Monday, June 8, 2015

Galactic Civilizations 3 Lacks Zing

Look, it's the planet Terminus! Bonus nerd points if you can guess which other Foundation-inspired planet I'm going to reference later in this post, but look, look, I have the planet Terminus under my control and it's at the edge of the game map and specializes in research! How amazing is that? I am officially geeking out over here, people.  This is to a large extent the sort of thing we play games for, to place ourselves in grandiose escapist fantasies inspired by our favorite authors, to travel beyond the mundane.

So why is Galactic Civilizations 3 so mundane? I mean, okay, I really was somewhat jazzed about how promising this game looked in beta and it does many things right to engage the player. Little gimmicks like colonization events lend your 4x-ing some well-written flavor and the Spore-quality ship design feature allows for a little player creativity. Planet development makes satisfying use of the adjacency bonus gimmick so common in these games. Its biggest selling point is probably the sheer size of the game map putting an unruly expanse of hundreds of solar systems at your disposal, but that runs into the game's main problem. Your game experience on the whole is not that scenic close-up view above. There is nothing to do at the solar system scale. Instead, you'll spend most of your time zoomed out to the tactical overlay looking at simple ideograms.

Granted, the scale is impressive. As the genre for megalomaniacs, 4x games have over the past years finally been acquiring the grandiose maps we always hoped they would. Yet this throws their common failing of redundancy into starker light. Gal Civ 3 is blatantly intended as a representative 4x game but for a genre which is supposed to be all about growth, it gets a very flat feeling to it after the initial wave of expansion. The different tech options (missiles vs. energy weapons, etc.) are not different enough to make for meaningful choice. Every new building is yet another 40% boost to research or influence. Every new trade-oriented planet is just like your last three trade-oriented planets. Bigger ship designs don't really act bigger; they just have more slots to fill. All in all, it's no more than what you could get by firing up an old copy of Master of Orion or Ascendancy. It's good clean fun but lacks a good, solid "wow" factor for the end game. Why not put all this new technology allowing for such huge environments to more creative use?

See, spacefaring SciFi isn't just about a big galaxy. It's about big ideas. From lowly Terminus on the edge of the galaxy, I should at some point late in the game be able to progress to its logical counterpart: Trantor. Instead of upgrading hex by hex, why not pave over a world and turn it into a gigantic administrative center? Where are the damn wormholes? Why can't I desertify an entire planet and fill it with sandworms? Where's my damn Dyson sphere, or at least a Ringworld? I can't seem to even build a measly Death Star!
More than that, are robots the most exotic alien species we can imagine? Why can't I be a race of giant floating medusae living in gas giants or a plasma being living in stars? Why aren't the various types of planets at least home to different alien species, a la Space Empires? Why can't I be a brain parasite species gaining techs and bonuses for each new alien race I enslave?

I can't tell whether this game is just an outrightly cynical attempt to cash in on an existing fan base or just an attempt to lock down the exact definition of the 4x category. Maybe it's so restrictive for the sake of balance as it seems to have some multiplayer ambitions, but multiplayer 4x has always been a fool's errand. When your greatest selling point is a galactic-sized, turn-based marathon that takes a week of real time to finish, you're better off giving up on trying to get players together for it. This is a single-player genre.

I'm guessing things like stars of death will be making an appearance on $5-10 a piece DLC packs in the future but for now, after a very good first impression, Gal Civ 3 is merely a disappointingly unambitious project. For $50 you should get more than just a glossier version of Ascendancy, and by the time the DLC packs wring another twenty or fifty bucks out of you, much more inspired games will come along. If you've been wondering what classic 4x is all about, Gal Civ 3 is an excellent encapsulation of it... but do yourself a favor and wait a year or two for it to be priced as the bargain-basement material it unfortunately resigns itself to be.
Aside from its glossier graphics, this game's 1995 all over again, and is in many ways even less creative than its older counterparts.

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