I was initially a bit surly when I sat down to play Civ Rev (or Civilizution, as I like to call it). People kept telling me what to do. Get away from me, I gestured with dismissive hand-flaps. I may even have hissed, like an angry cat. I know how to play Civ, thank you very much. Or so I thought. Yes, I knew perfectly well what everything was, and exactly what I was trying to achieve. I didn't, however, know how to make it happen in this new, console-specific remake. This was because it was simpler, more obvious - because it wasn't expecting me to already comprehend Civ's elaborate mechanisms. I had to unlearn hard in order to learn easy. I felt a little like I'd spent years diligently crushing and fermenting grapes whenever I fancied a tipple, only for some passing helpful soul to observe that they sell wine for four quid a bottle in Tesco's. Oh. Right. Yes, that does make more sense.
It's very much still Civilization - don't worry about that. Most of the strategy stalwart's organs have survived their next-gen transplant intact (360 code was on offer at the event we attended, but it's also on PS3), and yet it immediately seems more amicable and manageable than its PC predecessor. Civ 4 did wonders for a series previously in danger of death by feature creep, but it was still a little daunting to entirely novice eyes. With a worry-disarming cartoonish graphical style - The Sims is a clear influence, even down to characters' nonsense-speak - and large, friendly menus distilled into the bare essentials rather than the stat-attack of yesteryear, this is genuinely a new Civ for a new audience.
While prior console versions have simply seen the PC's mouse controls and itty-bitty icons mapped wretchedly onto a d-pad, this really is a fresh start. One thumbstick orders, the other stick looks, and suddenly navigating a vast worldmap seems no trouble at all. Granted, it eats all the controller buttons it can, but subtly retains brief legends of what does what throughout the game, so memorisation isn't a problem. Nor is pressure - this is turn-based strategy, not real-time warmongering. Though there are new checks and balances to ensure you're not sat around for bloody ages while the AI or opposing players take their turns, you're not ever going to lose because you're weeping and mashing buttons at random in a desperate attempt to make something happen before it's too late.
With apologies to the old hands, let's have a quick recap of what Civ (and Civ Rev) is for anyone new to it - or who's shunned it purely because it's turn-based, historical and usually on PC. Those things are not going to be a problem for you here. It's about conquering the world - by military might, by democracy, by culture or by technology. You build cities, which in turn build armies and structures to aid your nation's growth, and generate research to advance you through the ages of humanity. Then you fight everyone, or impress everyone, or build a bloody great space rocket to spread your civ to a new planet. As your technology advances, so too does the look and feel of Civ Rev. So, at the start of the game, you'll be clobbering your neighbours with pointy sticks; by the end you might be dropping nukes on 'em.
In single-player, you're up against a world full of AI-controlled nations, but the finest thrills are likely to come from multiplayer, where you're up against despicable human beings and all their lies. While alliances are easily declared, betrayal is expected - so you'd better do the betraying first. Interestingly, Civ Rev positively eggs you on to military skulduggery - defeating a hostile barbarian tribe might see their leader spill the beans about how another player's city is undefended, or an AI nation might drop vital gossip when you ask them for their thoughts on a rival civ. Co-op play is in there too, and I rather suspect that's going to prove the biggest draw - teaming up with a chum you know you can trust to seize the planet from a host of aggressive AI civs. There's also some fascinating tech that lets players drop in and out of games without ending the session - if someone quits, the AI will coolly take control of their civ, while a new player can step into an AI nation's shoes. It's obvious, but it's super-smart - as it's an awful feeling to not get to finish your match because one player has to go and salve his mother's verruca.
Whether on or offline, there's more focus on combat than in Civ 4 - though it remains just one way to rule the world. While there was something grudging about Civ 4's giant marionette warriors swiping mechanically at each other, in Civ Rev the game zooms in to show a proper energetic fight, with a clear sense of who's winning. Underlying statistics inform it, but now shown as big friendly icons rather than teeny tooltips. Think something like Advance Wars - an ever-present numbered sword icon for attack, a shield for defend. It's a language anyone can grasp. Modifiers such as terrain type and veterancy (a unit gets a stat boost after three and six victories, plus a special power at the latter, like doubled movement) are essential to gaining the upper hand, but again it's all incorporated into those two big, friendly numbers. The affecting modifiers are shown too, in case you do want to know the maths, but essentially it's Me = Bigger Than You.
The same decluttering applies to city management. I've just compared Civ Rev's city screen with Civ 4's, and I started laughing at how cold and fussy the once-lauded latter seems now. Sure, some of the fine control is sacrificed and the truly devoted will lament the simplification, but it's immediately obvious what's going on - a picture of an apple with a big number next to it means this city is making a ton of food, while a shiny bar of gold with a low number means cashflow is poor. Two button-clicks have the city prioritising gold, not food, and you're sorted. In Civ 4, you have to squint just to tell the difference between the happiness and the revenue icons. Yes, some stuff - city hygiene, for instance - is gone, or streamlined as I'm sure 2K would rather say, but mostly it's just a matter of presentation, identifying how to make the most salient facts evident in a single glance.
The tech-tree too is stripped of some arguable deadwood, compositing multiple related inventions into one - bronze-working and archery, or animal husbandry and horseback riding, for instance. Religion is no longer a bewildering spread of different faiths, but rather one unified element affecting your cities' overall culture [oh if only - Ed]. If you're a long-term Civ player thinking this all sounds like a terrible sacrifice, you're not thinking bigger-picture, about how that crafts a faster game full of frequent thrills and new toys, not one that requires 40 turns and half an hour before you can make a bloke ride a horse. It's one much more suited to a couple of hours of sofa play than simply porting Civ 4's hunched-over, marathon sessions to a social circumstance they just weren't made for. This is, after all, an alternative to, not a replacement for, Civ 4.
Civ Rev has much in common with Catan, if you've played that. Both feel not like the cold hexes and hotkeys of PC strategy, but like social boardgames re-imagined expertly for console, replete with a chummy, toy-like physicality that belies the satisfying complexity underneath. It's Civ made simpler and quicker, but no stupider. Most of all, it's Civ made specifically with multiplayer in mind - a key difference from merely a Civ game with a multiplayer mode. While the build I saw suggests there's a lot of code-buffing to go before the June release, I'm pretty confident Civilization Revolution will prove a online megahit. If it isn't, then clearly the people don't desire freedom from the tyranny of dodgy strategy ports and look-alike shooters after all.