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7.5 / 10
Space Empires V is one of those games that should come with a warning label attached – “Casual Gamers: Put down the box.” The latest title in the 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) genre from Malfador Machinations, Space Empires V feels simultaneously like a richly detailed labor of love and a convoluted mess that delights in complication for its own sake. I haven’t played a game in a while that I expect will be so rewarding and enjoyable for one set of gamers, and so frustrating for others.
Like most strategy games steeped in science fiction, play involves starting in one solar system and expanding (in this case through convenient wormholes) to other sectors, carving out an empire, forging alliances with or (more fun) wiping out competing factions. While the game is primarily turn-based, the real time combat, available in either tactical (smaller skirmishes) or strategic (fleet battles) modes provides a welcome change of pace. The 3D graphics, while not mind-blowing, are attractive (though no one chooses a
strategy game for eye candy.) Conceptually the game is well thought out. I appreciated the fact that planets can be colonized based on their similarity in composition and atmosphere to a culture’s
homeworld, meaning many cultures aren’t (at least initially) competing for the same planets, allowing a longer period of uneasy coexistence before the fireworks begin.
Unlike its competitors such as the excellent Galactic Civilizations series, Space Empires V fully embraces and owns its complexity and complication. While not in the same league as some Paradox Games titles like the Hearts of Iron series, SE V is extraordinarily deep. This is a game that is all about customization. On first look, SE V can feel a little daunting. A player who doesn’t choose the “quick start” option faces a dizzying number of initial choices, from the racial, political and cultural details of their selected race to myriad game options. And it doesn’t get any easier from there.
While there are options to delegate less important decisions to ministers and to automate some processes, most of the decisions are the player’s to make (and remake – and remake). Here SE V stumbles a little in how it lacks the shortcuts and innovative conveniences of the many recent strategy or
civ-building titles. SE V’s interface isn’t the
efficient set up in the galaxy, and there often seems to be several complicated ways of achieving an objective (ie. checking on a planet’s building queue against its current needs) rather than one easy way. The constant checking and rechecking can become a bit tedious in less eventful sections of the game.
A special feature of the game, the ability to design and upgrade ships, bases and other units, is fun and will certainly delight many budding galactic emperors. However, especially at a game’s start, there just aren’t enough practical design options – a few more shields or a few more guns here, a few more thrusters there – to make the exercise of putting a ship together from scratch worthwhile. I almost wish there were either less choices (a few generic designs) or more (ie. designing the hull, the positioning of hardpoints, the physical appearance.) Things do get more interesting later in the game, where design choices become more crucial to a player’s overall strategy (ie. Do you go with a swarm of light attack ships with drones and naturally-regenerating organic armor or a few immense dreadnoughts with fighter bays and star destroying
SE V’s tech tree is so immense it’s more of a tech forest. While some kind souls have already rendered it online, within the game it’s huge and hidden by a “fog of science” much of the time, allowing only a glimpse of further branches, abilities and production options. While this presents both a real sense of discovery and fun during the first playthroughs, it might be a frustration to casual players as they bumble through dead ends until they learn -- through trial and error -- the path to get what they want. This isn’t helped by the fact that the tree isn’t as intuitive as it might be.
The game’s AI seems efficient and serviceable (albeit not as uncannily realistic as in the Galactic Civ games) though a little inconsistent at times. Put simply, SE V’s aliens do the darndest things. AI cultures seem to arbitrarily ignore or overreact to player actions, sometimes overlooking the most egregious offenses, at other times firing on an otherwise solid ally with no clear provocation. At times I was uncertain if I was watching a surprise act of treachery or a defensive response to the crossing of some mysterious line in the sand. Diplomacy and political options in the game are incredibly complex, with literally hundreds of possibilities for negotiation. The problem is that the subtlety allowed by these many options often feels wasted on AI negotiators who seem to respond best to simple requests.
One major quality / fault of the game that will please some players and frustrate others is the pace. Virtually every aspect of this game, expansion, development, research, even the AI thinking between turns, creeps along. It’s not uncommon to spend two hours of play before encountering another species, at which point it comes as a rude shock to realize one is not alone in one’s little corner of the universe. For some gamers, this will increase the tension and immersion, but those lacking in patience should consider Galactic Civ instead.
Finally, the game does have its share of bugs, some which are alleviated by the latest patch (though I’ve still had a few crash to desktops at inconvenient moments.) The online options are still not working as of this review (or at least not working for me.) SE V, unfortunately, seems to be yet another example of the “retail Beta” marketing strategy that many game companies have drifted towards (i.e serving a pie that could have used another hour in the oven.) As well, the tutorial and manual didn’t match up with some elements (ie. commands and controls) in the actual game. A minor but irritating problem.
I have no problem with giving this game a higher evaluation for what it is intended to be, an excellent, nuanced and deep game that will certainly please fans of the genre. But with the warning that it is not for all tastes and sensibilities, and not for casual players looking to shoot up a few aliens.