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Sunday, May 28, 2006

An Epic Review of Civilization IV (Part 2)

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

The Game: The game opens with Leonard Nimoy narrating the same opening cards with the same music that opened the original Civilization several lifetimes ago. It's a really nice touch, especially for those of us who spent lots of time with the original game. Civilization IV is quite different from its predecessors. They did make a real effort to redefine the user experience by taking out many things that were annoying, such as pollution, but unfortunately they also put in some pretty annoying stuff (we'll get to that later). In general, I think that its safe to say that while Rise of Nations was an attempt to add Civilization to the RTS format, Civilization IV is an attempt to add RTS elements to Civilization. Civilization IV can be seen as a direct response to Rise of Nations, a valiant attempt to broaden the user base by simplifying the gameplay and adding some RTS-style elements.

The main game window where you'll spend most of your time has been cleaned up and simplified tremendously, and amplified with some snazzy (though excessively resource hogging) 3-d graphics. I really like the way that you can zoom all the way out to see your planet from space; that's a nifty feature (although they didn't take it to its logical conclusion...we'll pick up that rant in Part 3). Although I would rate the main game interface as “Vastly Improved” I would have to rate the advisor screens as “useless;” for whatever reason a lot of the functionality which was there previously is now gone, and it's really annoying. Again, it's a small thing, but I appreciated the concept of giving your advisors a face and a personality-it made things seem more real. That's all gone here; it's like I'm interacting with Lotus-1-2-3, with a lot less functionality, I might add. I'll call out the “Military Advisor” for an especially severe taunting, because they took out the ability to upgrade your units from the advisor screen. You now have to go and hunt down individual units in cities and upgrade them one by one, an incredibly taxing experience. The same story repeats itself throughout the city advisor screens: The functionality and personality from previous Civilization games is gone, replaced with a seemingly detailed spreadsheet that aren't really that useful. We'll put that down as an “I hope they fix it with the expansion pack” kind of deal. Fortunately, enterprising modders have already begun to tweak the advisor screens.

City Management: Improving city management has been one of the most commonly requested features for Civilization IV. This is one thing that Civ III tried to do, but didn't succeed at. Even though the support costs were still borne by a single civilization budget, you had to do a lot of twiddling in each city to control what your civ's production was--a dumb system. There was nothing more frustrating than the "Tenochtitlan can't support..." message. Well, city managment in Civilization IV is quite a different than that in Civ III. The "Governor" function has been discontinued in favor of some simple settings for each city--you can maximize production or research, for example. You can access most of the basic city functions directly from the main screen, without having to zoom into the city view. When you zoom into the city view, it is very similar to the traditional Civilization city management screen (although you can no longer see a picture of what your city looks like; you now see the city and all of the Wonders in the main 3-d view).

Did they cut down on the twiddling? Well, mostly. You no longer have to mess with adding entertainers and physicians to the mix to keep your citizens happy; cities no longer riot (all though they do become unhappy, which lowers production) and instead of pollution, there's now a health metric; industrial cities will be significantly less healthy than smaller cities, which can lead to unhappiness and a decline in production. That's all well and good. However, the unit production is still rather twiddle intensive. Although there is a fairly easy way to have global unit production queues, the cities are different enough that you have to go to each one separately and adjust production. There's no point in having an outlying outpost of the Empire spending 50 turns building a warrior, after all. I was actually very surprised that they chose not to implement the system from Galactic Civilizations, where each colony has dual "social" and "military" production queues, allowing you to both mobilize and improve your civilization. That is one of the real strengths of GalCiv. That's a lot more realistic than the way it's presented in Civilization. In real life, for example, Detroit is not only the automotive and industrial automation capital of the world, but all U.S. military tanks are produced there as well. I'll go ahead and place my vote for dual production queues in Civilization V right now!

Intelligence: One of the things I appreciated about previous games was their emphasis on setting up a quality Foreign Service and Intelligence networks, including embassies; for the most part, that has been deemphasized in this game. Many of the functions of the spies have actually been taken over by the priests and temples. The spy unit in Civilization IV is primarily used for the recon of enemy territory.

