Version tested: PC
Uncross those fingers, unfurrow that brow and breathe a big, candle-snuffing sigh of relief: Firaxis hasn't mucked up. The ball has not been dropped, the pooch has not been screwed, the baby's bathwater has been disposed of carefully and without any grievous consequence. Yes, it's my happy duty to report that one of strategy gaming's most sacred relics has been brought kicking and screaming into the 21st Century with minimal loss of brilliance.
But first: time for an obligatory history lesson. It was in The Year Of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Ninety Four that Messrs Sidney Meier and Brian Reynolds unveiled their near-perfect Civ semi-sequel. Turn-based, tile-mapped, and as lovable as a chipmunk in a Pilgrim Father costume, Colonization was all about dispossessing American Indians. Starting mid-Atlantic with a shipload of supplies and emigrants, players scrambled to grab and grow New World colonies. Independence from an increasingly greedy motherland was the ultimate goal.
En route, resources had to be reaped and processed, goods traded, indigenous tribes befriended or butchered, European rivals outstripped. Where Civ was a surreal history-mangling marathon, Colonization was a tech-tree-free 3000m steeplechase. The shorter span and tighter focus gave it a more rooted, more realistic feel. Some connoisseurs even dared to claim it was the better game.
For those familiar with the original, the news that Firaxis was readying a new version was cause for both celebration and consternation. More than a decade on, could it capture the same magic and subtlety? Would the fact that it was being built with Civ 4 code lead to compromises? Were we going to wind-up with an awkward Beyond the Sword-style mod? Nerves jangled.
Happily, it turns out we were all worrying for nothing. One of the first things that hits you about the reassuringly magnetic Civ IV: Colonization ('Colonization II' would have been so much neater) is just how similar it is to its ancestor. There's the lone ship surrounded by sea and darkness. There's the beige settlement screen with its unshowy building illustrations. There's the eager emigrants waiting on the resolutely 2D dockside. Wisely, Firaxis has resisted the urge to meddle. There are no pointless graphical embellishments, no new, nailed-on concepts. Yes, there are changes - a sleeker interface, Civ IV-quality visuals, multiplayer, borders, unit promotions... - but none of them upset or over-burden the expertly stacked Colonization applecart.
Not that the Colonizations are humble applecarts. Groaning fruit-and-veg stalls is what they are, veritable Covent Gardens of choice, colour, and succulence. Every turn is chock-a-block with the kind of dilemmas and opportunities that make sleep, food and friends seem desperately unimportant. Take a look at my current game for evidence.
It's 1551 and I'm playing as Dutch coloniser/fag brand Peter Stuyvesant (English, Spanish and French personages are also playable). Things are going swimmingly, but there's still plenty to ponder and lots to do. Issues currently stacked in my mental in-tray include a warehouse bursting with furs in New Amsterdam, an idle settler in Dontgiveadam, and an imminent starvation situation in Claudevandam (Yes, you can name your own settlements).
The overflowing warehouse situation is easily sorted. All I have to do is check a couple of export/import checkboxes and my automated fleet of cargo vessels will swing by regularly to pick up surplus pelts. Rather than ship the skins direct to the Old World, I'm going to drop them off at Tarmacadam where an expert furrier will transform them into valuable coats. The good people of Holland love their mink cagoules and beaver parkas.
The idle settler situation requires a bit more thought. Right now I'm torn between employing him in a cigar factory (cheroot prices in Europe are sky-high at the moment) and turning him into a missionary and packing him off to a nearby Indian village to convert braves. Actually, scratch that. I think I'm going to send him north to mine silver in Rightlittlemadam. There's a lot of money buried in those hills.
