The Wright brother's first flight at Kittyhawk only went 120 feet before gravity returned it, rather roughly, to the ground. The first computer was the size of a small house and couldn't even spellcheck. The first widely played video game, Pong, pretty much sucked. Oh, admit it.
We expect a lot more out of our video games today, just as we'd be rather disappointed if our flight to Spain only went 120 feet, after which we were forced to swim. This is because modern airliners are some of the most complicated and sophisticated machines on the planet, requiring the efforts of thousands to create just one.
And somewhere in the last 20 years, video games also stopped being something that nerds like Steve Jobs and Nolan Bushnell could create in their garages in order to ease the long, lonely nights of nerd-dom. They've become hugely complicated, multi-million dollar productions put together by large teams of writers, programmers, producers, artists and marketers, oh my.
The tradeoff for this exponential leap in complexity is an equal growth in the number of things that can go wrong. Merging the work of all these people into a seamless whole requires countless hours from that worst of all possible slave jobs: the bug tester. With the tireless effort and feedback of this poor creature, our modern marvels can soar smoothly to Madrid or Alpha Centauri, with complimentary beverage service en route. But leave holes unpatched and rickety joints held together with little more than duct tape, and a cold plunge into the Atlantic - or at least a grumpy video game review - is a likely result.
In the journalism biz, this is what we refer to as "foreshadowing."
Galactic Civilizations II: The Dread Lords is the sequel to the sleeper-hit Galactic Civilizations. Despite primitive graphics, the original managed to charm the hearts of strategy gamers with its creative writing, open universe and clever A.I. All this success meant the sequel got a bigger budget, more staff, fancier graphics, and a more ambitious scope.
The Dread Lords is a turn-based strategy game that starts up right where Civilization IV ends, with mankind first dipping its virtual toe into the inky pool of space. The year is 2225 and it turns out humans aren't the only ones exploring the galaxy; nine other alien races have also taken to the stars, along with several minor alien civilizations who are happy to talk, but content to stay on their own planets.
For ease of play, the game takes place on a flat grid instead of a three-dimensional galaxy. All the planets, ships and starbases reside on this galactic map, where you can zoom in to a single ship or pull the camera back until you can see the whole universe. You build factories, starports, research facilities, embassies and more on your planets, which are your real bases of power and the only places you can build the ships you'll need to further explore or conquer the galaxy. Each turn you manage your planets, move your ships, and then let the computer player(s) take their turns.
Like all games of this ilk, the tech-tree is of vital importance. Researching new technologies allows you to settle more planets, travel faster, shoot harder, trade more, and build bigger and better ships. Galactic Civ II 's tech tree is huge, if a little unimaginative (Laser I leads to Laser II, then Laser III, etc.), and smart research can mean the difference between bringing a peashooter or a howitzer to a fight.
The game's single-player campaign puts you squarely in the shoes of the human race, where you'll find yourself already at war with the Drengen starfleet. The Drengen, however, will soon disappear from your radar because they've accidentally unleashed the Dread Lords, ancient and powerful starfaring beings, who proceed to kill everything they can find. To defeat the Dread Lords, you'll need to forge a powerful alliance of galactic races, a federation of planets, even.
Each mission in the campaign takes place on its own star map; if you happen to fail once or twice, no big deal. Nearly every level has an alternate mission which will take you down a different path through the story. Disappointingly, however, you start every mission anew, without any of your ships, starbases or even technology. Researching "xeno factories" for the fifth time, when you know you already had them, is frustrating.
The game's flexible sandbox mode is more compelling, allowing you to choose the size of your galaxy (from tiny to preposterously large) and play on random or pre-set maps. Like Civ IV, there are several ways to win. You can defeat your enemies at the end of a laser barrel, achieve a cultural victory by bringing everyone under your influence, or surpass the brilliance of the gods themselves with a technological victory. The A.I. is quite good and has an astonishing twelve levels of difficulty, plus the feature to smarten up or dumb down an individual alien race. You can also play from any of those ten starting races or create your own aliens from scratch.
In fact, creating things is definitely one of the hallmarks of Galactic Civ II. While the game does include pre-designed ships, to really play well you'll end up designing your own. Based on your advancement in weapons, shields, engines, miniaturization and a host of other factors, you can outfit your ships however you like. Even the look is infinitely customizable, as you can not only mess with the designs they give you, but upload your original designs into the game. I guarantee there will be a full Star Wars mod of this game before you can bag a womp rat.
Not that new designs are really needed, as the graphics that come with the game are already quite good. They are more representational than accurate, with ships being the size of planets so you can see them on the grid. Battles are fully animated, and although you cannot control them, you can watch your beams and missiles lance out at the enemy.
The sound is standard fare: the sizzle of lasers, generally followed by an explosion noise. None of the aliens are voiced in any way, which is a little disappointing. The background music is entirely forgettable, but speaking of customization, doesn't everyone just play their mp3 list, anyway?
If there's one thing missing from this huge galaxy, it's a multiplayer game. Unfortunately, Galactic Civ II only lets you take on the computer in the race across the stars. There is a "Multiverse" where you can compare scores and achievements with other players online, but there's no real game there.
However, the biggest problem with this universe is that it's full of little bugs - and I don't mean the Thalan insect race. In striving so ambitiously, the developers let their game get a little out of control. Crashes are infrequent but still happen often enough for you to praise the autosave feature. That is, until you quick load and find your map infested with ghost ships and starbases that can't be built on the site of an enemy base you just blew up. Time to completely quit and reload.
And this is just the tip of the liceberg. Military starbases that are supposed to give nearby ships combat bonuses often do not. Sometimes disbanding your fleets and reforming them or saving and reloading your whole game will bring those bonuses back. Sometimes it won't. Argh. Planetside, the game gets confused when you upgrade certain buildings, allowing you to buy other buildings for a fraction of the price they're supposed to be. And the ship designs that you mark 'obsolete' don't disappear from one of the starport menus, leading to mile-long lists of constructible ships (with ten different ones named "fighter1," in my case). The game is by no means unplayable, but there are so many little issues, they add up to one very big, very hard to ignore annoyance.
I love the fact that The Dread Lords is so customizable - it's practically open-source, guaranteeing plenty of fan-made modules and a long shelf-life. In fact, there's so much in this game to like, I almost feel like a jerk having to complain about its myriad bug issues, but a final release with this many problems just isn't acceptable. If it were any other type of product, from a television to a pork chop, I'd return it to the store.
Developer Stardock simply should have spent some more time getting the game ready before they released it. They have a great record of support and updates, so I'm certain this will all be fixed in a couple months, but I can only review what I have in front of me right now. But at least they were reaching for the stars when their ship crashed into the blue screen ocean.