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Civilization 4 Review by "Yin26" (Part 1/3)

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  • Civilization 4 Review by "Yin26" (Part 1/3)

    Author Profile
    Yin26

    A long-time "on" and "off" poster on Apolyton Civilization Site's forums and strategy gamer, he has been notably vocal and critical in the past of Alpha Centauri, Civilization: Call to Power and more recently Civilization III.

    The 34-year-old lives in New Haven, Connecticut with his wife and two young daughters. He is working on funding for university students to study East Asian languages in China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

    Civilization 4 Review by 'yin26'

    CivIV tries to do more with less (fewer units, fewer cities, etc.) -– and often succeeds, at least through an engaging early game. New twists, such as Great People and battlefield promotions, also allow for some wonderfully fresh strategic possibilities, even if these take some time to learn and appreciate. This approach solves many old Civ problems while introducing some novel gameplay, and any serious Civer should try CivIV just to see these elements in action.

    But an overly rapid progression up the tech tree and what seems to be a shallow menu of available units (again, in part, because the tech progression is too fast?) quickly pushes aside the wonderful early game and the subtle nuance, giving way to a late game bogged down in the repetitive tedium that many Civ fans have long hoped would be put to bed. Not helping the situation is an interface that hinders more than inspires and a host of performance issues that threaten to push some players to relegate CivIV to the shelf until help arrives. In short, CivIV is best approached as a promising work in progress.

    That said, higher difficulty levels and aggressive Artificial Intelligence (AI) settings (coupled with Raging Barbarians, if you really want your ego tested) guarantee all but the Civ Gods among us a good challenge, certainly enough challenge to last through the first expansion pack by which point [developer] Firaxis [Games] should have polished the game much further.


    CivIV by the Numbers: The Criteria

    Before I get ahead of myself, I want to re-introduce “Yin's Incredible Review Machine,” which is a crude device that allows YOU to rate CivIV on your own terms. I have tried to weigh things here as objectively as possible, and the system is just trying to give you a rough idea of what CivIV might mean to you. For anybody trying to decide whether or not to buy CivIV, this system is as good as any.

    Keep a running tally of the scores, which will produce a review result below:

    1. OVERALL EXPECTATIONS
      1. [-1] I want CivIV to revolutionize the genre.
      2. [0] I want CivIV to revolutionize itself.
      3. [+1] I want CivIV to improve some old stuff, add some good new stuff and get rid of some bad old stuff.
      4. [+2] I just want CivIV.

    2. THE MANUAL
      1. [-1] The manual should explain all important concepts in detail. Also, I need an index (or searchable PDF version).
      2. [0] I think a manual should be thorough, accurate and stuffed with vital information about the main aspects of gameplay. An index or PDF is great but makes no difference to me.
      3. [+1] I'm just glad to get a printed manual these days, especially one that's spiral bound!
      4. [+2] I don't ever read manuals.

    3. TUTORIAL
      1. [-1] Considering that the tutorial can form your first impression of the game, it should be helpful and inspiring.
      2. [0] It's a tutorial. Who cares?
      3. [+1] A tutorial that covers some basic concepts so I can at least start the game with some momentum is good enough.
      4. [+2] There's a tutorial!?

    4. GRAPHICS and SOUNDS
      1. [-1] Good graphics and sounds in a strategy game should never come at the expense of computer performance from beginning to end.
      2. [0] I appreciate good graphics and music, but if not implemented well (stuttering video or music that hardly plays), then it's kind of a wash.
      3. [+1] I think good graphics and sounds are important parts of the game and will put up with some performance issues while patches further optimize the code.
      4. [+2] I have waited years for CivIV to make the leap to 3D!

    5. THE INTERFACE
      1. [-1] I think the interface should make my attempt to do or find something effortless and intuitive.
      2. [0] I think an interface can be greatly improved with player feedback and know that a patch will likely make things better.
      3. [+1] I think the interface is good enough if I can learn it rather quickly, even if it's quirky.
      4. [+2] I used keyboard shortcuts and/or have a high tolerance for these issues anyway.

