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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

An Epic Review of Civilization IV (Part 3)

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

In this part of my Civilization IV review, we’ll discuss in detail some of what I feel are the game’s principal shortcomings, beginning with the major lack of new content.
The trend in previous Civilization games has been increasing complexity, while preserving fun and entertaining gameplay. Civilization II had many more features and content than Civilization I, and Alpha Centauri had many more features and content than Civilization II. However, the increasing complexity was always done in such a way that it was fun, and I really appreciated how each new release added more and more stuff. It provided a lot of strategic options for the player, thus making it interesting and replayable. That’s the reason why I kept coming back to Civilization, replaying it frequently, and upgrading with gusto as each new release and expansion pack came out.
That trend was well and truly ended with Civilization III. There wasn’t really any major new content, and since they tried to simplify the game, a lot of game elements were removed (as evidenced by the simplistic space race victory mode). As a consequence, I felt that Civilization III was far less engaging and replayable than its predecessors, and displayed a notable lack of creativity, especially when compared to SMAC. So, I was hoping that Civilization IV would have significant new content. However, I was supremely disappointed with what was actually included in Civilization IV. Besides the graphical eye-candy, the only truly new gameplay component is religion. I therefore think that Civilization IV seriously missed the boat when it came to new content in general (I covered some specific gameplay-related issues in Part 2), but this is especially true when it comes to a certain class of content that I'll call “The Longer Reach of History.”
The Vision Thing: One of the most fun things about Alpha Centauri was that it was a well-thought out, carefully researched extrapolation of future technologies and social trends. One of the things that supremely disappointed me about previous Civilization games is that they all stop at 2050. You don't get to see the starship land, you don't get to build maglevs, or fusion reactors, or photon computers, or hypersonic aircraft, or fuel cells, or lunar colonies, or undersea habitats, or reusable space launch vehicles. I want to see what the future is like, and how decisions I made in the 3rd century B.C. affect that future. Will my nation look like Blade Runner, or like Star Trek’s San Francisco, circa 2364? How will orbital bombers affect political and military relationships on this planet? Will new technologies like methane hydrate extraction and asteroid mining reduce or enhance global conflicts?
Now, this is a contentious issue on the Civ forums. There's a vocal contingent of people (for the sake of anonymity, we’ll just call them the “ignorant luddites”) who feel that the game is a historical recreation of human history, and future techs absopositively do not belong in Civilization, ever. Their arguments can be distilled to two points: 1)That they don’t think that “Future Techs” like lunar colonies will ever happen, and therefore shouldn’t be in Civilization or b) extending the game out to the far future would impose having to learn a complicated and tedious tech tree on the player, thus making it less fun. Point A is demonstrably untrue; we’ll get to that later. Point B does have some small degree of validity. The SMAC tech tree is probably the biggest single reason why veteran Civilization players didn’t like SMAC. I say “small” because all you had to do to understand the tech tree was read the Datalinks about the tech in question and/or look at the handy tech tree poster that shipped with the game, and you’d be all set. Just another example of how people irrationally fear change.

