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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.

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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.

That tongue-in-cheek humor is a signature of Galactic Civilizations III, and appears occasionally in almost everything (but especially in potentially dry descriptions of new technology research options).

Galactic Civilizations III

Above: A semi-zoomed map of a system you control. Recognize it?

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

A space strategy game that truly focuses on space

While you will construct buildings on your colonies, planets are primarily resource generators in Galactic Civilizations III. It unabashedly focuses on space, which means it feels much different than last fall’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. Whereas Civ:BE provides primarily a land-based game with aliens and an orbital layer (with seas coming in the next expansion), GalCiv pours all of its attention into space.

Your battles take place among the stars, most of your energy focuses on exploring and colonizing there, and while Stardock made the extremely basic colony maps (now in hexes!) pretty enough, they don’t compare to the love they lavish on the cosmic scenery.

I especially admire the smooth transitions of the maps as you zoom in for a closer, more-organic look at individual planets and then out for a more grid-like view of the whole galaxy.

Galactic Civilizations III

Above: This ship made it in the game after a design-your-own contest by Stardock.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

The depth in sandbox mode

I don’t even know where to begin describing the incredible depth of options and gameplay in sandbox mode. Take the ship designer: You can create a huge variety of spacecraft, from whatever strange stuff pops into your head to classic ships from popular movies and series with “Star” in the title. Make up your parts, your propulsion, your systems. Ships that look like banana peels or honey bees or have tentacles? No problem.

The same depth exists nearly everywhere: the research technology trees you’ll navigate, the options you can put on your starbases, the custom races you design, the galaxies you create — if you ever wanted to specify the exact number of black holes you’ll see in space, you’re playing the right game. (GalCiv III adds space-based hazards for the first time, though you can route around them easily.)

Galactic Civilizations III is thinner than its forbears in a few places: governance options have shrunk, for example, and it has no elections, political parties, or spying. I didn’t miss them; you might.

The controls for sandbox mode are flexible and well designed, meaning that making all those choices doesn’t feel like a chore — and if it does, you can selectively skip the parts you don’t care about.

Galactic Civilizations III

Above: Pick a race, any race. No? Make up your own, then.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

What you won’t like

The pacing sometimes gets uneven

While the gameplay rewards GalCiv offers provide variety and fun, the pacing sometimes stutters. It will give you a million things to do — and then leave you with nothing to do but watch it play out. Micromanagement frequently doesn’t earn you enough bonuses to be worthwhile.

Far too many times, both in campaign and in the sandbox mode, I was left to mash the “Turn” button until things finished building, or my survey ships got to the next cool thing.

That’s not as much of a factor in the multiplayer, but the multiplayer has its own issues. …

Galactic Civilizations III

Above: You could, of course, spend all your extra time doing this: the shipbuilder mode.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

The multiplayer

GalCivIII offers the chance to combat other gamers for the first time in the series, but its multiplayer has stumbled, badly. Plagued by bugs and crashes at launch, it’s still killing out of games (or hanging on … something) far too often. It’s also still much harder to find matches than you’d expect, especially since Stardock expanded the lobbies to be worldwide.

When you do find a stable game, the platform executes the fresh challenge of human intellect well. Unfortunately, I could only experience that a few times in the past few weeks of beta and launch.

I’m not downgrading the overall score for the game as much as I might; frankly, I don’t think multiplayer is a core part of the 4X experience. If you do, you’ll want to subtract 10 points or so from the final score.

Galactic Civilizations III

Above: A space battle in progress. No, mine never looked this good. Ever.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

How can space battles be boring?

After the nice intro cinematic to GalCivIII, I was looking forward to seeing my own space battles play out. I tend to lean towards beam weapons, so I couldn’t wait for the visuals as my fleet literally carved up my opponents.

Alas, the graphics and camera in the battles showed rudimentary polish. The ship models were fine, but my beam attacks were tiny, crudely attached lines, and the engine doesn’t model the damage well. It seems Stardock expects you to quick-resolve your fights, and after watching a couple of underwhelming contests — you can’t control your ships during battles, the outcome merely plays out onscreen — I sighed and started hitting that button.

In many ways, watching the teeny-tiny ships explode on the map evokes more excitement than watching them in cinematic mode, and that saddens me.

Galactic Civilizations III

Above: Another pretty view from your galaxy.

Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

Conclusion

Galactic Civilizations III is a great 4X space strategy game, one that will keep you pushing for one more turn late into the night. If you’re looking for a terrific multiplayer experience, GalCiv III won’t scratch that itch, and some parts of its core pacing stumble. But the combination of depth, ease of gameplay, and a sometimes-funny, snarky aesthetic, make GalCiv III a delight to play.

Score: 87/100

Galactic Civilizations III is available now from Stardock Entertainment for PCs. GamesBeat obtained a download code from the publisher for this review.

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