    6. UNDERSTANDING GAME CONCEPTS
      1. [-1] I want all game concepts to be readily understandable and open to strategic manipulation in a clear and intuitive way.
      2. [0] I do not expect to understand everything all at once, but between the manual, forum discussions, and feedback from Firaxis, I hope eventually to understand everything in detail.
      3. [+1] I don't mind having a bit of mystery behind some game elements and even enjoy coming up with odd or counter-intuitive solutions on my own if need be.
      4. [+2] I only need some basic idea of what's going on and will simply just ignore things that I don't like or don't readily understand.

    7. ARITIFICAL INTELLIGENCE (AI)
      1. [-1] I like an AI that, if it has an advantage, always presses it.
      2. [0] I like an AI that presses its advantage only when its chances of success are high.
      3. [+1] I like an AI that abides by friendships earned over the course of the game in understandable ways, even if this means games can end up being very friendly. The reverse should also be true: enemies should stay enemies.
      4. [+2] As long as there is MP and varying levels of difficulty in SP, I'll find the challenge I need anyway.

    8. BUGS
      1. [-1] I want the game out of the box to be without any major bugs.
      2. [0] While I'm patient, I don't tolerate broken games either. The game needs to be very playable with only the occasional issue.
      3. [+1] I accept bugs as part of the process and am willing to wait for patches.
      4. [+2] I am used to bugs and don't really care if a patch is released as long as it's playable.

    9. MULTIPLAYER and EDITOR
      1. [-1] I think full and stable Multiplayer/Editor ability out of the box is very important, particularly if we have been promised it!
      2. [0] Give me most of what is promised and I'll wait to some reasonable degree for things to get sorted out.
      3. [+1] I don't mind the absence of MP/Editor elements since I am confident they will come later, and I am happy with single player now.
      4. [+2] I will only play single player, so with MP/Editor or without, I will simply play.

    10. SERIES INNOVATION
      1. [-1] We've had Civ now for years and years. If CivIV doesn't really push beyond its basic formulas, then I'll be disappointed.
      2. [0] I don't expect Firaxis to reinvent the wheel, but I expect a few radical departures from the formula by now.
      3. [+1] Civ's core elements have clearly stood the test of time. Sure, innovate in a few areas that need attention, but keep Civ basically intact.
      4. [+2] It's Civ. I'll take any version. Any time.

    Please add up your points and find your score [below].

    [-10]: Shouldn't surprise you that CivIV will have you horribly disappointed in every way important to you since you have very, very high (unreasonable?) expectations. Nothing will save it. Not ever.

    [-10 to -6]: There's a good chance that even patching CivIV a few times won't make it the game you hoped it would be. You'll have to be patient but probably will never be completely satisfied despite patching or even expansion packs. At its core, CivIV probably just isn't the game for you.

    [-5 to -1]: The negatives currently outweigh the positives, and while you'll find the game pretty fun in the first several weeks, you know only some solid patching will keep you playing in the future. You'll have to be patient but have reasonable hope for something much better thanks to patching. CivIV might have to cool off a while on your shelf, though, until things get sorted out.

    [0]: In general, you'll find some good stuff and nothing really to complain too hard about. At other points, though, you'll find yourself a bit bored or bothered. But patching will likely really turn things around for the better.

    [+1 to +5]: CivIV has hints of brilliance and overall solid gameplay that will really intrigue you. A few patches will almost certainly make the game much better --even great-- for you.

    [+6 to +10]: CivIV is just a patch or two away from greatness beyond your expectations.

    [+11 to +15]: CivIV either meets or exceeds what you want in the game, and you will have a great experience out of the box. Patches will eventually make this game one of the best you've ever bought.

    [+16 to +19]: CivIV might well be one of the best games you'll ever play. Firaxis focused on all the important stuff and produced one hell of a game without any patching really necessary. Patches at this point are merely gifts from the gaming Gods.

    [+20]: Shouldn't surprise you that CivIV meets all your expectations since you seem willing to take anything you can get.


    CivIV by the Numbers: Yin26' Scores and Coments


    1) "OVERALL EXPECTATIONS [0] I want CivIV to revolutionize itself."

