I haven’t played a 4x strategy game in quite some time but have fond memories from Master of Orion, the Civilization series, and several other entries in the genre. When loading up Galactic Civilizations IV (GC4) by Stardock Entertainment for the first time, in my mind, I was looking for a vast sci-fi experience rife with galactic explorations and conflict. I was pleasantly surprised by the selection of races and the ability to customize my own. The downside is that after race selection and galaxy generation, there are some elements that, so far, make this a mediocre experience.
When starting my first game, I found a good mix of 18 races that included everything from Terran to a Synthetic race. Each one has an interesting aesthetic, and their racial abilities/backgrounds only add to creating a unique feel. During my first game as a new player, I first went with the standard Terran race and left all the galaxy settings on their initial defaults.
The theme music for each race is excellent, and once underway, all the initial elements had me ready to begin an exploration of the stars. The game's graphics are good, and the UI is responsive as you move from one page to the next. It was easy to follow tips from my advisors in the first few turns and colonize the closest planets.
After those first few turns, GC4 starts to lose me. There is no in-game tutorial for onboarding new players, so it is easy to get overwhelmed. Contact with other races can also occur quickly, depending on the galaxy settings.
Contact with races early on creates a second issue where much of the early game is a land grab. If a player doesn’t get a decent size region of control with multiple planets, things can be much more difficult for the rest of the game. While this is something I am used to in this genre, GC4 feels like it is taken to the next level unless you change up the galaxy settings. The official website does have a written walkthrough that was a huge help in getting underway and understanding different systems. I don’t understand why this wasn’t part of an in-game tutorial.
The UI is not overly difficult to navigate and is decently responsive, but it feels at odds with the rest of the graphics and is, in my opinion, slightly outdated in appearance. Different screens can throw a lot of information at a player as they mouse over various elements, which can be a plus. But the information provided is not particularly clear at times or not useful.
During my first two games, there were instances where I only figured out that I needed other resources or researched technologies after I attempted an action. An example of this is when another race declared war and I attempted to assault their core world. It only indicated that I needed to research a specific technology for access to assault transports before being able to attack a core world after I committed a fleet. This left one of my fleets out of position unless I reloaded a previous save and meant it could take some time to access the required technology due to the way the game handles research.
Each time a player finishes discovering new technology, they are limited to selecting one of four (five with a minister of technology assigned) random technologies from the currently unlocked options in various tech trees. In my situation, I had to try and figure out what technologies would eventually open the one I needed and hope I got lucky with RNG along the way. It didn’t help that when accessing the technology trees in the UI to plan things out, I could only see a small portion of each one and had to scroll left/right trying to find what I was looking for.
So far, going to war with another race doesn’t feel good. It just adds to the micromanagement each turn as the enemy AI seems to randomly attack planets. It's tedious, I am tempted to lean towards a high diplomacy race for my next game. It also doesn’t help that smaller ships/probes can be difficult to see on the map unless you are continually zooming in/out to locate their icons. Suddenly a fighter can appear, bombarding a colony behind your front line.
There are some other elements I am still concerned about as well and am keeping a close eye on. As I progress further in gameplay, I am becoming more aware of the lack of a cohesive campaign and story. This is fine if the random events throughout can create engaging moments, but they are already starting to feel superfluous. I am also concerned about the enemy AI, especially when it comes to being at war with the other races.
Stability-wise I have not had a single crash, and the load times have been decently quick. There are only two minor technical issues I have noticed so far. The first is that sometimes a newly constructed ship will not immediately show up in my ship list until I move it or end my turn. Second, when I click to move a ship, and if it's partially off-screen, it will “jump” through part of the move appearing at its destination.
There are a few features so far which have enhanced my gameplay experience. I have started to use the custom race option, and it is nice that you can make a copy of an existing race and then adjust it to your playstyle. The use of slipstream travel to connect different sectors of space is interesting and is already leading to some challenging strategic choices in my first couple of games. I like that I only need to manage my core world in a system while the other minor colonies feed the main world resources. The custom ship design system also looks interesting, and I can’t wait to tinker with it more.
While it has not been an amazing experience so far, the bones of the game are good, and I am having fun with Galactic Civilizations IV. As my time with the game continues, I am curious if it will eventually have me up late at night to play just one more turn like so many other 4x games have done in the past. It has succeeded in one thing already. My interest in the genre has been renewed.