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Space Empires IV (PC) artwork

Space Empires IV (PC) review

"If you're the type of person who would look at a title like "Space Empires IV" and think, "O GAWD how lame! I'm not playing THAT!", then you, sir, are missing out. If you are, then you might also be the type of person who would look at a review like "Don't judge a book by its cover" and think "O GAWD how lame! I'm not reading THAT!", and...oh. Nuts. "

If you're the type of person who would look at a title like "Space Empires IV" and think, "O GAWD how lame! I'm not playing THAT!", then you, sir, are missing out. If you are, then you might also be the type of person who would look at a review like "Don't judge a book by its cover" and think "O GAWD how lame! I'm not reading THAT!", and...oh. Nuts.

But I digress.

There's a vastly neglected niche in the video game market, a niche that has produced wonderful games like Master of Orion, Star Trek: Birth of the Federation, Hegemonia, and others. That niche is a subcategory of the "4X" genre(standing for Expand, Explore, Exploit, Exterminate), the Galactic Empire subgenre, of which Space Empires IV is one of the most recent, and one of the better additions.

Space Empires IV quickly distinguishes itself from the competition by the sheer amount of control the player is granted over his empire. Even beginning a game is no small task; the pregame screen is filled with checkboxes and radio buttons with options controlling the size and makeup of the galaxy, the number of players, cost of new technologies, forbidden research, victory conditions...the list goes on. A completely seperate menu is devoted to empire creation. Again, nearly every aspect is customizable, be it name, culture type, research ability, ground and space combat, covert operations, environmental tolerance...

It's easy to ramble on and on about all the options available, and we haven't even begun the game yet!

One could always bypass this stage through the "quick start" menu option and use a premade empire, but I wouldn't recommend it. There's something satisfying about playing an empire created to your exact specifications. But my opinion is not shared by all, and SEIV's level of complexity, even at such an early stage, is enough to turn off many prospective players. Let's hope you're not the impatient type and move on.

After you've spent five minutes to half an hour creating your game, it can at last begin. Now at the throne of your galactic empire, you will again encounter such complexity of customization that it's easy to lose an hour studying all the technologies available or soon to be available. Thankfully, SEIV is turn-based; were it not, micromanagement even in the early stages of a game would be neigh impossible.

And there is a lot of micromanagement, if you haven't already got that picture. You are expected to custom-build starships, ground troops, satellites, and all manner of devices you will use to wage war. You must expand through the galaxy and colonize new worlds, building up their infrastructure and making decisions as you do. Will your new colony generate research or resources? Build colony ships or warships? Explorers or constructors? At every turn you will face decisions that could break your game unless you know what you're doing.

Yes, many a player's first games of SEIV will end in frustration as some error they made complicates things and leads to their demise. This, too, is enough to turn off many prospective players, but let's hope you're not easily discouraged and move on.

If you aren't disheartened by repeated failure, (and you will fail), you will learn, through many screwups and false starts, which technologies are good for what, when to research them, when to expand and when to develop, and why some starship designs are just better than others. Once you've done that, you will learn to love SEIV. You will learn to deal with all of the menus and buttons at your dispoal, and to thank Malfador Machinations for letting you turn over aspects of your empire to AI "Ministers".

Something about Space Empires IV makes it feel almost as though you are actually commanding a sprawling interstellar empire. Perhaps it is the amount of time you will spend on a session once it gets going. A good game of SEIV lasts for a few hundred turns, which, assuming a few hours a day, works out to be the better part of a month (sometimes even longer ). A lot of this is due to the size of the game, and it is truly massive.

For a modest-sized empire, it may take half an hour to issue orders to all of your fleets. It could take another half to start construction projects on all of your colonies. But because you're spending so much time in this game, you soon find yourself sucked in, and when you are finally dragged away you always come back for more. Even when not playing, when you're in class or at work or driving to the store, your thoughts inevitably turn to that game you have running. You consider design options, policies, and battle tactics. You may become obsessed. You might start writing down ship designs on restaurant napkins. You may forget to go to work, or to class, or to eat. Your single concern will become what you will do on your next turn. You may become addicted. Be warned.

It bears mentioning, too, that all of the game's data files are in easily-to-read .txt files, making Space Empires IV a strong contender for the most easily moddable video game in the history of video games. Countless mods have sprung up, toting new technologies, different balancing, and in rare cases new game features. But there are limits. Though SEIV is highly moddable, some mechanics are hard-coded. To the average player this is a nonissue. Indeed, even to most modders it's only a minor annoyance.

But there is a dark side to Space Empires IV. Total control of your empire, while refreshing, atmospheric, enjoyable, and certainly a necessity of any empire-mamagement title, can sometimes become tedious. It can be a pain to upgrade all your ship designs with the latest technology, moreso to bring your ships back from the furthest reaches of your space and retrofit them in the nearest shipyard. Some individuals manage. But in a culture that leans increasingly towards simplicity, instant gratification, and five rather than thirty second sound bites, Space Empires IV has not exploded onto the gaming scene. While some may have become frustrated with even the limited demo, most have never heard of it, and would not be interested anyway.

And then there are the asthetic things, the pretty graphics, the catchy music, the exciting sound effects. SEIV has none of these. It is strictly two-dimensional, painting flat yet detailed sprites onto an equally flat yet detailed backdrop. Music and sound, due to the formats they both use, are mutually exclusive, and neither is particularly noteworthy. But, while these may be critical flaws in other games, they are vastly overshadowed by solid, addictive, deep gameplay. Besides, the sort of people who place value on these things are not the sort of people who would like this game anyway.

If you're still reading this review, then you are not the sort of sap who would be put off by SEIV's complexity and turn-based nature, or its lack of pretty graphics. Seek out this little-known strategy title, and you will not be dissapointed.

RECOMMENDED FOR: Strategy nuts, science fiction fans, and people who like games that make them think
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Mainstream western society

WilltheGreat's avatar
Community review by WilltheGreat (August 09, 2006)

Will is grumpy, sarcastic and Canadian. He occasionally crawls out of his igloo to cover sci-fi and strategy games. Has a love-hate relationship with cats. And the colour purple.

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