Stardock has returned to add content to the immensely popular (or at least immensely popular with 4X gamers) 2003 title Galactic Civilizations. Do not mistake Altarian Prophecy for a mission pack, as although it contains some 'missions' as such, it is not one. The missions, most of which are military conquest mixed with back story, are just a side attraction for those interested in discovering more about the background history behind the Altarians, a race from the original Galactic Civilizations that beheld an uncanny resemblance to humans. The real meat of the game is still the open ended single player custom scenario game, and this is where we find the real reason for fans of the original to purchase this expansion.
The most important new feature of this expansion is the suite of editors Stardock included within. There are three: a scenario editor, a campaign editor, and most important of all, a map editor. Gone are the days where you'd play game after game of randomly generated single player insanity. Now you can custom tailor each map to how you'd envision the ideal galaxy layout, or if that doesn't strike your fancy, you can sample maps created by other users. Well, you might be able to. Even with a properly installed and patched copy of the game I was unable to use the map editor due to repeated crashes. It was probably just a video driver conflict (ATI is notorious for introducing bugs into new copies of their drivers), but it might not have been. Stardock loses a few points here as I could find no details of the problem (nor nearly any problem) on the troubleshooting area of their website. If you're wanting to buy the expansion solely for the editors, just be aware everything may not work perfectly right out of the box.
Other important additions in Galactic Civilizations - Altarian Prophecy include four new ship types, two new alien races (the Korx, sinister and unknown, and the Drath, primitive savages), and a whole host of minor tweaks, technology additions, new morality scenarios (one of the highlights of the original GalCiv), and a new United Planets screen to accommodate the two new races, which join the existing five for a total of seven. These do not revolutionize the game in any way, but the game did not need revolutionizing in the first place, and small fixes that improve the gameplay experience of an already great game, are more than welcome.
The graphics have not been changed from the original GalCiv, and to me that is something of a relief. With so many games these days focused solely on graphics, the gameplay so often falls by the wayside. Stardock games in general and Galactic Civilizations in particular are a throwback to when games were about more than just fancy graphics. Call me old fashioned if you like, but I'll take gameplay over graphics any day of the week, no matter how great or ugly the graphics are in either case. In the case of Galactic Civilizations (and by extension, Altarian Prophecy), the graphics are presentable, and very much like that you'd see in a Sid Meier turn-based strategy game. The planets are pretty to look at in their respective menus, ship icons are clear and easy to identify, and the models for the alien avatars are quite well done. That said, a gripe I had with the original game returns: No detailed planet screens where you can see the fruits of your labor! When I build a Galactic Stock Exchange, I want to see said stock exchange installed into orbit around my planet. At the very least they could have added briefly rendered movies for each building in the game, to give you a better idea of what each building would look like in actual use, and to give you, essentially the God of all humanity, a way to see things the way your citizens see them. Without such a device, the feeling of detachment and "it's just a board game" sentiment remains more easily. This is a missed opportunity I hope to see Stardock follow through with for Galactic Civilizations II, due out in February of 2006.
The audio component remains the same as the original GalCiv, at least as far as I could tell. There might have been some new music added to the already impressive collection of ambient and orchestral in the first game, but I didn't notice as I usually turn the music off and spin my own tunes. The sound effects are still a tad on the weak side, with laser blasts and explosions sounding wimpy most of the time. Fortunately, Galactic Civilizations is not a game that has any sort of demand for quality audio, and as such this category does not hurt its final score at all.
The bottom line is simple: If you enjoyed the original Galactic Civilizations then you must have this expansion. At only 20 dollars, it is a bargain that is well worth its sticker price. If you somehow missed this gem the first time around, but enjoy strategy in the Civilization/Master of Orion mold, then pick this expansion up with the original direct from Stardock right away. It'll be the best 60 bucks you ever spent.