Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Friday, April 27, 2007

Galactic Civilzations II: Dark Avatar (PC) - First Draft

Galactic Civilizations II (GalCiv2) was an excellent game, but suffered from bugs and some features that didn't quite work correctly. The first expansion pack for it, Dark Avatar, adds some more features, which is welcome, but fails to correct most of the problems and flaws of the original game, while introducing new flaws.

The additions to the gameplay are not numerous, but do change gameplay quite a bit. The "king" of the space 4x genre has long been considered Master of Orion II (MOO2), and regular Gal Civ 2 was often compared to it. The Dark Avatar expansions adds several features borrowed from Master of Orion II.

The most notable of these features is planetary environments. Instead of planets simple having just a numerical rating on how good a planet they are to colonize, they now have a range of descriptors as well, "Barren", "Radiated", "Water". In order to colonize planets, the player must have technology of the apropriate type.

This has a fairly major change on the flow of the game. Instead of there being a rush to get every habitable planet within range, you now rush to get planets of your own type, and then have to decide which other environments you should reasearch. Because you won't be able to get them all, the AI will get some, and you will be in much closer contact (and vice-versa). Which makes the game far more interesting.

The espionage system has also been overhauled a bit. In regular GC2, you simply spent money on espionage via a slider for each race, and you gradually learned more about their empire. In this, you spend money to train spy units (similar to Master of Orion 2). Unlike MOO2, you place your agents directly on opponents planets, where they stop the building on that tile from working until removed (which you can do, or the AI can do by using one of his spies). And the longer the spies stay on that planet, the more they learn about that empire.

I found this to be less than ideal. It's a lot more work on the players part, but doesn't really add much depth to the game, because the only real additional benefit over the old system, is you can now deny a tile's production to the AI, for a turn a two (spies get eliminated fairly quickly, and are slow to be trained). And conversely, say you want to learn more about an ally, the only way to do so is by hurting them, which doesn't make much sense.

Races in GC2 were somewhat bland, just being different in terms of numbers. This expansion pack introduces racial abilities, basically each race has one superpower or ability that affects gameplay. This area needed some balancing, as some are vastly overpowered, like the one which restricts all other race's spaceships to 3 moves a week in your space (which in a larger galaxy is glacially slow).

And speaking of overpowered, there are now "megaevents". The game has always had events that happen from time to time, but now there is an option for "megaevents", which dramatically change the course of the game. For instance, the galaxy can sudden be plagued by 100s of pirate ships, each armed to the teeth, and which attack everything in site.

Unfortunately, events like that basically give the game to the player. The AI cannot cope with some of them well (like the pirates event), while the player can.

Lastly, there are now asteroid fields. These basically are little splotchs on the main main which can be mined (requires a special ship), and the mines provide a production bonus to a planet.

That's about it for major changes. The technology tree gets reworked a little bit, but not much. You also get a few new races, none remarkable, and the Altarian leader is now female. One of the more enjoyable bits of GalCivII is designing your own starships by putting together "jewelry", little virtual building blocks and pieces. DA dramatically increases the amount of jewelry available to you. Probably triples it, it's a lot more, and is almost reason enough to buy this expansion.

So, for an expansion pack, it's pretty good. But that said, there are still many unresolved problems with the game that date back to the original 1.0 release. Minor AI races basically only exist to be exploited by the player (ooh, look , free super planet). The AI still sends troop transports unguarded through emeny space. Many planetary improvements (especially wonders) are either mostly or completely useless.

Those were problems I had thought would be fixed in patches to the original game, but weren't. And weren't addressed in this, either.

Another thing I should mention is the copy protection/digital rights management scheme used in this. The original game had no copy protection, but required a serial number to download a patch from their website, and then internet activation once the game was patched. This takes that a little further, you now can only download a patch through their special DRM program, Stardock Central, and apparently it has to be the same computer that runs the game (otherwise it has to download the whole expansion pack, not just the patch). This makes things problematic for people like me whose gaming computer is not hooked up to the internet. And indeed, problems with Stardock Central and the first Gal Civ is one of the reasons I don't like to use my gaming computer and the internet anymore, it caused lots of problems for me at the time, due to bugs in it (apparently Stardock Central doesn't like Windows 98, or at least it didn't).

So ultimately, I think while this was a expansion pack that managed to make an already good game better, it also didn't fix any of the old flaws, and introduced some major ones of its own.