When I tried this game upon its release, I just didn't like it. I think I was just too into Civ IV to give it a chance. But over the past weekend I played it again, and now I'm obsessed.
GalCiv II manages one thing that Civ IV can't, and which SMAC excelled at. It's hard to define with one word, so a sentence will have to suffice. GalCiv II injects a sense of role playing into 4x games.
With Civ IV, all the factions have a generic quality, despite each having unique attributes. My starting location more than anything determines my play style. If I'm isolated, then a space race or culture win is most feasible. If I'm surrounded on all sides, I must go to war.
Yet with MoOII, SMAC, and GalCiv II, the faction is the thing that determines my play style. For some reason, I find it really fun to play as a highly distinct faction, and kind of role play as a result. For example, if I have a diplomatic/pacifist faction, and my empire is getting torn to shreds by a warlike group, it kind of becomes like a tragedy. This feeling is enhanced by moral choices you get to make in GalCiv II.
Yet this great effect is kind of spoiled in GalCiv II, by being able to tweak your faction with extra attributes. Therefore, no matter who I play, I always seek to enhance research ability, because I'm a builder at heart, so the generic feel creeps in. What is even more annoying, is your attribute choices are saved, with no way to reset to default.
It would be much better to have absolute factions with concrete attributes, with the custom faction there for those who like to tweak. I believe this may have been addressed in the expansion, which I'm yet to play.
Another problem I have with GalCiv II is the research 'bush'. The research tree is so tight in Civ IV, that I rarely stray from a favourite course. But with GalCiv II, I don't know where to start. There seems to be many superfluous technologies which don't give you any particular advantage - just filler material. So where every technological breakthrough in Civ IV is a great thrill, in GalCiv II, it becomes tedious.
There are good and bad results to both designs.
The research bush of GalCiv II does give one a bit more freedom to role play. If you find yourself suddenly facing an invasion, it isn't hard to quickly research war technologies if you've been aggressively specialising down one branch. In Civ IV, just to survive, one must quickly discern a sure course and not deviate much at all.
As a result, the choices you make in Civ IV really matter, whereas in GalCiv IV, you couldn't go far wrong just cycling through the cheapest techs of each branch.
A very minor issue I have with GalCiv II is the 'humour' contained in various descriptions and diplomacy options. I don't think the humour works real well in Civ IV either, but it doesn't matter because the game doesn't lend well to the role play feel I mentioned above. But in GalCiv II, it becomes very grating. I want to feel like I'm leading an intergalactic empire, not dealing with the nerdy sense of humour of Stardock programmers.
Anyway, GalCiv II is a true successor to the Master of Orion series. No longer do I look to Firaxis to fill the void left by the abysmal MoOIII. Now I look to Stardock.
Voluntary Human Extinction Movement http://www.vhemt.org/
My reaction was the opposite of yours in some ways. I disliked Civ4 at first, then gave it another try and found it playable (upgrading to 4MB of RAM helped reduce game-killing freezes). But, as you say, all the factions look and feel the same. Starting position counts for so much. The leaders are nothing more than stats. There are a few tech progressions you can try, but if you deviate from optimum B-lines you will be punished.
GalCiv2 has races that matter, and finding what they do best and using that is part of the fun. Although there are commonalities and you can shoe horn the races into a single play style you will lose quite a bit in the process, and (more importantly) sacrifice opportunity. I’ve also found that I gravitate toward the story/back history and play style of some of the races more than others, kind of like SMAC. That means I care and the races are more than a mere collection of attributes and statistics.
The GC2 games do have an epic feel about them, too – kind of like an unfolding story. For me this is good. As good and enveloping as the game is, the same cannot be said for Civ4 (for me at least). The politics in GC2 matters, as do your actions. Civ4 politics seem largely irrelevant – slash, smash and bash (pick one).
GC2 humor is nerdy, but I have to admit I like it (“Ah, slaves…you can never have too many slaves…”). It does offer a stark contrast with the depth of thought in SMAC, though. The tech and Project descriptions of SMAC built the game atmosphere in a truly thoughtful way and helped define the story and the character of its protagonists. The cutesy GC2 humor seems shallow by comparison, and does nothing to build on the races or development of the game. Either it is an antiseptic description of Laser 3 or Drengin drooling about the joys of eating your delicious pink flesh. Compare that to SMAC’s Xenoempathy Dome, or Morgan’s quotes that “…human behavior is economic behavior”. No contest.
That said, GalCiv2 is far and away the best SF space empire strategy game since Moo2. Many have commented that it is the successor to that now blighted (via Moo3) genre, and I have every reason to believe that Brad and his team will continue to improve and offer the superior service they are known for.