Civilization IV Review

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Civilization IV is the game Civilization III should have been, in other words, darn near perfect.

(Reviewed using a Pentium 4m, 1.6GHz, 1 GB RAM, 256MB ATI Radeon Mobility 9600, and two-channel sound.)

There is a single game that remains the gold standard by which old-time gamers judge turn-based strategy games, and to many, all games. That game was Civilization II , the follow up to 1991's Civilization , which updated the graphics and polished off the economic models that were introduced late in the original Civ 's design process. Civilization II is the definition of a great game. It is addictive, timeless, fun, and open-ended. Civilization II never plays the same way twice.

Civilization III was a worthwhile follow-up to CivII , but the graphics weren't as updated as hoped for, and the gameplay felt too similar to CivII to feel like an updated game. The inclusion of a culture system deepened the gameplay, but the exclusion of the promised multiplayer component (only to be included with a later expansion pack) caused CivIII to pale in comparison to its predecessor. Regardless, CivIII racked up several game-of-the-year awards and was a worthwhile entrant into the series.

With the stage appropriately set, Civilization IV has arrived, and in true Sid Meier fashion, it is the best of the bunch. It is as every bit as fun as its predecessors, and improves upon those games in every single way. CivIV may finally be the game that relegates CivII forever to the bookshelf.

"...Civilization IV has arrived, and in true Sid Meier fashion, it is the best of the bunch."

Civilization is, at its core, a turn-based strategy game that tasks the player with building up a society from a base settler and rudimentary buildings in the early eras of human history to the later phases of modern society and indeed, even into the future. As you progress through time, you will build units, negotiate with your neighbors, expand your borders, explore the world, and research different technologies. As your civilization expands, it gains knowledge, culture, and military strength based solely on the choices the player makes.

As typical for a Sid Meier game, there is always something to do in Civilization IV . The game, even in the early going, has no real slow points, and there are short-term and long-term goals to keep the player interested during the entire game. Also in classic Sid Meier fashion, Civilization is crazily addictive. The game walks the fine line between having enough content to hold the player's attention and being too overwhelming to manage very well. This, coupled with the inherent replayability of such an open-ended game, makes Civilization very, very addictive.

"...very, very addictive."

The differences in Civilization IV compared to its predecessor, CivIII , are many, and varied in their effectiveness--although none detract from the core game and all improve it from previous editions in some way.

To begin with, the most immediately noticeable change is in the graphics engine. Being no longer isometric, CivIV features smoothly-scrolling and -zooming 3D game maps. The units and buildings all look great and fit on the map appropriately--something that is usually missing from other games. As your cities grow and expand, you will see the improvements on the game map. Not only is this wonderful eye candy, it allows you to make strategic decisions on the fly based on which city has what improvement.

Each different civilization has various leaders to choose from, and each leader has strengths that can be exploited during gameplay. Some of the leader attributes have been tweaked out and balanced better, so no one trait will shift the entire feel of the game--in other words, the “cheaty” industrious trait (that allowed fast production in CivIII ) has been removed. Furthermore, the AI seems to be much more fair, no longer having to make impossible leaps in time and technology to keep pace with the player.

Cultural wins are much easier to obtain in CivIV with the addition of “Great People.” Great people come in many flavors, from religious to military leaders, but the most useful, from a culture standpoint, is the great artist. The great artist can be cashed in for several thousand culture points, immediately expanding a city's borders and is a great way to insulate and expand control over your borders. Two great people can be combined to initiate a golden age for your empire--where your populace work themselves into a production frenzy. This is a great way to get a leg up on your opponents in a close game, and is absolutely essential on the harder difficulty settings.

Religion has been overhauled in CivIV . There is no longer one generic religion present in the game, but several competing theologies. The upside to this is that you will have greater influence over people of similar religion, but the downside is that you have to keep your populace happy with different temples and places of worship. Religion also can make diplomacy more difficult, as faiths that are not aligned with yours can be tricky to deal with. You have the option to declare a state religion, which streamlines the religious process somewhat, but also introduces a host of challenges all its own.

