Impressions: Galactic Civilizations 3

By Brendan Caldwell on August 21st, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Gal Civ 3 has warped from Early Access alpha to Early Access beta, and brought with it more (but not all) features to the famous, 4X strategy game. Is it worth your time or money yet? We sent Brendan to investigate.

Picture the scene. You are a peaceful, religious race of extra-terrestrials, but you are inexplicably at war with the three rival civilisations that surround you. Your people love you for your mindfulness but they are upset that they don’t have more money to spend. Your desert planet full of shopping centres is deeply unhappy. Your planet full of scorpions is booming. Huge lettering drops from the sky! GALACTIC CIVILIZATIONS III.

The Early Access renaissance has brought with it a vast hinterland of games that are half-worth getting. Galactic Civilizations III, right now, is another game like that. The bones of the thing are there but the tendons, ligaments and nerves of the game have yet to be added. In this disgusting metaphor, it is not yet a whole body. But it is relieving that, as a skeleton, it looks very good. And you can see exactly where the design is headed.

Gal Civ is a big name in the 4X strategy genre. As a game which is all about collecting anti-matter from black holes and taking planets from the poor indigenous species that inhabit them, the third installment is on a great path. And you can see that path for yourself in the game’s research trees, even if some of the options are currently unavailable, teasing you with the text: ‘DISABLED FOR BETA’ – to all intents and purposes, a capitalised ‘out of order’ sign. At times this can be frustrating. Working your way up the Planetary Invasion route only to discover those cool-looking Interstellar Marines are essentially on holiday can cause teeth to grind. With more forward-planning than me, you can avoid that. But you might not be so easily placated to discover, after dropping the £29.99 cheque, that the entire Diplomacy menu is still marked as ‘Coming Soon’.

So it’s war for now. Well, war and colonisation. The latter is probably the most interesting as it stands, so let’s look at that. I started off with a single planet, a shipyard, a small levy of scouts, a survey ship and a colony ship. Very soon I had set my scouts to auto-explore and my survey ship to swoop around inspecting any ship graveyards or strange artifacts it found. Meanwhile, I got colonising every habitable planet I could find.

Gal Civ II’s ethical choices make a return here, presenting you with a planetary problem as soon as your colonists touch down. I was troubled mostly by environmental problems. A huge, sea-faring beast chomping my colonists on one planet. On another, sentient quadropeds attacking lone settlers before running off to the woods. The third planet? Scorpions.

The choices are fairly clear-cut in terms of Nasty or Nice but the benefits and penalties to each are going to be what drives pragmatic players. I am not pragmatic. I decided to keep the scorpions, for example, and my population strangely came to adore them, increasing contentment across that world.

The hex-based, single-plane of space can be set to different sizes before everything starts, and the game allows you to set the rarity of planets, stars and anomaly to whatever you think might be interesting. I opted to keep everything at the default ‘occasional’, because I enjoy the idea of an ‘occasional’ black hole. But you might think otherwise. Putting resources at a level where they become uncommon or rare will obviously make things on a smaller map more tense.

Not that you will need tension to threaten a war in the beta. With diplomacy disabled for now, war is your only option. It is a pity combat between ships is an opaque formula and, historically, this may not be surprising (Gal Civ II’s combat looked like this). There are three types of attack (beam, missile and kinetic) and a defence system for each of these (shields, armour and point defence). So combat is a matter of balancing ships, getting them together in an optimal fleet and having them fight the right enemies. Even so, the battles always felt a little beyond my understanding, even if I was winning. It may simply be because there is no tutorial yet to explain the combat systems (or anything) or it might just be my bad maths. Someone will likely elucidate the matter in the comments but for the moment following the rule of ‘bigger numbers is better’ seemed to work for me.

But a better understanding of arithmetic will not necessarily save fights from being irritating. The ‘confirm battle?’ pop-up that hits your screen when an AI enemy strikes you on its turn is infuriating (see above). What battle? Where is it? Who with? And why do you even ask me to confirm, if there is no other choice but ‘DONE’? This is obviously a Beta placeholder for the battle viewer (which will let you watch your space brawls play out) but it still sours the already underwhelming war side of things.

Luckily, you can unwind from these annoyances by creating your own ships. And the designer included is great. Like previous incarnations, it isn’t simply a way to give your fighters a paintjob or shape them into a robot with a penis. You can equip them with any weapon, defence module, hyperdrive engine, etc. Anything you have successfully researched, that is. As the heavier hull sizes unlock, you’ll be able to carry more weaponry and upgrades into battle. The customisation options here are ludicous and the designer is easier to use than it first appears. For example, it took me a very short amount of time to create ‘Scorpy’, the official mascot of the Altarian colonialist.

