Space Empires IV Gold Review
Developer: Malfador Machinations
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium Processor, 32 MB RAM, 120 MB HD space, the ability to display a minimum 800 x 600 resolution
Space Empires IV Gold is the latest iteration of the turn-based space strategy game Space Empires, which made its debut in 1993. Self-consciously designed in the mold of games like Master of Orion, Space Empires offers to take you further, deeper. Starting from your own little corner of the galaxy, you explore, expand, exploit and exterminate your way to galactic supremacy. This "Gold" version includes the latest upgrades to Space Empires IV, a new manual, some mods, and a mod toolkit. The game may be purchased directly from Shrapnel Games.
Rob de los Reyes
Although more mainstream than most titles published by Shrapnel Games, Space Empires IV Gold (SE IV Gold) nevertheless finds itself in the simultaneously pleasant and frustrating position of being a "niche" game. On the one hand, all developers (and publishers) must dream of selling millions of copies in the mass market – but the mass market is fickle and merciless. On the other hand, a well-designed niche game has the comfort of knowing it will never be without a friendly fan base. The fan base for the Space Empires franchise is decidedly friendly to its game of choice. So friendly are they, that Shrapnel Games decided that their copious comments and mod work merited a bit of a re-release, hence Space Empires IV Gold.
SE IV Gold is part of the 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) line of games whose most famous space-themed representative is the Master of Orion series. Like these titles, SE IV Gold is a turn-based strategy and resource management game. What SE IV Gold lacks in comparison to the big names 4X games is exactly what you'd expect from an independent title – a big budget. Absent a big budget, a developer has two choices: do the best you can to keep up with the big boys, or do some triage on the "bells and whistles" and focus on gameplay. It's a tough choice, and it's never cost-free.
To the extent the choice had to be made, SE IV Gold makes the right choice. Here's what it boils down to: SE IV Gold sacrifices contemporary graphics, animation, sound and music in favor of creating one of the deeper, most highly customizable games in its genre. There is almost no feature in SE IV Gold, either substantive or cosmetic, that cannot be tweaked, toggled, reshaped, restructured, reprogrammed, swapped, switched or otherwise altered to suit your tastes. Heck, the manual includes a dozen pages of instruction on modding. Moreover, most game functions can be achieved via two or three redundant methods, so you can choose your favorite. Myriad predesigned alien races are available for play, each with its own substantial list of special traits and abilities. In keeping with the theme, of course, you are free to ignore the predesigned species and create your own by customizing abilities, strengths, weaknesses and art. Still more, ships are designed by the player from the hull up. The detailed ship creation lets you construct ships for roles as varied as asteroid miner, resupply vessel, fighter carrier, attack drone and more familiar attack ships and troop transports. The list goes on.
Unfortunately, what starts as a pleasing – if daunting – level of complexity rather quickly bogs down as your empire grows. For example, planets have a limited number of slots in which to construct buildings. Once those slots are filled, there may be nothing left to do with that planet until a new technology is developed that prompts the building of a different structure. The problem is that you have no way to indicate in a menu view whether a particular planet lies fallow because it's full or because you forgot to give it new orders. Once your empire numbers eight or ten worlds, you find yourself checking every planet over and over to make sure you haven't forgotten something. It is possible to set ministers to take care of many functions, but like everything in Space Empires IV, that process is both extremely customizable and extremely complex. It would be nice to have a simple button, graphic or capital letter showing that the planet is full. The same confusion arises in building planetary defenses. There is no indication in the main system map to let you know the full extent of planetary defenses, and that information doesn't seem to be collected in an empire-at-a-glance menu either. Once again, you find yourself clicking the same planet over and over, just to make sure.
And that, in a nutshell, is why SE IV Gold lingers in "niche" territory. For most of us, more complicated does not automatically equal better. Hard-core micromanagers may be willing to risk getting stuck in a quagmire in order to shape their empires with just that much more individual flair, but the rest of us might wish for a bit of standardization. In addition, the "bells and whistles" seem to have been sacrificed rather more extensively than they probably needed to be. Such artwork as there is in the game is actually quite attractive. Ships and alien races are cleverly conceived and drawn. System-spanning black holes are rather impressive to behold. But would it have been terribly difficult to add just 3 or 4 more pictures to the original black hole image in order to achieve a basic "spinning" animation? SE IV Gold's system requirements are extraordinarily low, and I can't help but think that the game could have avoided much of its static feel with little cost to system strain.
All that said, SE IV Gold's extensive customization options allow a passionate and very persistent (or just plain stubborn) gamer with no programming skills to create a universe that meets their every specification. If you've desperately been waiting to play a 4X game set in the galaxy of your fantasies, or perhaps an existing world such as Babylon 5 or Star Trek, you can create enough of that universe to make a playable game upon which you can hang your imagination. For that matter, if what interests you is an existing universe, someone else has probably already created such a mod for your downloading pleasure. The game also contains decent multiplayer support so you can share your labor of love with your friends.
In any event, for full price, you just want more. There's a game here, but, for all but the most dedicated, that game risks being lost in the spreadsheet. There's nevertheless enough fun here that, at an appropriately discounted price, SE IV Gold becomes that game you keep around in case you need something to run on a laptop or when forced to spend a week's visit with a relative who owns a low-end desktop rig.