This post is meant as a form of constructive criticism which may lead to possible improvements in the future. I hope this somewhat longish post finds a critical reader (particularly among the Stardock staff, whose attention to these forums I cherish) who takes what I have to say seriously (even if much of it be mistaken and poorly formulated), since I dearly hope this is far from a "whine".
With that in mind, let me get right into media res:
The main reason I will not be purchasing an expansion under current circumstances and preview information is that GC2 – despite my initial excitement and my continued appreciation of the very sympathetic and devoted nature of the Stardock Dev Team – has failed to capture my lasting interest for the following reasons, some of which could be (but which, so far as I can see, have not yet been) addressed in future developments:
- The main weakness seems to be in too few strategic variances about which one must continually make decisions. I will briefly address this issue under the keywords "map / playfield", "nation-building", "unit-building", and "tech-tree":
- While the "space"-oriented setting demands by nature a stark, sparse board or playfield which lacks important elements in other 4X games – most notably: chokepoints, strategic centers, etc. – GC2 does not make up for this by offering lasting workarounds such as jump-points, permanent wormholes, "lanes", or other "artificial" strategic elements sometimes found in other space 4X games. For me, this decreases its replayability level, since almost all maps tend to look and feel identical over time. This also weakens a key element in strategy conquest games, namely choices to be made over key strategic elements; in GC2, it doesn’t really matter *where* you build, develop, place or defend units or colonies, only *how much*. Fewer strategic choices at this macro-level means, for me, less challenge and replay fun.
This could be addressed by adding (customizable) features to induce strategic decision-making, such as movement enhancers or inhibitors ("asteroid fields"), new techs which allow a player to exploit these strategic playfield modulators, and race or nation statistics which yield bonuses or penalties in certain types of "terrain" (one could call it "radiation level" or something equivalent) as well as new techs which allow for (other) races to exploit these terrains to various degrees.
- Whereas the early game (x-pansion) is, of course, usually exciting (any 4X game which fails here would be doomed, of course), I find my excitement often drops quickly about 20 to 40 turns after the initial colonies have been settled (once the early mid-game opens, or when it comes time to exploit what you have gained). In some games, I only get about 3 colonies before there are no others left to be taken without force of some sort. But even with double that amount, the usable area on a colony is soon used up, and hence the number of interesting choices I have to make during a turn are reduced. After the midgame, I often simply find myself hitting the return button again and again, churning out either constructors or warships. Producing constructors or warships are the only things one has to produce, and this becomes less exciting over time.
- Much like the Firaxis "Civilization" series, the Civs in GC2 hardly differ from one another except by the (admittedly very well done!) personality. While this is a mistake in the Firaxis franchise (since that game has premade "units" to buy: there is no excuse to not having more uniqueness), this is integral to the GC2 system. GC2 doesn’t have any units to buy, since the player creates her units during play. True variety found in other types of strategy games (e.g. Warcraft III, Dominions 2, Sword of the Stars – even if some of these games are not so hot) come about by having real weaknesses and advantages in their recruitable units.
But unfortunately, there isn’t really much variety here. You can choose from 3 types of guns and 3 types of armor, and you may make lots of fun cosmetic changes to your ships – I liked that very much for about a month. Then I found the lack of true strategic choice limiting. This could be addressed in an expansion somewhat by attempting to introduce radical changes in the tech tree at some point – radically different features that change how some game mechanics work. (Some features could include: armor piercing, warp-jumping, stealth / cloaking, disease, fear or routing, etc.)
Basically, the lack of choices in building my colonies combined with what seems like a lack of choices in building units makes the mid- to late-game (for me) not as fun as I would have imagined.
- Part of the above-mentioned problems arise from the static nature of the tech tree. I would have found a more robust and flexible tech tree to be more interesting. This would allow for more interesting decisions and choices which affect future choices. Instead, I feel that the tech tree – while large and imposing – is not so much an interestingly intertwined tree as a series of 16 or so discrete shops: you go to the gun library to research guns, to the fun library to research morale, to the armor library to research armor, etc. While straightforward, it lacks enchantment, surprise, and flexibility. While the tech tree in Civilization is only marginally better, good examples of interesting and surprising tech-trees can be found (the system of Dominions 2 works surprisingly well, for instance). I posted some examples for different kinds of techs above.
