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Civilization 4 Review by Chris "Velociryx" Hartpence (Part 2/2)

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  • Civilization 4 Review by Chris "Velociryx" Hartpence (Part 2/2)

    PART 2: After Several Days of Non-Stop Playing... (Page 1/3)

    The only way to write a review worth reading is to play the hell out of the game in question, so that's what I've been doing for the last several days.

    I've played quick, standard, epic, and accelerated start games, some through to completion and a whole bunch of "mini-games" to test certain theories out, attempt to stress or break the game, and experiment in general. Let me break it down for you.

    CivIV is divided into six basic areas that require player input and management at the city level. These areas are:

    • Population Growth (food production)
    • Productivity (hammer production, formerly shields)
    • Money (to be used to either line your pockets or pay for research)

    Nothing new there....that's standard fare 4X [(eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation, and eXtermination)] stuff. Now add the following:

    • Health (unhealthy cities are less productive cities)
    • Happiness (unhappy cities are less productive cities)
    • G-Man Rate (The rate at which your city generates "Great People" of different types)

    NOTE: None of these three are early game concerns....they are introduced gradually, as cities grow, and as technological research continues to develop.

    With the inclusion of these three areas, now we're starting to get somewhere! Now we're starting to get some interesting choices and tradeoffs! Ahhh, but there's more.

    In addition to these six basic areas, which are entirely "city centric," there are six additional areas that overlay the basic city-oriented structure of Civ IV, and tie it all together into a cohesive (Imperial) whole, and these are:

    • Civ Traits/Starting Techs (each civ in the game comes with two traits and two starting techs, giving each a different set of opening abilities out the gate, and leading to a staggering variety of possible playing styles and strategies).
    • Diplomacy/Espionage (flip sides of the same basic coin, and all about your relations/dealings with rival civs)
    • Religion Overlay (seven different religions in all, with the option to found one or more of them, and a variety of compelling in-game benefits for doing so. Religion stands on its own, and also modifies Diplomacy (above) and Culture (below).
    • Cultural Overlay (a measure of the overall strength, vitality, and enduring value that your civilization is creating, most prominently expressed in terms of how far your borders extend from your cities, and quite powerful in this regard, as it can allow cultural absorption of nearby rival cities, and/or bring in wholly new resources into your sphere of influence).
    • Civics Overlay (governmental choices in the same vein as SMAC's Social Engineering Table, with effects that modify existing in-game conditions, and at time, open up wholly new possibilities (ie, slavery allowing population to be sacrificed to the completion of a building you're working on)).
    • Empire Overlay (increasing maintenance costs for founding additional cities, based on the number you have, and their distance from your capitol. This tends to put the brakes on rampant expansion (at least on higher difficulty levels), as you will reach a point where the maintenance costs for a newly founded city are not worth what it generates each turn in gold. At that point, your treasury goes negative, and must be offset by slowing down research, which is the kiss of death...thus, measured growth is the new key to success).

    By now, we're getting verging on genuine complexity, and that's a good thing, but there's even more!

    Added to all of that is the fact that we've got a good (largish), robust tech tree with and/or branches (multi-linear...multiple possible paths to the same end-point, new territory for Civ, and very dynamic and exciting!). Even better, gone is the notion of "speedbump" techs...techs you HAVE TO research, but that don't do anything for you in the way of providing some kind of in-game benefit.

    The tech tree, how to attack it, and what your strategic goals are is really a mini-game all by itself, with the rewards for playing that particular game well being manifold, and range from being the father of one or more religions, to being the first to be in a position to afford another round of expansion, or being an early era production titan by reaching Forges first, making choices about what wonders to build, and what you may have to give up in the attempt...

    In short, the tech tree alone opens up enormous avenues of experimentation, and it is but a single element of the whole!

    Combat in Civ is somewhat weak (which keeps with tradition, in this regard, because combat in Civ has always been somewhat weak), but as I have argued many times in the past, at its core, Civ is NOT a war game, but an empire building game, and its aim is to allow the player to experience the whole width and bredth of human history. As such, combat has its place and plays a part, to be sure, but in order for it to be fitted into the overall context of the game, it must be, by definition, a highly abstracted, almost stylized affair, and this is in fact, what occurs in-game. It too, is something of a mini-game... the management, care and feeding of your armies, from what to build, what and when to upgrade, how to promote your units, where and when to best use them, etc.

    All of this taken together -- the city-centric measures under direct player control, the empire-spanning overlays under somewhat less control, and the mini-games of attacking the tech tree and combat all combine to deliver the total Civ Experience, and the end result is that the magic is back.

