by: M.S. Smith
; edited by: Eric Stallsworth
; updated: 4/17/2012
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Every genre has its classics, but the classics of the 4X genre are notable, as they seem to be the easiest to pick up and appreciate even years after their debut. They're not the prettiest games, but the point is the gameplay - which is why their appeal seems to remain years after release.
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Top Of The Classics
Of all genres, the turn-based 4X strategy genre seems to be one of the best for turning out lasting classics. Trying to play Half Life on a modern computer isn't that pleasurable of an experience should you lack a sense of nostalgia. The graphics are poor, the AI average, and the voice acting seems like it was recorded in a shack. Pick up Civilizations II, however, and you'll probably be okay with what you receive. Perhaps it has to do with the gameplay, which tends to follow a formula that has remained solid throughout the years, or perhaps it is the graphics, which are aren't expected to be cutting edge. Whatever the case, the five classic 4X strategy games listed here - the cream of the crop, if you will - are not merely games you should play. They're also games you can play. So go do it, now.
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Civilization II was a stunning achievement. No strategy game before it - the original Civilizations excepted - had offered the same scope, depth, and quality of gameplay that could be found in Civilization II. Here was a game that, in 1996, spanned from the beginning of time to the Space Age, with numerous technologies, a full line-up of units appropriate for each era, and a world map the size of, well, a world.
The graphics at the time were great. Today they won't be causing any jaws to drop. But the clean, brightly colored sprites have held up well, proving attractive even today. More interesting are the various CGI sequences, including the council, a group of computer-rendered advisers put in for comic relief more than anything else. But it was the gameplay that made Civilization II outstanding, and this remains the case. Although numerous Civilization titles have come out since Civilizations II, offering numerous changes and "improvements", Civilizations II remains a high point for the series. Civilization IV, also on this list, has numerous advantages. Yet playing Civilizations II gives you the sense that in its own way, it remains every bit as good as any of its successors. The other games aren't better. They're just different.
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Galactic Civilizations II
When it comes to 4x strategy classics, Galactic Civilizations II is a relative newcomer, but it has quickly entrenched itself as the go-to game for anyone looking to conquer a galaxy. Its popularity is well earned. The game is backed by one of the best economic models to ever be seen in a strategy game. Good players have to keep a constant eye on their income, and how it translates into various forms of production. This, along with rare but valuable galactic resources spread throughout the galaxy, creates multiple layers of economic depth. The game also has very good AI, sure to keep the most jaded strategy gamer on their toes.
The game's developer, Stardock, hasn't been idle in success either. Since the release of the original, two expansion packs have been released, adding in features that strategy enthusiasts wanted in the original, like planets with unique environments and a more diverse tech tree. Strategy gamers who want the full experience should be sure to pick up the expansions, Dark Avatar and Twilight Of the Arnor, as well as the original game.
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Despite having Sid Meier's lofty name scribbled at the top of the box, Alpha Centauri never seemed to become more than a cult classic. This may have been because the gaming community was hit with several other, more traditional Civilization titles at the same time, and those title were largely considered sub-par. Many of those games were re-makes of the Civilization series, but Alpha Centauri is something of a sequel. It assumes that the player in Civilization II won by building a spacecraft to travel to the far-flung system of Alpha Centauri.
The game world of Alpha Centauri is a wonderfully alien one. Where Civilization games include barbarians, for example, Alpha Centauri used psychic mind-worms. But Alpha Centauri was far from a copy of Civilization II. In fact, many of features that have later become part of the Civilization series - such as terraforming - were pioneered in this game. Alpha Centauri also set itself apart by including unique, focused factions, with very specific strengths and weaknesses, giving the player a stronger sense of attachment to the faction they are playing. These concepts were somewhat ahead of their time, but they were very well executed, and as a result Alpha Centauri feels like a modern game even now, 10 years after its release.
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Yes, two Civilization titles. As I mentioned earlier, I feel that Civilization IV, despite its improvements, is not necessarily a better game than Civilization II. It is simply a different one, equally good in many ways, and offering certain features that can't be found in most strategy titles.
At its core, Civilization IV is a solid turn-based strategy game. It makes significant use of concepts like terraforming and hero units, all of which add depth and complexity, opening new strategies and counters. At the same time, the high-resolution graphics, extensive in-game documentation, and intuitive interface make the game easy for even a complete newcomer to the genre to understand. This makes Civilization IV one of the easiest 4X strategy games to get into - impressive, considering the genre's reputation for intimidation.
Beyond its solid core mechanics, Civilizations IV is also notable because of its outstanding multiplayer system, which allows players to jump into a game at any time. Multiplayer is rare in this genre, but it is a welcome addition. It is surprising that Civilizations IV includes it - the fact that it's enjoyable is icing on the cake.
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Released in 1995, Stars! seemed purpose built for cult-classic status. Its graphics worked well in 1995, and work well today, largely because there aren't any. Ships are represented by arrows, sensors range is represented by colored circles, and planets are small dots. Pretty it isn't, but much like Civilizations II, it isn't ugly, either. Stars! is a 4x strategy that acknowledges that at its core, many of these games are all about economic strategy. Sure, it often looks like a spreadsheet - but you'll also know what is going on.
Strangely, despite its simplistic graphics, Stars! is likely one of the most epic strategy games ever made. As games progress, the amount of industrial power available starts to become extremely high. As a result, players gain the ability to create fleets with thousands of ships, resulting in battles that - at least in your imagination - look a bit like a re-enactment of The Battle Of Endor.
Players who are into customization will also fall in love with this game. Stars! includes numerous ship hulls, each of which can be customized with a plethora of sensors, weapons, and armors, resulting in truly personalized ships. The race maker is also complex and fun, allowing the player to choose from massive list of racial traits, as well as customize what kind of planetary conditions their race will be able to tolerate.
Note that Stars! is abandoned at this point, so don't expect to find it for sale. You'll have to go to Stars! fansites to find a copy of it.