It's unfortunate to see great games whose remarkable instability causes them to gather dust on a shelf rather than getting another spin in the disk drive. The latest title from Malfador Machinations' Space Empires series is one such example, at least for now. Published by Montreal based Strategy First, Space Empires V offers up significant improvements over the previous release and is based on a solid concept, but the sheer lack of pre-release testing is baffling. Don't forget to turn on the auto-save function.
Space Empires V brings numerous interesting ideas to the strategy-game table, though none are particularly novel. Nevertheless, seemingly every sci-fi concept you can think of has made its way into this game in some shape or form. Whether you're a fan of shields and tractor beams or atmospheric conditioning and stellar engineering, there's bound to be something attractive for everyone. In fact, one of the game's strongest points lies in the huge amount of variability in available technologies, weapons, components, ship designs, races and universes, virtually guaranteeing a different experience every time. Political relations and random stellar events also complicate matters and make the universe seem more alive. As if that wasn't enough, Space Empires V seems to have been built with customizability in mind. Players are free to create new facilities and vehicle components, add new graphics for planets and stars, and script AI players. If you don't care to fiddle with the game yourself but still wish to add more spice, the strong SEV user community has already come up with a variety of modifications since the launch of the game two months ago.
I'm sure you've guessed by now that the greatness in SEV lies in its complexity. It is also, however, one of its greatest drawbacks. The complexity can't be toned-down, thereby creating a learning curve much too steep for the average gamer. SEV certainly seems to target the dedicated strategy-game players that have grown bored with exploring the limits of other titles of the genre in a matter of minutes. To make matters worse, the game isn't equipped with a single-player storyline to gradually add the more complex options, so after going through the very basic fifteen minute tutorial, you're on your own. The manual isn't much help either so even experienced gamers will find it necessary to play a game to tinker with options only to discard it and start another. Fortunately, the game is turn-based so you won't have to worry about having your race annihilated while you're debating whether you should invest in planetary shields research. The complexity also imparts limitations on multiplayer games. Matches have the potential to last well over a few days, if not a week. For that reason, the game will save itself at the end of every turn during a multiplayer match in anticipation of the need to introduce gaps between gaming sessions. Nevertheless, all players have to be present during a game (lest the AI take over), which can no doubt lead to substantial scheduling difficulties.
The new graphics engine is the single largest point of improvement over Space Empires IV. The main system view is fully three-dimensional and can be panned and rotated at will. The visual effects are also nicer overall than those from most games I've seen set in space, probably the result of the visibly satisfying amount of attention given to detail: glare from stars cause any objects nearby to fade, shockwaves from stellar explosions look realistic yet smooth, and unit icons get smaller with increased distance. In addition, all of the games' bitmaps have been beautifully crafted and complete the revamped 2½-D interface. I was tremendously disappointed to discover that the quality ended there. Sadly, the graphics shown during combat appear to have gone entirely unnoticed: all weapons fire looks similar (even though there are 20+ weapon types), ground combat looks like it's being performed in a city made of Lego, and the vehicles have a polygon count not seen since the original Doom. Unsurprisingly, performance isn't too much of an issue.
The audio fares a little better. The background music shifts from dramatic classical melodies to industrial compositions to tense tunes reminiscent of Russian spy movies. Sure it sounds a little odd, but it fits quite nicely. The sound effects are varied enough to avoid repetition. In fact, weapons fire can actually be distinguished by their emitted sound better than it could visually. However, I'd recommend not pushing the volume up too high as some effects seem to have been clipped during the recording and induces a slightly unpleasant amount of static.
When starting a new game, you'll probably want a reasonably populated universe. Since I'm guessing most of us don't have ten friends with coordinating schedules willing to play a game that could potentially last a month, you'll inevitably have to deal with the AI. Out-of-the-box, the AI is ridiculously incompetent. Computer players will randomly demand that you remove your ships from galaxies you haven't yet discovered then declare war only to propose a treaty a few turns later. They also seem bent on stockpiling loads of resources and producing low-tech ships while investing very little in research and development. The latest patch (1.17 as of the writing of this review) does improve the AI somewhat, but still not quite enough. Fortunately, the user community taken notice and has produced some balance mods that may be worth looking into.
With that said, this one can be a real frustration, and it's can really only be recommended if regular crashes have no effect on your mood. The game is so unstable that any number of things can cause a "memory violation" which will require you to kill the process from your task manager. The most frustrating part is that crashes can also occur as a result of AI behavior. Until the recent patch, the game could crash while processing combats between AI players (presumably, because they chased each other in a never-ending circle?). For these kinds of issues, one can rely on the auto-save feature and reload the last save file, take control of the AI players and manually complete the combat. Some bugs have no such options and are especially infuriating as they lock away some of the game's more interesting options. As of the latest version, initiating a vote within an alliance tends to cause a crash when the AI players start voting. I'm sure you can imagine the tediousness that results from trying to take over all members and vote for them, if that succeeds at all.
Space Empires V is pretty interesting overall and quite entertaining after you get over the initial learning period. Despite its few shortfalls, the main issue standing in the way of recommending this title to our readers is the instability factor. Luckily, Malfador Machinations seems to be producing patches faster than Microsoft so one can only hope that the larger bugs will disappear shortly. Until then, this one is difficult to recommend.