To be frank, Galactic Civilizations IV would rate towards the bottom of my list of notable space 4X games from the past decade, even after Galactic Civilizations III. It’s not a disaster like the other three Galactic Civilizations games, this is a nice, functioning 4X space game but its predecessors were only excellent for a round or two before I became bored owing to a lack of a “X factor” to keep me interested.
None of them compared to Endless Space 2, Stellaris, or even Master of Orion 2 from 1996, which all provide more diversity, flare, refinement, and creative identity than any GalCiv game.
Galactic Civilizations IV Review
I was hoping that GalCiv 4 would finally locate and give the spark that the series has been looking for. It has, on the contrary, had the opposite impact on me: After numerous playthroughs, the game’s glaring design flaws and balancing concerns become painfully obvious, and I’m worried that Stardock won’t be able to pull it out of this rut and recover its few good concepts anytime soon.
If the stars align, I might imagine myself playing Galactic Civilizations IV and having a good time, but it’s done so little to stay up with the rest of the genre’s progress since 2015 that I’m typically wishing I was playing one of those instead.
When you press the new game button, you’ll be confronted with a large number of well-animated space civilizations, both familiar and new to the genre. Among the human and humanoid species, there are a variety of colourful and unusual alien species, with the scary Festron bugs or actual enormous mantis shrimp sticking out the most at first look.
Each race has a unique collection of attributes that (ostensibly) indicate the type of gameplay they like, although you may tailor a lot of these perks to your preferences. It’s also possible to start your own empire from the ground up.
You’ll continue your customising spree in the game’s details, where you’ll determine the galaxy’s size and features. In all of these areas, there’s a good number of options, and Stardock is nice enough to recommend system specifications when you start ramping up the settings to absurd levels (my meagre 16GB of RAM and four CPU cores were half of what a “Galactic” size map suggested).
Just to receive basic information and get all of my orders through, I had to continually adjust my perspective.
Sectors are the most crucial aspect of this setup procedure, aside from alien/empire choosing. I was only playing with a few of average-sized areas by default, but you may scale it up to your heart’s content. Stardock’s stated goal in splitting up the map is to reduce the amount of dead space and vacant tiles seen between systems in prior GalCivs.
It’s also supposed to keep empires on a smaller playing field early on, until a few technologies have been studied. Unfortunately, the way things are now balanced, it fails miserably at both of these objectives, and it doesn’t take long to out why.
A grid of your starting sector, which includes your homeworld, shipyard, and a handful of beginner starships, is laid out in front of you. Because planetary emblems and names tend to blot out the ships beneath them, it might be difficult to discern exactly what you have at a glance.
Zooming out a bit will turn items into icons, but zooming out much more will obscure the smaller ones. Just to receive basic information and get all of my orders through, I had to continually adjust my perspective.
Almost every time I wanted to deploy survey ships, I had to zoom in to click the ship beneath a planet banner, then scale out to gain a sense of the map layout, before zooming back in to see the anomaly indicators.
Even once you understand what the symbols and tiles represent and where to locate them, it’s still a confusing and unappealing jumble to sort through. Sure, every 4X game of this magnitude has a lot of systems and information to keep care of, but I honestly struggled to find the information I needed to manage them in Galactic Civilizations IV.
I had to browse over a dozen or so tooltips a few times to find out the nuances of how certain resources and statistics related. I’m still not confident everything is there, such as the precise effects of citizen talents, and I still feel like I’m winging it after playing numerous rounds.
To be honest, the rest of the first encounter went considerably more smoothly. Galactic Civilizations IV is a turn-based strategy game, so you’ll have plenty of time to think things through and make decisions. This involves deploying the several spaceship fleets you’ll be constructing. Combat is as simple as putting fleets on the same tile as another fleet and watching what happens.
While you can watch the conflict unfold in a cinematic view which looks beautiful but is prone to camera difficulties and display errors there’s no way to influence the result.
All you can do is create fleets and manoeuvre them across the globe, hoping that when war arises, your fleet will be larger and more powerful. That’s good because this is a strategic game rather than a tactical one, but it feels like a squandered opportunity given the superb ship editor.
To be honest, the rest of the first encounter went considerably more smoothly.
Building starbases and colonising planets will combine to generate the colourful blob that symbolises your empire’s area of influence. Starbases may be erected anywhere, but because they collect minerals and activate the effects of precursor relics in their zone of influence, they must be strategically placed.
Colonies, on the other hand, may be constructed on planets. However, most colonies will be unimpressive, as many planets lack the resources and space to warrant complete development.
You used to have to handle each of those worlds separately, regardless of their quality, in prior Galactic Civilizations games, which became laborious as your empire grew. So the Core World concept, which seeks to alleviate all that micromanagement, is one of GalCiv IV’s new elements that I like.
Unimportant colonies will move their resources and stats to the closest Core world rather than forcing you to hand-craft each one (with increasing decay over distance).
You can choose to install a governor and upgrade a colony planet to a Core world if it becomes profitable or strategic. When your empire grows large and spans over numerous sectors, this streamlines the process.
Still, the early game focuses on a galactic land grab, which is true of most 4X games to some level, but more so here. You should be establishing up shop anywhere there are loose resources, floating artefacts, or even the most inhospitable rock with a mineral count on it. Because if you don’t, one of your AI opponents will very certainly do so.
