Reviewed: November 29, 2006
Released: October 16, 2006
Let me start by saying Space Empires V is the polar opposite of flashy sci-fi strategy titles like Supreme Commander, Star Wars: Empire At War or Star Trek: Legacy.
Don’t expect stunning graphics, movie franchise tie-ins, or simplified gameplay here. Space Empires V is all about complex space exploration and empire-building strategy, often to the point of tedium. This latest offering from Malfador Machinations and Strategy First is even more of a niche title than the Galactic Civilizations series.
The game also has a number of frustrating bugs, including the occasional hard crash during loading and problems with diplomacy and combat.
But I should also take a moment to recognize the success of the Space Empires franchise – the first Space Empires appeared in 1993 and the series has grown a cult following ever since. This means that Space Empires has been around 10 years longer than the Galactic Civilizations series and has even outlived the famed Master of Orion series.
Some of the game features Space Empires V offers are:
At heart Space Empires V is an old school 4X game – that is, explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. The decent tutorial got me started on the basics of touring the galaxy by starship and establishing colonies on alien worlds. But it’s not until I started my first campaign that I realized the dizzying number of choices available.
Whereas most strategy games force you to pick a side with preset strengths and weaknesses, Space Empires V allows you to customize your new empire down to what atmosphere your citizens breathe. Players can choose from a huge list of possible governments, societies, and racial bonuses/weaknesses. Will you play a collective led by peaceful insect traders, a corporation run by hardy humanoid industrialists, or a ruthless dictatorship commanded by reptilian berserkers?
There are so many choices in fact that it’s easy for new players to feel completely lost. I’m normally all for player choice and limitless customization. But the problem with Space Empires V is it’s darn near impossible to tell which racial bonus combinations could make you wildly successful and which could leave you in the ionic dust. At first I thought the “deeply religious” racial trait was only useful for keeping my populace happy. Little did I know this trait also offers impressive combat bonuses from the War Shrine and the Holy War totem!
In a second game, I took the Farming Ineptness racial weakness so I could have enough starting points to become a “propulsion expert.” What’s a little less food for way faster starships, right? But that -5 percent penalty in organics harvesting added up over time. Although I could reach distant stars faster than rival empires, I had trouble growing a large enough population to colonize new frontiers.
Sadly, the empire creation screen was not the last time I experienced the joys of learning from trial and error. Improving your empire at the planet level is pretty straightforward – you can build research centers to boost tech, space yards to build new ships, and facilities to extract and store organic, mineral, and radioactive resources. Building starships is a far more complicated matter. I did appreciate how I got to chose the exact locations of weapons and armor on the upper, middle, and lower decks of my cruisers and frigates.
But other aspects of ship design are just tedious – do I really need to micromanage where crew quarters and cargo bays fit in? Worse yet, it’s very easy to under power your ship with too few engines or forget important components like sensors. If the space simulator actually worked, I could test out designs in mock combat before actually wasting resources on them. But the simulator is bugged, as is the auto-build function that prompts the computer to handle the more mundane aspects of ship design.
As my first game progressed, I developed a love-hate relationship with the Space Empires interface. Some of the controls are simply clunky; for example, there’s no easy click-and-move function for ships. Instead, I had to pull up a detailed drop-down menu and select “Move To.” Other controls didn’t seem to work at all – the “Explore” function seemed to send ships on an aimless goose chase. But once I finally figured out all the controls for maneuvering ships, resupplying bases, and managing your planets, exploring the galaxy became pretty enjoyable.
By the way, the galaxy is absolutely HUGE in Space Empires V. Space ships must travel to warp points to visit other solar systems, and even small campaign maps seem endless. It’s actually quite a thrill to make first contact with an alien race after all those turns spent exploring the vast emptiness of space.
Let’s talk a little bit about the computer AI – first and foremost it’s tricky. Computer-controlled races love to offer you treaties that have more loopholes than a used car lease. You might think you’re signing an all-inclusive peace treaty – but the AI will think it’s perfectly ok to build mines around your homeworld because you never agreed to share minefield access codes. It also seems awfully hard to make peace with former AI enemies or keep the peace with warlike aliens – the only empires I maintained good relations with were docile traders by nature. I don’t mind a xenophobic empire not trusting me right off the bat, but I do wish there was some way to slowly but surely engage in trade and joint research without having to sign a no-win contract (see minefield exception clause 4.1.A).
