Monday, October 06, 2008

Civilization IV: Colonization Review

Civilization IV: Colonization, developed by Firaxis and published by 2K Games on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Complex resource management, production, and trade makes for unique gameplay, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Needs a more explicit tutorial, tool-tips should be more descriptive, only one victory condition, just a handful of nations to choose from, archaic interface, difficult on novices
What say you? A fine update of a unique fourteen-year-old game: 6/8

With all of the quality older games on the PC and elsewhere, a popular choice is to update them with snazzy new graphics and improved system compatibility. We’ve seen this recently with Bionic Commando Rearmed and semi-recently with all of those Matrix Games remakes. Next, it is Colonization’s turn. The 1994 title has been updated with Civilization IV’s graphics engine, multiplayer, and a handful of other minor changes. Will this reboot appropriately update a solid gaming premise?

As you might have been able to tell from the title, Civilization IV: Colonization uses the graphics engine from Civilization IV. The result is a fine looking game that shows that the three-year-old engine still has some life left in it. The character animations are less fluid than you would like, but the terrain looks fantastic and conveys a rugged New World to explore. If you’ve played Civilization IV, then you have a pretty good idea what to expect here. The sound effects are almost completely carried over from Civilization IV, although there is (I think) some original background music to accompany all of your colonizing needs. Despite using an engine that, relatively speaking, is quite old, Civilization IV: Colonization still maintains a high level of quality with a characteristic theme.

In Civilization IV: Colonization, you pick one of four nations who were adept at colonizing North America: England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Notably absent is Portugal, who did their fair share of taking over natives in Brazil, and this fifth nation could be balanced by the Russians who spent time up in Alaska. Each nation has two leaders to choose from, each of which grants a unique second bonus in addition to the national bonus each country receives, such as better trade or military bonuses. The “New World” map is randomly generated each turn, which greatly increases replay value instead of using the real geography. The map size and difficult levels can also be adjusted, in addition to the game speed. Multiplayer games can be done online (using Gamespy Arcade inside the game), although you’ll really want to use a faster speed. The tutorial is very basic and doesn’t explain a large majority of the game: simple missions conveyed through pop-ups are all that new players are given to acclimate to the game (well, that and the manual, but who reads that thing?). Civilization IV: Colonization really needs a robust set of tutorials that explain each phase of the game; it took me a good four or five play-throughs to completely understand what the heck I was doing, and I play a lot of strategy games. Civilization IV: Colonization only has one victory condition, independence, which means every game will involve the same strategy: make money through trade, build up the military, and attack. Flexible it is not.

Civilization IV: Colonization is more about resource management than more traditional strategy gaming, and it’s a good thing that the game is fairly interesting due to the complex interrelationships between goods. Step one is to found a colony, typically one on the coast surrounded by a lot of resources. Each colony controls its tile and the surrounding eight; colonists can be assigned to collect raw materials from any surrounding tile or work in a manufacturing center that usually converts raw materials to a finished product that trades for more money. The game does a fine job automatically assigning new colonists to a particular job, although if you want a specific focus you can lock the AI out of making adjustments to some or all of the positions. Most colonists have a specialization that will increase how many goods they produce, so taking advantage of both your available resources and workers to meet your needs is intriguing. The whole point of manufacturing goods is to ship them off to Europe, which is done by sending them on (surprise!) a ship. Inland cities must have their goods transported to a coastal location; this can be done using wagon trains and set up to do an infinite, automatic trade route.

One thing that has unfortunately carried over from the 1994 version of the game is the interface. I cannot understand why developers insist on having full-screen informational displays when almost everyone that uses a PC has a high-resolution display. All of the important displays (your towns, Europe) take up the entire screen and are generally filled with too much unnecessary blank space. I had to switch between full-screen display far too often and it slowed down the game to a tedious pace. In addition, Civilization IV: Colonization lacks detailed information in-game: tool-tips for workers don’t describe which jobs they are best for (and neither does the manual). For example, is a weaver only good in a clothes-making building or does their bonus extend to collecting cotton? There is too much trial and error in figuring out who can do what best. The game really needs a flow chart or something to make the relationships more clear.

Civilization IV: Colonization takes a slightly different approach to unit creation. Instead of simply building a “soldier” or a “farmer,” they must appear in Europe and then transported overseas to the New World. The more people you have working in churches (since most of this stuff was fueled by religion), the faster new people will appear. You can also hurry “production” of new citizens (good in the early game) or outright purchase them (good in the late game). All of that cash you earned through trade can be used here to further expand your colonies by purchasing military units or new workers. The pioneer unit is your “engineer” that can build roads and clear land to increase production, although the increases are so small that it’s better to employ pioneers in a city to collect goods and hire specialists in the area you need. Founding fathers will also appear over time, activated by reaching a certain level of awesomeness in political, religious, exploration, or trade categories. These founding fathers will grant some sort of bonus if you choose to hire them, and they can only be employed by one nation at a time.

Not only are you competing against three other European nations, but Native American tribes will also populate the area. It’s usually a good idea to not anger them early on in the game while your military is still in its infancy. Founding new colonies near their cities will require a bribe or you will have to face the wrath of war. There are basic diplomatic options you can undertake with both the natives and the other European nations: war, peace, trade, and open borders. You will have to engage at least your mother country in battle at some point, since the only victory is independence. You can increase the likelihood of a revolution by assigning statesmen to political buildings; once enough rebel sentiment accumulates, you will draft a constitution (which, like the founding fathers, will grant some sort of rule or bonus for war time) and start fighting.

Combat is identical to Civilization IV: two sprites meet in a tile and it is automatically resolved using dice rolls. Thus, overall victory is determined on how well you managed your resources. I found Civilization IV: Colonization to be quite difficult as I was learning to play it, mostly because the tutorials were so terrible and the manual lacked key information. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, I usually forgot to do something and got taken over by a native tribe or another European power. This is a complex game that is not for strategy novices; Civilization IV is far more inviting for a general audience. There are so many needs that it’s quite hard to balance everything. You need to make money through trade. You need to make arms for your military. You need to make food. You need to make tools for new buildings. And so on. If you can wrap your head around everything, then Civilization IV: Colonization is a fun game that still is quite unique.

Civilization IV: Colonization accomplishes its goal: update the venerable strategy game with modern graphics and a handful of small tweaks to the mechanics. I think this title will appeal more towards nostalgic fans of the original title, as the poor tutorials, insufficient tool-tips, and high difficulty will deter new players from venturing to the New World. Still, the complex resource management means there is always something to tweak and you are never, ever sitting around with nothing to do (a common occurrence in many strategy games). This is slightly more than a simple mod of Civilization IV: it’s a professional mod of Civilization IV but it is executed in a fine manner. Civilization IV: Colonization is compelling and different enough to still be a solid game today, as long as you can overcome the interface and tutorial deficiencies.