Space Empires V Review
By Jimmy Goldstein |
For more than a decade the Space Empires series has been offering gamers a detailed and complex version of the classic 4X model (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Extreminate). Players take charge of an entire alien race, using the resources and scientists of their homeworld to discover new technologies and construct powerful spaceships to colonize new worlds. Naturally, other civilizations are trying to do the same thing and you'll have to choose whether to defeat them through trade, diplomacy or all-out war. The basic pattern hasn't changed much over the years but that hasn't stopped the genre's main franchises from offering slight improvements to the overall model.
Space Empires V is probably the most open-ended and variable 4X game we've ever played. In some ways, that's a revelation, giving players exactly the kinds of imaginative options they've wanted for years, particularly with regard to often neglected areas like ship design and diplomacy. In other ways, this unrestricted depth is a total disaster, burying the player under layers of pointless micromanagement with no clear benefit. Add to that some serious problems in the presentation and stability of the game and you'll have to force yourself to love the game in spite of its faults.
Setting up a game gives you a good taste of the hours that lay ahead. Rather than relying on stock races that have been designed for drama and balanced for playability, Space Empires V asks players to design their race from scratch. You'll also have to select from a wide range of game options that control everything from victory conditions to the state of the galaxies you'll be playing over. While these types of decisions aren't unusual for the genre, the level of detail that Space Empires V presents requires lots of very specific choices from the player.
Unfortunately, Space Empires V asks you to make a lot of these choices right away without giving you any indication at all as to whether or not they might be useful or fun. Do you want to waste half your racial bonus in order to unlock new research options in the area of religion? The only way to find out any of these answers is play the game and see for yourself. Even then, it can sometimes be a bit counterintuitive. The religious path leads to some truly remarkable military advantages. We don't mind a little mystery or surprise, of course, but the game really throws you in the deep end without so much as a pair of water wings.
This shortcoming becomes a habit with Space Empires V. We appreciate the open-ended ship design feature, for instance, but it seems needlessly complicated that we have to worry about the specific placement of life support systems. We wouldn't even mind the intricate, thoughtful placement of external items like engines, armor and weapons, if any of our choices actually had an impact on the ship's performance or appearance. As it is, you can just cram everything wherever you like and not have it make a single difference.
Players who are looking for a basic colony ship or a simple long-range scout will have to design them from scratch. Where there are plenty of meaningful (and occasionally) confusing choices for the larger ships, it would be great if the game included generic versions to give players an idea of how these larger ships should be put together. You can turn to the manual but this only provides general information.
The tutorial starts out very well but seems to stop short before explaining some of the key features. We appreciate being told how to build new ships or how to allocate research priorities but we'd really like to know at least something about diplomacy and planetary invasion as well. The fact that the twenty-minute tutorial completely ignores these and other essential topics is just dumb.
It's especially regrettable with regard to diplomacy. We've never seen an empire game that offers as much freedom and flexibility with regard to your dealings with other races. Rather than offering generic alliances and non-aggression pacts, Space Empires V lets players select from a seemingly endless list of options when defining inter-alien relationships. You might opt to limit scientific research, or share secret intelligence (but not super-secret), or use each other's bases to resupply fleets, or reveal the location of minefields or cloaked ships. You can also set the voting rights for each alliance (whether by colony number or population), determine the ratio of votes needed to pass a measure and even decide beforehand what types of things you and your allies will be able to vote for and at what frequency. There's really no end to the types of contracts you can set up here.