Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar is everything an expansion should be. Nix that. Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar is everything a full-blown sequel should be, and more. But the good folks at Stardock, never ones to skimp in any gaming endeavor, took it upon themselves to deliver to their customers one of the most meaty “expansions” that I’ve ever seen grace a franchise. And all this for a title that was already my favorite 4X strategy game of all time. Sure, I’m gushing with praise, and yes, I’m a GalCiv fanboy. But here is a title that deserves every bit of it.
The improvements to Galactic Civilizations II begin from the ground up, with Dark Avatar sporting some very nice new graphics. Pretty much every ship and unit got a makeover, with each race getting their own unique look. Fans of the shipbuilder will quickly see that many new add-ons and templates are available, making it all the more simple to tailor that perfect look to cast over the galaxy. The tech tree also got a welcome makeover, with many of the similar techs now grouped into a much sleeker layout. The interface is as solid as ever, with a few tweaks here and there to add some polish.
Of course, Galactic Civilizations is not about graphics, it’s about gameplay, and Dark Avatar adds oodles in that department. Like all good expansions, a few new races are introduced, but all the races get some nifty additions to truly make them unique. Each race now gets a special ability, a little something that subtly changes their play style. Well, some of them are a little less than subtle, but all of them add some nice flavor. While I haven’t had enough time with them all yet to see if they balance well, I do worry that some of the more combat-friendly abilities seem very powerful.
If the new races are not to a player’s liking, they can always design their own custom race, complete with their own abilities, talents, and ship designs. And taking things a step further, players can also custom design their own competition, allowing for any number of geeked-out galactic battles set in whatever sci-fi franchise the mind can dream up.
Once the races hit the galaxy and the game actually starts, several more improvements are made apparent. First off, the old colony-rush tactic just isn’t as easy as it once was. About half of the habitable planets are now hostile environments, requiring some rather extensive research before players can even land their ships and set up shop. Players must decide whether or not to charge down the “Extreme colonization” branch of the tech tree, possibly falling behind in the arms or influence races. I haven’t figured out a solid tactic myself, and have had success (and some impressive failures) hinge on this very strategic point.
The planets themselves are a little better balanced, quality-wise. Those “super-planets” are now much rarer, so I found myself grabbing low-class planets much more often than before. Thankfully, these lower-class planets seem to be a lot more upgradeable with the planetary improvement tech branch, so they do catch up eventually. I very seldom ended up with a total dud of a planet.
But, for those planets that may not be the best, there is hope in the form of asteroid clusters. These areas of space can be mined with the proper technologies, and can “beam” their resources to whatever planet might need it. There is a catch—the farther away the target planet, the fewer resources actually arrive. In addition, the asteroid mines are completely defenseless, so they’re easy pickings for opportunistic enemies. And they have a habit of rebelling and changing sides when enemy influence becomes overwhelming, further increasing their vulnerability. In short, these asteroids are quite a bit of fun and challenge to use correctly.
Espionage also makes an appearance in Dark Avatar, giving players yet another way to interfere with their opponents (and even their “friends”). Players can divert some of their funds toward espionage, which will occasionally produce a spy unit. These units can be placed on other races’ worlds, with two effects. First, since they’re placed on one of the planetary improvements, they completely negate all benefits from that square. In addition, planted spies slowly increase the espionage level against a given race, allowing players to gain more and more information (and occasionally technologies) from the target races. Spies are most easily countered by other spies, so players can spend their hard-earned spy units to nullify an enemy spy. While the spies themselves are not flashy, they can turn the tide when used wisely. For instance, quickly shutting down a planets’ approval improvements, while setting up a “culture bomb” of influence starbases, can help quickly and bloodlessly grab a nearby planet.
Remember those game-changing events that would occasionally pop up in earlier GalCiv games? When the game was purring along, conquest will in hand, and all of a sudden the Dread Lords would pop out and throw the galaxy into chaos? Well, Dark Avatar gives these “Mega-events” their due. While not always game-shattering, these semi-random events are calculated by the game to make the biggest shake-up possible. Honestly, I really didn’t care for these events before, but they do make for some interesting challenges when they show up. Like most things in Dark Avatar, however, these Mega-events are entirely optional, perfect for those times when a little something different is wanted.
While I would have been happy with nothing more than all the improvements to the basic sandbox game, Dark Avatar also brings along another very good campaign to further the GalCiv storyline. Set just after the goings on in the Dread Lords campaign, there’s a new, rather evil boss in the galaxy. The Drengin are the “heroes” of the current campaign, and they’re out to see that the galaxy fits nicely under their boot, enslaved and properly cowed. Unfortunately, a splinter sect of the Drengin, the Korath, have taken a much more extreme view on their place in the galaxy, and that view doesn’t include the other races in any way. So it’s up to the Drengin to keep the rest of the galaxy alive and ripe for the exploiting. Of course, not everything is as it seems, and some old “friends” make an appearance in a well-done set of scenarios. The missions are a very nice mix, with some surprisingly fun objectives (the combination of “stealth” and the Drengin just tickled me for some reason).
Dark Avatar is an incredible expansion, and I’ve barely scratched the surface in the last few weeks of play. With so many improvements, both subtle and obvious, Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar is one of the few titles that I would heartily recommend to just about everyone. This is exactly what a 4X game should be.