As the nights draw in and the weather gets cold and wet, there's nothing we like better here at VideoGamer.com than to cuddle up with a hot water bottle, a laptop, a duvet and turn-based strategy game, and Galactic Civilizations II: Endless Universe fits the bill perfectly. Endless Universe is not technically a new entry in the Galactic Civilizations pantheon, but instead is a retail release of the Dark Avatar and Twilight of the Arnor standalone expansion packs, which, while available through Stardock's digital distribution system (Impulse) for some time, have somehow managed to avoid a European release in your favourite High Street video games retailer until now.
If you played the first campaign in the Galactic Civilizations II series (Dread Lords), or indeed any 4X strategy game, you should broadly know what to expect from Dark Avatar and Twilight of the Arnor. Namely, a huge universe, lots of depth in the diplomacy, economic, research and ship-building models, some viciously clever AI, lashings of smart humour in the game text and several hundred hours lost in sleepless nights. As with most turn-based strategies, Galactic Civilizations II is fearsomely addictive and very hard to put down. Endless Universe is quite an apt description for this expansion pack bundle, because with two campaigns and the ability to customise and play in your own galaxy, the amount of time you could spend playing Endless Universe is, well, endless.
The campaigns in Dark Avatar and Arnor follow on from the end story of the Dread Lords campaign, where the Earth has been isolated from the rest of the galaxy in order to escape being subjugated by the evil Drengin, who remain the antagonists in Dark Avatar, but in an interesting twist, become the playable civilization in the Arnor campaign as they wage a civil war amongst themselves and their (even more evil) cousins, the Cora. The campaigns follow the same pattern as the in the original: starting out with Tiny maps and working your way up the hugeness scale, so if you intend on completing both campaigns, make sure the fridge is well-stocked and call your parents once in a while to let them know you're still alive. This is not a game you can rush. Turn-based strategies and campaign narratives have never been the cosiest of bedfellows, however, and while GalCiv2 executes the combination better than most, the real core of the game is being able to customise your own civilization, and then trying to conquer the galaxy with it.
If you don't intend to spend the couple of months it will likely take you to play through the two campaigns, and instead simply want to play the game in sandbox mode, then play Twilight of the Arnor, rather than Dark Avatar. Arnor features not only a huge graphical upgrade over the original game, but quite a few more subtle tweaks as well. Creating your own civilization, whether they're pacifist humans or genocidal space rabbits, now has a lot more depth, with unique tech trees and customisable character traits. You also have the ability to create your own tech trees and units for use within the game, thanks to the bundled game editors, giving you even greater levels of customisation. With the improved textures, spending hours playing around with the shipyard is even more rewarding, and the array of ship components and styles on offer is truly staggering.
Arnor also features the best AI, since it now scales properly with the size of the map, which can now get so large that it can take a couple of thousand turns simply to get from one end to the other. Beating one of these new Immense category maps could take... well, we've no idea how long it could take. Months? Years? But it's comforting that Stardock included them to begin with: they know that turn-based strategy gamers like a challenge; and the bigger the challenge, the better. An honourable mention must also go to Stardock for their enlightened approach to the bouton-chaud du jour for PC gamers, DRM. Endless Universe, unlike most PC releases these days, features absolutely no DRM at all. CD-key registration is optional, you can install the game without limit on as many PCs as you like, and the game doesn't even do a CD check. Are you listening, EA?
Endless Universe is a terrific package, offering a staggering amount of gameplay for the price, and even after two years from its original release, Galactic Civilizations II has lost none of its charm, depth or playability. If you haven't acquired the expansions via Impulse already, then Endless Universe comes with an unreserved recommendation, as Galactic Civilizations II and its expansions are as good as you will find in the 4X turn-based genre. Though it is worth noting that if you somehow missed out on playing the original until now as well, you may wish to consider holding on to your money for the soon-to-be-released Ultimate Edition, which features all three of the Galactic Civilizations II titles to date. Either way, it's money well-spent and will keep you more than occupied and entertained during the long autumn and winter nights. We're off to crawl back under the duvet while we threaten our rivals with Terror Stars. Come back and get us in the springtime...