My first game (as the Terran Resistance) went well enough, but I quickly discovered how disadvantaged I was in terms of production and territory in comparison to the nearby Yor or Drengin empires. It turns out that I was being too picky with my colony ships, focused mostly on capturing worlds and areas that I planned to convert to core worlds and fully develop later.
Only a few turns later, all of the other planets in that solar system would have fresh colonies from the Drengin, who couldn’t care less about anything than claiming the territory.
That brings me to a huge problem: the AI has no idea how to rank which planets are worth colonising and which are a waste of everyone’s time. Computer empires may view my acquisition of every uninhabited world that I had missed as a wise option, but practically every one of those colonies barely lasted a handful of rounds before becoming mine.
Part of it was due to the fact that they were left undefended, but I didn’t always need to fire a shot! Those brand-new colonies were so firmly into my empire’s zone of influence and so far away from theirs during peacetime that deterioration affected 100% of their resources. They practically accomplished nothing for them, except for them to join my group after cultural rebellions.
So this worked in my favour, with the drawback that it revealed the fact that my opponents have no understanding what they’re doing. Territorial control becomes considerably more problematic in times of war.
Territorial control becomes considerably more problematic in times of war. You capture a world by launching a fleet into orbit, and the planet will switch to the invader’s side within a few rounds depending on the colony’s power and size. Only other ships can intercept and destroy the besieging force before the turn count runs out, and the colony can do nothing to stop it.
However, “fleet” is a bit of an exaggeration because a non-core planet may be taken with just one ship. Any ship will do; it doesn’t have to be a dedicated battleship or transport. Core planets, at the very least, need a ground invasion through transport and take longer to seize, although they’re rare by nature.
This implies that any ship, large or tiny, poses a hazard. As a result, battles become a never-ending game of whack-a-mole in which you’re desperately attempting to deploy enough fleets and pray for adequate sensor coverage to stop every single ship from getting past your front lines.
Of course, if they succeed, it’s not a major concern because you can simply repair whatever damage they cause with your own ship. It’s basically a continual irritation, and it requires a lot of time spent combing across wide swaths of space until all opposition is defeated.
Galactic Civilizations IV Review Screenshots
Another proposal that doesn’t work is Sectors, which in principle may help split up the cosmic map, but in practise? Even on lesser map sizes, there are hundreds upon thousands of tiles to maintain in each sector, thus the empty space problem persists.
And if a conflict does expand across numerous sectors, it just means that reinforcements can only enter through a very small funnel just one tile. That sounds strategically fascinating, but the substreams connecting sectors can’t be blocked: even if you build a starbase on each side of the stream, other civilizations may just fly their fleets straight past your defences if they choose, and the whack-a-mole game over galactic kilometres resumes in earnest.
All your efforts at tactically controlling space served to provide you with visibility and a staging area for your own attack; it’s a decent start, but it makes the entire notion of sectors seem meaningless.
With such a large grid, Galactic Civilizations IV needs something like Stellaris’ hyperlanes or Endless Space to make Sectors function; without them, it’s just more space. Rather of solving GalCiv III’s flaws, Stardock has exacerbated them.
Building tall was never an option in Galactic Civilizations IV. Do Sectors at the very least afford you time in the early game to establish yourself before too many rivals come knocking? Not at all! Because the technology required to view and travel across sectors is of a low grade, it is typically simple to unlock.
When it’s time to explore anything, technology options are chosen at random from what’s available, so you can be unfortunate. However, you may reroll the selections for a little penalty to their research pace, so not having the relevant technology appear when you need it is only a minor annoyance.
Furthermore, there is a trait that you may start with to be able to utilise them in the first place (which the Navigators get for free). At most, it could put your unluckier opponents at bay during the first land grab, but I seriously doubt you’ll be able to fully use that advantage before fresh contenders arrive in your sector.
Galactic Civilizations IV inadvertently discards a staple tactical choice of 4X strategy games when it comes to empire building: you can either “build wide,” which means you spread out many colonies across vast territories, or “build tall,” which means you concentrate your efforts on a small number of hyper-developed core worlds.
This decision results in a variety of playstyles and increases the replayability of a game. Building tall was never an option in Galactic Civilizations IV. You can’t compete with the contribution of possibly dozens of colonies, no matter how much you control the efforts of a core world or two. The inability to create chokepoints and effectively maintain your area just adds to the frustration.
I’m trying to find reasons to return to Galactic Civilizations IV after finishing a few campaigns. The few novel concepts it offers to the space 4X genre are poorly handled and ultimately dull, with intriguing elements like Sectors and Galactic Challenges falling short of their potential and feeling incomplete.
Without rich narrative to back it up, every choice and playstyle ultimately blends into a galaxy-spanning land grab, and the monotonous nature of that and its whack-a-mole combat means I’ll probably forget I played GalCiv IV before the end of the year. Other 4X games have done a better job at solving these issues, with more flare and personality.
This leaves Galactic Civilizations IV desolate, hollow, and in severe need of a balancing and polish pass, something Stardock has a good track record of achieving with its games after launch. It’s neither excellent nor awful in its current state; it’s just uninteresting, lifeless, and not up to pace with other recent games in its genre.
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- April 28, 2022