Monday, November 14, 2005

Civilization IV Review

Civilization IV, developed by Firaxis Games and published by 2K Games.
The Good:Numerous winning strategies, streamlined interface, above average graphics, not much micromanagement despite the amount of options, slightly faster games, clear cut diplomatic relations
The Not So Good: Units don’t automatically upgrade, anti-climactic end game that still drags, aggressive play is not encouraged, that ATI bug really pissed me off (but it’s fixed)
What say you? Extremely polished gameplay leads to one of the best strategy games of all time: 8/8

Civilization has been around since 1991, and served as the springboard for creator Sid Meier to create a whole slew of games, including Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Sid Meier’s Bathroom Closet, and What Sid Meier Had For Breakfast. As with successful movies, computer games that sell well usually will result in a sequel or two, or sometimes an expansion pack. Unlike successful movies, the sequels to computer games usually end up being better than the original, with added features, better graphics, and a nice pine smell. For the fourth time, the Civilization empire has come around to suck the life out of gamers everywhere. Will it live up to the hype? What exactly did Sid Meier have for breakfast?

Civilization IV is about as good as an isometric perspective strategy game will look. All of the units and cities are rendered in full 3-D, the landscapes are dotted with extra effects and realistic terrain, and the whole graphics department has a nice sheen to it. With great power comes great system requirements, especially in the end game when a lot of units are present and most of the map has been revealed. Those near the minimum system requirements will experience some lag in the game in the later years. Not only does the game look good, but also the interface has undergone an overhaul. Instead of the endless pages of boring spreadsheets that were found in previous versions, most of the information you need is displayed on the main screen; you’ll rarely need to leave overall map covered up. It’s fairly easy to navigate through all the numbers and data since the developers have done a good job at portraying all of the important information in bar graphs, which most everybody can understand. My only gripe is that you can’t scroll while a dialog box is displayed; sometimes I want to see the map while I am deciding which technology to research next. The sound is also first rate, and goes to show you how good it can sound if you’re given a large budget. The music has both historical and original selections to enjoy, and the technology descriptions are read by I Am Not Spock himself. The battle effects are the same for each unit, but since you’ll usually have varied units engaging in combat, this does not become a problem. I also like how the music changes as you zoom in on a city (exactly like in Pirates!) to reflect the current attitude of the town. Taken as a whole, both the graphics and sound should be excellent, and they are.

In Civilization IV, you lead one of the world’s major civilizations toward global dominance over the course of human history. There are both single and multiplayer games available, and they play essentially the same. You can customize each game is a variety of different ways, choosing any permanent alliances, the map style, victory conditions, rule restrictions, and starting era. There is also a small suite of scenarios available, covering things such as the American Revolutionary War; they are nice little diversions that make the game slightly more filled out, but are nothing special. In the regular game, victory is achieved through one of six ways, any of which can be turned off by the user. By default, the game ends in 2050AD, and the civilization with the highest overall score wins a time victory. If you eliminate all the other countries, you win by conquest. If you control 2/3 of the land area and have 25% larger population than any other civilization, you win by domination. A cultural victory is achieved by having three cities with legendary culture. You can also be the first civilization to travel to another solar system in the space race, or be voted by the United Nations as the diplomatic winner. Each of these victory conditions covers a different strategy, thus there are several different ways to win at this game, and not just military like most strategy games.

Civilization IV takes places on a semi-random representation of a world, where all of the civilizations vie for dominance. Earth is the model here, as most maps will have tropical regions near the equator, deserts at 30 degrees latitude (because of the dry, descending Hadley cell and Ferrel cell air, don’t you know), and polar regions at the top. Cities are the foundation of your empire, and are the only locations where units and buildings are constructed. More so than any other game, city placement is of paramount importance here. In the past, city spamming was a common tactic, building as many cities as possible to overwhelm the enemy. The developers have tried hard to combat this tactic by making settlers inhibit city growth and imposing a minimum distance between cities. Around each city, each terrain square is rated for production, food, and commerce, and the population of your city determines how many squares your city can harvest per turn. Food is needed to make the population increase, commerce is used to pay for upkeep, and production is used to construct units or buildings. Squares can be improved by using workers to build a specific structure on that location. In addition to these incomes, each of your cities has a health rating. Each pollution producing building detracts from the health of the town, while some buildings (for example, a hospital) can raise the health rating back up. Each of your cities contributes to your cultural border, which expands out from them in a radius directly related to that city’s culture rating. Building amenities in a city, such as a coliseum or theater, and constricting wonders can improve culture. Cities can also harvest special resources that can provide bonuses to food, production, commerce, health, and happiness, or allow the construction of specific units.