My considered response to the Point A is a firm “tbbbpffft.” I encounter luddites frequently, and to be blunt I pity folks who don't want to see what's over the next hill. The future is going to happen, and it’s also going to be where you’ll be spending the rest of your life. If a SMAC-style extrapolation to the year 3000 is too daunting, then you could make the cutoff, say, 2200 and still have an entertaining and plausible extrapolation to some limited set of future technologies and social trends. I'm told that the Activision Civilization series tried to do this, but since I never played those games I'm not sure how successful they were (scuttlebutt is, not very). In a nutshell, what I really, really wanted to see in Civilization IV was some sort of melding of the Civilization Tech Tree with the SMAC tech tree, as well as the inclusion of an undersea colonies and space development system that improved on the SMAC feature set. Now, that would have been cool.
Unfortunately, Civilization IV is even more minimalistic and nihilistic than Civilization III. In many respects, it has a lesser scope than the original game! You can build the space elevator, which really doesn't do that much, and research an aptly though uninspiring named “Future Tech”. Real imaginative, guys. The game still ends at 2050. There's no provision for stuff like fusion power. If you were expecting ocean settlements, like in Alpha Centauri, you'll be disappointed. There’s also no provision for OTEC power plants, manganese mining, and methane hydrate extraction. Ditto for maglevs, fusion plants, or any of the other technologies that we will be able to see for ourselves over the next few decades.
Space is our civilization’s future...too bad it's not in Civilization: Which brings us to the High Frontier (you knew this would pop up sooner or later, didn't you?). I've always been profoundly bugged about the fact that you can send a ship to Alpha Centauri but you can't colonize the Moon or Mars in Civilization. Here in real life, the Moon and Mars have been there for the taking since 1972 and we haven't done squat. Alpha Centauri voyages are at least 50 years away, and will almost certainly require an extensive infrastructure in cislunar space to make it happen (or, to put it another way: Thriving communities on the Moon, Mars, the Trojans, and the asteroids will begat thriving communities in other star systems).
Space development is the classic disruptive technology. When the United States succeeds in making space an accessible realm of human economic endeavor, we'll reap some pretty significant rewards that will transform our society: unlimited power from space solar power stations, unlimited materials mined from asteroids, super strong alloys created in microgravity factories, a virtually unlimited supply of platinum-group metals for fuel cells....I'll stop there, but there's a million more. Space is important. Whether Western civilization will survive depends entirely on whether or not, over the next few decades, we succeed in opening the High Frontier. Due to simple incompetence and lack of will, it’s quite possible that we won’t, and then our lives will all get a lot worse rather quickly.
Since the long term survival of our civilization depends on our development of space, it is therefore completely appropriate for space development and settlement to be part of a Civilization game. Now, I’m not alone in wanting to see this, because this is one of the most-requested features for the Civ games. In fact, I remember seeing an editorial in the short-lived Egghead Software Magazine suggesting that space development should be a part of Civilization back in 1992. It's even in the List of Lists mentioned in Part One. I'm therefore surprised that it hasn't been put in yet, except for a limited implementation in SMAC, which actually had orbital power systems, hydroponic facilities, and asteroid mining built in. It was primitive, but it was there. I gather that the first Call to Power game had a space colonization component, but apparently it wasn't very good, because it's frequently cited as the best reason to not include it in Civilization!
To that, I say, “Poppycock!” There's lots of ways that one could unobtrusively add space development to Civilization, you just need to be creative. For example, you could have a space solar power system be a Wonder that provides free energy to your civilization. You could do what SMAC did, and have space mining colonies be components built and launched from individual cities. You could have the first Civ to get to an asteroid receive unlimited resources.
You even could simulate the whole thing (although I’ll admit that this would probably work better as part of its own standalone game), unlocking it when you hit that point on the tech tree. You could build O’Neill habitats at the Lagrange points, lunar colonies, and start to terraform Mars, while simulating the population growth and the trade routes (lunar solar power to Earth for funds, lunar oxygen to the space stations, super strong materials to Earth and the Moon, etc.) The colonies would have a more limited set of city improvements and could increase your civilization size total. The space colonies would "unlock" the research of more technologies (microgravity-produced materials and pharmaceutical products) and Wonders like space solar power systems that would give your terrestrial civilization definite advantages. The fancy 3-d globe view in Civilization IV could have been used to zoom out to see a view of the solar system and would allow you to click on various planets or points in space, which would bring up a more traditional Civilization world interface for each point, a lot like Sierra's classic "Alien Legacy" (like in the screenshot at left). Heck, you could even have an option for a “traditional” Civilization game, letting the luddites turn off all of this future tech and space stuff to keep them happy. There seems to me to be a lot of gaming potential here, and I while think it’s clear that a standalone Civilization in Space product would be an incredibly fun and rewarding experience to play with an amazing array of strategic choices, there certainly exists opportunities to add Future Tech and space development to a more traditional, terrestrially-centered Civilization game.
Unfortunately, none of this applies to Civilization IV. You can build a space elevator, but there's still no provision for Lunar or Martian colonies, asteroid mining, O'Neill colonies, space factories, or X-40 style orbital bombers in Civilization IV. Granted, if you have a space elevator, then all the rest of this stuff will happen in due course, which was probably in the back of the designer’s minds. Still, that's not as much fun as doing it yourself.
Although I understand that the designers wanted to keep things simple, I think that they really missed the boat on this one. There must be a fun way to add this “Longer Reach of History” content, including an expanded tech tree, a significant space settlement and development component, future weapons, and projected social trends to a terrestrially-centered Civilization game, without it being dull and tedious. Firaxis had a chance to create an epic and inspiring game about humanity's inevitable spread into the Universe that surrounds us, and they blew it. They're now going to get beaten to the punch by Spore, which already looks like it's going to be a very special game. I expect and hope that enterprising modders will start adding more future technology components, including space colonization, to the game now that the SDK is out.