By far the best improvement in CivIV comes with a complete overhaul of city management. It is possible to play through the entire game without opening a city screen, and most tasks can be automated. Dealing with civil unrest and citizen happiness is much easier as well. The settler unit has been separated into two units: a settler to expand your empire and a worker unit that does the improvement tasks the old settler used to do. The workers are much smarter determining which improvements to work on. Adding to this, CivIV now features improvable resources that contribute to the overall city production. This overhaul allows the player to concentrate more on the overall strategy rather than fixing an engineer that is just moving back and forth over the same set of railroad tracks until its movement points are exhausted.

Reacting to fan requests, Firaxis has cranked up the speed at which the game plays. The game can now be completed in a couple of hours on “normal” speed, and less on the fast speed. For fans who still want to be absorbed in the slow, epic pace of the original, an “epic” speed is available, making for a game that plays out in about the same time as the previous versions. The most notable improvement in this category, however, is with the AI. The AI takes little time in completing its turns, something that did not always occur in the previous versions, and could bring the game to a screeching halt. Speeding up the game also has a noticeable change in multiplayer mode, as it is now realistic to start and finish a Civ game online without two or more players having to dedicate an entire day to the enterprise.

CivIV has been built unlike its predecessors--it has its multiplayer component at its core. CivIV supports PBEM and hotseat play, but most importantly, it has been coded from the ground up with network support in mind, so it plays well online, and in a nice move, includes a team-play version where locked alliances can share resources and wonder-effects. Firaxis learned its lesson from the disappointment of CivIII 's multiplayer issues, and has created a stellar multiplayer game in CivIV .

"...unlike its predecessors--it has its multiplayer component at its core."

Unit strength has reportedly been shored up, preventing prehistoric units from holding of an attack by modern fighters. This hopefully eliminates the rare but nagging problem of a unit--such as a phalanx--holding off an attack by a tank. This also means the player cannot get cheap and expect to hold off a determined enemy by having a single ancient warrior fortified in each city, relying on its ability to hold off an attack until reinforcements can be built or bought. Units are also now upgradeable, so with each successful battle, a particular unit receives points that can be used to upgrade its abilities in some way. This is a simple system, allowing for stronger attack or defense characteristics, allows for some new wrinkles in the gameplay, but doesn't go overboard in its complexity. It is a good system in a way that it hurts to lose an experienced unit, but the player doesn't need a wall chart to determine which unit with which upgrade is most effective in any one particular situation.

The sounds in CivIV are great, and as an odd marketing ploy, Leonard Nimoy provides the voiceovers for the various wonders and technologies. Although Mr. Nimoy's voice adds a feeling of grave importance to the proceedings, one can only hear him say the same thing about the same technology a few times before it gets a bit tiresome. Just as Firaxis doubled the number of musical scores in the game, allowing for some much-needed variety, Nimoy sounds the same every time--reducing the effectiveness of the musical assortment.

Overall, CivIV is the best game in the Civilization series, and may be one of the best games ever written for the PC. Its learning curve can be challenging for beginners, although the presence of an actual manual will aid in learning the game. Also included is an online “Civopedia” that explains the core concepts of the game, but can be a beast to navigate at times. The best part is that the easy game setting is truly easy, and will allow beginners to make their fair share of mistakes without making the game unbearably challenging. Long-time Civ fans will find this game easy to step into and familiar, even the changes to the core gameplay fit well within the overall structure and feel familiar.

Civilization IV refreshes the Civ series and offers a great experience for newcomers to the series as well as seasoned veterans. It is immensely fun whether you play multi- or single-player. It remains one of the most addictive games ever created. It is fast, smart, sometimes quirky, and beautifully rendered. There has been a tremendous amount of solid releases for the PC gaming market in the last month, and Civilization IV is at the head of that distinguished class.

"Civilization IV refreshes the Civ series and offers a great experience for newcomers to the series as well as seasoned veterans."

The good:

- Open-ended gameplay that defines the turn-based genre

- Excellent multiplayer component

- Improved graphics

- Another Sid Meier classic

The bad:

- Faster game pace may not appeal to all players

- Voice-over can be redundant.


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