The colonies themselves are a puzzle (but a neat one). Building up your planet is still confusing thanks to the current lack of any tutorials, but once you have it figured out it’s basically a process of putting the right structures next to one another – a bank adjacent to two markets, a manufacturing capital next to two mega-factories – to set planet to achieve great things. Still, the people of the planet will get unhappy. For instance, if there is over-population, or they are not seeing any of your civilisation’s great wealth. For some reason solar flares also upset them.

Once you research and understand the things your people need and want, you can begin to tweak your planets to a perfect specification. As a consequence of the way the adjacency bonuses work (buildings buffer certain types so long as they are next to them), the best way to colonise in the early game is to make each planet specialise in one thing. One of my planets became a researching powerhouse, filled with science folk. Another became a planet consumed by the desire to shop, where the only respite from their busy lives of spending was a trip to the planet’s only spa. My only regret is not allowing one of my planets to be discontent for long enough to hit 0% approval, just to see what happens.

It is a pity that, since there are no diplomacy options yet, I could see no visible need to build anything that increases a planet’s influence, such as consulates. It was a while before I realised this but as soon as I did, the peaceful Altarian agenda turned from constructing farms and cruise holiday ports to demolishing every embassy on every planet, to the spiteful protests of absolutely nobody.

So, let’s ask the only question that matters. Should you buy into the beta? Sadly, no. I don’t think you should. I can absolutely see a great game in Gal Civ III, the spread and depth of the research trees (four altogether – Colonisation, Engineering, Warfare and Influence) is crazy. And the ship designer is going to lead creative players down a sci-fi shaped hole for hours. But too often you will hover your mouse above an interesting button only to see the words ‘Coming Soon’ or ‘DIABLED IN BETA’. And since war is the only option, the niggles with combat make even that option, as it stands, unpalatable. For the price they are asking, I would stand off for now. But know that it is going to be good. You can see it in the bones.

Galactic Civilizations III is available through Steam Early Access for £27.

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34 Comments »

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  1. killias2 says:

    My only worry with this is that it won’t be different enough from the last one, even all these years later.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Same here. I can’t tell from this Impressions post if there have been any substantial changes and improvements over GalCiv2, other than a beefed-up shipyard, which is incidental to the actual gameplay. Same ugly UI, same ugly Aliens (and not the good kind of ugly).

      For me, the best thing about GalCiv2 was the unique faction-specific tech trees in the final expansion. You had to play each faction *very* differently, and that’s rare in many of these games. The worst thing about GalCiv2 was the near-inscrutable economic engine (the dreaded slider adjustments), which I eventually got a handle on, but boy was it non-intuitive.

      What we need is a “Wot I Think” after more features are in, and hopefully by someone who played GalCiv2 and knows both the strengths and weakness of that game. Meanwhile I’ll keep an eye out for player reports. I’m cautiously interested, but it really needs to be a significant step up from GalCiv2 before I’ll buy it.

      • Malarious says:

        Thanks to the switch to exclusively 64-bit we’ll be seeing a lot of stuff that wouldn’t have been possible in Galciv 2. The devs have gone on record stating they’re aiming for having up to 100+ civilizations in a single galaxy, and much larger maps than were ever possible in the previous game.

        • Premium User Badge

          Hypocee says:

          Mm. GalCiv 2 could already go stupidly big. The question is whether they can make it accessible and ergonomic.

    • Afoxi says:

      Isn’t multiplayer enough reason to get it over GalCiv 2?

      • amcathlan says:

        Yes. Yes it is.

        Holy hot dicks from hell, if they manage to keep even 40% of the awesomness of GalCiv2’s A.I (now, apparantly, in their hundreds) and add multiplayer on top of that? It’ll be the best 4x game out there by default.

  2. N'Al says:

    DIABLED IN BETA

  3. Dozer says:

    Scorpions aren’t insects either :)

  4. Discopanda says:

    Yes, but what does that big fat corporate shill Tom Chick think of the beta? HAVE YOU EVEN ASKED HIM, BRENDAN? #jurnalismisded

    …sad that I guess I won’t be buying the beta, though. And I didn’t invest in the alpha either! Though with how good the Galciv expansions were, it was really freakin tempting. Ohhh well. I’m glad the skeleton of a good game is there! Good write-up, Brendo-boy.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE, ONLY WAR HAS BEEN IMPLEMENTED

    • Gothnak says:

      IN A UNIVERSE…. WHERE DIPLOMACY ISN’T AN OPTION, WHERE BATTLES ARE BEYOND UNDERSTANDING, AND WHERE SCORPIONS ARE INSECTS, ONE MAN….