A Mod World: The answer to the missing content and gameplay issues raised above is going to be the game's modability and extensibility. I’m a big fan of game mods; Mods for UT2004 have really expanded the longevity of that title, and in the case of Orbiter, for example, have dramatically added to its the content and usefulness. So, I am very happy that Civilization IV was built from the ground up to support modding and includes native support for XML and Python. Almost all aspects of the game can be changed. Now that the SDK has been formally released, I expect the quantity and quality of mods to dramatically increase. I also expect that many of my problems with the gameplay and content will eventually be rectified by mods. The best place to get mods, of course, is the Civilization Fanatics Forum Creation and Customization section, where there’s lots and lots of good stuff.
Modding is great, so why is it in this section? The reason is managing the mods is a real chore. The model for supporting fan-made mods is Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. FS2004 has a really neat interface that let’s you add mods to the game, pick the ones you want to play with (you can pick as many as you want, and they’re persistent across gaming sessions), and tells you of potential conflicts if you’re running more than one, all from within the game. By contrast, much of the Civ IV modding is done by adding files in Windows Explorer and/or modifying text files, you can only run one mod at a time from within the game, and when you start a mod it requires a game restart. That’s annoying. If Civ IV was the first game that supported mods, I would go easy on it, but here in the 21st century, an FS2004-style mod management screen isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Bugs...lots of 'em: This brings me to the technical issues, which are the biggest single problem with this game. When the game first came out, I experienced repeated crashes and memory leaks. It was unplayable. The first patch helped things a little bit, but serious problems persisted for me until the 1.52 patch released Christmas Eve. Now, in a post-1.52 patch world, when game year 1900 comes along, I still start to experience severe memory leaks, video stutters, and hang-ups. Needless to say, it's massively annoying and frustrating, especially since with my build-gobs-of-infrastructure-then-smush-my-opponents-with-modern-armor style of play most of the action happens near the end of the game. I suspect that I would enjoy this game more if it didn't make me wait for 10-15 seconds before every unit movement or battle resolution. The typical answer to this problem on the forums seems to be “Buy more RAM,” which I suppose might be considered by some a valid solution. BUT, in my opinion, if you meet the minimum hardware requirements for a game, it should run just fine at a low or even medium graphical detail setting. You may have to turn off some eye-candy, but with all the settings dialed down it should run very smoothly in all situations. In my case, my machine easily exceeds the hardware settings listed on the Civilization IV box, and it still runs slower than molasses in February, even with all of the graphics settings dialed down to their minimum. I regard this as completely unacceptable. 2K/Firaxis actually had an extensive public beta for the game, which should have ironed out most if not all of the technical problem. Astonishingly, the beta test did not. I wish that Firaxis had been a little less aggressive with their hardware requirements, and had also tested the game on more laptops and low-end systems in order to iron out the kinks for those of us without liquid-cooled dual-core Falcon V Athlon FX-62 SLI RAID systems. Since the 1.09 patch pushed the onset of severe memory leaks back to the 1800s and the 1.52 patch pushed the leaks back to the 1900s I'm hoping that the 1.61 patch will push them into the 2000s. [UPDATE: Nope, memory leaks still there with the 1.61 patch...guess I'll see how the next patch does….]
Conclusion: If it sounds like I have conflicting opinions about Civilization IV, I do. I give the designers a lot of kudos for reevaluating the user experience from the ground up. I really can't blame them for not trying new things. There really is a lot to like in this game, including: The simplified new game interface, the ability to zoom out and see the whole planet, the new civics screen, the refined emphasis on culture and scientific research, the replacement of the pollution with the much more fun “health” metric, the return of wonder movies, religions, improved enemy AI, and extensive built-in mod support.
I really do like some of the design changes, but for every cool thing they put in, either they changed something that I liked or put in something I didn't like, including: The “and/or” tech tree, the snarky civilopedia, the useless advisor screens, the “Diplomatic Spreadsheet” that takes most the fun out of negotiations with AI players, the unrealistic nuclear weapons, the non-unique artwork for civilization units, guys with pointy sticks can still defeat B-2s, there's no throne room or palace, the on-orbit assembly version of the space race victory is still MIA, excessive hardware requirements, and it still has significant technical problems, even after three patches.
By most reasonable metrics, Civilization IV is a good and (mostly) fun game. Despite the preceding rants, I actually like it quite a bit. But I also strongly feel that it’s missing something. Civilization IV doesn't include features that I and other fans have been waiting for a long time to see, including better military management, dual production queues, a longer reach of history, an expanded tech tree, futuristic military units, undersea colonies, and space development. This complete lack of major new content is a severe shortcoming of the game. I think that Firaxis/2K really missed the conceptual boat by not turning outward and melding Civilization with Alpha Centauri, especially with Spore on the way. Instead, they turned inward, simplifying and narrowing the focus of the game, and in the process I feel that they stripped a lot of the game's personality and character away. In addition, I strongly feel that the move to a 3-d graphics engine, while having impressive results on high-end systems, unnecessarily imposed excessive hardware requirements on the 99.9% of us who don't have dual-core gaming powerhouse machines while causing a bevy of technical problems with the game--without actually improving the gameplay.
Is Civilization IV better than Civilization III? It's different, but not necessarily better. Is it better than Civilization II? Nope. Is it better than Alpha Centauri? Definitely not. Is it fun? Yes. Do I like Civilization IV? Yes, and I play it frequently, but I strongly feel that it's a few patches and several mods away from being the game that it could be. Is Civilization IV worth buying? Maybe. More than any other game I think I've ever played, my answer to the question “Should I buy Civilization IV?” would be “It depends”. If you are someone who has always been put off by the complexity of the Civilization series, now is your big chance to try it. If you loved Civ I, Civ II, and SMAC, Civ IV is different enough that you might be put off. In any case, you should download the demo and see if it works well with your hardware, as well as meshes with your individual tastes and expectations. You'll probably like it, but there's also a decent chance that you won't.

Be sure to also read Part 1 and Part 2 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: Civilization IV Fansite Kit/Firaxis.



  1. I guess that calling this review thorough and exhaustive would be a gross understatement...

    AMAZING job!

  2. Why, no. THANK YOU!!!