    Where CivIII was a bitter disappointment, CivIV restores my faith in the franchise, and the direction it is moving in. Yes, there are some aspects of the game that I dearly wish had been pushed and developed even further, but I can wait, and if [Lead Designer] Soren [Johnson] and Company are heavily involved in the making of CivV, then I have high hopes that the trend we're seeing now will continue on into the future.


    PART 2: ... No Guts, No Glory (Page 2/3)

    CivIV's strong points are numerous, and among them I would name the following:

    • Excellent overall design that has eliminated a great deal of micro-management from the mix.
    • Filled to the brim with "interesting choices!"
    • Cities really MATTER now, as do military units. Everything is fairly expensive (especially on Epic!), and a disasterous, poorly planned and executed military campaign will be a blow in more ways than one.
    • Solid, functional interface. Not glamerous, not great, but also not kludgy. It does what it needs to do, and does not try to do more.
    • Awesome music and ambient sounds. I sometimes find myself sitting through the entire song at the main menu just because I enjoy it so much!
    • Attention to detail in unit animations and map/resource animations make just LOOKING at the game enjoyable.
    • Extras! Quotes and wonder movies!
    • Deep, compelling choices to be made, starting from turn one, that will radically alter the shading of your game.

    Downsides:

    • Civilopedia -- in general, less than helpful and not-quite-complete.
    • Stability. Game has a tendency to crash to the desktop with frequency on less-than-optimal systems. I can live with not getting the full graphical effect of the game, but if my rig meets minimum system requirements, I think I should at least be able to play a game on a standard map without 30-50+ CTD's over the course of a game. It's annoying, and it detracts from the immersion.
    • Quotes -- I like Spock, I really do... but to have Leonard Nimoy as the sole voice throughout the entire game is a bit much, and it actually detracts from the beauty of the quotes. Thumbs up for their inclusion, thumbs down for delivery method (often, Nimoy mispronounces words, or even misspeaks them entirely, and in almost every case, there's a near-total lack of inflection). This is a game about CIVILIZATION... it's the most exciting story ever told! The most dramatic story of all time! It should have a whole tapestry of voices...a chorus. I[n] M[y] O[pinion], the team would have been better off to have their own members doing the quotations.
    • Wonder Movies -- as above... awesome that they're back, but they're kinna... bland. They don't tell a story in the least. Some of the construction vids are intriguing, but on the whole, and given what has been previously done in this area, I must confess to being mystified at this as approach as a choice.
    • Pacing could be better, but this, like highly abstracted combat, has been an issue since CivI. Ancient era is a bit draggy at the start and then VERY exciting, while the later eras fly by too quickly and get increasing less exciting.
    • Diplomacy is passingly good, but not as complex as it could be, and Espionage is downright weak (a point that Soren has said, himself).
    • There are a collection of minor annoyances revolving around units, none of which are game-killers, but taken as a whole, they can get downright annoying (units asleep in transports don't always stay asleep for the whole trip, waking up and demanding attention, especially if they're in need of promotions, and the routine to cycle to the next active unit during your turn needs some help, in that often when I'm in the middle of a heated battle, the "next unit" the computer selects for me to deal with is a worker on the other side of the continent, rather than the next unit in my combat stack... stuff like that).

    Note that the most of the items on the plus side of the list revolve around the overall design, while the negatives are on the periphery, and this sums up my overall impression of the game very well. It's solid, compelling game play with nearly all the extras we asked for delivered in some form or fashion, but generally delivered with more FORM than fashion (ie, they're present, but clearly not all they could be).

    Given that these are my biggest gripes about the game, I guess you could say that I'm sold... even as the honeymoon begins to draw to a close.


    PART 2: Final Thoughts and Musings (Part 3/3)

    Despite the fact that I WANT to believe in this game, I did my best to "break" it. To find the "one best answer" that was always the right choice, every time you played (like ICS in every previous iteration of Civ). If I could break it in the time allotted to me for the review, then I could point to the broken thing and say to those who read this review, "HA! You see...for all their trying, they still could not fix the game!"

    And I would have, too. Not because I have some sort of vendetta against the company (in fact, I respect them deeply, and now more than ever, having played their latest game), but because I want my review to reflect the reality of the product, and if it was broke, I wouldn't have pulled any punches, no matter how many egos it may have bruised. So after giving it my best effort in the time allotted to me, I'm happy to report that I was unable to do it. I was unable to "break" the game.

    Instead, much to my pleasant and growing surprise, I found a robust system with numerous viable approaches, and a depth of strategy that blows through the game world like a breath of fresh air. I am enjoying playing this game immensely, and now that I've put the wraps on this review, I think I've got time for "just a few more turns" of Civ before it's time for bed.

    That, I feel, speaks volumes, all by itself.

    Check out Part 1 of Velociryx' Civ4 Review.

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