Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Release Date: February 28, 2006
Like many turn-based strategy games before it, Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords lets you take control of an entire civilization and determine their destiny. You can be a war lord and churn out death-dealing machines, or perhaps diplomacy is more your speed. The sheer number of options available to the player in Dread Lords is quite staggering. Before you even begin, you have several choices to make in order to tailor the game to your liking. You must specify the size of the galaxy; select a small galaxy for fast and furious play, or create an expansive universe that will allow you to plan out an epic campaign of domination, or go for something in between. Once the universe is built, you have to choose your race. Each race is tailored to a specific type of gameplay, and if you don't see a race that suits your fancy, you can create your own.
Now that you are ready to begin your galactic conquest, you will begin by sending out your colonization ships to various planets you wish to inhabit. Once you settle on a planet, you must plan the development of that world. Each planet has a specific number of slots available for your buildings, and although more slots will be made available through research, there is a limit to what a planet can hold. Some spaces give you specific bonuses so it is best to plan ahead and utilize these to the fullest extent because they can make all the difference. When you gain advanced technologies, you don't have to demolish current buildings and rebuild the new ones. Instead, you can simply upgrade the existing buildings. One really cool feature of GC2 is that the planet will automatically upgrade the buildings for you if you haven't scheduled any other tasks. This can, of course, be overridden if you so choose.
This is where strategy begins and the men are separated from the boys. Often in strategy titles, diplomacy is a last resort, and the only real way to complete the game is through destruction. In GC2, diplomacy is a viable tactic and creates an entirely different gameplay style than the domination tactic. However, nothing says you have to choose only one path. For instance, you could convince several races to join your ranks by impressing them with your luxurious lifestyle and forward-thinking government. You could then create alliances with several other races, and any who would not ally with you, could be wiped out. Another approach would be the Swiss style of empire, where you become so valuable to everyone that no one dares to attack you for fear of retaliation from the rest of the empire.
The customization doesn't stop there, either. One huge component of GC2 is the ship editor. In what is arguably the best ship editor ever created, you have control of ever aspect of a ships design, down to the smallest details. You begin by selecting the base chassis, and from there, you have tons of options to attach to the body, ranging from missiles to engine and defensive upgrades. There is a large element of strategy that goes into ship design; it isn't enough to simply buy the best of everything and slap it on a hull. If you do this, you will likely end up with a ship that moves too slowly and costs so much to produce that you will bankrupt your empire on a tiny fleet incapable of defending your terrain. You can instead choose to create ships that are all-out offensive machines with little in the way of defense, or vice versa. Most often, it will be a shade in between these extremes, but the choice is yours.
The research tree, which is so large that it could take several hours to sort through it, is another area of infinitely customizable possibilities. This is probably why one of the victory conditions is the completion of one entire area of research. The interface does do a nice job of sorting which trees can be completed the fastest and explaining exactly what you are getting with each branch of the tree.
This type of variety should be making you salivate at the possibilities, but what makes it even more enticing is the exceptional level of the computer A.I., which will employ many of the tactics that you'll be trying yourself. If you don't keep a constant vigil on what the other races are doing, you may find yourself as the outsider in a "League of Nations." Maybe that friendly race that you have been trading with all these years has been building a war chest and just waiting until you are weak enough to destroy. The best thing about the A.I. is that it doesn't "cheat," as many games do at higher difficulties. It will shock you to see some of the backhanded deals that the computer will do, and you will be frustrated to no end when it outsmarts you. In the beginning, it is probably best to turn down the difficulty so you can master the nuances without the frustration of being outsmarted by a machine.
Two other aspects of GC2 that add to its enjoyment are the moral decisions you make and random events that occur throughout the galaxy, which can turn the tide of battle. You may discover that a planet you have colonized has some hidden technology that will instantly boost you to the most advanced civilization in the galaxy. Of course, the other races could also have this happen so your technologically superior race may soon find itself at the wrong end of a vastly superior battleship's cannon. The moral decisions you make can also have unpredictable consequences. Some races may find your honorable actions pleasing and become more willing to trade with you, while others will see you as weak and may decide to eliminate your race.
Many may be disappointed by the graphics in GC2 because they seem a bit dated when compared to other modern games. The graphics onboard the ships are quite good, and they have the added benefit of telling you exactly what type of enemy you are facing. You can easily make out the details of the weapons and engine upgrades, the size of which is also customizable, giving each ship a unique look. When key moments in the game transpire, they are accompanied by extremely well-done cut scenes to add to the immersion.
The only other real complaint about GC2 is its lack of multiplayer. The single-player A.I. is fantastic, so this does compensate somewhat, but the jeering and backstabbing that comes with playing another human is something you just cannot simulate. It would have been especially good if you could have some sort of cooperative mode where you could split up resource management or even align races in a partnership for galactic domination.
The bottom line here is that Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords is just a fantastic strategy game that no fan of the genre should pass up. It is refreshing to see a title that can challenge your mind while entertaining you to no end. Many games claim to let you play however you want, but very few can deliver on that promise like GC2. The ability to create various-sized galaxies is definitely a welcome feature, allowing you to take your time and build up a huge empire or squeeze in a quick game before bed. It cannot be stated enough that tactics play a huge role in this title, so if you are looking for mindless destruction, look elsewhere.