Game Over Online ~ Space Empires IV

GameOver Game Reviews - Space Empires IV (c) Shrapnel Games, Reviewed by - Rorschach

Game & Publisher Space Empires IV (c) Shrapnel Games
System Requirements Windows, Pentium, 32MB Ram, 120MB HDD, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 57%
Date Published Friday, January 12th, 2001 at 08:07 AM

Divider Left By: Rorschach Divider Right

Those of you who read me on sort of a regular basis, know that back in grad school I lost more sleep to 4x games (mostly Master of Orion and Civilization) than I would care to admit. What you may not know is that I actually wrote a 4x game back then, based on changes that I wanted to make to Master of Orion, called Apocalypse Soon! It had no graphics whatsoever, showing at any time simply columns of numbers indicating production, expenses, population, fleet specs and so on. I learned several things from the experience. (1) You can never play a strategy game that you write, because the computer has, at best, the exact same understanding of the game as you do. You know your strengths and weaknesses, hence its strengths and weaknesses, and short of letting the computer cheat, you can beat it nearly every time give or take the luck of the initial planetary layout. (2) Writing a game, even one as bad as Apocalypse Soon! takes a really long time. If you try and do it in your spare time, you very quickly realize that you have no spare time to spare for anything else. (3) Almost nothing will take beer and crepe paper stains out of flannel pajamas.

So I kind of gave up on Apocalypse Soon!, but around the time that I was still kicking it around, a guy named Aaron Hall was kicking around a game called Space Empires which he actually managed to finish in 1993. From there he founded Malafador Machinations, and began on Space Empires 2, which finally saw the light of day in about 1995. Space Empires III followed in 1997, and here we are with Space Empires IV today. While SE3 was an order-over-the-internet affair, SE4 has been commercialized through an agreement with Shrapnel Games. There, that's the history lesson. As I play it, I can't help but think that SE4 is exactly the kind of game that Apocalypse Soon! would have turned out to be had I ever finished it. That's not necessarily a good thing. It represents the shining apex of the spreadsheet in space. If you are looking for edge of your seat action or stellar graphics, keep looking. If you are looking for a game that combines the thrill of an income tax form with the plodding attention to detail of an Oliver Stone movie, look no further. Don't get me wrong, this series has its fans - there are sites all over the web devoted to it - but I think they are far departed from your average game player, seeking a sort of intellectual exercise in space conquest and higher mathematics, rather than your typical visceral experience.

To prepare for this review, I played SE4 solidly for about 3 weeks. I never finished a single game. I once played SE3 for a couple of months - the key words in that sentence being 'once' and 'months' - I never finished a game of that one either. The first 40 games of SE4 that I played I aborted in the first 500 turns or so because I had discovered some new facet or some new approach to the game. That in part speaks to the incredible depth of this game, but it also in part speaks to the utter inadequacy of the manual and tutorial. If you have never played SE3, then I'm going to have a hell of a time describing SE4. If you've already played SE3, then SE4 is just like that, only more so.

You start a game by designing your race, or you can take one of the stock races available in the game. You also get to choose the starting bonuses and conditions of each race in the game, and the overall victory conditions for the game. I strongly recommend that newbies go with stock races and game conditions - the sheer number of knobs you can tweak is daunting, and you haven't even started playing the game yet. Once the game begins, like most 4x games, the game screen is split into a number of windows. They show the current galaxy, the characteristics of the sector of space in that galaxy you have highlighted (planet, star, wormhole, empty space, nebula, etc), the position of the galaxy in terms of the entire gaming universe, the current stats of your empire, and a whole mess of buttons for control. It is kind of overwhelming, but the icons on the buttons make a certain perverse sense, and the game is completely turn based, so you can take all day to figure out what you want to do on your turn, and you just might need to. What can you do on your turn? Plenty. Allocate construction resources on every single planet in your empire (which can number into the hundreds) to build ships or planet facilities. Plan what your research will concentrate on. Give orders to the ships in your fleet (which can number into the hundreds easily). Work on diplomacy with alien species that you have encountered. Monitor the happiness level of your citizenry (You wouldn't want a revolt on your hands, would you?). Examine newly explored galaxies for habitable planets and alien occupation. Design and begin construction on new ship types. Mothball or retrofit ship designs that use antiquated technologies. You can construct an entire planet if you possess the advanced technologies necessary to do so! And on and on and on. There are ministers (computer controlled decision makers) that can do much of this for you with a certain level of competency, but they're going to do things differently than you would, and you're going to want to check them frequently to see what they are doing. Hundreds of technologies to research, an infinite number of possible ship designs, dozens of facilities, and throw that in with a couple of hundred planets (not to mention asteroid fields that can be mined), and you're just starting to get an idea of the information overload that will greet you in SE4. Still with me?