    While CivIV is no revolution, I appreciate what Soren has done within the confines I suspect he was given. One of the things that impressed me most about him many, many months ago was that he held a very clear idea that CivIV should improve on CivIII in careful ways while adding new elements that are just as carefully chosen. I even downloaded his PowerPoint presentation on this and discussed it with a friend of mine over lunch. It was an interesting chat, and Soren's measured approach is likely to lead him to a very successful career as a game designer, despite guys like me.

    In any event, I wanted CivIV to wow me with something new at its core. Imagine, for example, that after discovering a certain technology, you find yourself running states instead of cities; instead of deciding between a coliseum or theater for the 20th time, you find yourself thinking about the relative strengths and weaknesses of a limited pool of state governors that you must appoint to do this work for you -- rightly or wrongly. Some governors are warmongers, some are builders. Some are conservative and some are liberal. All of them, however, have to answer to their constituents, who in turn reflect the particular experiences and resources of their region…etc. In other words, the difficulty of running the empire becomes less about micro-management tedium and more about interesting governance decisions to keep the empire from falling in on itself. I realize, of course, that at a certain point I am asking for a different type of game, but I do believe a lot more can be done with Civ than we've seen to date.

    However, I have discovered that many Civers don't think that way at all. Somebody (I don't remember who) told me that he basically wants CivIII+ because “it feels comfy.” O.K. I don't think that poster represents a minority opinion, either, so Soren had to choose his moments wisely lest he produce something decidedly “uncivilized” – sorry.

    That said, CivIV's greatest improvement is in how Infinite City Sleaze (profitably spewing cities on every possible square at every possible moment) is handled. Unless somebody finds a way to break the game mechanics, I see no way in CivIV to mindlessly spam cities everywhere to reliably win game after game. Mind you, I spent the first two weeks of the game trying to do just that, and the results were varied. Sometimes I did rather well…other times I was crushed easily, but never did the process seem devoid of some strategic thinking. Of course, by the end game when playing for a conquest victory on a standard map with 10 players, you can conquer 40-50 cities or more. The ensuing micromanagement gives a person ICS flashbacks for sure, though the early game is wonderfully free of this mess.

    So while Soren has fixed a major problem without violating the Civ spirit, I still feel that more can and should be done with the franchise. I'll offer some (stolen) ideas at the end of this review.


    2) "THE MANUAL [-1] The manual should explain all important concepts in detail. Also, I need an index (or searchable PDF version)."

    Listen, I love the spiral bound manual for pure aesthetics. I also love that we weren't simply told “go click on the manual on your CD” – at least I thought I loved that until I realized the manual has no index. Doesn't Microsoft Word even include an Index Wizard? C'mon. What I would like to think distinguishes the typical Civ player from the typical Doom player (hey, I like Doom in small doses, so don't get wrong) is that the Civ player actually likes to understand the underlying logic, if not the outright math, involved in a particular tile improvement or wonder. The CivIV manual is lacking here, even forgetting the horrible lack of an index.

    Just one concept that gets no attention is inflation, and this list could go on and on. And not having a PDF version, while probably somewhat useful in making piracy a little less gratifying, also makes the gaming experience for legitimate owners a little less enjoyable, too. Especially, let's say, if you don't include an index to your print manual. I also think about those who have downloaded CivIV legitimately. What about them? Overall the manual fails to deliver (though Soren's Afterwords were very well done).


    3) "TUTORIAL [-1] Considering that the tutorial can form your first impression of the game, it should be helpful and inspiring."

    I suppose I could ignore the tutorial, but it's a wreck! There are moments when you have to click some exact unit or part of the screen otherwise the tutorial won't advance. However, these elements aren't always on the screen, and you are not always told where these elements are, either. I gave up the first time I tried to run the tutorial because I thought the game froze (by the way, when I reloaded the saved tutorial game, it ended in one turn with me as the victor having a score of 13,000 or something…which meant I got to see a victory moving for doing nothing AND this forced me to start the tutorial over again!).