And what's to be done about the food shortages in Claudevandam? Grub can be brought in by wagon train, but that won't solve the underlying problem. The reason folk are going hungry is the Spanish cancer to the south. The spreading borders of San Salvador have recently deprived my youngest town of three of its most fertile terrain squares. I see three possible solutions: I can ramp up my Liberty Bell generation (a resource that swells borders and hastens independence), I can abandon the place to the wolves and the deer, or - and this is the one I'm instinctively drawn to - I can storm across the border with a shock-force of dragoons, cannons, and infantry, reducing San Salvador to a heap of glowing embers. It's about time my troops got some battle experience. As someone - possibly Sun Tzu - once said "You can't make a Spanish omelette without killing conquistadors".
And that's just a snapshot. Every turn there's another clutch of engrossing dilemmas waiting to be resolved. If I could just achieve X, then Y and Z would be within my grasp. Just one more settler here, a new building there, an extra Founding Father (recruitable personalities that function a bit like Civ's Wonders) in my Continental Congress... The complexity is perfectly pitched. You can always see solutions, it's finding the money and the men to implement them that's the problem.
Just dealing with the Indians is a game in itself. Colonization's roaming aborigines are far more interesting than Civ's bellicose barbs. Tribes like the Sioux, Apaches and Tupi will fight beside you, trade with you, give you gifts, teach your settlers valuable skills, and provide you with manpower, if you treat them decently. Treating them decently means paying them for settlement plots, and massacring them culturally rather than physically. There's a moral choice here, but it's only, 'Do you want to be a bastard, or an utter bastard?'
Perhaps the most fascinating relationship within Civ IV: Colonization is the one between player and mother country. In most games about colonialism, distant homelands are straightforward markets and recruiting grounds. Here they fulfil those functions but there's also a darker side. Your monarch regards colonies as personal piggy banks and plunders them accordingly. The larger you grow, the more cash he'll try to squeeze out of you in import duties and 'voluntary' contributions. You start out resenting the blue-blooded bloodsucker and end-up despising him. Slowly but steadily independence turns from a dry, abstract victory condition into a burning emotional need. Sid & co. make you actively crave freedom. It's genius.
Where Civ relies on luck and alchemy to produce exciting game endings, Civ IV: Colonization shamelessly stacks the deck to ensure bloodbaths. Soon after declaring independence - something that requires the generation of a lot of Liberty Bells - an angry expeditionary force will hit your beaches like a pack of irrate... sea... err... otters. Irrate sea otters with muskets. Suddenly the loathsome king is right there in front of you in the shape of cavalry, cannons and infantry. It's another incredibly inspired touch, delicately harnessing history to inject drama and tension right at the close.
One quality Civ IV: Colonization does share with its step-sibling is its ludicrous replayability. Numerous difficulty levels, tons of game options, a random map generator, and the sheer wealth of tactics available mean this isn't one of those purchases you're going to weary of in a week or two. I played solidly for a couple of days before grinding out my first narrow victory. If the games hadn't been so thoroughly absorbing, this lack of success might have been disheartening. Perhaps Firaxis should have a provided a selection of smaller scenarios with easier goals to help people find their feet and build confidence. A few historically-inspired shorts - wipe out the Incas, rid the Caribbean of pirates, build a transcontinental road, that sort of thing - would have been most welcome.
That's about as vicious as the criticism is going to get in this review. Apart from mild annoyance at some automation hiccups (occasionally pioneers, ships, and wagon trains, seem to forget what they're supposed to be doing) and slight disappointment at the unit art (more could have been done to distinguish the four civs) I've been horribly content these last few days.
Could Firaxis have included a few more playable factions - the Brazil-bagsying Portuguese for instance? Yes. Could the devs have added some extra fibre to the combat - more stats, some representation of supply, a tactical mini-game a la Conquest of the New World or Imperialism II? They could. They could have done a lot of things, but deep changes would have risked disrupting Colonization's amazing chemistry, its exquisite equilibrium.
Cherished heirlooms need a bit of dusting and restoration now and again. What they don't need is to be 'expanded', 'improved', or 're-imagined'. Civilization IV: Colonization is great because Colonization was great. It sweeps you along in the same birchbark-canoe-on-a-raging-river manner. It keeps you away from mattress and mates just as effectively. If only more remakes were this sensitive.
8 / 10