4x space games have been lacking, especially since the dismal arrival of Master of Orion 3 - gamers have been searching for the next greatest game in this genre and it looks as though prayers have been answered, without teeth-gnashing and weeping/wailing in the form of Stardock's Galactic Civilisations 2: Dread Lords.
You might be asking just what a 4 x space game is. (Or might not)
So with that said, why do some people (including me) feel that GC2 DL is akin to the coming of the 4x Messiah?
It is the 23rd century, humans have boogied on out to the stars and we've encountered abundant life out there, lots of alien civilisations and people. There are those good races, those evil races and those races that like to sit on the fence. There is also the powerful Precursor civilisation that disappeared many moons ago.
The campaign focuses on this particular story and I won't spoil it by saying what happens, but as you play you'll be thrust into a rapidly expanding galaxy and have to deal with those alien races in several ways.
You'll have to make choices on several levels that will have an effect on your civilisation, your allies (If you have any) and the universe as a whole.
GC2 DL isn't a small game and right away it's not a game that'll take you hours to complete, it'll take you a lot longer and offers superb replay value because virtually everything you can set up is customisable. You are allowed to play as any of the civilisations and even create your own, the key here from Stardock folks is: Player Choice.
GC2 DL is chock-full of enhancements from the first game and it's obvious that this time around, the developers are not only on the right track, they're laying the tracks for others to follow.
The game has extensive video tutorials that can be referenced and they provide an excellent in-depth look at the various game features, with a little bit of Stardock's sense of humour for added zing. You should reference these often until you become comfortable with how GC2 DL plays out, since they are extremely helpful for new players and contain a couple of hints for veterans.
When you begin a new game (not campaign mode) you'll be presented with easy to understand screens, where you can set up your own play area, choose the amount of planets and so on. The wealth of customisation as you progress through these screens is evident, it also shows that Stardock have been thinking deeply since their first game. Every planet is unique, Stardock have said time and time again that most of the planets are generated each new game, so the chances of seeing the same planet again is nigh on impossible.
You can choose who you're going to play against as well, by adding or subtracting civilisations, changing their allegiances you can make your game the way you want it. And as I mentioned before there's even a customisable race option if none of the preset civilisations appeals to you.
Here you customise the races' unique abilities, their political party/affiliation; this is important for later on in the game when you have a seat on the senate and can win the election, your bonus will apply then - but conversely if you lose the senate seat, those bonuses will become detrimental and negatively effect your civilisation.
Once you've set up the game how you want, it's into the grinder with your first planet and the game begins.
Stardock have opted this time around to allow an extremely intuitive level of control to the game, you can view space from the 3d map and rotate, zoom, fiddle around to your heart's content. You can go right in to your planet and see a 2d map of it, complete with construction zones for various buildings (more become available as you research technology - but be warned the tech tree in this game can't all be researched, you'll need to make some choices as to the route of progression for your civilisation) and detailed information on your colony.
Those wargamers that despise 3d can play the game from the fully zoomed out map level, using an iconic view to make every choice and decision about how they move their fleets and colonise the various worlds, build starbases upon the resources that linger out there in space.
In addition to the map screen, you have numerous other screens, all easily found from the bottom tool bar and mapped to the function keys. There's even a management screen that allows you to macro-manage your whole empire, cutting down on fiddly micro-management to no end, you can change numerous options on this screen, re-route waypoints for your fleets and ships and control your empire without breaking a sweat.
There are anomalies and resources scattered about the play area, you'll be sending ships out to scout and report back on these findings, establishing starbases and upgrading them to make the best use of your resources - you can even build an influence class starbase in a sector you don't control to sway their population more towards your line of thinking.
In fact there are four ways you can win a game: through diplomacy, technological supremacy, influence or outright domination through military conquest!
In such a short space I couldn't possibly cover every aspect of this tactical game, the building of your empire is a process that will take a while to refine, as you choose the right level of taxation for your people and make your mark on the stars.
Every planet that can be colonised of course has to be managed, every decision you make in this game will affect something - it isn't a static universe out there and there can be quite a few AI civilisations doing the same in tiny or gigantic maps - the key to getting your people further spread of course are colony ships, protecting them requires military research and weapons - just from this you can already see that it's a complex and in-depth game - and where most games would just offer you a package of pre-designed ships Stardock have gone one better.
GC2 DL has the ship designer, sure you can buy a package that the developers have made already but where is the fun in that? The whole point of this game is being able to give you a set of tools to allow you nearly unlimited freedom as you play. The ship designer is one of the best features that I have ever seen in any game and it is superb - you can pick hulls, different aesthetic components and internal/external ship components, parts can be resized and rotated, moved and clipped onto the ship without the need for complex programs. In short the ship designer is a space ship builders dream come true.
Each hull has a set number of modules that can installed and every module takes up a varying amount of space (when you research along the miniaturisation tree you'll discover that you can make smaller and smaller components, thus allowing you to bung more into your hull and create some amazingly powerful battleships or fighters). The aesthetic parts allow for a near infinite array of custom designs and looks in your creations and you could well spend hours just tinkering with this section of the game.
You can see as you add weapons, armour, shields and other modules that the game stats are updated real time, this allows you to customise the ship to your needs and make some important choices. Do you cut down on that heavy armour, or do you have a lighter armoured ship with an array of dangerous weapons for every occasion.
Once you have your various ships or new designs, you can send them out to explore, fight and even construct the various starbases and upgrade them. It all costs those galactic credits of course that as mentioned previously, those are raked in from taxes or mining.
The chances are that if you're a commander like me, you'll want to see these shiny new ships in combat. New to GC2 DL is a fully 3d combat system that takes its cues from wargaming and perhaps even tactical RPG combat. The combat can be viewed on the 3d map or it can be watched in glorious 3d on the battle viewer, which is by far the best option. The viewer gives you a detailed informational display of the combat so you can see how your designs stack up to the designs of the other races.
