Flash of Steel header image 2

My review of Galactic Civilizations II

March 22nd, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

You can read my opinions of Stardock’s hit Galactic Civilizations II in this month’s Computer Games Magazine. You can also read my review of Takeda 2 – a marginal sequel to a marginal original – and my capsule reviews of Star and Crescent and Prussia’s Glory – two wargames that won’t have the broad appeal of GalCiv2.

Like almost everyone else, I say a lot of nice things about the 4x space game. And it was an easy call. Great games usually are.

Writing the review, haggling over the final score for it and exchanging thoughts on the game with other reviewers have cemented in my mind my distaste for the component scoring system. You know the one – those sites that break a game into individual bits like graphics and gameplay and then try to use those small bits to come to a larger score.

There are a lot of things objectively wrong with GalCiv2 as it ships. The documentation has a number of important oversights. It does not Alt-Tab well. Registering the game was a chore made more complicated by overloaded systems as everyone tried to register it. At their best, the graphics are very good; then you have the planetary invasion screens which look terrible. The story based campaign is just not that interesting – even when the bad guys show up with their super weapons. There is no multiplayer.

So, if you have to assign individual scores to graphics, documentation, storytelling, and technical stuff, GalCiv2 drops from the great to the merely good. And you end up missing the best 4x sci-fi game since Masters of Orion 2.

Bruce Geryk wrote the review for 1up.com. As I read it, I was a little surprised at how much it deviated from anything resembling a game review template. Why did he like it again? There wasn’t much I could put my finger on. But the tone of the review was clear. He was enjoying this game. So, we talked back and forth a bit about the little things that got in the way of our thrills.

And none of it mattered in the end. A lot of the same objective criticisms can be made about Crown of Glory, a Napoleonic wargame that quickly wore out its welcome. Like GalCiv2, too much is left under the hood to really understand what is going on. Diplomacy can be a bit wonky. The documentation leaves out some important details. But the difference between the two is huge.

“It’s the gameplay!” I hear you cry. Well, no. It’s not. Since I don’t quite know what you mean by that. The difference is that even when I am floundering around in GalCiv2, I don’t care about all the niggling details. I am given a generous world to explore that doesn’t require I understand everything that is going on. Good design allows a developer to hide some things, explain others and render others completely mysterious. (Personally, I’m on the side of transparency so long as it doesn’t force me to be some godlike accountant.)


4 Comments so far ↓

  • Anonymous


    I agree with you that the issue on ratings is always a difficult one.

    How does one quantify fun? There are other issues too that are even harder to deal with such as post-release development support. When you review the game, you’re reviewing what you got. And in some games, that’s all that’s ever giong to be. In other games, the developer keeps updating things based on player feedback. How much, if any, should that be taken into effect?

    GalCiv II might as well simply have abilities rated as “Poor, Good, Better, Best” but makes the mistake (IMO) of trying to put specific numbers to things like “Research Ability: +20%” becuase then people will wonder “Okay, so how does this 20% apply?”

    I’ve been working on v1.1 of GalCiv II for a couple weeks. It should come out at the end of this month. It dramatically cleans up the numbers so that that 20% research ability bonus literally multiplies your research by 20% rather than applying it somewhere so deep in the base equations that it no longer resembles 20%.

    Similarly, social production in the manual says it’s not supposed to be wasted. But then in gamma we found that it debalanced the game and made running your economy difficult if your social production kept cycling between costing something and being given back. But in 1.1, we came up with a different system — social production goes into military production if you’re not building anything on the planet and then it goes back to your treasury. More user control then.

    Getting back to the review, one of the things that’s really hard for reviewers to deal with is the subject of game evolution. That is, the typical PC game comes out, gets a patch to fix bugs, and then is done. Stardock uses updates instead of copy protection to keep users coming to get new stuff — not bug fixes (which are in there too of course) but new features, new content, etc. But how does one “Score” that?

    I will say that I dn’t think multiplayer is worthwhile. People are happily playing Oblivion and it has no multiplayer. GalCiv is a strategy game that puts all its energy into that single person experience. Like Oblivion, multiplayer can certainly be added later, but I think the multiplayer market has been catered to plenty. For people (like myself) who want to sit down and play a strategy game, I want all the effort to have been put into that and not wasting time figuring out connection issues or multiplayer expoits. ;)

    -Brad Wardell (Stardock)

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Thanks for stopping in, Brad.

    There are two problem with reviewing “game evolution”.

    First, you can’t count on it. GalCiv2 is being steadily improved and expanded, Paradox changes and improves its games for years after release, Neverwinter Nights is continually improved through widgets and tile sets.

    But that’s about it. Unless a reviewer happens to play one of the evolving games on a continual basis, it can be hard to pinpoint when things get better. And what if the evolution takes a step back to badness in the latest update/patch/enhancement? The developer loses credit for trying to improve the product.

    Time is the second problem. There are only so many days in a week, lots of games to play and, like real evolution, it can happen without anything really noticeable happening. If you add another campaign, for example, is that worth looking at again? How about another race? When do the additions add up to an expansion pack (which are routinely reviewed.)

    This is (hopefully) where I can come in as a blogger. I can point out interesting mods, patches or updates that aren’t dealt with in the run of the mill press. And almost no one will notice.

    In short, you’ve got a great customer service model. If you’re lucky, someone will notice.

  • Anonymous

    Definitely. Just so that we’re on the same page – I was commenting on how hard it would be to try to incorporate the evolution of a game.

    When you review a game, you have to go with what you’ve got in your hands. And that’s a pity because some games do evolve and get better but many/most don’t. And who has time to keep checking back? There’s tons of games, and only so little time.

    The ratings system makes things even murkier. Reviewer and developers hate ratings in general. But retailer buyers look at those early reviews and the later mag reviews to determine stock levels.

    As for updates, we’re releasing 1.1 BETA tonight.

    Her’es a link to what’s new:

  • Troy Goodfellow

    All of which means that when Stardock does do something special for its customers, it is even more incumbent for the gaming media to let gamers know about it beyond the preview/review structure.

    1.1 already. ;) Time to update.