In my continuing attempt to purge all real-time elements from my PC playing - the gaming equivalent of a high fibre diet, probably - I've been spending a little time time playing the ongoing Beta of Galactic Civilization II: Twilight of the Arnor. While I've been meaning to return to GalCiv since Tom Francis' brilliant GalCiv2: Dark Avatar diary (My personal favourite piece of games writing of 2007, for the record), and I figured this was a good an excuse as any. And I don't need many excuses to make a Space Empire.
There wasn't much good when I started playing. No, not the game. The game remains, from what I've played, one of the premier strategy games of the last few years. Me. There wasn't much good in me.
Tales of interstellar brutality beneath the cut.
The key thing about the expansion pack is that rather than some kind of generalised new feature to explore, it's concentrating on adding more detail to what already exists. In other words, each of the races gets their own customised tech-trees. While there's enough familiar items for you to hang off, they've gone out of them to fit the actual races psychology and history. I've only bounced off the surface of the game playing a couple of the races so far, but Gamespy for a more general look across at the various races, I'll point you over at this Gamespy preview.
Because I'm only going to talk about the Drengin.
The Drengin are one of the game's better bastards, a hypermilitarised Klingon-esque animal race who enjoys slaughter and death and similar things which would raise Captain Piccard's eyebrow. They've been a villainous force in previous games, with real punishing combat abilities and so on.
I've never played them. Believe it or not - and I know the constant meaness against poor old Walker may be evidence against it - but when it comes to games, I tend to be Mr Nice Guy. I end up as a light Jedi in KOTOR. Even in strategy games, I always lean to the friendly, diplomatic, tech-heavy, defensive-wars primarily routes. It's just what seems decent. Clearly, I'm never going to play the Drengin. I'm not really wired that way...
I ended up doing so as I thought it'd be an easy way to note the differences between a more standard race and the alien mentalities. And - lo! it really is. For example, the normal tech victory in Vanilla Galactic Civilizations is ascending to become a higher form of life. And it is for the Drengin. But their quasi-mysticism is of a different bent than the others - it's up the tech tree from pain amplification, a research boosting tech based around torture. Then, with the Visions of Agony, they actually explore what lies beyond the sensation of pain. This links to their entertainment systems, the Arena of Agony (upgraded to Slaughterdomes, brilliantly). The Drengin, the game explains, are a race based on the concept of reality. They don't get a kick out of fiction. It makes no sense to them. Profoundly empathic creatures, they gain their pleasure by a restating of true and powerful emotions. Like pain. So they gather around, and watch people - not them, clearly - suffering.
You may dismiss this as fluff, but it does get you into character... especially when it effects the mechanics. For example, rather than a standard factory, Drengin build Slave pits. Great production, but they have a negative effect on your influence in your galaxy. So, as you expand, you see you cultural boundaries faltering beneath this cosmic snobbery. How dare they look down on you? So, you start playing aggressively out of this sleight.
So, yes, I find myself acting like a good Drengin, just because of what the tech-tree wires me to do. In fact, I go native.
I didn't realise what was up until my first major offensive, against the precursor-obsessed Iconian race. I'm going about taking apart their infrastructure, invading their planets and generally acting like a rapacious monster. When I'm about to take on their homeworld, their diplomats finally approach me. They're beat. They know they're beat. They'll give whatever I want - except their lands, it seems - just to end it.
So I ask for all those lovely tech and all their money. They accept. Peace! Beautiful peace! The Iconians rejoice.
My next assault ship packed full of elite assault troops is already in transit, with Genocide on their mind.
I'm laughing, very hard. In fact, the laugh crosses the boundary into cackling. Clearly, it'll blow my reputation in the galactic senate. But - hey - it's not as if I was planning on talking to any of them anyway.
Which part of "Drengin" didn't they understand?