Publisher: Strategy First
Developer: Malfador Machinations
Release Date: October 16, 2006
Unfortunately for me, I was born a few thousand years too early. I've always said that I want my spaceship, particle weapons and intergalactic empire, but alas, I live in the boring 21st century, where the best thing we have is a robot that can climb stairs. The only way to satiate myself is to pretend that I have an intergalactic empire which I can rule with an iron fist. I get my inspiration from things you'd expect, like Emperor Palpatine and The Evil Overlord List. There have been many games such as this over the years; one of my all-time favorites is Master of Orion, which is also the stick by which I measure all other games of this genre.
Malfador Machinations has been bringing us the Space Empires series since 1993. If you count Space Empires: Starfury, the latest offering, Space Empires V, is the sixth edition of the series. It features a real-time-rendered 3D universe, a more advanced diplomacy system, a redesigned combat system and much more. As with its predecessor, SE5 is quite enjoyable, with the exception of a few things, such as weak sound effects and an unpolished user interface.
The general goal behind strategy titles is always the same; you start with a home planet (up to three, in this case) and slowly expand through the galaxy by colonizing other planets or taking over ones claimed by other races. One of the more popular tactics is to get the best technology before anyone else, which has obvious advantages. Space Empires V features a huge technology tree, even allowing you to choose special trees during game setup, such as temporal, organic and psychic paths. Overall empire customization is excellent, allowing you to tailor your race however you want.
I was rather disappointed with the limited variety of ship design templates in Space Empires IV, but thankfully, the developers decided to add more to the mix this time around.
As before, you can add extra flair to your empire by choosing from a wide variety of empire types and emperor titles. Whether this has any effect on the game itself, I don't know, but it sure felt cool to be "Omicron Deslok of the Tch'lckan Collective." The developers also didn't slack when it came to government and society customization. You are able to choose anything from "Berzerkers," who have an unending desire for conquest but suffer penalties to their economy, to "Politicians," who are given bonuses to trade and combat leadership but suffer from penalties to research. The final step of the empire setup screen even allows you to write your own history, in addition to society and biology details.
One of the first steps is to build a few exploration ships and see what's out in the great void. Ship design in Space Empires V is essentially the same as its predecessors; you select a basic hull type and then add the required components and the fun stuff, like depleted uranium cannons. There are a lot of choices when it comes to available components for a ship. Weapon systems, for example, have several tasty flavors, but also old favorites, such as planetary napalm, anti-matter torpedoes and meson blasters.
There are three sections of a ship design in which you can build: inner and outer hull, as well as a separate section for armor plating. To make things even better, there are also three "decks" on which you can build. Overall ship design is very detailed, allowing you to customize them for a wide variety of roles; some roles you have all come to expect, such as carriers, mine layers and colony ships; while others, I don't recall seeing in too many titles within this genre, such as anti-planet drones. There is a lot of technology available, which can make things somewhat confusing when designing a new ship, but this is addressed with a simple tool that allows you to auto-complete a ship based on the design type. After selecting the type and pressing "Auto Complete," the game automatically fills in the blanks with the latest technology
Combat in Space Empires V really impressed me. The first experience that I had was actually a simulation of the combat capabilities of a new destroyer that I'd built. You are asked to set up the playing field by choosing which ships you want to simulate, and you can reposition them if you choose to do so. You can configure up to four teams and choose which ships to fight against. Additionally, you can select between two methods of overseeing the battle: tactical combat mode or strategic combat mode.
Tactical combat shows you the battle in real-time (or accelerated time, if you'd like), allowing you to control each ship in whatever manner you see fit. The battle plays out like a fast-paced space epic, with ships firing volleys of particle weapons back and forth. Once a ship's shields and armor are down, it starts to take structural damage, which is clearly indicated by the flaming hull breaches that appear. I caught myself ooh-ing and aah-ing when one of the enemy ships started pitching uncontrollably in a ball of fire and exploded. With strategic combat mode, your fleet is placed on one side of the screen and your enemy on the other. You can still start, stop and accelerate time, but instead of being able to control your ships, the A.I. completely takes over and simply "rolls the dice" until one side wins.
Not all battles are fought with tactical nukes and group troops; sometimes you need a healthy dose of diplomacy to win the day, which is handled quite well in Space Empires V. A list of the empires with which you are in contact is shown along with the ability to communicate with them. This concept hasn't changed much over the years, but the developers have added quite a bit of versatility to what you can say to the other players, such as making more specific requests or demands, requesting intelligence assistance against another empire, or stopping attacks against another empire.
It's not a completely flawless system, though, with one bug cropping up after I was offered a treaty of free navigation by an empire known as the Eee Consortium, which I accepted. During the next turn, they proposed an alliance with me, which seemed rather odd, as they just met me; I decided to accept but was presented with an error message stating, "Entering into a treaty is prohibited by the terms of our existing treaties." This was a little confusing, as it would make sense to move from a treaty of open borders to one of more mutual friendship and cooperation. I searched for a few minutes to try and find a solution but was unsuccessful.
The sound effects for the user interface are, in a word, terrible; some of them sound unfinished, although sound effects for the ship-to-ship battles are fairly decent. It's not a huge issue, but I did find myself turning off my speakers when I wasn't in combat. Another minor point is the user interface, which the back of the box touts as having been "completely updated," and while I'm sure this is true when compared to its predecessor, it still looks rather outdated. If the developers were shooting for a more retro look, they definitely succeeded.
For the most part, Space Empires V is a very enjoyable strategy game. It's certainly not as pretty as some others out there, but SE5 offers a lot to do, and it's quite fun to play. If you're a fan of the series or strategy in general and are willing to put up a few minor flaws and some bugs (which will hopefully be patched), then I highly recommend this title.
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