However, I’d like to give praise to the Space Empires development team for coming out with the most detailed diplomacy system I have ever seen. I love being able to sign “non-aggression pacts” and set exact percentages for trade agreements. This diplomacy system seems a little wasted in single player but likely will be a blast in multiplayer games.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the updated combat system – unlike previous versions Space Empires V now offers real-time 3D space combat. The pacing can be frantic (though you can always pause) and there are plenty of tactical options ranging from launching missiles to deploying fighters to using such exotic weapons as the “enveloping acid globule.” Combat is a fun distraction from the more serious aspects of empire building, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the outcome of each fight was mostly decided beforehand. While I did occasionally lose a fight due to poor tactics or a bad ship design, victory or defeat seemed to be determined entirely by what side had the best tech or most ships. I would have preferred to occasionally win a fight through brilliant piloting/commanding even while outgunned and outnumbered.
Nobody really buys hardcore strategy titles for the looks, but Space Empires V is still a handsome game. The universe is absolutely gorgeous, especially when you focus in on stars and planets. The developers get bonus points for creating so many varied types of planets with wildly different looking surfaces. Space Empires V also has dozens of retro empire symbols that bring back great memories from the early Master of Orion series.
At the macro level, most of the ship models are very well done. It’s when you’re looking at ships up close or creating a new ship design that you realize the models are a bit lacking in detail. Combat is nicely animated but don’t expect the same cinematic flair of a Star Wars: Empire At War.
My only complaint has to do with the appearance of alien races. While racial portraits are certainly creative (there’s even a picture of a crystalline being that looks like the letter i), none of the aliens have a truly compelling look. There are also no live video sequences to give alien races more depth.
But minor quibbles aside, I was all-in-all pleased with the game’s appearance.
The game’s music has a pleasant futuristic sound. It’s a little repetitive but not in an annoying way. What I’m marking Space Empires V down for is lack of voice-acting. I never realized how integral voiceovers have become to setting a mood in strategy titles until I played a game without any. I firmly believe the tutorial would have been much easier to get through with an instructor giving verbal cues.
The interactions with alien races seem so one-dimensional without voiceovers. While I wasn’t expecting Leonard Nimoy to narrate, some decent narration on par with the Galactic Civilizations series would have been appreciated.
Even without some of the annoying bugs, Space Empires V would always appeal to only a subset of strategy fans. This is not necessarily a bad thing – I view this game to be in the same category as overly detailed flight or naval sims. Hardcore fans will love the complexity and myriad choices, while more casual gamers will likely feel overwhelmed. RTS fans who buy this game for the real-time space battles will likely be turned off by the slow pace of empire building.
That being said, the inclusion of a multiplayer mode should have ensured a value rating of 7 or 8. After all, I could see this game being a blast to play against real players, especially with the myriad options for diplomacy But what’s really holding the game back are the many bugs – some of which are show-stopping but most of which are merely annoying.
As it stands now, I can’t recommend Space Empires V at the current $40 price tag, but I can recommend it to hardcore strategy fans in a few months – provided the bugs are fixed and the cost drops into the $20 range.
As a sci fi fan, I really wanted to love Space Empires V. But I walk away with only a feeling of slight fondness. On one hand, the game’s retro feel took me back to a time when I had first discovered the 4X genre while playing Master of Orion and Alpha Centauri. I also appreciate the depth of the Space Empires technology and diplomacy game mechanics.
What turned me off was the sheer complexity of learning what works in the game, as well as the spotty game performance. But there is hope –according to the fan sites I visited, Malfador Machinations is pretty good about updating and patching past games in the Space Empires series. There’s also a dedicated fan community who have created mods for practically every major sci fi franchise, from Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica.
I plan to keep Space Empires V installed on my hard drive alongside upcoming A-list titles like Star Trek: Legacy. After all, every strategy fan needs a game that’s a little slower placed but offers so many complex choices.