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Posted on Nov 30, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Space Empires V – Game Review (PC)

Armchair General

Passed Inspection: Deeply complex game play. A myriad of options and modifications to experience. Great graphics and music

Failed Basic: Far too in-depth for the casual gamer. Intimidating interface, requires a great deal of time and investment to master.

Space Empires V is an epic game of galactic exploration and domination that pits the player against a series of alien races, all clamoring to become rulers of the cosmos. Players must simultaneously manage the basic needs of their futuristic alien empire whilst trying to out research and outgun their opponents to battle their way to the top.

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Controlling an Empire needs lots of buttons

SEV is the latest release from developers Malfador Machinations and publishers Strategy First. As one might expect with a 4X type game, the object of the game is to take control of a race of beings and expand across the galaxy, conquering solar systems along the way and eliminating all opposition, or at least coming to terms with them in some way that allows the player to become supreme ruler of everything.

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It soon became apparent that this was not the sort of game a novice player could expect to pick up and get the hang of immediately. To begin with, the available setup options for each game are really quite mind boggling. Unless one takes the easy route of hitting the "Quick Start" button, players can define almost everything imaginable with the game they want to play, starting with map size and type, available resources and technology cost, number and type of alien empires sharing the galaxy and victory conditions. Selecting to add a new empire adds even more into the mix. It’s even possible to choose the ship style, physical race traits, society type, government and banner for each empire. For those with an authorial flair, a history of each race can be added. This is a neat touch, especially as it’s possible to add to this history during the game.

Given the number of options available, the potential for different types of games available for play is staggering – and it’s clearly important to ensure that each option is considered carefully before a player launches the actual game. Players can expect to spend up to 15 minutes just setting up their game before they even see the main screens, and whilst this is good news for the grognard, it’s probably bad news for anyone who just wants to sit down and blast away.

Once a player enters the game proper, the options available are equally as numerous, almost intimidating in fact. With buttons and menus arrayed around the edges of the screen, players can view the systems, colonies and ships under their control, bring up research and construction queues, as well as list galactic events and the known activities of rival empires.

But it is of course the center of the screen that grabs attention, with a 3D display of the player’s home system which is zoom-able, scrollable and quite beautiful in its detail.

Each system of course features planets and other objects on a single plane, which is itself made up of a hexagonal grid. Each planet or ship in a system occupies one of those hexes, and each object under player control has a certain visual radius around which it can see. Players can view the entire solar system from afar, looking down on the solar plane from above, or horizontally. Planets are individually animated, turning slowly in their orbits almost imperceptibly, it’s really rather nice to look at.

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Designing ships is fun and can be very rewarding

Unfortunately, having all those buttons racked up along the top and bottom of the screen eventually becomes a bit of a pain – literally as well as figuratively. Since every turn requires a check on the status of one’s empire, players will find themselves clicking all over the screen, and since most menus contain scrollable lists, carpal tunnel syndrome cannot be far behind.

The interface is also rather clunky, many of the menu buttons are crude and overly large. With a little work, it could have been streamlined to be slightly less intrusive, perhaps a little more subtle with the use of colors and brightness. When I approach a game like this, I like to feel that I’m sat in a supreme command center somewhere, not like I’m playing a game, and the interface removes some of that immersive atmosphere every time it is used.

The game redeems itself with the ship design area. The number of default ship designs in SEV numbers precisely zero. Instead, players must create their own starship designs based on the hull sizes they have researched. Even then, it’s not possible to completely fill a certain hull form, there are strict escalating limits throughout the game as to what can be crammed inside each size hull. Thus, a player may start with a frigate that houses three decks, each with 36 "slots" for equipment, but tonnage restrictions will probably only allow about a dozen of those slots to be filled, maximum. Within that hull form there are always certain requirements, such as an engine, sensors, a bridge, and a certain crew capacity. Once the requirements have been met, players are free to add extra components to their design, as long as they do not exceed the upper tonnage limit. Once the design is named, the ship can then be added to a planetary construction queue. It’s even possible to test a design in a simulator against known enemy ships to see how well it will perform. You know, I could spend all day just doing that…

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The research area is where all the cool people hang out

So what’s the actual game like? In a word, difficult. Those setup options at the start have a major impact on each game, selecting the wrong combination can be fatal, and is also a bit hit and miss. For example, to start with, players will only have the technology to colonize planets that are similar to their own. Whilst this does give a player some breathing space–since a player’s alien neighbors won’t be after the same planets as the player–it does limit early options for expansion as players are restricted to only a certain percentage of the worlds they encounter. In addition, the research tree is massive and it’s never clear what leads to what. In SEV, rather than research one thing at a time as in other 4X games, players allocate research resources to a series of sliding bars, thus it’s possible to allocate 100% to, say, Economics, and get a quick hit in that area, but that would be to ignore the other fifty or so research fields that demand attention. More likely, a player will allocate a few percentage points to each area, whilst boosting specific advances at any one time to get that new weapon mount they wanted for Christmas.

It’s partly as a result of this that the game is also slow – much much slower than GalCiv II where players often find themselves bumping into alien species within five minutes of their first move. SEV can rattle along quite nicely for an hour or more before an alien ship shows up. Early vessels only have a certain number of movement points, meaning that it can take a few turns just to move a new shiny Frigate from a home world to a warp point. This can have its benefits as it can boost a player’s technology to the point where encountering aliens simply isn’t as scary as it might be, because they are able to be beaten in open combat, but at the same time, it can be frustrating because for long stretches of time, nothing is happening, there is just the endless click click click of the mouse with little result.

In summary, while die-hard strategists will no doubt have an interest in SEV, the scary interface and almost complete lack of pace, excitement and achievement means that this is a game some players are unlikely to want to pick up again.

Armchair General Score – 70%

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