    Really, the tutorial in this state should have simply been gutted rather than putting such a poor foot forward. This is before we even consider that the tutorial does almost nothing to prepare you for the real game. Was the tutorial even finished?


    4) "GRAPHICS and SOUNDS [-1] Good graphics and sounds in a strategy game should never come at the expense of computer performance from beginning to end."

    Given that a lot of performance (and compatibility) issues seem directly tied to the decision to go 3D and push the graphics envelope, I think the 3D move was a mistake. I would have said this before the flood of technical problems were posted to the forums. The *only* saving grace for this move to 3D, if I understand it, is that graphics mods will actually be easier to do than if things were in 2D. If that's true, then there's something to look forward to. Indeed, toward the end of the review, I'll show some interesting graphic scaling options made possible by Firaxis' decisions in this area and a clever tool offered by ColdFever: http://www.civfanatics.net/~bluemarble/content/index.php

    Don't get me wrong: I don't think it's a zero sum game. Good graphics and good sounds don't have to come at a sacrifice of system performance, but it seems they have this time, which is unfortunate for a strategy game like Civ.


    5) "THE INTERFACE [-1] I think the interface should make my attempt to do or find something effortless and intuitive."

    The issues with the interface are too many to list here, but some include help pop-ups that only last 2 seconds before going away, the computer not being able to tell whether the cursor is on an interface element or the map itself, pop-up help that mysteriously just goes away and won't come back unless you alt-tab out and back in or start over. (Note: The first patch fixed some of these.) And these advisor screens are a complete wreck. Also, why aren't text items hyperlinked to the Civilopedia?

    I said I wouldn't try to list everything, but here are some more without even thinking too hard: the enter key is used both to close a screen and to end a turn, for example, which is just bad design; some screens you can close with the keyboard (use the enter key on the city view) while others force you to use the mouse to click on the exit button; if I want to see all my units in a city, I have to click the little arrow button once my units no longer fit in the allotted horizontal slot, which wastes time needlessly; upon exiting the city view, the game focus jumps to another city, which negates the purpose of examining the city to make a build decision (I discovered that the ESC key is a workaround for this); you can't drop down to the map when in discussions with the AI in order, for instance, to find the city you are demanding from him; building queue, really? etc.

    It's tough to figure out how such an interface gets released except to say, perhaps, that the Firaxis mantra of “work from a playable prototype and make incremental changes until the game seems fun” can blind the designer to how clunky the interface is – you get used to something early when you're designing something merely functional to process the game mechanics, and it's probably too easy to think that slapping up some colorful screens some weeks before release means the work is finished. It might also be the case that the testers of the interface did their testing with a Firaxis person nearby explaining everything. I don't know.

    I think the interface is central to enjoying the game…it's how you interface with the game, after all…and it seems apparent that Firaxis has a lot of room to improve on this one. And can I just ask: Why in the world is there a delay between events on screen and notifications of them to the player? I sometimes still see phantom AI unit labels in my territory the turn *after* they have withdrawn thanks to a peace treaty. Or the pillage sound will come long after the tile is actually pillaged. Inexcusable.


    6) "UNDERSTANDING GAME CONCEPTS [0] I do not expect to understand everything all at once, but between the manual, forum discussions, and feedback from Firaxis, I hope eventually to understand everything in detail."

    The Civilopedia is botched (no alphabetical listing of items, no keyword search, everything is icon based and confusing, key concepts like health or even railroads seem to be missing – is an index taboo at Firaxis or something?), which maybe explains why the game doesn't hyperlink to it like it should!

    But where CivIV comes back strong in this category is on the diplomacy rating you have with each civ. Knowing, for example, that refusing to help a civ in its time of war has dropped our relationship score by -1 really adds a sense of control and understanding to this important part of the game. Thanks to such clearly explained help, I have become a better player of the game, a player more capable of enjoying the game because I understand how it is designed to work. The clear battle odds also add tremendously in this regard.

    So while I could understand some gamers going with a [-1], I'm sticking with [0] and hope that we'll see a lot better use of in-game help for the player to explain concepts and game mechanics (it's too late, I guess, to get this in the manual, unless we get an updated PDF version).