The AI in the game is definitely improved over Civilization III; you can now peacefully coexist with at least some of your neighbors, GalCiv style. However, although at first I appreciated the Spreadsheet-like list of your negative and positive attributes in the eyes of the foreign leader that you're talking to, now I'm not a big fan. It makes things too easy; you now know exactly where you stand with everyone without any of the ambiguity that characterizes real-world diplomatic interactions. Despite all the glitzy 3-d avatars for the civilization leaders, they feel much less real to me than the faction leaders in SMAC--Instead, I feel like I'm fighting Microsoft Excel. Plus, inexplicably, you cannot issue demands to the AI any longer. In the old games you could ring up the AI and demand tribute or cities, often outrageously, but now the game selects what you can demand for you. Basically, I felt that you are now limited to simply reacting to your opponents. I rarely issued ultimatums in previous games but now that I can't I really miss this feature.

Conflict and Battles:
Many of the interviews and pre-release hype focused on how they were revamping and improving the military unit management. Let's face it: Civilization is a war game. Conflict is a HUGE part of how you play the game. Unfortunately, the Civilization games (SMAC included) have never really managed the command and control of military units very well. When you have a large military, especially at the end of the game, it's very difficult to control. So, I was hoping that Civilization IV would have something better, perhaps like the original Harpoon's interface for combat, where you could assemble task forces, use combined arms, and move them about as independent units. Y'know, the basic type of commands and abilities that a real leader of a civilization would have, especially with modern C3I (command, control, communications, intelligence) systems. However, they kind of came up short when it came to military unit management. It's still basically the same; the vaunted “RTS-style military management” doesn't in practice work very well. Yes, you can select lots of military units at once, but they don't move in unison unless they're all one unit type. When you move a combined-arms military force, it still meanders along in a very confused fashion. Back to the drawing boards, folks. Still, I'll give them credit: The took the cursed Great Leaders from Civilization III out of the game, and replaced them with much more fun Great Persons. Yay! I really hated how I would never generate any Great Leaders but the AI opponents would come after me with dozens of armies. That small change alone really improved my gameplay experience. In general, though, the way that the military units themselves are handled is an improvement over the previous games, largely because the “guy-with-a-pointed-stick-defeats-M1Abrams-Tank” kinds of battles are now far more infrequent (though, frustratingly, they still happen).

Not MAD Enough:
One thing that I'll call out for a severe taunting: the way the game handles nuclear weapons. In Civilization II, you had almost the full range of strategic deterrent options: you had tactical nuclear missiles, ICBMs, and you could store nuclear missiles on submarines, to have SSBN deterrent patrols. Nuclear weapons had devastating consequences, and could truly be destabilizing. If the AI announced they had one, the tension level rose dramatically. Rise of Nations also handles nuclear weapons well. It doesn't let you do the SSBN thing, but the utter devastation wrought by the nuclear weapons is quite realistic, and the Armageddon timer keeps things from going out of hand while still permitting tactical nuclear releases. In Civilization II, Caesar especially was prone to not only announcing his control of nuclear weapons, but actually releasing them. In one case in Civilization II, having pushed Caesar into a corner with conventional arms, he promptly and unexpectedly decimated Washington and New York. I promptly retaliated using my SSBNs, which were sitting undetected off the Roman coast—an unwanted, though realistic, nuclear exchange. I really don't like the way that nuclear weapons are handled in Civilization IV. Only one kind of nuclear weapon is allowed, and you can't put nuclear weapons on submarines. Plus, despite the hysterical response of the AI players if you actually initiate a nuclear release, they really aren't that powerful; they just do a little damage to all the units in a city, and the city itself is only marginally affected. I'm a peaceful guy, and I'm certainly not advocating the wanton use of nuclear weapons, but if you have to use them, then they should have powerful effects as well as consequences. In Civilization IV, the political effects of using nuclear weapons are overly excessive and the physical effects are far too weak.

Without Vision, the People Perish:
I greatly appreciated how completely essential a healthy R & D budget is to final victory in Civilization IV. If you don't spend on basic R & D, your civilization whithers and dies. Say what you like about the current President, between the Vision for Space Exploration and the American Competitiveness Initiative he's done an excellent job of correcting a decades-long trend and increasing funding for core American engineering/physical science R & D activities—NSF funding tripled, NASA going back to the Moon and on to Mars. So, I thought that was a nice touch on the part of the game designers. I also liked how your R & D investment played into the Culture ranking. What I didn't like was that the orderly technological progression from previous games has been deleted. I can see why they did this, but in my view it doesn't work very well. Hopefully, a future mod (or expansion) will give us traditionalists the ability to turn on a Civilization I-III style tech tree.

