Voice Module








In Memory
Sean Pettibone








Strategy titles have occupied a solid niche for the past few years though the fanbase for these types of games are small, several publishers have done well by catering to this loyal cadre. Shrapnel Games seems to be one of these developers, with well-received recent releases such as The War Engine and Runesword II making quite an impression on gamers. Now, Shrapnel and developers Malfador Mechanations have come out with Space Empires IV Gold, one of the most polished and sophisticated RPGís theyíve released to date. Join The Laser as we examine this title and see what makes it so appealing.

Space Empires IV Gold is the latest in a long-running and popular series of RPGís begun in 1993, and with several key additions is probably the best in the series so far. What makes SEIV so appealing is that while other titles focus on a single aspect, such as building a society or attacking opponents, this game allows you to play god and oversee virtually every aspect of an empire. You canít help but be impressed by the sheer magnitude of a game like Space Empires IV Gold, and the polish and sophisticated programming thatís gone into it. While the graphics are impressive for the genre, this is at its heart, a classic 4X strategy title (explore, expand, exploit & exterminate,) allows you to oversee every aspect of your empire from production of minerals, to research and development, diplomatic relationships plus the usual exploration modes. This makes for an interesting mix of tasks, and theyíre all interconnected meaning that your actions in one area will have a direct impact in another. The layers of strategy in the game are massive, but thatís the reason why these types of games are so appealing.

SEIVís gameplay seems a bit imposing at first, but when you divide the missions or turns, itís not as difficult as it might initially seem. An excellent tutorial is included to help you along in the game, as well as a nicely written, extensive manual. As the game begins, you select which race you are going to play as which is important because each race has their own strengths and weaknesses. You begin with a lowly single planet at your disposal. The first task you need to complete is to construct an exploratory space ship. These are called designs. The next task is to explore other worlds in the galaxy. Once the exploration is complete, you can colonize the planets with more ships, though some planets have environments that are more or less compatible with your species. A hostile world can be mined for resources, but the population is limited which makes production on these worlds more difficult. The empire-building process takes a few turns which makes the initial steps in the game seem a little slow, but things pick up rapidly once you venture out into the cosmos. After these initial steps are complete, you can then focus on other tasks. These include making more ships for your arsenal, as well as researching and constructing different types of vehicles for combat missions and other tasks that lie ahead. Resource management is something you also need to keep an eye on, because youíll need a good balance and some extra resources at the ready if you come under attack. In addition, you also need to build and maintain an infrastructure that will be able to support your empire which means youíll have to build many items.

Managing ship production and research is time consuming but these are two extremely important phases in each game. The first task is that youíll need to design the ships you want to build. Each ship has a certain number of required elements. Once youíve designed the ship, you can then explore the galaxy to find compatible planets with enough resources to support building more designs. After each design and research phase is complete, you can then begin production. To do this, you place ship designs in the production queue and wait several turns for them to be completed. Though later in the game, you can produce these items faster as you gain experience. During this process, you also need to conduct research, which allows you to build new technology or gain new skills for you empire. This is important because the universe isnít empty. As you branch out beyond your home planet, youíll also come into contact with other alien races. Youíll quickly discover a need for diplomacy Ė this is another key aspect of the game. Depending on your actions, the other empires can either become allies and good trading partners or will be fierce enemies that engage in combat, espionage and back-door deals to destroy your empire. The gameís combat engine is likewise complex, allowing you to micromanage battles in great detail or automatically. As you can tell, thereís a lot to keep track of, and this can be completely immersive and engrossing once you get the basics down.

Once a planet has been colonized, it adds to the resources of the Empire, and can then be used as another jumping off point. While the temptation is there to go crazy at first and colonize as many planets ads possible, this leaves you vulnerable to attack. A better strategy is to consolidate your empire slowly, then move out gradually, which prevents your forces form being over-run. The other thing to keep in mind is to keep your ambition in line with your technological progress or disaster may follow. You need to go slowly, always staying one step ahead of yourself, but learning not to act on things until the time is right. There are a bevy of technologies that youíll need to master before your ready and youíll also need to read what each of the newly acquired technologies do in order to use them effectively. Researching and development can also be used to acquire new skills and intelligence, which can make your diplomatic efforts more effective. You can also use this intelligence nefariously to increase the effectiveness in spying and combat.

Reading Space Empire IVís extensive documentation allows you to enjoy a surprisingly well-written tour of historical archives and information on the technologies and species only adds to the experience, allowing you to read the history of the various races in the galaxy. This can make all the difference, and can save you a lot of time so you donít waste your efforts trying to trade with a hostile race. Playing through a few missions should give you a good feel of the game. Even though trading with allied races is fun, combating with enemies also has its appeal. The combat system is detailed and allows you to manage battles from a number of angles and techniques. The cool thing here is that while you can also use your knowledge and resources to conquer and subjugate another empire, which is a really cool feature if youíre on the winning end of this. SEIV is so deep and massive that a full-explanation of the elements Space Empire IV would take too much space. Suffice it to say, the depth and detail is there in abundance. However, despite itís complexity, SEIV isnít as intimidating as it could be. The game features surprisingly well-done interface allows most actions to be performed with a click of a mouse, which makes the game surprisingly easy to learn. The multiple-window approach allows you to view the galaxy and planet colonies in detail, and pop-up menus are easy to navigate. The approach is straightforward and makes things easier to command, while allowing you to view your statistics in great detail.

While players wonít find much in the way of visual splash here, the underlying gameplay underneath is solidly entertaining and challenging. The many tasks you need to complete during each turn is exciting at first, but as your empire grows, the various tasks may become tedious. This can cause turns to take quite awhile to complete. Fortunately, you can delegate specific tasks to ministers who will take care of the more mundane tasks automatically. This versatility extends to the actual game itself, which allows you to modify it extensively, if you so desire. While it looks good, strategy players will find an imposing amount of depth is offered in Space Empires IV. The multi-tasking, intellectually stimulating gameplay is incredibly engrossing and is both complicated yet logical in approach. Add in the fact that the custom mods feature is supported well, and you have a game that allows for almost limitless amounts of variables. Obviously, a game of such depth and sophistication means that it wonít appeal to all gamers. However, the in-game tutorial and the ability to delegate tasks to ministers makes things much easier to learn, so while SEIV has been designed with the hard-core strategy gamer in mind, those new to the genre will find this an excellent introduction to these types of games. Between Space Empire IVís intuitive gameplay, excellent depth and incredibly detailed statistical models, this game is really impressive as a full-fledged modular package. In fact, itís so well-done, it may even convert some new fans to the genre.

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