Finish your turn and the computer players go, and they go pretty quickly, then it's back to you. You start your next turn with a log of what was accomplished in the previous turn, which is good because with turns taking so long you can forget a lot of the stuff you did. Then you are back to the grind. Each turn represents 1/10th of a year. Building a big ship can take 2 or 3 years, depending on the level of your space construction facilities. Developing an advanced technology can take 10 or 15 years, depending on the research output of your empire. I'm trying to get across to you that you're looking at lots and lots of turns. Zip! I've played 6 hours, 140 turns, and I still haven't developed gas giant colony technology or completed my fleet of 10 dreadnoughts. And I'm verily flying through these turns, each turn realizing stuff I forgot to do in the previous turns. I've got idle ships awaiting new orders. I've got idle construction sites awaiting new projects. I suspect if I did ever actually complete a game I would probably lose just because of carelessness. I've got other things on my mind, the computer doesn't, and it doesn't get bored. Quite to the contrary, my computer gets hot flashes when my Quicken checkbook balances.

Graphically, I would have called SE3 the absolute bare minimum necessary to get the ideas across. A ship looked like a ship, a planet like a planet, a wormhole like a wormhole. What's one notch above that? That would be SE4. Graphics are tile-based, and there are complete instructions with the game on how to modify the necessary files to include your own personal tile set. There are SE3 web sites devoted to alternate tile sets that people have made up. While they don't exist yet for SE4, I trust they will. Sound effects likewise - bare minimum. No one's surround sound system is going to get a work out from this one.

The game has one glaring hole that has to disappoint everyone who plays it, even long standing fans of the series, and that is the combat system. If you're making hundreds of ships in a fleet, eventually you're going to run into another civilization and conflict might erupt, right? Wonder then the designers still have not designed an appropriate system for combat even now, 4 iterations into the series. In SE3 the combat system was a turn-based affair with a single combat capable of taking an hour or more depending on how many ships are involved. You could let the computer run through the combat more quickly, but the computer was stupid and would frequently get your ships needlessly destroyed. Play it through yourself and take a few mind-numbing hours, or let the computer run through it and lose a few ships. A difficult choice, but to a generally warlike 4x player like myself, it could easily mean the difference between victory and defeat. SE4 hasn't improved much, though they do now have a statistical combat computer available, which can figure the odds and calculate the outcome of the battle instantly. Extremely quick, but far from painless as it still can cost you ships you might not otherwise lose if you go through the gritty chore of running the combat yourself.

As I look at the progression of the series (I've seen SE2, and now played both SE3 and SE4), the designers theme seems to be add more - more units, more race characteristics, more technologies, more options, more stuff. Unless you are aware of what you are getting yourself into, this game will soundly wallop you with a frying pan of plenty. But somewhere along the line I wish they had managed to inject more fun. Continuing fans of the series will have decades of fun with this one, but people who aren't thrilled by the description of the gameplay above (and I think I've done a pretty good job of capturing the flavor if not the actual mechanics of the game), might want to look elsewhere for their 4x jollies.

One Final Note: if any of this has peaked your interest, and I'm certainly all for supporting small, independent game houses, go to their web site ( and give their fully playable demo a shake. It costs you nothing, and as it caps the number of turns in a game to 100, it is still good for a couple of hours of play. Certainly more than your usual demo.

On a last note, fans of the series should add 30% onto the final rating.

[ 25/50 ] Gameplay
[ 06/10 ] Controls
[ 04/10 ] Graphics
[ 03/10 ] Sound
[ 10/10 ] Replayability
[ 09/10 ] Bugs


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