Culture War: Paradoxically, although Culture is now a bigger part of the game, I felt that it was harder to wage Culture War on your neighbors in Civilization IV than in Civilization III—enemy cities seem to rebel to your side much more infrequently. I did like the addition of culture specific Wonders like Broadway, and how the culture rating now ties into the city happiness index.

Religions: Speaking of culture, the biggest new addition in Civilization IV is the much-ballyhooed and somewhat controversial Religion feature. I actually like the new Religion feature in the game; it really doesn't distract from the gameplay (although it can also be argued that it doesn't really add that much, either) and was tastefully done in such a way that, objectively speaking, no one really has any right to be offended, flame wars on the forums notwithstanding. I especially liked how you don't have to actively use the Religions if you don't want to, a nice touch. I've heard some suggestions that each religion should have had one unique attribute; I agree, and that could be a good thing for an expansion pack. Another good ideas that I've seen on the forums that could improve this part of the game is have some sort of “Inquistor” unit to go and sweep competing religions out of your cities. My biggest beef with the Civilization IV religion component is that, being a pragmatic type, I tend to research stuff like “Iron Working” and “Horseback Riding” before Mysticism and thus I'm almost always beaten to getting a state religion. In that scenario, the best thing is to get the Free Religion civic ASAP.

The victory conditions remain essentially unchanged from previous games, although a new “Culture Victory” has been added (if you have three cities above a certain culture rating; essentially, you have to build all the Wonders in a few spots). The emasculation of the Space Race Victory continues; it's now even more simplified than it was in even Civilization III. I heartily disagree with this design decision. The endgame race to the stars was one of the best parts about Civs I and II! Civilization I and II featured realistic on-orbit assembly of the ship in space, which could only be stopped by capturing your capital. This really ratcheted up the tension level, making for some memorable late game strategies. In Civilization IV, you just launch a rocket and you win! Gone is the marvelous endgame tension, along with any sense of astronautical engineering reality, as you decide whether you have the time to build a fully equipped starship with a maximum chance of survival or whether you have to launch a bare-bones ship to beat the competition.

Edutainment: Many of the early patches focused on fixing the Civilopedia, giving it the web-like interface and hyperlinks. As usual, you can easily spend a lot of time browsing the Civilopedia (which infuriates folks in multiplayer games, by the way....) and learning a lot about human history. However, as a student of history, I'm forced to point out that the Civilopedia in Civilization IV (unlike the previous games) is written in a far less objective, far snarkier style. Now, I don't want to sound stuck-up, and it is just a game, and we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously, but the Civilization series and the Civilopedia in particular has always been a great way to get young folks to learn about world history in a fun matter, almost despite themselves. For that reason, the informative, objective, and dispassionate Encyclopedia entries from the previous titles (and even the Datalinks entries from SMAC) were really great learning tools. To be blunt, the Civilization IV civilopedia gets it flat-out wrong in a couple of cases, most notably in the Apollo and space elevator entries. A little less snark and a bit more Britannica would have been greatly appreciated.

Government and Social Choices: The civics and government choices have been heavily revamped. I thought that the way that previous games had handled governments and social choices was just fine, and really didn't need any tweaking. In Civilization IV, instead of simply picking a government type, you now have a wide array of sociopolitical options. This is the one area where they did build on the SMAC experience: they were trying to blend the Civilization III style government selection with the SMAC social engineering tab, and for the most part it works.

Monuments: Inexplicably, the “Build-a-palace” screen has been taken out of the game. I really liked the palace feature; I was glad to see it back in Civilization III (Civilization II had a “Throne Room,” which wasn't nearly as much fun). I saw an interview with some of the designers where they essentially said “Oops” about this feature, so maybe we'll see the triumphant return of the palace builder with the expansion pack.

Multiplayer: The multiplayer component of the game has been significantly improved over Civilization III. Or, to put it another way, unlike Civilization III, Civilization IV's multiplayer game actually works. Connecting through firewalls remains problematic, but Civilization IV seems to work very well with the Hamachi program, and is significantly more stable in multiplayer mode than Civilization III.

In Part III, we'll conclude this series of articles by discussing the cool features we wanted that weren't in Civilization IV. Be sure to also read Part I of this series, as well 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: Me!


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