A great addition to an fantastic game
Being a fan of 4x and Galactic Civilizations especially, I could not pass on the opportunity to experience Dark Avatar, the latest (at the time of this writing anyway) addition to the Stardock library.
Stardock is a rather independent software developer that makes all kinds of applications for the Windows environment, while endeavoring to create a few great gaming titles as well. Dark Avatar, which is the expansion for GalCiv II is no exception.
Veteran players can jump right into the action, as most of the changes are best experienced and learned through gameplay as opposed to reading the manual. At first glance, it might appear as if you're playing the same game. The early planet rush is still the same, the interface is the same, the game options are mostly the same. However, as the game progresses, new little details come up that have a profound impact on one's strategy and tactics.
I've heard others talk about this game, citing that the improvements are many, and even G4's X-Play review stated that the volume of new material is so vast that this product could have been a standalone sequel. I could not DISAGREE more. The volume of changes is in fact, quite small, but it is their implications that are vast. For example, say you were to add two new chess pieces to a game that had unique movements. The actual change or addition to the game itself is small, but the number of changes in how the game is played would be enormous. Dark Avatar is a lot like that.
Asteroid fields are one of these "chess pieces". You may now mine asteroids for manufacturing bonuses that can be directed towards neighboring colonies under your control. The manufacturing bonus provided here will allow for faster build times, which can be critical for jump starting your empire, or cranking out ships should your colony fall under an unexpected attack. This improvement is small, but it does change the way the game is played to an extent.
Espionage is another addition, where you may purchase agents to put on enemy colonies to spy and slow production by disabling certain planetary improvements. The counter to this is to produce agents of your own to nullify any enemy agents that might be on your colonies. The addition to the game is small and quite simple, but again it adds an entirely new strategical element to the gameplay.
Perhaps the most profound addition that comes with Dark Avatar is the ability to design and fine tune your opponents. The player is allowed to create a profile for his/her opponents, and then tweak their playstyle. Perhaps you'd like to populate your galaxy with militant AI that has a bonus to production, but perhaps is lacking in the diplomacy area. The possibilities are endless. While the average player may not take advantage of this feature much, the hardcore players will be absolutely delighted at the idea that they can create the exact gaming experience that they wish to have.
Another improvement is that the AI is probably the best in any game of any genre. In my review of GalCiv II, I mention the bone crunching capabilities of the AI. Well, the designers have made it even harder, so I expect that veteran players of GalCiv II will want to tone it down a notch when jumping into Dark Avatar. In any case, the AI is very thoughtful and often reacts like a human player. Rather than using numbers or cheats to overwhelm human counterparts (as is the case with most turn based and RTS games), the AI implements fantastic insight into the tough decisions that you force upon your enemies. For example, I was expanding my empire militarily and had a front line of offense spreading outwards. I was able to leave my inner planets undefended because no enemy ships would be able to penetrate my line of defense. The AI's response was to purchase a war ship from one of my allies that they were not at war with that happened to have ships on the inside of my circle, thereby being able to launch an attack on my undefended colonies. This is just one example of excellent strategy used by the AI.
There are plenty of new technologies and events that take place, as we'd expect in an expansion. The shipyard also has a few new extras for more exact customization of your ships. Furthermore, a lengthy campaign has been added.
It also appears that the occasional crash to desktop that I had with the original GalCiv II is no longer an issue.
System requirements are negligible. It will run on a P3 600 mhz with 128 mb RAM. To release a game today that runs on those specs is a testament to the confidence that the designers have in the content of this title.
Dark Avatar is great, probably as good as 4x gaming can get, but I can find fault if I look hard enough.
For one (and again as mentioned in my GalCiv II review) there is no multiplayer. Stardock also mentions that they have no intention of EVER adding multiplayer to the GalCiv II line. While multiplayer action would make this game absolutely legendary, it would be kind of impossible. The game is designed from the ground up to be single player, and a large section of the tech tree and other features such as AI customization would be a red herring in the face of multiplayer action, so I can forgive this.
The diplomacy is still a little flaky. Often it's too easy to get an opponent to do something like attack another player or trade a valuable technology with you, but having them give you a ship (even a worthless one) or a planet that you're about to destroy is like pulling teeth. The good is that weak races don't just roll over for you when you become very powerful as in GalCiv II, the bad is that the game gets exceedingly long as you mop up helpless colonies in the far reaches of the galaxy because the AI will not surrender.
A couple of times I've had a massive military starbase destroyed even though it won the fight against attacking ships. It's annoying when you've had a star base upgraded to the absolute maximum, which by the way takes a very, very long time only to lose it to a bug.
I have to fault the new campaign for being rather ho-hum and boring. Creating your own games allows for much more freedom and a higher level of complexity in gameplay.
The Bottom Line
It's difficult for me to give Dark Avatar a perfect score as I did with GalCiv II simply because it's not an entirely new experience, although it is a better experience. Nevertheless, there is something for all fans of the series here, from the casual player, to the artist, to the hardcore perfectionist.
The bottom line is that this title belongs in every strategy gamer's library.