The Civilization series of games, originally designed by Sid Meier, puts you in command of a small, primitive tribe in the year 4000 BC. You then steer your tribe through 6050 years of history, competing with a number of similar tribes to become the dominant civilization on the planet. This has proved a very appealing concept and the games have been hugely popular.
I pre-ordered Civ 4 from Amazon UK. Because of the delayed release of the game in Europe, I received it on the 7th of November 2005.
I found Civ 3 rather disappointing and I played it less than its predecessors. Civ 4 is an improvement in some ways and will please most existing fans of the series, though fundamentally it's still much the same game, and if you didn't like before you probably still won't like it now.
My overall verdict is that it's a great concept that could have been a great game if well implemented. But it never has been well enough implemented, because Firaxis doesn't understand the idea of elegance in game design. In the early stages, it's a good game, but it gradually bogs down as you play on, and the victory conditions are poorly designed.
After some experience with the game, I now find that I get the most fun out of it by playing on the smallest possible map (Duel size), with low sea level to increase the land area, and the number of opponents increased from the default of 1 (on a Duel map) to 4. I still find the endgame is a drag. Maybe I'll edit the CIV4GameSpeedInfo.xml file in future to stop the game much earlier than 2050 AD. I've tried this already and it works.
- National borders are now much better handled than in any previous version. They have finally got this right, or almost right.
- Corruption, waste, and pollution were major sources of tedium in Civ 3, and have now been removed or handled better.
- The user interface has been improved in many ways. You can easily zoom in and out, and you can send a unit on a long trip with a single click instead of having to march it manually one square at a time.
- It's still a long game, but the standard game is now slightly less long: it still covers the period 4000 BC to 2050 AD, but the number of turns has been reduced from 540 to 430. Also, apart from the standard game there are now quick (300 turns) and slow (650 turns) versions of the game, which I haven't tried yet.
- Before you commit to combat, the game will now give you information about the relative strengths of the opposing forces, which is handy.
- More automation has been introduced to reduce the need for micromanagement.
- Seven religions have been added to the game. Although I'm not religious, religion has been a significant part of world history, and I agree that it seems a worthwhile feature, quite well implemented.
- Comprehensive multiplayer facilities are provided: the game is playable between humans by e-mail or directly over the Internet. I haven't tried this yet.
- Game options include "Always peace" and "Always war". I suppose "Always peace" means that you can avoid the deficiencies of the combat system (see below) by doing without combat altogether. I will try this; but without combat the game seems likely to be too static to be of much interest.
- The game is still turn-based, which I prefer because I don't like being rushed by a game. Especially in a game that represents 6050 years of time, you shouldn't have to feel that each second matters.
- In general, Firaxis has made a game loosely based on reality, which looks like real life but is totally unrealistic in various significant ways. I think this is rather silly. If you're going to make a game that looks like reality, and advertise it as though it had something to do with reality, then please take it a bit more seriously and don't include grossly unrealistic features. A game that made more effort to simulate history properly would be more interesting and could be more fun to play, too, if well designed. As it stands, Civ is and always has been a kiddy game, for people who know nothing or care nothing about the way history really works.
- In particular, the Civ combat system has always been lousy. It needed to be scrapped and replaced with something completely different. Instead, it's been tinkered with. The changes are improvements, I suppose, but making war in Civ remains an unnecessarily dreary business which I still find unenjoyable. Above all, it's still based on the idea that a battle consists of one unit fighting one opposing unit to the death, after which the winning unit takes a rest and one more unit from each side comes forward to fight. Not only is this unrealistic and silly, it also takes too much time.
- Firaxis seems to think that more is better. The fundamentals of the game are now hidden behind a mass of obscuring details. Were I a game designer, my philosophy would be the opposite: I believe that good game design involves cutting away the clutter and reducing a simulation to its essentials.
- The two easiest ways of winning are to wait for 2050 AD and win on score, or to build a spaceship. However, when you're obviously winning in mid-game, it seems excessively tedious to have to wait until 2050 AD, and also excessively tedious to have to spend dozens of turns building spaceship parts — bearing in mind that nothing interesting is happening all this time, you're just waiting for the game to end and meanwhile still having to go through the motions of playing it.
- The game maintains and extends the civ-specific features introduced in Civ 3. Each civ has its own set of special advantages, different from every other civ. But I think each civ should start off exactly the same and should become whatever the player makes of it. Differences between civs should arise from different styles of play rather than being hard-wired into the game.
- We now have the concept of Great People in the game. In practice this isn't as bad I feared, but it's a bit silly and I'd have preferred to do without it.
- Technology changes so fast that you hardly have time to use a particular unit before it's made obsolete. This is because of the need to squeeze 6050 years of history into 430 turns. I'd prefer to keep the 430 turns but stop the game earlier in time, eliminating all modern technologies. This could actually be done by fiddling with one of the game's XML files, but it would take some experiments to get it right.
- The game is touted as highly modifiable. A lot of parameters are stored in XML files, and parts of the program are in interpreted Python, all of which can in principle be edited by any owner of the game. However, no documentation is provided to help people who want to do this.
- The documentation in general has clearly been rushed out in a hurry. The printed manual and the online manual both lack an index (badly needed!), and the printed manual is divided into a basic section and an advanced section, so if you don't find the information you want in one section you have to go looking in the other. Some aspects of the game don't seem to be documented at all. However, the online documentation has been somewhat improved in post-release patches.
- Whenever you discover a new technology, you get an appropriate quotation, and you get Leonard Nimoy reading it out loud to you. I quite liked Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek, but the voice reading the quotations just sounds like any elderly American; he does it competently but without much imagination; and it soon becomes irritating. To get rid of him, I turned off all speech in the game. I think the only other speech you get is from military units, who say a couple of words in their own language when you click on them. This is cute, but unnecessary and of course repetitive.