There are a variety of cameras and even a cinematic one for that Bab 5 or Trek feel.
Beam weapons (phaser style) --- Countered by Shields
Mass drivers (railguns etc) --- Countered by Armour
Missile weapons (nukes!) --- Countered by Point defence
The GUI in the game is intelligent, it works on Stardock's own software design and will resize itself depending on your monitor and even works in portrait mode. Not only is it that functional but it's also very nicely designed, laid out and has all the information you need to see on the main map.
The new 3d engine means that Stardock have done a nice job on the graphics too, they have a definite flair to them and with the scaling map, battle viewer and planetary screens you can see that Stardock's artists have gone to town on the look of the game. The graphics are exceptionally good and the ship designs are some of the best I have seen, the way the parts have been made to represent the various races' tech-style is brought to life in vivid 3d and nothing really stands out as a bad use of models/graphics or even looks cheesy.
The ambient lighting in the game brings the various planets, models and starbases to life, especially in the 3d battles as phaser-style weapons clash with brightly glowing shields - of course this isn't a game on the graphical scale of some of the bigger titles out there but it is light years ahead of the first game and in some ways feels a lot more developed than a game like Star Wars: Empire at War (I'll probably get lynched for saying that).
There are no moving part animations for the ships, like scanners and so on and the whole animation level of the game is functional - this works since it is a tactical civilisation game and not a full-blown bells-and-whistles space sim. The various effects are good; the ships move through space in the battle viewer nicely and leave their engine trails, which I always like to see. The animation comes in the form of various menu segments, spinning icons and the civilisations themselves, it repeats in many cases but provides a level of immersion you don't get from a static image.
Most AI in these kinds of games cheats, Stardock describe their AI as being a mix of cheat-multithreaded AI that can manage a number of tasks. The cheat in a 4x game or most RTS is often that the AI has lower funds and therefore expands slowly compared to you, since this game has variable levels of AI it will be given less money at lower levels of difficulty - make stupid mistakes and forget to do certain things.
At the higher levels of play it will make decisions based on the player's style, defences, attacks and numerous other things. It will enable the higher level algorithms and provides a wicked challenge to even the most seasoned veteran. If you place one of the best level AIs as an ally, you can see what I mean as it will take over the map with very little trouble and even steal your resources as it does so. Unless you've claimed them first of course, then it won't bother and will often send you helpful messages and gifts through the diplomacy screen.
This kind of AI should be more prevalent in the game and it is one of its strong points, there aren't really any bad points to the game as a whole and anything I could have griped about has been pretty much fixed with the patch/bonus pack that came out recently.
The sound in Dread Lords is good, there's a lot of varied audio and the weapon effects, battles, ship explosions are all rendered nicely by Stardock's audio system - it works and that's all I can really say about it.
On the whole Dread Lords music is nice; it waves along from the main intro theme which has a very dramatic choral piece provided by a talented singer. The rest of the game's music varies depending on situation and each of the races has its own key theme that appears especially when you're engaged in the diplomatic screen with them.
None, but I will take a moment to describe the dialogue system here - it is fairly complex and reminds me of a game I worked on: Knights of Honor where the dialogue changed depending on a number of factors, the race, your relation with them and numerous other things makes this dialogue system in Dread Lords pretty interesting and half the fun of talking to the aliens is finding out their own particular little quirks and styles.
Dread Lords has the metaverse where you can connect, update your civilisation and compete for Galactic Bragging rights with other humans, but it doesn't have any online MP nor does it have any network head-to-head capability - but the groundwork is there and there are reasons for this.
Stardock made it clear from the outset that they wanted to concentrate on a single player game, making it the best they could before they entertained the idea of multiplayer. They also didn't want gamers to fork out money to make the game multiplayer, they wanted to keep the cost down and I can respect them for that was well as a few other things which I'll cover in a few moments.
Stardock have said that they are willing to make a multiplayer game available as an addon or expansion, if there's significant demand.
The game is highly moddable, this means good news for the mod community and all the files in the game can be tweaked to change many things. I expect to see the usual plethora of conversions, Star Wars and the like will make its way onto the Dread Lords game and change the face of it forever, once again adding to the replay value tremendously.
There were some problems in the original, the AI seemed to still magically know where the best planets were and I've read stories about various crashes, graphics glitches and bugs - the point I make here is that while reviewing the game I haven't experienced these problems, there were a few issues with text triggers not working in some of the dialogue screens using a custom alien race - but that seems to be a minor thing and has probably been solved in the bonus pack/patch that is already out.
Stardock are a company that seem dedicated to games and gamers, giving the masses what they want for a decent price and without the hype of the big companies. For an Indie developer they are on the right track to making a big name for themselves whilst retaining their roots, a hard thing to do in this day and age.
Their stance on copy protection is refreshing and I feel as though I have to say something about this too. The game comes with none, you get a serial number and that is it. Stardock offer updates and bonus content to the people that buy their game and that is definitely how they keep things running smoothly - they reward customers for having their faith in the company and product as well as providing new content to keep the game fresh.
It worked with GC 1 and I feel it will work greatly with this game; you only have to look at forum after forum to see that I am not the only one that feels this way.
If you want a turn based galactic 4x space genre game that is made to high standards and production values, that is easily modifiable and comes with enough content to keep you coming back for more and more, then Dread Lords is the game that could be considered to have revolutionised this genre, by giving the player more freedom of control than ever before.
I'll be off now, my custom empire feels the need to make an alliance with the Terrans and then wipe out the Drengin. Oh I almost forgot, the Dread Lords, how could I do that? But wait, you'll find out for yourselves, if you get the game...