- Balance: I usually play against the "crippling" AI – unless in the game before my starting planet had either a large number of "bonus tiles" or one of those precursor bonus tiles to production (the one that gives 700%). Before I realised how important that was, I usually started my next game against masochistic – until now I simply restart the game. If I find one of those tiles on my first colonized planets, I also have to restart, because the challenge level sinks asymptotically. A 700% production bonus equals 6 free tiles immediately filled, and since anyone can purchase a starting factory for 438bc (and you have 5000), there is no reason not to exploit this. This feature needs to be changed so that players may have the chance to determine the level and frequency of bonus squares, as well as the level of starting money as a handicap (both for human player and AI).
Starting location also has a massive impact on future game outcome. While true for any 4X game, this seems exacerbated in GC2 because of the above-mentioned featurelessness of the map / playfield. (Other 4X games seem to be able to make up for this shortcoming by having inherent features in the map which make a very quick normative assessment of the map nearly impossible.)
The early game remains challenging and fun for me, because this is also the time in which my economy needs tending. I am often in debt after rushing to get out 2 additional colonies, and I need time to rebalance that. But once I have my first trade routes up and the mid-game gets under way, I can ignore my economic worries altogether: My spending slider is always at the maximum and I always have more than enough money for anything. Besides, I can only spend it on ships once all of my colonies are up and running – and a few improvements every so many years. It is too bad that there is no other money-sink.
Also, the way the tech tree is currently set up, it is far too easy to obtain nearly invulnerable starbases early on (with one tech you can have a 15-defense 22-attack starbase with only 9 constructors, something no early-game ship can take out, while with 2 or 3 techs they become untouchable to all but the very poor tactical AI decision-maker who insists (even at crippling AI) upon attacking things it cannot hope to defeat), while they become sitting ducks later on. The starbase tech could be split off into very different tech trees of the weapons variety instead of being bunched up together.
Otherwise, I have found that I must turn off Diplomacy victory (much too easy) and Influence victory (also too easy), which is a shame, since I really like the idea of different victory conditions. Work on balancing these must be done, it seems to me. (Concrete suggestion for balancing Diplomacy: In addition to being allied with all the remaining civs, these civs must also vote once per United Planet meeting to agree upon a President; your nation must win this vote to gain a Diplomatic Victory.) (Concrete suggestion for Influence victory: Reintroduce cost to each influence starbase module, but vastly increase the cost of higher-level influence modules.)
- While there still remain a number of interface issues that will certainly be optimized in the future, I think the last missing element to gain the attention and love of people such as myself would be the inclusion of more (and more significant) events which break up the otherwise rigid moving-about of the ship units. The United Planets council is a very nice touch, although I rarely find its decisions or its influence even halfway significant. The random events which seems to occur very infrequently are also most satisfying (such as: Fundamentalists taking over some evil planets). It would be most interesting to introduce some elements like Leaders or unique units which have some factor on production, combat or movement.
So to sum things up: While I really enjoyed playing quite a few games of GC2, I have found that my interested has ebbed quite a bit – in fact, much more intensively than in any other good game that I have played before. Yes, I think GC2 is a good game, and I have rarely seen a more devoted, pleasant, helpful and creative staff. (Which is one of the reasons why I have always given GC2 better reviews than Firaxis products.) Its replayability, however, is too limited for me because of lack of decision-making once the early game is over. I find myself hitting the turn button again and again, and no longer find ship-building as enjoyable as I did in my first 10 or 15 games. While I realise that this is a unique feature of the game that is justifiably praised and captivating for many users, this is not something whose costly expansion I would wish to see in future products.
Thank you very much for listening and for your constructive replies.