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Galactic Civilizations III captures the essence of battling in space and does a great job of capturing your free time along the way.

The turn-based 4X space strategy game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) has some issues: You’ll occasionally spend far too much time repeatedly mashing the “Turn” button, and multiplayer problems continue to plague it. But Stardock Entertainment’s latest engrosses you in a way that great strategy games should, and the compelling campaign launches you into the action.

Galactic Civilizations III is available now from Stardock Entertainment for Windows (the 64-bit version of 7 or better) for $50.

What you’ll like

The campaign

The single-player campaign wasn’t available for reviewers until the day of launch, which meant that we held this review until we’d had a chance to play through it more than once. It’s telling that I actually looked forward to the replay; usually, I play through a strategy game campaign with an eye toward getting to sandbox mode and never seeing it again.

But the GalCiv III campaign is expertly balanced, with just enough of a nudge to keep you moving through the story — creeping across the galaxy with a ragtag band of survivors and freeing Earth from the evil aliens that have it surrounded — and just enough rope to hang yourself with.

Is it better to be slow and methodical, or punch through the action and building be damned? I played through once, then the game drew me to try a second time to find out.

The variety of rewards

As you expand through the galaxy, either in the campaign or in sandbox mode, GalCiv III gives you a pile of goodies to play with.

The colonies you’ve planted on planets along the way come to fruition, pinging you for new buildings to build and things to do. The shipyards (which now float in space) pop out new models at a good pace, prompting you to queue up new models based on the new tech and materials you’ve discovered.

Your survey ships can harvest goodies from anomalies and debris, and you’ll want to send some firepower with them, as they’ll now have to battle pirates for some derelicts. You’ll discover new places to plop a starbase to collect resources or tech or mine minerals.

Your enemies will attack your weak spots – more on that A.I. in a second – and push aggressively into your space. Even your friends will frequently make demands and offers, some in your favor, some not.

It all adds up to a great series of rewards for continuing to play, the kind of thing that will have you looking up blearily at 2 a.m. to realize that, yes, you’ve spent another night conquering the galaxy.

Galactic Civilizations III

Above: It’s not just talk; this guy’s ships play this way, too.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

The enemy (and ally) artificial intelligence

I’m going to take a potentially unpopular stand and say this version of GalCiv shows off some of the best A.I. in the business, especially after the tweaking in the 1.02 patch. (To be fair, some of that tweaking happened after player complaints about now-fixed A.I. blindspots.)

Enemies are now devious and delightful in the way they will attack your weak points — a solo ship in transit, an under-defended starbase — or pile up to attack a more heavily fortified planet or fleet. They will swoop in and, if they see you headed their way with superior firepower, run right back out again. It makes some parts of the game tough — but also absolutely enchanting. While each species responds to your moves, it also shows a personality of its own.

Allies demonstrate the same level of love. Their demands and offers, while sometimes repetitive between species, reflect your relationship with their borders and even your responses to earlier overtures. Whoever’s doing the dialogue for their representatives also deserves some credit; their speeches aren’t horrendously stilted and typically reflect the values and tactics of their civilizations.

The difficulty progressed smoothly through the different A.I. levels (normal, challenging, or insane). While the usual hacks mean the game sometimes gets harder by speeding up as it slows you down, it manages the details with more finesse than most.

Galactic Civilizations III

Above: Malevolent mode for the win, on this planet where the flowers intoxicate colonists: “You say they’re content with everything? Like more work? Give them the drug to make them work harder. Are the plants plentiful? They are? Fantastic.”

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

Malevolent mode

Earlier versions of GalCiv had Good and Evil; this one implements a Benevolent/Pragmatic/Malevolent ideological system, each with its own reward tree. I spent much of my time in GalCiv playing as a pragmatist (the rewards, including free ships and starbase upgrades and mining bonuses, prove tremendously helpful), but trying out Malevolent partially drove my replay.

It’s not the rewards that make the Malevolent tree so much fun: It’s the writing. As you colonize new planets or encounter other galactic events, you may respond according to each philosophy. Deadly giant sentient worms are attacking your new colony, the game advises you. What will you do?

Galactic Civilizations III

Above: Here are your rewards for each ideological tree. Not seen: the incredible snark bonus from Malevolence.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

The benevolent and pragmatic options are about what you’d expect: Make friends with the worms, because hey, it was their planet; fence off your colony and only zap worms that make their way inside; that sort of thing.

Malevolent options in these cases always push the “Burn them all!” button, but it’s the dialogue that makes them so delightful. You’re not just going to kill all the worms — what about skinning them and seeing if you can sell the pelts for a profit? Those lovely sunsets on your new planet are the result of harmful gasses? Sell tourist tickets for thousands of gold apiece! And so on.