Sins of a Solar Empire was the last masterpiece published by Stardock and they have not rested on their laurels. Concurrently while Ironclad was putting the finishing touches on Sins of a Solar Empire, Stardock was putting the pieces together for another expansion for Galactic Civilizations 2. Entitled Twilight of Arnor, Stardock has not only added more content to an already amazing game, but upped the bar on what an expansion should contain.

So, what is this content that I am raving about? Well, every race has their own unique tech tree with flavor text designed to give you a look into the way the race functions. The graphics have received a face lift and now use LESS of the computer’s resources to accomplish much more. The choice to create your own tech tree from scratch coupled with the ability to create your own (which isn’t new per se) allows limitless combinations of gameplay. Also, who doesn’t love star destroying platforms of epic carnage (or Terror Stars as they are called)? This is only scratching the surface on what has been added to the game. Lets not forget the 5 star support that Stardock provides for their games after they have been released. The fans ranted that they wanted an option to zoom to the cursor and it was added in a subsequent patch.

To give life to this game, I am running Windows Vista Ultimate 64bit, 5 gigs of RAM, a Q6600 processor, and using a X-Fi audio card.

Galactic Civilizations 2 (from now on I will call it GalCiv2 to keep it short and sweet) wasn’t an ugly game. The planets on the main map each had their own unique look and the races each had their own design. With the advent of Twilight of Arnor, we see that Brad Wardell and crew actually improved immensely upon their engine. Planets are more detailed, ships now have moving parts that set them apart from any other ships that your friends might design, and the graphics engine now uses less resources to look better. You heard that right, thanks to the development team improving the code, it is possible for people with some older rigs to enjoy some of the prettier settings in the game.

The usual space opera type music is standard fare in this game, but what other kind of music would you you add to a 4X space game? The music itself changes depending on if you are in battle or just supervising your colonies from the birds eye view. The sound effects also seem right at home in the Galactic Civilization universe, and as lasers and missiles zing around the battleground, a player can’t help but feel a shiver snake down their spine. The good news is that the music fits the game’s genre…and what more could you want?

GalCiv2 takes heavy advantage of both the keyboard and the mouse (as any PC game should). The learning curve that is present to learn all of the ins and outs of the controls is at first daunting, but after a while, it becomes second nature. I personally used the mouse for most of my interaction with the game, but if I had used some shortcut keys, I would have definitely shaved some time off of more mundane tasks. One of my favorite features, even though it was added via a patch, was the ability to turn on the function “Zoom to cursor”. This makes it indefinitely easier zooming around the universe and getting close to the action when needed or zooming further out to see the whole empire. The bottom line is that once the controls have been mastered through a little bit of practice, information can be accessed at your fingertips.

There are few games that consume me as much as this expansion has. The addictive “just one more turn” quality is downright deadly as I attempt to fight to get this review finished and out to the public. The question, though, is what makes people so drawn towards turn-based strategy games that convert four hours of time into what seems like thirty minutes? The fact is that if you aren’t drawn to turn-based strategy games, this game will be about as enjoyable as getting a kidney shot from a rogue (or from a friend if you don’t play WoW). If this is your cup of tea, read on…

One of the first new improvements is the Terror Star. Imagine the Death Star. It can destroy planets, right? Well, now imagine if the Death Star could destroy whole solar systems by detonating their core star. This gives you a rough idea of what a terror star is capable of. To actually reach this pinnacle of technology, a lot of research will have to go into the subject, possibly crippling you in other areas. The concept of the terror star does sound good if you hype it up, but it definitely does not deliver. Since I personally sort of stink at this game (I play on easy) I got lucky when I constructed my first Terror Star. I was also able to slowly (one parsec = one little square) inch it towards a star. At first I thought it destroys planets and it took me the loss of one of these to try a different approach (possibly reading the manual would help) that consisted of bringing it to a star and detonating one of those instead. It worked…and everyone in the galaxy hated me, declared war on me, and the rest is history. Also, lets not forget that if everyone votes to outlaw these lumbering monstrosities via the council meeting, you cannot even construct one.

Another improvement that added a lot of depth to the game is the ability to create your own custom tech trees. Just go into to the editor and create one to your heart’s desire. Marry it with the ability to create custom races and you have infinite replayability out of the box.

One new path to victory was added and can be disabled if so desired: the path to ascension. There are now ascension crystals scattered throughout the universe that start a countdown to victory. It starts at 1000 with one crystal and is halved with every crystal you build a space station upon. The thing is, the more you control and the closer you get to an ascension victory, the more pissed off all the races become towards you. After a while, the whole universe comes rampaging after you attempting to destroy your victory. If you succeed, you can just point and laugh at the losers though!

With the unique tech trees and races come a variety of ships and cool background stories that definitely add to the character of the game. My personal favorite race are the Thalans, who until recently, were horribly bugged. The Thalans came from the future to attempt to right a horrible wrong the humans might commit in the past and bring back some of their super-powerful technology with them. Too bad they didn’t bring all their knowledge back, so they have to begin their research with some basic principles and work their way up to a superpower late game. One problem is that early game, they cannot expand as quickly as some of the other races and seemingly build up a small area with wickedly strong base stations. This is where the before mentioned bug comes into play though: until a little while ago, you weren’t able to research the first level of space station weapons therefore barring the player from hitting the rest of the research tree in that subject. You had super defenses but no way of attacking back. Luckily this was fixed in a short time. The point I am trying to get across is that every race is now unique and not a carbon copy of each other with some stat differences.

The campaign in Twilight of Arnor follows the conclusion of the Dread Lord trilogy. As always, set skirmish maps are tied together with a little bit of text and cutscenes and allow the player to learn a little history about the involved races. Just as with the previous iterations, the campaign is not the strong point of this type of game. The open skirmish modes is where the fun is at. Sadly, there is still no multiplayer present, but you can upload our victory points to a galactic conquest map to enable some online bragging rights

Even if you have to purchase the original GalCiv2, the Dread Lord expansion, and Twilight of Arnor (which you will have to if you want to play Twilight of Arnor), this game is worth the money you are spending on it. With Stardock’s awesome support of their released games, the pure joy in creating new races and technology trees, and the inherent addictiveness of this digital crack, this is one game you will not put down for some time. Due to the plethora of different races and the customization options available, it will be hard to experience all that the game has to offer in a short time. Lets not forget that when creating gigantic galaxies, some of the games will take days to weeks to complete if you don’t sit in front of the game 24/7.

Due to the game’s amazing AI, multiplayer will not be sorely missed, but it makes you wonder how the gameplay would change if the element of a human mind were to be added to the mix. I would love to see this feature added somewhere along the way, but I would dread to see the balancing challenges that would be present with such an endeavor.

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