Games | PC | Space Empires IV: Galactic Pesticide

Article by Aaron Littleton? | September 9, 2010

Space Empires IV

Developer: Malfador
Publisher: PC
U.S. Release: Nov. 6, 2000
Format: Xbox

The bug people came out of nowhere, and weíre no match for them. I donít know what we did to them, but theyíre angry, and theyíre not stopping. Our fleet, stretched too thin across the new systems weíve just discovered falls back and forms up at a wormhole leading to the inner systems of our empire. Their ships are bigger, better armed and thereís more of them.

A lot more.

This might be game over, I donít know. Iím playing Space Empires IV, an example of what is commonly known as the 4X genre of strategy games. Chiefly concerned with the growth and advancement of, what else, the playerís space empire, the game has absolutely captivated me with its customization options and depth of strategy. If I lose here, itís going hurt on a really personal level. No scenario is pre-programmed, and I know thereís no FAQ or guide thatís going to tell me how to handle this situation. Iím on my own.

Though my ships make a valiant stand at the wormhole, thereís simply no stopping the bug people, whom I now know as the Xi-Chung. Their forces are simply too great this early in the game and I donít have any allies I can trust to stand with me against them. Their ships cut through my pitiful armada at the gate and theyíre suddenly threatening my soft underbelly. My empire, such as it is, branches in two directions from the system theyíve just swarmed into; south to the home planet of humanity, and northeast toward my other main world. I try giving the Xi-Chung gifts, I try groveling for peace. It doesnít work. They want blood, and thereís no stopping them.

Space Empires IV gives the player every opportunity to make their empire their own. Every single ship that rolls out of the shipyards is fully designed by the player. Make a new ship design, give it a name, and have the docks mass- produce it. Thereís no simple upgrade scale here -- each ship can be tailor-made to the unique specifications you feel is the best tool for whatever job youíre going to give it. You can even name every individual ship. And thatís why, with each smoldering husk of a spaceship the Xi-Chung leave in their wake, I feel a real sense of failure. These arenít the vast and nameless armadas of trashy sci-fi, whose sole purpose is to look good exploding, but vital links of my empireís survival and history. There goes my first scout ship, hastily retrofitted with basic combat accoutrements to bolster the ranks. Thereís the dedicated defense ship of a certain planet, left behind as more of an afterthought than anything else. Good ships, but not exactly designed for this kind of fighting. In an instant theyíre gone, leaving behind only empty space while the Xi-Chung move on.

What the bug people donít know is Iíve got an ace up my sleeve. Just before their assault began, I developed a new piece of technology that allows me to close wormholes. It has to be fitted to a ship and activated over the wormhole I want to close, but it can be done. The good news is that Iíve already got a ship in production and that my home system only has one wormhole exit. If I can close that gate, Iíll be able to effectively shut myself off from the rest of the universe for a while and rebuild at my own pace. Itíll take some time though, and Iím going to have to try everything possible to slow the Xi-Chung down.

I spin up production at my factories and start producing as many ships as I can in as short of a time as possible. I have my planets build ground-based weapon platforms to harry bombarding Xi-Chung fleets. I sit clouds of weaponized satellites over wormholes, forcing the Xi-Chung to stop to take the time to clear these nuisances out. None of this manages to substantially damage the invading armadas, but precious game turns are wasted as my home planet throws all it has into building the ship that would be our salvation.

I didnít just happen upon this wormhole-closing technology; Space Empires IV has a dauntingly complex tech tree. I had been warned by a friend that the game can be difficult even at the easier settings, and that this particular technology can be a good way to give yourself a little extra breathing time. Thereís probably little chance I would have found it without a bit of a suggestion in what to research. Itís halfway up a particularly expensive branch on the tree; one that gives little benefit until it starts producing gems like the wormhole device. I could easily see myself blindly bypassing these upgrades entirely in favor of a new level of gun or shield.

One of the Xi-Chung fleets has made its way into the Sephis system, my second-most-developed system and major staging point for the eastern half of my empire. Sephis is the Constantinople to my Rome, and losing it will be devastating. I muster the defense forces as I have in each system before this and prepare to make a stand. I name the gathered fleet ďSephisís ShieldĒ and prepare to defend the planet. I have little hope to win, but I have to give it a shot. Like each time before, my ships are outgunned and outnumbered. They inevitably fall and the Xi-Chung swarm the planet. My outpost is gone. Another turn ticks by in game.

Thereís only one system between the Xi-Chung and my home planet. My forces are nigh exhausted, and the wormhole-sealing ship isnít quite done. The last of my defense forces are a pathetic lot; outdated, aging ships dragged from mothballs and set out to act as little more than speed bumps. The Xi-Chung are relentless, and refuse to give quarter, though I beg each turn for an end to hostilities. Yes, beg. Iím not above it when the fate of my entire civilization is on the line. They never even consider stopping. I make a vow that if I survive this, Iím going to come back and wipe these guys out with total impunity in the worst way possible. Thatís a big if.

A turn begins and I get an innocuous little message in my usual array of updatesóthe wormhole ship is done! Iíve still got to get it to the gate unharassed and deploy the device as quickly as possible. Itís helpless on its own, as I had included no built-in weapons or defensive capabilities in order to expedite its construction. This is going to come down to the wire.

The Xi-Chung make their move and are breathing down my neck; the bulk of their attack force is able to move to just beyond the other side of my home systemís wormhole. My last-hope ship, which I have hastily named the Aether 1, is barreling with all possible speed toward the wormhole to close it for good. Just one false move on my part, one suboptimal choice, and itíll all be over.

Somehow, miraculously, the Aether 1 zooms into place over the wormhole and closes it up, the swirling blue energies collapsing in on themselves, winking out and leaving only the darkness of space behind. Iím cut off from the everything, the marauding Xi-Chung fleet included. All is quiet in my home system, the Aether 1 the only ship in the fleet still in service. Whole classes of ships have been destroyed, existing now only as blueprints. Judging from the timing there at the end, not a single sacrifice was in vain.

Iím emotionally drained and I save this game and shut it down, the snappy interface closing like I was exiting a basic spreadsheet, not a universe spanning strategy simulator. Did I have a chance to mention before that this game is very light weight on the processor? No? It is. Itís also very engrossing, so much so that its kind of hard to find time to appreciate the speed at which the program opens and closes. Such a nice aspect shouldnít be overlooked, especially in an age where most games tend to send oneís hard disk into a fit of grinding and unresponsiveness should they have the audacity to try and minimize the game in mid-play. Itís just that this sort of detail has a tendency to fall to the wayside when you become engrossed in your own fully customized space empire.

Later on, I went back to my empire, and began to plan and build for humanityís great return to the stars. I was unhindered as I gathered my forces, built new and devastating technologies and ships, and prepared to exact harsh revenge upon the Xi-Chung for their bloody, unprovoked war against me. Eventually I was a technological and military powerhouse and all that was left was to decide the most fitting punishment for our old enemies. I opted for opening up wormholes directly into their systems and exploding every single one of them with black hole bombs that destroyed everything in them.

It was quite satisfying.

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