Galactic Civilizations 3 has some big shoes to fill.
It’s not easy being the successor to Galactic Civilizations 2, Stardock’s flagship title, and without a doubt the most successful 4X-space-strategy game of its decade. While GC3 isn’t exactly exploring a brave new world, it does offer welcome additions to a series that was beginning to show its age.
Currently available as an early access title on Steam for $49.99, the beta still has a few kinks but is altogether a worthwhile and thoroughly satisfying play. Key features like diplomacy are still a bit unrefined, several races are unavailable for play, and a few localizations are missing—but there’s nothing that especially stands out as a game-breaking experience. The polish is still definitely being applied but, where present, it shines.
Galactic Civilizations 3 builds on many of the solid gameplay foundations in GC2, and in some cases streamlines key aspects for overall efficiency. One improvement that immediately comes to mind is the tech tree. In the previous installment, it was at times a bit clunky and oversized, but has now been refined and broken down into component parts that encourage the player to weigh the benefits of each path. It’s much easier now to find yourself clicking back-and-forth between easy-to-access menus, weighing the production bonuses of pragmatism, versus the diplomatic ties of benevolence, versus the fleet upgrades of malevolence. Each race also has inherent bonuses that encourage travel along certain tech paths. While humans are pretty much a blank slate, the Drengin are geared towards total conquest, and others focus on trade and diplomacy. The different AI “personalities” of each race strike an entertaining balance once the exploration phase has played itself out. This balance will likely be more complete when the finished game ships.
This time around, significant attention is also paid to the development of planets. There’s definitely a real emphasis on careful zoning in GC3, with a highly intuitive terrain and landmark system that can offer prodigious bonuses when the right buildings are built on the right terrain, and next to other classes of buildings. It’s extremely rewarding to stack production bonuses with careful planning instead of just spamming work camps and factories, which in turn opens up your planet to a diverse array of construction opportunities. With shifting alliances and the ever-present threat of war, having a diverse economy in the game is just as important as a fleet of upgraded next-gen ships.
Aesthetically, the game checks out well. The randomly generated terrains for planets seem a bit wonky at times but event CG, galaxy backdrop, and even the fog of war looks gorgeous. The opening cinematic was rife with lens flare, bloom, and chiaroscuro lighting that would make a nice J.J. Abrams set piece. Building on this sharp aesthetic focus is also the ship customization feature, allowing the player to redesign their factions major ship-class from the ground-up. While most features are cosmetic, some additions can actually impact the performance of your crafts, causing one to weigh the benefits of function and form. Icons are still somewhat reminiscent of the previous edition, and while they work well with the lo-fi planet view, they do seem a bit out of place stacked up against the clean, sleek UI and surrounding space-map visuals.
Fleet battles are enjoyable, if a bit brief for the reviewer’s personal taste. The game certainly takes home an A for presentation, with battles just dynamic enough to keep one at seat’s edge. The sights and sounds of space combat are immersive enough to really invest oneself in the action (although Stardock’s other space-command title, Sins of a Solar Empire, still holds out as the better experience). However, with the level of depth that the additional pre-and-post battle gameplay Galactic Civilizations provides, this is certainly a minor quip.
Balance is a key word in any game, especially for one so reliant on expansion as a win condition. Stardock has achieved that balance in development, a rare feat in today’s gaming world, which emphasizes post-release patching. It’s hard to be anything short of enthusiastic for the finished project, at least with a beta like this.
Galactic Civilizations 3 will release some time in April, 2015.