A new addition to Civilization IV is religion. A historically important entity, religion is primarily used to influence relations between countries; civilizations with the same religion tend to be friendlier. Also, there are some bonuses granted to cities that adopt the state religion. Each city can have multiple religions present, and religion spreads on its own and through the work of missionaries. Civilization IV does a very good job with diplomacy with AI units in the game. The game clearly represents your current standing with any opposing nation through the use of tool tips and hard numbers. In most games, you may not know why certain countries like you and others are constantly at war, but in Civilization IV it is plainly spelled out, and this is very appreciated. There are a whole slew of treaties that can be agreed to, including adopting religions, trading resources and technology, and the mutual destruction of a common foe. The basic government has taken a slight change, and the user now picks from a stance in five areas: government, legal, labor, economy, and religion. Instead of having a “democracy,” you can now adopt a pagan representative bureaucracy with slavery and a free market. Nice. There are upkeep costs for each of the civics, and the more powerful ones cost more gold. The civics model allows players to tailor their government to a specific style of play.

If diplomatic relations fail (which they will), you’ll need to engage in mortal kombat by using the game’s many units. There are naval, air, and land units that span all the technology levels at your disposal. In Civilization IV, each unit is given a strength rating, which works for both attack and defense. There are formulas the game uses to calculate the winner through some rock-paper-scissors format. You can also take a quick glance at the odds of victory by selecting a stack of units and choosing the intended target. The combat in Civilization IV greatly favors the defender, as it’s very hard to invade an enemy city without an overwhelming number of units. If all nations are producing units at the same rate, most battles will end up as a stalemate, which is another reason why most games don’t end with a conquest or domination victory. This style of play also does not favor the aggressive military player, and those accustomed to steamrolling weaker nations will have a tough time in Civilization IV. Units are also given promotions and bonuses based on performance, which can increase city attack rating, health, accuracy, and more. Units that are produced in a city with a barracks receive a free promotion. This means you can specialize your units based on your enemy and the terrain you expect to be engaged in. One thing I do not like is that units do not automatically upgrade, and upgrading existing units is very expensive. In Rise of Nations, all existing units are upgraded to the current technology level when you research the upgrade. In Civilization IV, you can have archers fighting tanks. That’s just not right. Personally, I’d make an option to “build” a unit upgrade tech in a city that will change all units to their appropriate modern counterpart, much like you can build projects like the space program or the Internet.

One of the main objectives of the game is to advance your civilization through the ages by researching technology. Civilization IV has lifted some of the restrictions on the technology tree and lets the user have some variety in the order techs are researched. In the end, all the civilizations will have all of the techs, but you can hold a slight advantage for a turn or 10 if you have a desired tech that an opponent does not. In most of the games I’ve played, having a technology edge is very important. You can speed up research by assigning scientists, constructing certain buildings, and making more money so you can fund more research. Tied in with technology and culture is Great People. Each city generates Great People at a rate determined by the buildings in that city. A Great Person can be used to discover a new technology, settle in a city (to increase the production, gold, culture, or research), use their special ability (add culture points, finish production, conduct a trade mission, create a religious shrine, or build an academy of research), or two Great People can start a Golden Age of increased production and commerce. These can be powerful units, but since all the civilizations get them, the short-term bonuses are balanced out in the end.

Civilization IV is really good. I think there are enough changes to the gameplay to even convince players of Civ III to convert over to this newer version. All of the changes that have been made are designed to create a smoother experience, and for the most part they work well. The game plays faster, but is still longer than most real time strategy games; a typical game of Civilization IV on the default speed setting can last 4 to 5 hours. The end game is slightly disappointing; most of the positioning as already been made, and it’s just a matter of clicking through turns and finishing the game up. Since the game frowns upon overt military action, there isn’t a huge battle near the end of the game; rather, it’s usually a space race victory for the civilization that is most scientifically advanced. However, the different winning conditions does allow for the use of numerous winning strategies that suits all styles of play. Even though it seems like there is a lot of things to keep track of, the AI does an OK job at running most of the micromanagement, although the automatic workers sometimes do a dubious job. Still, Civilization IV is definitely an achievement in computer gaming, the collective result of 15 years of work. You would expect Civilization IV to excel given its pedigree, and it does, serving up juicy strategy for all the masses to enjoy. The developers also seem committed to the game (unlike some games that are shipped out to make money and never patched, like Madden NFL). The day of release, reports came in of ATI users not being able to run the game (I was won of them). A solution was found in about 24 hours, and the game now performs as you would expect. In general, Civilization IV seems to have enough substance for both beginners and expert Civ players to find a lot to enjoy.