When people think of a 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) game, they think of the “Civilization” series, the quintessential 4X game. For space 4X games, people think of “Sins of a Solar Empire,” “Master of Orion,” or “Galactic Civilizations.” “Space Empires V” tries to break into the genre, but it unfortunately falls short of its potential.
The object of the game is to expand the empire and control the universe. There are many ways to do that such as conquering everyone, researching most of the technology of the game, or ensuring that the galaxy stays at peace for a set number of turns. There are other ways to win besides the above. Players start on one planet and must expand or fall by the waysides. Warp points connect star systems to each other, and they must be guarded. Players need to manage five types of resources: minerals, organics (food), radioactive materials, intelligence points, and research points. Minerals have the most use in the game so they need to be maintained. Players also need to be diplomatic with all of the other empires in the game whether they want to conquer them or not. In addition, players need to research technology to gain abilities, better ships, better resource gathering, and more. Players must keep track of their military, economy, resources, and planets so their empires will thrive.
This game succeeds the most in customization. Players can choose the portrait of their empire from a wide variety of options to give their species a unique look. They can name their species, empire, and government whatever they want or choose from a list. Players can also choose from a wide variety of racial bonuses, such as combat and mining, that improve their empire. There is still more to choose, however, as players must decide what atmosphere their species breathes, what kind of planet their species lives on, and the overall design theme of their ships. Each ship is unique, but all ships in the empire share the same theme. There are so many choices that it can get overwhelming to new players. The race portrait and ship design theme are ultimately inconsequential and only give each empire some personalization, but the planet and atmosphere of the home planet do affect what worlds players can effectively and easily colonize.
Managing the empire is an involved process. The player has to keep up with ships, planets, their activities, technology research, and more. It gets overwhelming quickly and the interface hampers action. There are many buttons corresponding to each aspect players need to maintain. It requires a lot of clicks and it gets tedious to click properly with small buttons in the interface and no hotkeys for the empire management screens. Selecting the ships and planets can be tedious as the map is at an angle and proper selection can get tricky.
With the ships, each ship has to be made from set designs: freighters, colony ships, frigates, destroyers, and others. Components such as weapons, engines, life support, and the bridge are added by hand to the ship. Ship presets are available and build ships from default. It is hard to create a good ship from scratch and newer players will rely solely on the defaults. The fact that each ship has to be made and upgraded is yet another thing players must manage.
Out in the field, ships require a lot of upkeep. Supplies and ordinance have to be watched to make sure they do not run low. Keeping track of ships can get tedious, and the somewhat unhelpful user interface makes it difficult to find them all. The interface does not have a clear indication of where each ship is, so it may be easier just to find them manually. Players also need to keep track of their ships because they may run into a ship of a rival empire and they will fight.
Speaking of the combat, the combat brings down the game’s quality considerably. It is just awful. Players have ships fight each other. The AI is terrible as the ships do not act on their own, especially if they’re in a fleet. Players must direct them to the enemy so they will actually attack. They do not attack the enemy on their own. Plus, running out of ordinance is common, and players have to keep track of that as well. This is yet another way the game can get overwhelming. Players can simply auto-play the battles, but their ships are more likely to die. This combat system can be salvaged with practice, but the learning curve is very high.
Speaking of the AI, it is terrible. While all AI act on predetermined programming, good AI have very complex programming and do not make it obvious that they act on preset commands. An AI will ask to ally with a player and keep asking if the player refuses. There is no way to predict what they want or what they will do, even if the game tells players what terms they are on with them. Negotiating with them is very complicated as players cannot simply make a peace treaty with them or trade technology. Players have to navigate the cumbersome interface to do it and select a whole mess of options for negotiation.
Finally, the performance of the game can be described as bad. The frame rate is extremely low, even on a powerful machine. The game is designed for Windows XP, and it will run terribly on other operating systems regardless of how well they can handle the game. The graphics are not good for its release date. For reference, “Star Wars: Empire at War” was released at the same time and looks much better and runs well on operating systems later than Windows XP. The cursor is slow, and the performance issues add frustration to the tedium. However, dedicated players can fix this, but few would be willing to do that.
Overall, “Space Empires V” is mixed. Its complexity will keep hardcore players engaged. They will have to work around the performance issues, abysmal combat system, and tedious mechanics. All others would not like this game and be turned off after a few hours of play. It can be fun, but players need to work at the game to find its potential enjoyment.