    7) "AI [0] I like an AI that presses its advantage only when its chances of success are high."

    I originally rated higher on this until I learned that the AI is just too timid (at least on Noble). I know about the Aggressive AI setting, but that's not quite what I'm after, either. The AI should want to win as much as the player does, yet a warmonger game is too easy to pull off, especially if you engage in what Stan Karpinski (more on him later) calls Infinite Attack Sleaze – IAS. Via IAS, you pound hard on one AI at a time from the earliest moment of the game. Defeat one AI, rinse and repeat. Stacks of Death help here greatly, even if collateral damage is supposedly meant to stop this phenomenon (more on that later, too).

    With IAS, your score jumps dramatically, you get gold from conquering a city (which pays for the increased city maintenance costs at least until the cities start producing for you), and unit maintenance costs are relatively low, particularly with access to the right civics options. IAS is the new ICS. NOTE: Higher difficulty levels radically change this formula for the better.

    At the same time, I don't like games to devolve mindlessly to 9 v 1s (AI v Human) simply to make the end game somehow more challenging. To the contrary, I find that approach a game killer, too, because it's scripted and dull. There are better approaches to this, and I'll talk about some later.


    8) "BUGS [0] While I'm patient, I don't tolerate broken games, either. The game needs to be very playable with only the occasional issue."

    If I had the ATI problem or any of the crashes some players are plagued with, I'd certainly go [-1] here. I do believe that the various problems are being taken seriously and will be addressed. Call me lucky if you will, but I've been pretty happy regarding bugs but do see an urgent need to improve.


    9) "MULTIPLAYER and EDITOR [0] Give me most of what is promised and I'll wait to some reasonable degree for things to get sorted out."

    I only tried one MP game and was (un)fortunate enough to find myself on a Duel map against Krill. Krill, it turns out, is great at MP! I was crushed like an empty beer can against him. Sure, it was my first MP game in Civ, I had never played simultaneous turns, etc. Lots of excuses. Fact is, MP is worlds away from SP in terms of turn-by-turn strategy, and I can see why many players might prefer it to SP.

    Of course, the Gamespy lobby is horribly flawed still (just TRY to click on the game you are trying to join!), and promised features like Pit Boss aren't here. Perhaps more importantly to some, the Software Developers Kit (SDK) has been delayed, and this might signal some kind of larger problem. Hard to say.

    So although I am not a big MP player, nor do I plan to use the SDK, I think the MP and mod communities are key to CivIV's future. I also think Firaxis is sincere in providing great MP and modding tools.


    10) "SERIES INNOVATION [0] I don't expect Firaxis to reinvent the wheel, but I expect a few radical departures from the formula by now."

    By the end of my review, I will offer Firaxis some encouragement to go further than it has already in innovating within the series. But let's face it: CivIV now requires strategic growth and things like battle field promotions, religion and civics offer just enough innovation for the series that we are likely to be talking about various strategies for months and months to come. Of course, I see these strengths mainly in the early to mid game. Really it's the mid to late game where the game loses steam.

    I'll tip my hand here a bit, though, and express deep disappointment in not having stacked combat, nor do I think using workers for tile improvements adds anything but tedium and CPU drain (not to mention screen clutter). Despite all this, I am inclined to have faith in the patching/feature addition process this time around because Firaxis embraced a horde of great beta testers and, by all accounts, acted upon their feedback. I don't see Soren closing down this feedback loop any time soon or giving any less credence to player reports and requests.


    MY SCORE:

    TOTAL -4 = [-5 to -1]: The negatives currently outweigh the positives, and while you'll find the game pretty fun in the first several weeks, you know only some solid patching will keep you playing in the future. You'll have to be patient but have reasonable hope for something much better thanks to patching. CivIV might have to cool off a while on your shelf, though, until things get sorted out.

    NOTE: I basically agree with this general statement except to say that at higher difficulty levels I found myself rethinking (re-enjoying) many of the game elements that were becoming rather dull on Noble level. None of that, of course, fixes the UI, tech pacing, system performance problems, etc.

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