengin fleet rains death upon the pitiful Terran world!
One frustrating hurdle to the whole situation has thankfully been resolved since launch. The old UI used for organizing and building fleets was terribly cumbersome but has been reworked. Where it was once a battle of its own to find the vessel you actually wanted to build, there is finally a variety of useful methods to sort ships, making them much easier to find. It is a relatively small change in comparison to how mediocre the entire eXtermination experience can be, but I guess I’ll take even incremental improvements.
I have a lot of conflicting feelings about Galactic Civilizations III. Let’s start with the positive. With the recent 1.9 update, I am honestly amazed at how fast the game runs. I know that sounds like a silly thing to praise but let’s be honest, waiting on the next turn in any 4X game is absolutely no fun. I have never played a full game all the way through on the largest map setting with the most AI empires possible, but it is nice to know going bigger is feasible without worrying about sluggish turns. The highly-touted 64-bit engine seems capable of the heavy lifting required to run a game of this size. That being said, bigger doesn’t always mean better. While I could play an insanely large map, it would feel and play just about the same as any other game.
Overall, I feel like GalCiv3 has stalled. Let me hash out my rationale for this. The first obvious question is “ Did the game get worse?” to which the obvious answer is no. There have been additions: tweaks in starbases, the UI, the AI, and some scenarios and races. However, the new content hasn’t revolutionized or even improved upon the flaws in the initial game design. Invasions are still lacking, combat is uninspiring, and the game as a whole seems to lack the soul it could have had. Now realize I am not saying the game is bad – in fact it is one of my most played 4X games on Steam with approximately 160 hours spent.
I believe most people will enjoy the game out of the gate and then hit a wall. GC3 is well-made in many regards but also somewhat lacking in others (looking at you combat). I don’t blame Stardock for not providing major overhauls to the game for free; if we are being honest about today’s market, we should expect such updates to come through expansions. However, if you had told me 18 months ago that the game would be in virtually the same state this far after release, I wouldn’t have believed you. Major additions that could benefit the game such as espionage, heroes, governments, or a living breathing galaxy are all still mostly missing. Some of these features showed up through the many additions to GCII and some seem more like staples of more modern 4X games. I don’t mean to sound like the cantankerous old man who yelled at you as a kid, but what we have so far (in terms of DLC) seems more on par with purchasing skins in Overwatch than it does with the kind of expansions we have seen for Endless Legend or even Stellaris.
If there is a silver lining to the situation it is that Stardock has an excellent track record of supporting their games. I would definitely argue that a more traditional full-blown expansion (or expansions) are needed and the upcoming expansion Crusade can’t come soon enough. Galactic Civilizations II and Sins of a Solar Empire both enjoyed nearly a decade of support. To spearhead such continued effort, Stardock has already said that Crusade is larger than any expansion they have ever done for a game. That makes me hopeful but also leaves me unsatisfied with the state of the game at the moment. I hope that once Crusade arrives the game will gain a lot of ground in terms of reaching its potential.
On top of this, the development team for Galactic Civilizations III seems dedicated to improving their game, and some key players within Stardock seem to have come “home” to the team. Hopefully, this will lead to an amazing expansion. But all that remains to be seen. For those Galactic Civilization fans out there, don’t fret, the game is still evolving and will probably get another re-examination from us soon.
TL;DR: Galactic Civilizations III does a lot of things right and provides a solid foundation. That being said, it can feel very sterile at times. While there are solid and complete systems in the game, it still seems to lack the variety and distinction needed to make the experience memorable over an extended period. The base game and its core provide a good start for the current iteration. However, the additional content to date fails to enhance the game in significant ways. Not only do the numerous mini-DLCs segment out small improvements, they aren’t even the improvements the game should focus on.
You might like the game if:
- You are a longtime fan of the Galactic Civilizations universe and want the newest iteration of the series
- You believe empire management beats all other possible tasks within a 4X
- You want to manage a space empire on maps as large as any available to date
- You enjoy customizing or creating a ship’s appearance
You might NOT like the game if:
- You are looking for a refined experience that has benefited from a long or near-complete development cycle
- You need more than just min/maxing stats and outputs to really enjoy a 4X game
- Combat and ship customization isn’t your thing – even a little bit
- You prefer games where separate races will play significantly differently from one another
Kearon played for 60+ hours of Galactic Civilizations III post-launch totaling over 160 hours on a 3.5 GHz Intel i5 with 16gb ddr4 RAM using Windows 10. All of the DLC was played using a copy provided to eXplorminate by the developers at no cost for review purposes.