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A First Look At Galactic Civilizations III: Mercenaries

Wave your Boba Fett fists in the air.

When last we left Galactic Civilizations III [official site], our very own Space General Adam Smith had looked out upon the twinkly stars of the heavens and proclaimed (paraphrasing), "It's good, but in need of a few expansions, maybe." And nobody defies the demands of a Space General.

Which is to say Stardock just announced the game's first meaty expansion, Galactic Civilizations III: Mercenaries.

I'm guessing the title is pretty self-explanatory on this one. You need a ship that can make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs? Or maybe want to hire another guy who can take that first guy and permanently freeze him in carbonite? Maybe we can work something out, provided you don't mind jizz bands. Just head on down to the Galactic Bazaar.

The Galactic Bazaar (a fancy name for "gridded menu") is where you can look through and hire mercenaries to bolster aspects of your fledgling empire, provided you have the gold and resources to afford them.

Mercenaries act sort of like Hero Units in Galactic Civilizations III. You're not building a whole army from these soldiers of fortune. For one, they're expensive. Early in the game, a single mercenary could bankrupt you.

But more importantly, they're entirely unique—unique ship design, unique back story, and unique skills. For instance, you might hire a small, nimble ship that bolsters your beam weapons, then send him out at the head of an army. Want the jump on exploration? There's a mercenary that boosts the range of your entire fleet. Or if morale's falling in your industrial center? Hire a party barge, place it in orbit, and watch it rise.

"The mercenaries feature is kind of an obvious one in hindsight," said Stardock's Brad Wardell when I met with him to discuss the expansion earlier this week. "I've been making iterations of Galactic Civilizations since I was in my twenties, and it never occurred to me to have a ship with special abilities."

Research, weapons, production: whatever it is, it seems like Stardock's got a mercenary that affects it in some way. And I wouldn't be surprised if there are a few secret, "just for fun" units sprinkled in the mix, given I only saw a small fraction of what's in the game.

Mercenaries are not procedurally-generated, but I was told there's a fairly large pool which the game draws from. You'll only see maybe twenty or thirty (I didn't get a chance to check) mercenaries in the Bazaar every game, randomly selected.

As the game progresses these mercenaries are gradually snapped up by the competing factions, at which time they're gone—contractually obligated to serve whatever misguided empire they signed on with. I wish there were some sort of mechanic to lure mercenaries away, maybe by offering even more money, but as it stands Wardell says contracts are 'til death do they part. The game becomes a race between "Snagging that super-powered mercenary before anyone else" and "Don't want to run out of money too early."

There's an interesting caveat/side effect, though. By cherry-picking mercenaries, you tacitly reveal your strategy to your opponents. Want that guy who boosts your beam-weapons? Fine, but now everyone will know they're likely to encounter beam weapons in the future, and may focus on countering that advantage.

Hero Units aren't exactly a new idea. Wardell is the first to mention that when I talk to him, but he also says that "Once you play the game with these guys, it's really hard to go back."

I'm tempted to believe him. It seems like an important meta shake-up for the game, and the twist - that these heroes are faction-agnostic rather than a symbolic "leader" unit for each race — is pretty fascinating. I'm reminded of a similar neutral-heroes mechanic from Warcraft III.

There's also potentially Steam Workshop support in the works, for those who want new mercenaries and don't mind a little copyright infringement. It won't be in the expansion at launch, but Wardell said there's a strong chance it arrives in a later update. Looking at the Workshop's collection of custom ships, I imagine it's only a matter of time before you've got your Boba Fett/Riddick/Space Rambo in Galactic Civilizations III.

It's not all dubious black-market deals and war profiteering in Mercenaries, though. The expansion also resurrects two playable races from Galactic Civilizations lore: The Arceans and the Torians. (And I mean officially resurrects, unlike the Steam Workshop's knockoff-Torians and knockoff-Arceans.) Via the press release: "Play as the Arceans, an ancient race of warriors and long-time enemy of the Drengin Empire, or as the Torians, an aquatic species who are trying to escape Drengin enslavement."

The Torians get their own campaign in the expansion too, provided you're interested in that side of things. "The campaign for Galactic Civilizations III: Mercenaries centers on the peaceful Torian race who have long been enslaved and farmed for their meat by the cruel Drengin. To free the Torians, players will need to explore and discover mercenaries, then hire them to aid in escaping from their oppressors. Players will strive to liberate the Torians and help them rebuild their shattered civilization while staying out of reach of the Drengin." That's the only description I've got—I didn't see any of it during my demo.

Wardell also mentioned in passing that the graphics are getting an ever-so-slight overhaul for Mercenaries, adding a few DirectX 11 (not 12) effects. Moodier lighting, that sort of thing. Nothing too amazing, but a bit of a change.

And people who don't buy the expansion aren't being completely left out in the cold. Mercenaries requires the 1.6 version of Galactic Civilizations III, and that 1.6 update is releasing to all players on the same day as the expansion. The press release makes it sound pretty boring—"Includes more detailed match results and the new Stardock game launcher"—but Wardell said substantial improvements to the AI are also packaged in that update, as he'd "feel weird" charging for an AI update.

Anyway, I'm sure our aforementioned Space General Smith will have more coherent thoughts on the expansion in the future. I don't think it will solve all your (or Adam's) problems, but it looks like a good start. Stardock's pegged the expansion at $20, and both it and the update are due to launch on February 18, which is pleasingly soon.

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