What is it? An expansion bringing hero units to a turn-based 4X strategy game.
Expect to pay: $20 / £15
Developer: Stardock Entertainment
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment
Reviewed on: Windows 10, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 780
Multiplayer: Yes, with six players and more
Link: Official site
Machiavelli would have hated the Mercenaries expansion for Galactic Civilizations 3. The Florentine diplomat despised the very idea of soldiers of fortune, and in The Prince he took almost every opportunity he could to slather them with insults about their unfaithfulness, cowardice, and lack of discipline. Historically, all that may be true, but I never would have picked that up from playing GalCiv. Sure, the galactic variety may cost a pretty penny (and, by some metrics, so does the expansion), but the dependable, skillful mercs in Stardock's memorable 4X adventure cling to their employers more devotedly than I imagine many of us cling to PC gaming. And if that's not devotion, what is?
The idea driving Mercenaries is likely self-explanatory: you hire a bunch of goons to help with the usual 4X business of exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating. Were they merely hired guns, they'd barely add enough content to warrant the expansion label.
But in the right hands, the mercs introduced here are literal game changers, allowing things like planetary invasions long before the progression allows it. Instead of the merc with the mouth, I found myself hiring the merc with the missile prototype, or (less poetically), the merc with the +150 points to the base influence of any colony while his ship is stationed there. At their best, they break up the tedium of inevitability that bogs down some late games of Galactic Civilizations 3 with some last-minute reversals.
They're thus effectively the hero classes of this galactic conquest sim, and I find them hanging out at the Galactic Bazaar (or MercMart, as I like to think of it), a spaceborne Mos Eisley of sorts with a bobbing billboard shining amid the hexagonal grid. Alas, that's about the extent of their visual personalities aside from the design of their ships, if you don't count the dapper prunish fellow who hawks them via a gridded menu.
Mercenaries come to life instead in the (typo-ridden) text descriptions, where a mercenary's ship and corresponding ability are paired with a brief yarn. There's the poor planetary production booster Avatar-278, for instance, a sentient harvesting unit who sells his services following a purge of AI-powered machines on his home planet. In my darkest hour, I enlisted the expensive aid of Ruire Podaq Nu and her Swayer-11 ship, a Precursor constructor vessel that alters the allegiance of non-capital planets within its range. Who says love's the only force that can turn enemies into friends?
Overpowered? Almost certainly, and ships like Ms. Nu's can disrupt a match so thoroughly I'm surprised there's no way to disable the Bazaar in custom matches. But it's a controlled chaos, at least, held in check partly by the fact that each faction has access to the same catalog of mercs, which randomly selects an assortment of 36 for each match from a total pool of 70. Though whatever I buy stays mine for the duration of the match, so there's no worry that multiple Ms. Nus will flutter about the unfriendly nebulae.
Mercenaries are best used to make a massive leap in progress (and they thus sometimes only serve to make the powerful more powerful) or to gain a significant advantage when in a tight spot. That sometimes meant I didn't need them at all when my strategy was unfolding well, and the AI would seem to agree, as it uses mercenaries sparingly at best. Their prohibitive costs make most mercenary ships a gamble, particularly since they don't upgrade throughout the game and their specific natures all but broadcast your victory strategy to your opponents. At times I did fine upgrading my ships without tossing my money toward hired help; but in others, I was happy to pay the cost for the boosts to production or firepower a mercenary could bring. They're thus a generally welcome expansion of the choices available, as they yield some hope in spots where the base game would have let you waste away into defeat.
I doubt the idea that a bunch of ruffians would hire out their services for some cash requires great leaps of the imagination, but a new campaign provides a reason for the mercs' existence should you need one. Yet "campaign" is such a strong word. It's a bit longer than many individual chapters of the main campaign and it fleshes out the lore for the two reintroduced races from the series' past, but it's essentially a elaborate tutorial for the Bazaar in fancy digs.
Such as it is, the campaign follows the plight of the Torians, a race of what looks like shell-less turtles who can colonize aquatic worlds without penalty. For years they've been slaves to the orcs-but-not-orcs of the Drengin Empire. Since the Drengin are occupied elsewhere in the wake of the main campaign's conclusion, they're trying to rebuild their own empire. The Arcean Empire also makes an appearance, thus allowing a warrior race for players who don't feel like playing evil space orcs. It's decent stuff, but ultimately skippable for those who'd rather stick to the random maps.
As our proven mercenary hater might ask, does the end justify the means? Considering that Mercenaries costs half as much as Galactic Civilizations III itself, I suppose that depends on whether tossing away 20 bucks counts as living beyond your means. The mercenaries and two new races certainly enrich the existing 4x sandbox, but there's not much else aside from numerous tweaks hidden under the hood.
Yet as I learned when I cashed in all my credits to enlist the services of Enopriumta Xu's fearsome dreadnought to score a last-minute victory, sometimes it's worth slapping down a bit of extra cash for an edge.