Summary: Civilization IV is better, smarter, and cooler than any Civilization before it, with completely revamped yet familiar gameplay and the best manual of the year. Read on to see what else we liked.
It was with great apprehension then that I picked up Civilization IV, knowing that essentially the same development team was working on it. Would they make their ideas from Civilization III work? Did they pay attention to the complaints about the AI and gameplay, or did the constant whining make them deaf? It sat on my desk and possibly would never have been installed if not for the generosity of 2K Games, expressed so visibly in the beautiful, detailed manual. In this manual, lead designer Soren Johnson has a thick section dedicated to explaining the team’s vision, ideas and the way that Civilization IV evolved.
Amazingly, Firaxis got everything right. Changing anything when it isn’t broken is always risky, especially in a firmly entrenched franchise with legions of fans, as Civ III proved. Firaxis gambled anyway and changed Civilization IV more than anyone dreamed and came up with the best game in the series while still delivering the same rich experience and feeling of familiar comfort.
The AI is improved and no longer cheats so obviously, at least not until the difficulty levels ramp up – but the game is candid about that too. Building cities feels just right – it’s no longer punishing to have more as in Civilization III, but there are effective deterrents to trying to spam the entire map with them as well. The various ways to win a victory, whether through domination, global conquest, a space race, culture and so on, are generally balanced and feel right. Wars are often long and difficult, and victories can be Pyrrhic, but they’re not so grueling as to be discouraged. The civilization traits, like Creative, Organized and Aggressive have meaning for both the behavior of the civilization and in terms of bonuses. The bonuses are just the right size – large enough to have a noticeable effect on gameplay and to influence the player’s strategy, but small enough as not to be overwhelming. Consequently, a civ that doesn’t enjoy the Aggressive trait need not fear war with another that does, but having the Aggressive trait would help win a few battles. The AI also tends to build itself around its traits, but again, they don’t blindly focus on what they do best.
Civilization IV delivers probably the closest feeling to building a nation of any of the Civ titles. The player isn’t limited in the number of cities he builds, but there are drawbacks to trying to spam the map. Each extra city costs more and more upkeep – and of course player attention. In a typical game, even on a “Huge” map, a civilization typically weighs in at a dozen cities in size and it’s quite possible to win with as little as five or six, should you go for a cultural victory.
Units have new combat values as well – there’s no longer an attack and defense value, just combat power. However, there are modifiers for each unit type. Units generally fall into several categories – melee, ranged, gunpowder, siege, armored and so on. All these have generic traits – for example, armored and horseback units never enjoy defense bonuses from terrain, while ranged and gunpowder units have a first strike ability to help in defense. Units can also have specific traits – pikemen and phalanxes are excellent at countering cavalry, while gunships enjoy a 100% bonus against armor. Everything has a counter. Defending stacks automatically put up their best available unit against the foe, so even though in a hypothetical stack the Marines may be the most powerful unit overall, if attacked by armor, the gunships will defend since they’re the best at dealing with armored vehicles. So what do you do when a superstack, one of each unit type, appears on your doorsteps? You fire artillery or your siege weapons. Artillery has the ability to do splash damage, affecting all or most of the stack. They do a great deal more damage to a large stack than is worth risking, but as often as not siege weapons die in the attempt. This is a rather ugly solution, in our experience, and it doesn’t get better until bombers and stealth bombers appear.
To top that off, your units gain experience in combat. As they gain experience, they can buy new abilities, like a bonus in attacking cities, or defending hills, or they can upgrade existing powers. The abilities they can gain are limited, however, by the unit type that they are – gunpowder units cannot gain a city attack bonus for example, just like armor cannot gain bonuses to defense.
The idea of a static government type is gone in Civilization IV. Rather, the player chooses from a list of half a dozen “civics” in a half dozen categories. Civics are the rules by which your civilization lives – so you may have adopted slavery or a caste system. Your economy can be mercantilistic or a free market. These have a considerable effect on the game and new civics are discovered as your civilization makes research advancements.
Research is handled differently from past civilizations as well. Formerly, the research “tree” was quite linear – meaning that the player needed X and Y to get Z – always. Now, there are many techs whose pre-requisites are not X and Y, but X or Y. Take for example Rocketry – it can be achieved either from Flight or from Artillery. It’s possible to have a fairly skewed research tree consequently, one that reflects your state’s needs. A player going for a cultural victory will likely rush to develop all the religions first (to enjoy the bonuses that come from founding the religion), while a militant player can focus more easily on the military techs and ignore the social ones. The differences are not extreme but can be significant.
Civilization IV is built from the ground-up for multiplayer. Even when setting up a custom singleplayer scenario, this becomes readily apparent in the civilization selection list. The player can also determine the victory conditions that are applicable for the game. Civ IV works very well online, a far cry from the empty promises of multiplayer in Civ3 and its first expansion.
Religion is a major factor in Civilization IV, at least early on. Your relationship with other nationalities is dependent in great part on whether or not you share the same religion – co-religionists tend to be very friendly, while those of other beliefs become increasingly hostile the longer you know each other to be of different faith. Your state religion lets you see what goes on in any other cities that have the same faith. This can get somewhat silly, since there’s nothing to prevent a city from having all religions and there’s no way to remove a religion once it’s established in a town. Eventually, once the AI discovers the appropriate techs, it will adopt the religious tolerance civic, and lose bonuses and penalties associated with a single religion but enjoy extra happiness per religion in each city while at the same time removing religion as a factor in diplomatic relations. Furthermore, all religious bonuses are generic, meaning that a lot of the diversity and potential edginess of religion has been downplayed in order to make the game politically correct. There’s nothing unique about Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam as far as Civ is concerned. All in all, it seems like state religion dominates relationships between nations too much early on, while later it becomes almost meaningless. It’s not done badly, but we feel that Firaxis handled the topic with kid gloves and was too cautious about offending.
There are only a few spots where we felt anything resembling disappointment with Civ4. The performance seems sub-standard – the game becomes very CPU and memory-intensive, especially on the larger maps, once it reaches the 18th century or so. By then there are enough cities and units to noticeably slow down a P4 3.0 with 1GB of RAM. A more acute disappointment is in how similarly all games play out; there’s far less surprise as to what might happen in a game, unless you ramp up the difficulty level. Firaxis played it safe with the strategic resource generation, to the point where the player would have to be either very lazy or under pressure from an aggressive AI at high difficulty to not find horses, iron, oil or uranium. Speaking of which, the AI seems to reserve most of its aggressiveness for the player – it doesn’t prosecute wars against fellow AI civilizations very vigorously or competently in our experience.
Finally, the random map generator appears to be somewhat less random than we’ve been led to believe. One map has shown itself three times and two maps have appeared twice, with identical starting locations and resources, in the games I’ve played. The maps are better – much better – than in Civ III, at least as far as resource generation goes – but after almost fifteen years of Civilization it’s very odd to suddenly find oneself playing the same maps a few times.
Of course, all these criticisms are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. There’s no doubt that these are good or at least adequate implementations that fall short of the excellence the game displays otherwise.
Moreover, it’s a title that can and should appeal to anybody. With most games, even if they receive a high score there are always reservations for those who might not like the genre or setting. Not so with Civ4 – you quite simply cannot afford to miss it.
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