  6. Premium User Badge

    Kemuel says:

    I think this is very much a true beta for fans and testers only at the moment. As a Gal Civ 2 diehard with the steelbook preorder edition from 2006 I’m loving poking around it, even with so much game-critical stuff switched off.

    I’ve been kinda avoiding early access lately because I’ve been worried I’ll burn myself out on the game before getting anywhere near the final launch, but I have enough of a soft spot for Gal Civ and enough faith in Stardock to bring everything together that I know it won’t be an issue here.

    Pick up Gal Civ 2 Ultimate in the latest Humble Bundle if this looks cool to you but you’ve never played, and then come Spring next year you’ll be ready for Gal Civ 3’s launch!

  7. AfailingHORSE says:

    Read influence as influenza, I am now sad

  8. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I think the only one of these sorts of games I’ve ever truly enjoyed was MOO2. I did try GalGiv2 a while back, but found it a little dull. Might give this one a shot though, once it’s got all the features complete.

  9. Ejia says:

    I realize the hex grid is the new hotness, but it really is one of the reasons I wasn’t enamored with Space Empires V and Civilization V.

  10. JademusSreg says:

    Seems rather two-dimensional and static for a game which is nominally galactic in scale.

    Must admit though, personal preference aside, by all appearances it seems like a great StarCraft 2 custom map.*

  11. SpacemanSpliff says:

    The more i read the more i think I’ll just keep playing GC2 until its good and polished.

  12. frightlever says:

    Pre-order a game from Stardock? What could possibly go wrong.

    Also, considering the antics of Frogboy (asshole), should RPS be giving his company coverage?

  13. DThor says:

    Lessee… Alpha cost $100…beta is available for $45…by my reckoning when this is an actual finished product it should run about $20!

    I have not, and shall never, understand the premium pricing for alpha thing. Anyone here bite, and how do you feel a few weeks later with a more playable product for less than half the price? I’d be steamed (sorry).

    Disclaimer : I love me my 4x strategy and will probably get this when it’s done…

    Also, yes I know you get all dlc for that price This requires some serious faith in the developer.

    • Premium User Badge

      Hypocee says:

      Depending on how cynical you are, it either
      a. lets you feel like you’re financially helping at an important time, and gives you input at a time when your experiences may actually shape the game design rather than very likely already being obvious action items in a bugtracker.

      b. Gives you special forums, badges and many months of headstart on outsiders, objectively and noticeably increasing the size of your e-peen.

      I intentionally paid over the odds (though Squad’s doing the opposite, Minecraft model) and did a lot of testing on Kerbal for the reasons in a.

      It’s also interesting when viewed from the developer’s side. High alpha prices are pretty bad for the individual consumer, but as a system they’re expected to produce a more filtered, serious, and probably frankly older community who will run down and report bugs and discuss design and balance rather than creating petitions for game objects to be named after MLP characters.

  14. RanDomino says:

    Are they keeping that atrocious hope-you-picked-the-right-counter-and-ships-take-damage-one-at-a-time combat system?

  15. inteuniso says:

    Ahhh, Scorpius. That’s what you meant by scorpy right?

  16. Borsook says:

    Actually it is good to remember that Stardock always supplied beta builds to their customers, so years before early access each of their games had been in early access :)

  17. augusten says:

    As a former fan of Stardock, I used to purchase every game they produced. Then along came Elemental, released as an unfinished, buggy, abysmal mess.

    Stardock and Brad Wardell could have done the right to begin with and not released Elemental. They could have done the right thing later by refunding anyone unfortunate enough to have purchased it. They did not.

    I will never put my money into Stardock’s pockets again.

    • HisDivineOrder says:

      I’m sure he learned a LOT from the yacht he bought with the money from people like you who invested in the brand he’d carefully cultivated over the course of many years.

      He learned to use Early Access. ;)

  18. HisDivineOrder says:

    The thing about Early Access is that I’ve yet to meet the single player game that I thought, “Man, I wish I could play that game before it’s fun.”

    More than that, I know that Steam sales make buying a game as a preorder a ridiculous exercise in frustration. Why not wait until the game is sale priced before I buy it? Hell, at the rate Steam sales are going with Early Access, I wager this game will be on sale during one of the upcoming holiday sales (if not a weekend/mid-week sale before that) that knocks the price way down from where it is currently.

    But mark my words. Holiday 2014, you’ll see this game at half its current price and the game won’t even have (really) released by then.