Galactic Civilizations II Review - 

With the relatively recent release of Civilization IV, which got outstanding reviews, and Star Wars: Empire at War, also with some decent scores, Galactic Civilizations II had to impress. And it does.

There is a huge wealth of depth in the gameplay. That's the first thing to mention, as you can approach the game politically, economically, or using brute force. Each scenario you find yourself in requires a mix of these strategies and tactics, and we'll explain just how you implement these a little later.

Firstly, for those of you who haven't played Gal Civ before in any form, it is a turn based strategy game, set in the very distant future, and in space. Your main target is to colonise as many planets as possible, build improvements on them, and keep you people happy. You can colonise through the spreading of culture, diplomacy, or military might and invasion of planets (guess which is most enjoyable).

The story revolves around the Drengin Empire, a ruthless civilisation that focuses its tyranny on the Humans and their formed coalition. In the war between the two, the Drengin's research and accidentally release 'the Dread Lords' into the galaxy. They are an ancient race of super beings and it starts a three-way war.

Every turn based strategy fan knows that the skirmish mode is where the real fun is, where you are just pitted against the AI and can run your colony exactly how you want – there is however a campaign mode, which takes you through the deep story, throwing in plenty of surprises for fans of the series along the way. Especially at the end…

The scenarios are suitably varied, and as we said, a fan of the series will want to go through the campaign so that they are not missing out on the story, and you may also want to have a go at it to be guided into the game, as there is a lot to learn. While the campaign won't actually teach you how to play, it tends to focus on one thing at a time, allowing for you to teach yourself (in theory). There is a very in depth tutorial, but it is played out through about 10-15 movies, and it would probably have been better to give you the same experience in the actual game, but at least there's something.

Onto the gameplay, and this is the area that Gal Civ II really shines in. The graphics are fairly standard, with nothing that will impress in the present day, but there are some nice aspects to it that we'll come to later. First of all, you'll have to colonise your first planet. You begin the skirmish with an aptly named colonisation ship, and you simply select it and click on the planet. If it's within range then it will move, turn by turn, to the planet. It is worth noting that you can't just send ships into the deep fog of war to scout or anything, you have to be vaguely in the area before you send units to their doom.

With the planet colonised, the planetary management screen will come up. Here it shows details on your planet, its population, approval rating towards you, and general details on its history. You'll be able to see a two-dimensional map of the planet's surface, with lots of green squares on. The more habitable the planet is, the more green squares there are, so if you choose to colonise a desert planet, there won't be many options in front of you for expansion.

In the green squares you can choose to build anything from a research lab to a starport, and these are things that must be very carefully managed if you want to keep your approval rating high. There are some yellow squares, which require extra research for you to be able to use e.g. land purification.

The technology tree that gives you access to all these extra researches is huge. There are many different areas of research, from military, to resource management, and it is highly unlikely that you will experience them all in the first few weeks of gameplay. In military terms you can research new tactics, such as planetary bombardment for invasions (which we'll come to later), or new weapons upgrades for a ship. You'll have to spread your technologies evenly, or you'll end up with huge, fast battleships, without weapons, or really fertile planets, with nothing getting the people food.

It is worth mentioning that the length or each skirmish can be determined in the same way as Civilization IV, with short, medium, long etc. with the longest lasting a good few days.

The game comes with preset ships for each of the ten races. Amongst the most important craft is the Constructor Ship. This is the ship that you'll be using to build starbases. These starbases need to be built over areas rich in resources, or simply to boost a certain ability of your civilisation. You can build economic, cultural or military starbases to get more out of each section of your colonies. The economic ones increase the productivity of planets and stations in the area. The cultural stations are like the Obelisks in Civilization IV, and spread your influence to try and persuade other, foreign planets, to join your civilisation. The military bases increase the proficiency of your fighters in the area in combat, and can also have effective defences and attack modules installed on board.

You can upgrade the starbases by sending additional constructors out to them, and choose from a huge variety of options and add-ons to improve their performance.

To invade a planet, which is obviously the military option and disliked by the people (although this depends on whether your chosen race is an evil or goodhearted one) you will need a fleet of ships. Galactic Civilizations II allows you to group a number of ships together, and they then occupy one square and assume a purely aesthetic formation inside it. You build all ships in a Starport, which you can construct on any planet, and depending on the economic prowess of the area, and the productivity of the respective planet, you can be churning out ships every other turn.

