Twilight of the Arnor officially released!

All right, I’m a couple days late, but one of my all-time favorite games, Galactic Civilizations 2, has just released what I believe to be the most impressive expansion pack ever, Twilight of the Arnor.

I’ve played with the beta a bit, but now that it’s officially released (and the weekend is here), I am hoping to dig in a whole lot more, play some metaverse games, and maybe even tinker with the editors.

Why would you care about this release? Read on:

GalCiv2 is a 4X game (think of Civilizations, Age of Wonders, Heroes of Might and Magic, etc). These kinds of games have traditionally been somewhat complex, turn-based strategy games. Think of a game like the board game Risk, but with a whole lot more details, rules, military options, diplomacy, randomly-generated maps (or at least a large collection of hand-crafted maps), etc.

The biggest issue with games like these is there are so many options at every point of the games that a computer cannot effectively plan out a smart strategy. Most games give the computer cheats – free resources, “good luck” bonuses when attacking or defending territory, free military units, the ability to see the player’s private data, and so on. This is frustrating to a player, because instead of playing against a human-like opponent, she’s playing against what amounts to a really stupid cheater. The cheater isn’t playing by the rules, yet still really sucks at planning a long-term strategy.

Stardock, at least starting with GalCiv 2, doesn’t believe the AI should need to cheat. (In GalCiv1, the AI got a free peek at the galaxy, giving it a tremendous advantage when choosing where to colonize and such) Additionally, the AI is built with the philosophy that it should play like a human, so at various difficulty levels, the strategies actually vary. When you play against a “cakewalk” set of AI opponents, they will have fewer strategic options available than when playing against “normal”, which itself has fewer options than playing against “tough”. This amounts to a much more immersive single-player game.

The other thing that tends to plague most 4X games is repetition. Even GalCiv1, and to a lesser degree, GalCiv2, suffered from this problem. The thing is, all playable situations eventually amount to the same general approaches. In Civilization III, you have a couple civ-specific military units, and some bonus depending on your empire’s specialties, but overall very little is different from any one game to the next: you research the same technology, most military units are the same, cities build the same improvements, etc. The heroes series is a tiny bit better, as each faction has a semi-unique city and units, but even so, the game is so simple that the differentiation doesn’t change the repetitive play.

I love both of those games, but I cannot deny their inherent problem. And as I stated above, even GalCiv2 (even with the Dark Avatar expansion) suffered from this issue. Dark Avatar made each race a bit more unique with the Super Abilities, but overall strategies, technologies, and planetary improvements were all shared.

Twilight of the Arnor throws this all away. What GalCiv2 did for the belief that all 4X AI has to suck, Twilight of the Arnor does for the belief that repetitive play is just a part of the 4X genre. Every single race (there are twelve, mind you) has its own technology tree, planetary improvements, and to a lesser degree, ship modules. The tech trees have many common elements, of course, and some races are very similar to each other. The Korath, for instance, are an offshoot of the Drengin, so their tech trees are naturally very similar – but there are still a few differences, and the already-present racial attributes and super abilities make even those two situations a bit different. When looking at the Humans and the Thalan, on the other hand, the trees and overall strategies are so different that it’s like playing a totally separate game.

Here are some of my favorite examples:

  • The Korx are mercenaries, and as such have a Mercenary Academy, available from the Mercenaries tech, and “unique” to them and the Drath (both races have some slant on war manipulation). When the academy is built, they get a bonus to their income equal to 2% of the tax revenues of all warring civilizations.
    • In Dark Avatar, the Korx are described as mercenaries and war profiteers, but you only feel that when role-playing. In Twilight, you see a direct, in-game benefit to manipulating people into war.
  • The Arceans have a lot of trouble with space travel. Their ships default to moving at a rate of 2 parsec per turn (normal is 3 – this is a HUGE deal early game!), and they cannot develop the technology to use advanced ship drives, severely limiting their speed late game. They can trade for the technology (which I dislike, but that’s a separate topic), but if it’s entirely up to them, they’ll never learn it. To compensate, they have a few technologies that give them a “free” bonus to ship speed (research tech, instant bonus to all ships), and the ability to build navigation centers on their planets which give all ships built on that planet another “free” bonus.
    • This alone is a huge strategy change – you either trade for the techs and play a “normal” game, or you just live with slower ships. One interesting aspect of this is that you will have a lot more space for weapons, which is great given the existing Arcean Super Warrior ability.

Assuming this wasn’t enough, Twilight sports a ton of other features I can’t even try to explain. Amazing modder tools are finally included, “static” tournament scenarios, the new Ascension victory condition, terror stars, …

If you’ve never heard of GalCiv2, but you like 4X games, there is no better time to try it out.

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