When you hear the phrase "four X", what's the first thing that leaps into your mind's eye? Australians loading up a pick-up truck with crates of canned lager until the rear wheels fall off from the sheer weight, or the ruthless rape of the natural world and the extermination of indigenous populations, all in the name of 'civilization'? If it's the former of the two, then I suggest you go to the pub and buy a pint of the old amber nectar. If it's the latter, then you could do worse than to investigate Galactic Civilizations II to sate your megalomaniac impulses.
The original Galactic Civilizations was arguably the best turn-based strategy of 2003, and unlike most turn-based strategies that aren't made by Sid Meier, it actually sold well enough to warrant a sequel. Almost three years of hard development later and the fruit of Stardock's feverish labour has resulted in Galactic Civilizations 2; and what luscious, juicy fruit it is, too.
Traditionally, turn-based strategy isn't the most player-friendly of genres, as there's a tendency for TBS games to be ugly, monolithic, and just too damn complicated for their own good. None of these things, thankfully, can be applied to GalCiv2, as Stardock has built admirably upon the solid foundations laid down in the original game, retaining the sense of scale and depth of management necessary to give the player the feeling that they're trying to run a galaxy (rather than their local chip shop), without ever having the feeling of getting bogged down with micromanagement. As if that wasn't enough, the developers have even found the time to give the game a 3D makeover. Granted, it's not that much of a makeover: you're not going to have to fork out a couple of hundred quid on a new graphics card to play the game, but the move to 3D is a welcome one.
Like Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, GalCiv2 is more of a 're-imagination' of the original than a genuine sequel. As with its prequel, GalCiv2 begins with humanity discovering hyperdrive and opening up the galaxy for exploration and exploitation. Where GalCiv2 differs from its predecessor is in offering a campaign mode as well as a sandbox mode. The Dread Lords campaign is vaguely reminiscent of the main story arc of Babylon 5: younger race meddles about with things beyond their understanding and accidentally unleashes a long dormant and apocalyptically powerful older race (the aforementioned Dread Lords of the campaign name) on the galaxy. Pleasingly, the campaign is non-linear, meaning that if you fail one particular scenario, you don't need to keep replaying it to progress the story. As the story progresses, the galaxy size increases (from Tiny to Gigantic) and the win conditions become gradually tougher, especially after the Drengin awake the Dread Lords from their centuries-long slumber. Thankfully, you're often teamed up with friendly alien civilizations, but early expansion is often the key to victory. If you wait too long before taking the fight to the Dread Lords in particular, you can expect to have your buttocks handed back to you on a silver platter around 90% of the time. Be warned: the AI is no pushover.
'GalCiv2's sandbox mode is a control freak's delight...'
The campaign mode does have one major flaw, unfortunately: it conforms to the Command & Conquer 'reinvent the wheel' model; i.e. the technologies you research in one mission are not always carried over from one mission to the next - your race's technology level will be determined at the start of the scenario by the developer, meaning that if you delayed killing off a particular scenario to get a few twigs higher up the beam weapons branch of the tech tree, you're going to be rather annoyed by starting the next mission having to do all that research over again. For this reason alone, I favour the game's sandbox mode over the campaign mode.
GalCiv2's sandbox mode is a control freak's delight, undoubtedly because Stardock has correctly figured out that if you want to make a turn-based strategy player feel like they're running the galaxy, you need to layer lots of complexity into the game. Everything about the game scenario is customisable, from the race you play, to the galaxy size and the frequency of habitable planets. You can also choose the races you compete against, their intelligence levels, and lots, lots more. Within the game itself, you can choose how to tax and spend, balancing revenue against your popularity rating, allowing you to prioritise military production above scientific research, or vice versa. The icing on the cake, as far as in-game customisation goes, however, has to be the starship designer. It's highly reminiscent of the starship designer in Stars!, only with a lot more scope for personalising the appearance of the hulls. As you research your way up the tech tree, large, more spacious hulls become available, allowing you to build more potent vessels, but thanks to the modular construction system implemented within the ship designer, you can add as many "extra" modules to your design as you like, since they don't take up any space within the hull (unlike sensor or weapon modules, for example). This means you can bolt on as many extra trim modules onto the spaceframe as you like, which can result in some wonderfully ludicrous designs. You could literally spend hours adding trim modules to a tiny-sized spaceframe and eventually end up with something as large as a space station. As a game mechanic, it may be utterly pointless and futile, but boy, is it cool, or what? Some people may find it slightly damning that you can have as much fun with the starship designer as with the game as a whole, but personally I find it indicative of the depth and flexibility of play within the game.
Finding your own personal balance between military dominance and scientific research is very much the crux of the game. Neglecting one too much in favour of the other may be a valid tactic, but isn't particularly advisable taken to extremes, especially in the larger galaxies, as the fleet you've just spent the last year painstakingly building up will probably be obsolete by the time you've sent it a third of the way across the galaxy to the empire you're currently waging war on. Likewise, spending too much on research may give you a technological advantage, but if you don't leave enough of your manufacturing capacity left over to build ships to take advantage of your technological superiority, you can be left vulnerable to AI powers using weight of numbers to offset their scientific backwardness. If you have a healthy enough economy, you can try to minimise this by buying new vessels outright or taking out a loan to get the ship immediately, paying for it over several different timeframes (though this works out far more expensive than simply building the ship yourself, and should only be done when you need ships in a crisis).
Considering the depth of management and the complexity of the technology tree, it's mildly disappointing that the tutorial videos don't really tell you enough about how to play the game, and which technologies will benefit your fledgling civilization the most. The manual, it should be noted, is quite an informative and (dare I say) entertaining read, thanks to the input of Tom Chick, but again, considering the depth of the game, is perhaps a little on the flimsy side, and doesn't quite cover everything in enough detail. You will be left to figure out quite a bit for yourself, but it shouldn't pose too much of a problem for people who've played the prequel or have any experience with the Civilization games: they're quite similar in structure.
I should also point out that for a turn-based strategy game, the script has bucketfuls of character and a surprising amount of the explanatory texts for research items are laugh-out-loud funny, which was a very pleasant surprise considering turn-based strategies aren't usually known for having much of a sense of humour. Overall, the game may have a few minor flaws, but they don't impinge too much on the player experience. GalCiv2, like most turn-based strategy games, will require a lot of time investment to get the most out of it, but when it has as much depth, character and playability as this, once you get into it, those in-game weeks may quickly turn into real-life ones. The exit splash screen says it all: "A few more turns wouldn't hurt... are you sure you want to quit?" Just make sure you don't forget that you have to eat once in a while, m'kay?