Barely a week seems to go by without a new star-spanning 4X game appearing on Steam, claiming to either offer another variation of Civ in space, build upon the venerable foundations of Master of Orion, or to head off towards strategy's final frontier in the quest to deliver the definitive game of interstellar domination.
The Galactic Civilizations series has been more successful than most at delivering on all of the above, possibly because, as its name suggests, it takes more inspiration from Sid Meier's blend of empire building than that established by past masters Simtex. That said, unless you're an insatiable fan of strategy's most overpopulated and underreported subgenre, the distinction will barely be noticeable. All that needs to be stated for the benefit of our introduction is that the original Galactic Civilization did what it said on the box, its sequel was widely regarded as the best in its class since Master of Orion and that, almost a decade later, this latest instalment looks to be as much focused on the future as its contemporaries are fixated on 4X's increasingly distant past.
For all that is new, GalCiv 3's strategy fundamentals are reliably well-established. Recognising that it's the first steps in any 4X game that are the most furrowed, Stardock have once again made it gratifyingly easy to get your empire started, issuing the means to quickly work outwards from your home world, develop nearby planets, establish a research strategy and ponder how best to deal with the neighbours. Granted, if you've sunk hundreds of hours into GalCiv 2, it may seem early on like you're playing an HD upgrade rather than a sequel, but once ship production is in full swing and the fleets are massing on the borders, you start to appreciate all that is new beyond the hexes, the more efficient screen layout and the obvious and necessary graphical upgrade to ships, stations, stars and planets.
Continuity aside, it perhaps doesn't sell the new game too well that, more or less, the same races that have graced dozens of like-minded games are available for selection here: There's the plucky and versatile humans as a matter of course, war-mongering lizard-monkeys, fascist mechanoids and stone-faced traders to describe but a few. It's a good thing Stardock has injected each with a sense of humour because although broadly asymmetric in terms of traits and abilities, there are in fact just seven returning civilizations and only one that's new, meaning five have either been retired or deemed surplus to requirements. However, as thin a selection as that may seem, it really isn't, for any apparent lack of racial diversity is more than made up for with the capacity to allow for up to 128 custom civilisations simultaneously being active in any one game, either in single or multiplayer. Coupled with the ability to run 'insane' sized maps with hundreds of planets means that the scope for a vast and enduring interstellar war is almost unprecedented.
Unfortunately, in practice, setting up such a vast and potentially relationship-destroying game isn't made very easy. Creating a single custom race is no real hassle, with traits and abilities that are easily adapted and a small selection of portrait and backdrop images on hand (and the ability to import your own should you wish to recreate Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada for your turn-based enjoyment). Sadly, with no facility to mass produce the required number of civilisations via randomisation (a feature mooted for v1.1), you'd need to set aside a good few hours of fevered clicking just to fill up the roster.
It's not just the potential number of combatants and the size of the battlefield that's been super-sized in GalCiv 3, the tech trees have been similarly expanded and adapted for each race. Moreover, choosing certain technology options might exclude you from selecting others, so that even if you were to doggedly stick with the Terrans, there's plenty of scope to lead your people down any number of research paths, whether you're aiming for a military, cultural, diplomatic, technological or some other measure of victory.
It is entirely down to Stardock's decision to develop the game for 64-bit systems that has allowed for so much upscaling, with, we're told, each race's AI able to be processed simultaneously rather than in sequence, which would otherwise bring lesser machines to their knees. It's worth pointing out that while turns played on an insane-sized map were noticeably longer than on more manageable hex grids, the delay between each turn was rarely more than a few seconds. In fact, even with 15 major and minor races kicking about, the turns ticked by at broadly the same rate after 300 turns as they did after the first three. In a genre where end-game turns can often be measured in minutes, GalCiv 3 is a significant boon.
Truth be told, without needing to dumb its systems down in any way, what is perhaps most impressive about GalCiv 3 is how effortlessly the game seems to make itself accessible. There's a surfeit of icons, but the colour coding ensures that while it might be a challenge to track how each value stacks and interacts, you can get an overview of how things are going by subconsciously tracking how colour is used. Similarly while raw stats aren't as front-and-centre as in previous games, a simple rollover of the mouse is enough to fill any void in your understanding. If there is an issue with stats it's that early on it can be difficult to discern between values that apply to a selected colony or vessel, or to your global stats. It would perhaps be helpful if the distinction was better explained, maybe via some kind of in-game GalCivilopedia, especially given that the manual and official wiki are rather lacking.
Scalability aside, probably the most evolved feature of GalCiv 3 is the ship design mode and the way in which ship type dictates the rules of engagement in fleet battles. Considering that battles remain entirely passive affairs (much to the consternation of the series' detractors), that your efforts in the ship designer and in balancing your fleets can be so effective is very impressive. It's important to point out that ship type isn't merely about size, either, but in how many weapons and how much armour and shielding is fitted, as well as the investment required in space credits. Three values, Threat, Fortitude and Value then dictate whether the ship is classed as Assault, Interceptor, Escort, Guardian or Capital ship, which in turn dictates whether it stays back and defends or tears off into the enemy ranks.
Thankfully for those who seek a more peaceful victory, you don't have to delve too deeply into ship customisation as there are plenty of standard-issue ships whose designs are updated as new research takes effect. To overlook the ship tool however is to miss out on the ability to create battleship-sized spy ships, scout-sized colony ships, cheap bomber wings or even, with some practise, a Constellation class starship.
All this customisability seems to have come at a cost. Until the recent first patch, there were crippling synchronisation issues in multiplayer games involving player-created ships and races. Given the time investment needed to see even a small multiplayer game through to the end, it's understandable that most have been sticking to their solo conquests in spite of a semblance of stability being implemented. Given Stardock's record when it comes to supporting its games, though, we can be fairly confident that the multiplayer side of the game won't be left wanting for too long.
Other minor issues aside, such as a need to develop the game's rather basic fleet management UI and a somewhat crippling arbitrary penalty that makes large-scale empire administration more of a chore than it should be, the game is well deserving of the GalCiv name and offers enough in the way of traditional features and modern scalability to secure the series' place at the very top of the 4X tech tree - if not for the five years that Stardock intend to adapt and add to the game, then at least until the next 4X game comes along in a few days time.