Galactic Civilizations II - Dread Lords starts off allowing you to pick opponents, intelligence levels, your civilization race, and the method of play ( basically how you want to win the game). You can completely customize your civilization to whatever your play style is, add bonuses how you like, pick the race that suits you. Right off the bat, I can see there is some good replay value here with races having signifcant differences across the board. There are more than enough difficulties, settings and customizations for games to be enjoyable for a long period of time, while making the style of game very different from match to match.
So I picked the bug guys that looked they are from Starship Troopers, Rawr! You start off with a scout type ship, and a planet of your own. Your job is to scout the system, colonize the planets, and expand your civilization. You can pour your resources into the economy, military production, planet production, or researching skills. As you expand you'll find other races around the galaxy, some aggressive, some friendly and anything inbetween. Pretty standard stuff so far for a strategy game. You need to choose your style/method to beat the others to whatever goals are set. Use diplomacy, military force, galactic influence, sabotage and much more to achieve your goals. Using my racial traits of population growth, I spent whatever I could to get colony ships out and expanded rapidly, grabbing any planet, gaining influence, space, and then control, slowly. As my population built and built, so did my production. I never had much cash, and only the most basic ships on border patrols, lucky for me, the AI was busy fighting amongst itself. Of course, that strategy could backfire pretty quickly with any sizable force attacking my planets, but that is what this is all about!
On the downside, the graphics and sound are nothing to be impressed with, you might notice this pretty quickly. But you are playing a turn based strategy game, not a RTS, or a shooter. I am not one to care about pretty graphics, so this is no negative to me. However, one of my greatest dislikes for turn based games is the real lack of surprises, and it is no different here. You know if you will lose a planet, or a base; there is zero resistance time to an invasion and mathematically your fleet might just one space out of saving the planet, but it might as well be 100 spaces. Since it only takes one click to conquer a planet, there is little way to come up with a great way to out flank the enemy, it is all based on cold hard numbers instead of tactics. I really love to incorporate both styles of strategy into a game while I play, so for me, this is still a let down.
Now if you aren't a strategy buff, walk away right now, because you've seen all there is to see. The graphics and sound here aren't going to keep an FPS player entertained at all, but not all games are about shinies and bling bling. However, if you do like strategy, and we are talking some mean nasty strategies, then take a closer look into Galactic Civilizations II - Dread Lords. First, the research technologies in the game are all balanced pretty fairly, no methods being too over powering. The tech trees extend pretty far, a single game would take hours and hours .. maybe days to get through the whole technology tree, from military, to commerce, to invasion, and all the supporting technologies. From the start you can't sit around, you need to get a move on and decide how you want to proceed. Colonize? Militarize Research victory? How about grabbing a resources choke on your galaxy? Grab all those resource spots and set up starbases for your profit, and the loss of your opponents. Scout for planets, or run out and do surveys on abnormalities in the area? Are you feeling lucky today? There is an amazing amount of strategy right off the start, and a few good warships quickly could turn the tide in your favour, or could set you so far back you can't recover. What will you do?
The second amazing feature in Galactic Civilizations II - Dread Lords is that your ships and fleets are completely customizable! There are a bunch of pre-made combat and utility ships around, but you don't have to wait for those. You can make up custom ships for what technology you know right now, and build a ship out of it. Make something wacky, unconventional, multi-purpose or specialty ship, it is all in your strategy. Add in a fancy bumper sticker to your ship's hull and chew up your enemies, design it well and you are one up your opponents. Most ships are made up of hull styles, engines, sensors, weapons, and life support, plus a few other options. Customize these to make up small fleets to defend your borders, or advance your fleet to suppress your enemies, and while Galactic Civilizations II - Dread Lords is a turn based, the fleet battles are witnessed in an real time battle animation. It was quite fun to watch my tiny fighters with one larger supporting capital ship attacking an enemy pirate fleet, watching the fighters weave in and out and bombarding the medium sized frigates. Pew! Pew! Pew!. Most others might not get all worked up about this, but space combat gets me all hot... ya, OK, I'm a loser. Ships aren't the only thing you can customize in the game, in fact.. most of the game you can customize. The developers left much open to change, you can add new races, interfaces, missions, and more and more.
The last real highlight, and the one that glows brightly in Galactic Civilizations II - Dread Lords is the AI. Enemies will join forces to attack common foes, an opponent on the verge of losing to you will surrender to someone else just to screw you over, hostile opponents might research weapons of the opposite of your defenses, and on and on. The AI can be very smart, or very dumb if you set it up the right way.. It seems that the AI is also very resistant to the most common easy win methods, they watch you, what you do, and how you do it. They will counter you and formulate their own victory plan, and they will ally with others to stop you. With the AI being somewhat clever for a change, you can create challenging single player games (though I found the campaign to be somewhat bland), and finally some interesting multiplayer games. No more slaughtering the AI with the same tactics over and over, then getting bored of a game, things here stay challenging.
For someone who gets rarely challenged in anything considered “strategy”, I was very surprised by the level of details, the plans, and programming put into this area. I am more than surprised, I am re-leaved that finally some designers got it right! I don't care how many lighting effects or polygons are on my little ships, I want it to be fun, and, it is! Beat me, kill me, abuse me, just kiss me when you're done.. wait, game.. right. The game certainly can do that, and there are a lot of surprises in store, and those moments are very fun to play even if it has you cursing at it. If this kind of game is appealing to you, you don't regret trying Galactic Civilizations II - Dread Lords, I promise you that. With all the AI built into the game, the replay value sky rockets, you can really create endless unique challenges and games. For me? I'll keep on searching. Galactic Civilizations II - Dread Lords is a very good game of its type, the best I've played, and I'd recommend it to many, but it isn't for me. The fact it held my interest for a length of time is a testament of that, but for me strategy games need to have a better tactical feeling to it, not just cold hard numbers. One day, maybe they'll find a way to add this last missing feature to turn based games, until then I keep searching.