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PC Review - 'Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar'

by James King on March 21, 2007 @ 1:07 a.m. PDT

Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar features an expanded feature list such as new units, new maps, a new story-based campaign, user-created opponents, an epic generator, espionage agents, asteroid fields, new diplomatic treaties, unique planet environments and others based on fan feedback and suggestions.

Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Publisher: Stardock
Developer: Stardock
Release Date: February 8, 2007

Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords was considered by many to be one the best strategy games released in 2006, and it was arguably the best 4X strategy title of all time. Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar does not disappoint, and it brings about new ways to expand, explore, exploit, and exterminate. This expansion adds even more depth and variety to an already-expansive game.

Dark Avatar refines many of the mechanics that were in Dread Lords and adds a few new things as well. Spying was implemented in a rather simple fashion in the original, but now it includes a more detailed mechanic whereby you can train agents and then place them upon specific planets. This allows you to sabotage enemy buildings to hinder their production, research, or economy, in addition to the theft of information and possible technology that comes from espionage. If you find an enemy's agent on one of your planets, you must use an agent of your own to nullify them.

In the tech tree, the developers added space mining, power plants and a new xeno biology branch. Space mining allows you to construct mining bases in asteroid fields that can now be found throughout the map. Mining bases can channel resources to planets, which increases their production, and with increased research, you can further upgrade the bases to provide more bonuses. The bonuses from the asteroid mines are decreased based on the distance to the assigned planet, so it is best to keep the mines assigned to nearby planets. Power plants can be constructed as a planetary improvement, which increases the industrial output of that planet by a percent. This is extremely useful for mass production planets that act as shipyards.

Under xeno biology, there are new techs which allow you to colonize planets with unusual environments such as toxic, aquatic, barren, heavy-gravity, and radioactive atmospheres. This adds some interesting early game strategy, since each specific planet type requires its own tech research before you can colonize it. Many times, there is a race at the beginning to colonize all of the empty planets, but now some of them are barred by the tech requirement, and you must prioritize between that and other techs. The xeno biology branch also includes medicinal techs, which increase the growth rate of your people.

A new single-player campaign was added in Dark Avatar, which focuses on the aftermath of the Dread Lords war. The Drengin Empire has attacked the alliance that defeated the Dread Lords and plans on enslaving the remaining races in the galaxy. A splinter faction of the Drengin, known as the Korath, breaks off with the goal of exterminating all of the other species. The core Drengin Empire is opposed to this, and it is up to you to stop the Korath clan.

It is definitely interesting to see a campaign take the approach of having the evil side fight amongst itself. The campaign is very engaging, with some interesting story development, and it provides a nice excursion from the custom games. The single-player campaign also serves as a good starting point for beginners trying to learn the ins and outs. The first few missions start off with simple objectives that are relatively easy, and it gets progressively harder.

Galactic Civilizations II has always had the philosophy of letting the player choose which options he would like to employ in his games, so just about every aspect of the map and playing conditions can be tweaked and adjusted to your liking, even down to enemy A.I. The sheer amount of game options, combined with the fact that you can further add/modify it through user-created content and mods, produce a nearly limitless array of possibilities.

Two major game options that were added to this expansion were super-abilities and mega-events. The former are major racial advantages that range from massively increased population growth to the ability to kill all life on a planet while turning it into a toxic planet. The latter are random events that can have game-breaking effects, either beneficial or extremely hurtful. A massive plague, a breakout of civil war, or the invasion of space pirates are just a few examples of mega-events. As with any of the options in the title, you have the choice of playing with them enabled … or not.

The computer A.I. was a major high point for Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, with a multithreaded architecture so that the computer would think during your turn. The A.I. would consider many different moves and try to predict the outcome before it made its decision. Dark Avatar takes this challenging design to the next level — computer opponents can now be individually customized to act in particular ways. When customizing a race, you can set its behavior to mimic any of the personalities of the stock races, and you have control of other aspects such as their abilities, aggression level, and ethical alignment.

There is also a new setting, "Force A.I. to use Max CPU," which will utilize your system to the furthest extent possible in order to maximize the A.I.'s ability. When the computer is set to the "intelligent" setting with this option checked, it will play the best it can without any artificial boosts. Hardcore gamers with multiprocessor or dual core machines can get some serious opposition through this option, since the A.I. provides a very good challenge that simulates playing against "good" human opponents. Masters of the game will most likely surpass this, but afterwards, the difficulty level can be further increased by giving artificial boosts to the enemy's economy.

Graphically, the expansion looks very similar to the original, but a number of minor details were added or changed to enhance the experience, such as increased ship detail, UI enhancements, more polished ship battle animations, new weapon effects, and a zooming ability which was added to the tech tree. Dark Avatar adds quite a few new pieces and parts to use in the ship designer. For the players who want to spend the time, some very detailed ships can be created; fans have already re-created just about every major sci-fi space ship via the ship designer, from Super Star Destroyers to the Shadow fleets of Babylon 5. The ship creation options are truly impressive, and you could find yourself spending more time creating your ships than actually playing the campaigns.

The sound does not really improve much over the original Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords. A few songs were added, but no noticeable sound effect changes were incorporated. The sound stutters occasionally on some systems, which does hamper the experience slightly. Nevertheless the sound is respectable, and it more than suffices for a game of this nature.

The only problems hindering the title come in the form of a few bugs that occasionally crash the program and minor sound glitches from time to time. It happens infrequently enough that it doesn't pose a problem, and the autosaves will prevent you from losing much progress. Stardock continually supports Galactic Civilizations II with more patches and additional content, so it would seem that these problems will be fixed eventually.

If you're a fan of Master of Orion series, excluding MOO3, then this is what you've been waiting for. As an expansion pack, Dark Avatar succeeds wonderfully: It refines almost every aspect of the original and adds a number of new mechanics to round out gameplay and create a mix of new viable strategies.

Galactic Civilizations II and the Dark Avatar expansion represent the pinnacle of 4X space strategy games. They have the perfect mix of micromanagement and micromanagement, with enough details to let you meticulously run your civilization how you choose, yet it remains not so focused on individual tasks that it bogs down the experience. This allows the player to manage the overall picture but still remain in total control over everything he or she chooses. The A.I. is the most intelligent opposition I have ever seen in a strategy title, and the tech tree is vast enough to offer a plethora of various strategies to employ. The lack of multiplayer is ameliorated by the fact that there are so many options and ways to play the single-player portions. Dark Avatar is a must-have for 4X space strategy fans and definitely worth playing for any turn-based strategy fan.

Score: 9.1/10

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