Some ships take longer, such as the colony or transport ships, but to take full advantage of your technology enhancements, you'll have to invent some yourself. By far the most impressive part of Gal Civ II, the ship builder gives you a huge amount of options with which to customise your vessels. You begin with a hull, and can choose from a number of sizes. Let's say we want a battleship, then we'd choose a medium hull, as we don't want it to carry cargo, but speed is not essential to us either, and we want to be able to build plenty of weapons on it. A certain number of slots are listed at the bottom, such as 14/14. This depends on the hull size, and any enhancements that you have already put on. Say we decide to put on a hyperdrive engine, then the slots may go down to 10/14. If we were to add two pulse cannons, then it could go to 5/14 and so on. You can choose exactly where on the hull you wish to install the various parts, and there are tons of red dots indicating possible locations for the device. There are also visual enhancements you can put on the ship, such as extra fins or a large scorpion tail craning over the top of the craft.

As well as all of this, you can build scientific advancements onto your ships. These include Life Support, which will allow you to travel further from your territory, and other such devices.

When invading a planet, you will often have to send a fleet of your ships in first. They'll take out the planetary defences (hopefully), and you'll then be able to deploy a transport vessel to colonise the planet. When you build colony ships or transport craft, you have the option to select the number of occupants. You have to be careful not to take too many people from any one planet, but when you invade the target, everyone on board will become a soldier.

Once you make the decision to invade, you can choose between numerous types of attack. These include standard, where you simply have a good old scrap to decide who wins; gas, where you poison the planet and kill as many of the enemy as possible before advancing; and propaganda, where you try to convince the people of the planet that you are better, and get them to join you without fighting. The standard one is best, as while it is most difficult, it leaves the inhabitants of the planet free to work for you, with no adverse poisoning or ill taste.

The battle for a planet is played out in a 2D simulation. You see your soldiers and the opponent's lined up on separate sides of the screen, and a box appears with constantly changing numbers in. This determines the 'luck' of the battle, and for example it will switch from 12v45 to 3v1 to 18v2 and you have to click and hope you get a decent advantage. The battle then takes its course, and you see it progress with whose winning etc. but it's all very standardised in that everyone looks the same except for uniform colour. You all have the same units, and this takes a bit of the joy away from choosing your own race.

Still, there is plenty of diversity in your ships, and when you engage in a space battle with another unit, you can go into a 3D mode, much like in purely space combat games, where it is a cinematic camera angle and you get to watch the battle, with all the ships and weapon effects, and it looks pretty good for the most part. Without this you could probably say the game looks a little too 'basic', (apart from the characters and civilisation screens), although the planets and ships are very nice to look at, but it is of course not that which we go for in games, it's the gameplay, and that is done very well in Gal Civ II.

There are numerous computer generated animations and images that break up the game, showing members of your civilisation or depicting some of the events that occur within your culture. These events require you to make conscientious decisions which will mainly effect your approval and economic ratings. Such events may be that you have discovered an illegal drug ring in your capital city. You have several options, such as whether to take the drugs money, lock the dealers up or leave them as they are. All with different repercussions on your statistics.

You can also design your own race, and while there are 10 preloaded into the game, you may want to select their own stats and abilities from the list. Each race has various advantages and disadvantages, for example with some being better at economics, and others more proficient in the art of war. You also select your allies at the start of the game, and as usual, it is good fun to team up with other races and attack the enemy.

You have to attend a council every so often, which discusses ends to wars, treaties and various political decisions on trade routes etc. This is one of the many aspects that Galactic Civilizations II shares with the Civilization series of Sid Meier, and you will notice many similarities between the two.

While the graphics aren't amazing, they suit the gameplay, and you really can't say that there are many turn based strategy games with 'next-gen' graphics or anything, because it would end up overlooking the tactics and tone of the respective title.

One last feature to mention is our favourite one in the game: you can set rally points for ships, give them names, and then be able to simply send a ship all across the universe at the click of a button, and incredibly accurately. It's just a nice, time saving, innovative feature.

It is just as addictive as Civilization, and can be handled much better by a computer's processor, and, this is a game that we'll keep playing well beyond the end of this year.

There are some things that Gal Civ II doesn't do as well as Civilization, but the ability to customise your own race fully, and the more tactical and political approach to the game set it apart from the crowd, and make it a must for any sci-fi or turn based strategy fan.