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Saturday, May 27, 2006

An Epic Review of Civilization IV (Part 1)

This review is so long (ironically just like a game of Civ IV) that it will be broken up into several posts. This is Part 1. You can read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Here follows my analysis of Civilization IV, a game which has already accrued some significant accolades, including an Editor's Choice award from Computer Gaming World, the game of the year award from GameSpot, and an 8/10 from Mr. Gnome. The reason why it took so long for me to get around to it (the game is currently about eight months old) is simply because the game was a buggy mess when initially released. I purchased the special edition of the game right off, and was immediately disappointed with the sheer quantity of bugs, the worst being a severe memory leak that slows the game to a standstill (rolling over the turns can result in five minutes of intensive CPU chugging). Of course, with the documented overheat problems with the Inspiron 8600c, intensive CPU chugging means a system restart and pointing a fan at the computer to prevent a fire. I decided to wait for the inevitable patch before doing any sort of analysis or review. As I hinted last week, the 1.52 release that was released on Christmas Eve was a significant improvement, substantially reducing the number of bugs and making so one could actually play the game. Although the annoying memory leaks still occur, they don't happen until later in the game and they're slightly less severe, so they're marginally easier to tolerate. Marginally.

So...let's talk some Civ. Let me make one thing clear: I love the Civilization series of games. I love the idea of starting with one tribe and taking a civilization to the stars. I love the freedom you have to try new strategies. I love how the notion of sending a human colony to Alpha Centauri (correctly, I might add) defines your greatness as a civilization. I love how the game gives you the feeling that you're the leader of a society, with many of the options that a real chief of state would have. I love how you can browse the Civilopedia and learn new things about the progress of history and technology. In short, Civilization is the ultimate thinking person's game, and rewards those with a sense of history and a vision for humanity's future. It's fun and replayable. The more time you put into it, the more fun it is and the more rewarding your experience is. So, if I sound critical, it's because I care. As the old saying goes, just because you love somebody doesn't mean you don't tell them about the mustard on their lip.

A Short History of Civ: There must have been something in the water back in 1991, because that year saw an explosion of incredible creativity which has never been matched: Fred Ford and Paul Reiche created the timeless Star Control II, and Chris Roberts crafted the classic Wing Commander, and Sid Meier crafted the original masterpiece, Civilization. I still love the original game; I spent hours and hours and hours playing Civilization. I still remember with great fondness my 1000 year war with the Romans and the quiet feeling of satisfaction watching your spaceship cruise into the Alpha Centauri system.

My favorite game in the terrestrial "Civilization" series remains Civilization II; I felt that Civilization II offered the most gameplay and unit choices to the player, without sacrificing the artful play balancing of the original Civilization. . However, unless you've been hiding under a rock, you probably know that there was an "Unofficial" sequel to the Civilization series in the form of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, which is definitely the best PC game since the legendary Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters. It's a perfect blend of strategy, well-developed AI, play balancing, player options, and an engaging sci-fi storyline, as well as an incredibly well-thought-out extrapolation of future technologies and social trends. SMAC still occupies a secure place on my hard drive, seven years later, and if Windows Vista makes SMAC unplayable, then I'm not upgrading.

In between Alpha Centauri and Civilization III, Brian Reynolds, the lead designer of SMAC and Civilization II, left Firaxis to start his own company, Big Huge Games. Its first release, Rise of Nations, was an masterpiece of a game that seamlessly integrated Civilization-style gameplay elements with the fun of RTS-style gameplay. Its really fun and very replayable, and definitely had a better multiplayer component than Civilization III. I have a sense that Firaxis definitely missed Mr. Reynolds during the production of Civilization III and Civilization IV, especially because many features of Civilization IV seem to be reactionary responses to Rise of Nations.

The follow-up to SMAC, Civilization III was a decidedly mixed bag, despite being built on the same engine. It didn't build at all upon the incredible creative success of SMAC; it felt simply like a sloppy remake of the first game, although had the new content in the "Conquests" expansion been included in the original game it would have helped. Despite real efforts to simplify and improve the gameplay (airstrikes, empire support costs, new diplomacy options, new governments, armies, and a simplified space race) none of them worked very well, and in fact in two cases (the armies and the simplified space race) they significantly detracted from the gameplay.

Because Civilization III had been such a disappointment, I had high hopes for Civilization IV. Firaxis does a much better job than most companies of interacting with its fan base and listening to feedback, and when I saw some interviews with the new crew of developers saying that they were aware of the deficiencies in Civilization III, were using the legendary "List of Lists" (a fan-compiled list of things requested for Civilization games) as a guide and working to improve the gameplay experience as compared to Civilization III, I became intrigued and hopeful. So, let's take a look at Civilization IV.

The Packaging: I ordered the Civilization IV Special Edition, which was $10 more than the regular edition. It came packaged in an attractive leatherette case, and came with a SMAC-style tech tree poster (helpful in multiplayer games as a quick reference), a spiral-bound version of the player manual, a keyboard command card, and a copy of the soundtrack. It almost felt like I was opening an old DOS game! Well worth the added cost, in my opinion. I have a sneaky hunch, now that these “Special Edition” games are more commonplace, people are choosing the games with all of the nifty goodies over the bare bones PDF manual versions.

The Install: Unlike a lot people's experiences, I actually experienced no problems with the installation; the game correctly configured itself and has native support for the 1200 x 800 screen of my Inspiron 8600c. I was pleasantly surprised by the small-for-these-days-but-still-darn-big-especially-when-you-consider-that-CivI-was-just-2-megabytes 2 GB install footprint. The startup menu includes a handy direct link to the Firaxis autopatcher. You have an option to install the Xfire game chat client, but you can skip it if you don't like Xfire (more about Xfire in a future post)...

The Opening Credits: Unlike the previous games, which tried to show the march of humanity's progress from the Stone Age to the Space Age, the opening animation appears to show a Mediterranean military action in the classical era, circa 500 B.C. or so. It's well done, but I kind of missed the march of human progress theme. Oddly, the Rise of Nations opening animation probably would have worked better in Civilization IV and vice versa.

The Music: Civilization IV features some of the best in-game music since Star Control II, especially the zippy music by Christopher Tin that underlies the opening credits and menu. Called “Baba Yetu,” its an energetic and catchy rendition of the Lord's Prayer in Swahili. Definitely does a great job of setting the tone for the game. You can also define your own playlist (provided the music is in MP3 format) and play that in the game instead.

Picking a Civilization: When you start the game, you no longer pick a civilization; you pick the civilization's leader, who has certain attributes. It's an interesting idea, and for the most part it works. However, one of the game's major weaknesses in my view is the fact that they jettisoned the civilization-specific unit artwork of Civilization III in favor of generalized unit types; all units now look the same regardless of civilization affiliation. It takes a lot of the atmosphere out of the game.

In Part 2, we'll examine what playing the game is like. In Part 3, we'll examine some of the game's major shortcomings. Be sure to also read our story about a three day multiplayer Civilization IV match, Juliraptor's discussion about how to mod and patch Civilization IV, and her impressions of the game. Photo Credit: Firaxis Fan Site Kit.


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