Galactic Civilizations III is the latest incarnation of Stardock’s venerable turn-based space 4X franchise. You can buy it through Steam and you don’t need to bother with Impulse. But mind the system requirements, which include 64-bit Windows 7 at least. Me, I was a bit concerned how well it would perform on my aging system, but it turns out to run just fine, aside from a nagging memory leak that’s likely to get patched out fairly soon.
There’s a lot to like about GalCivIII. It’s visually attractive, boasting not just good graphics but excellent art direction as well. Race and ship design are quite robust, especially the latter, which you can easily sink hours into. The addition of Ideology is welcome; it gives your empire some personality. And as advertised, the largest map sizes are indeed enormous. They way I see it, space is big and playing space 4X games on tiny maps feels wrong and lacks the appropriate grandeur. While GalCivIII does give you small map options, it also lets you play on truly vast maps; in one of the games I have rolling right now on an Insane map, I’m 350+ turns in and have yet to meet another civilization. Which probably means that I should have opted for more during game setup.
On the con side, I’d have liked to see more options for customizing the physical layout of the play space. As it stands the available choices are kind of shallow. Also, the diplomacy system, in the grand tradition of Civilization-style games, is almost game-bustingly terrible. Non-player factions have two diplomatic modes; pay them tribute or they’ll declare war, or accept shitty trade deals or they’ll declare war. Similar offers by players are of course impossible — not even laughed off by the NPCs, but disallowed by the interface. You can disable tech trading when you set up your game, but all that does it take options off the table, and it’s very difficult to get a decent relationship with another empire without granting concessions and payola that you really don’t want to part with. This may be by design but it feels gamey and unnatural to me.
The UI is very intuitive if you’re familiar with this genre, although the tooltips aren’t all they could be, in a couple of places.
I’m also finding the tech trees a bit too heavily pruned; I’m close to topping out more than one in my 350+ turn game, and, while that’s a lot of turns, I don’t feel I should be that close unless I have a very narrow tech focus, which I don’t. I also dislike only being able to work on one technology at a time, but that’s more a quibble with this particular subgenre, where that’s very common.
This is stuff that might well be fixed in an expansion — and indeed largely was fixed over GalCivII’s development lifetime, but that’s part of the issue with this kind of iteration: steps forward are taken, but so are steps back toward some nebulous default un-expanded state. Features that we grew to see as necessities end up cut as superfluous in the crunch of getting the sequel out.
In general, too, I see GalCivIII’s current state as a couple of steps down in depth from the very mature Paradox grand strategy titles like Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis IV. But it’s also way easier to get started playing because of the conventions of the space 4X genre at this level of abstraction; you start with one planet and a very small handful of other assets and it’s natural to learn as you go.
Despite these complaints I think GalCivIII is quite solid overall and a great deal of fun, and even my biggest problem with it (diplomacy,) can be alleviated by making adjustments in game setup to minimize the issues, by choosing the right map size and opposing empires. That it’s not a hardcore strategy sandbox in the vein of the Paradox titles isn’t a fault but a stylistic choice that many gamers will probably prefer. It’s a game I can see playing a lot of when I’m feeling a lack of patience for those richer games.
All that said, feeling the space 4X bug of late, I also picked up Distant Worlds: Universe at 50% off yesterday, and that’s more the Paradox speed, with enormous depth, a daunting interface and map sizes that are a match for GalCivIII’s largest — and with far more detail in each star system. So I expect to have a report on that at some point in the near future as well.