Revolution's a dangerous word. It promises absolute change, yet so often means the same but tweaked - a new colour, a new interface... It's much the same as how 'awesome' once was used to describe humanity or nature's greatest achievements, but now can mean 'that's a nice hat'. I rankle a little at seeing it applied to this console overhaul of the venerable globe-conquering turn-based strategy series. It's still Civilization. It's not Civilization played only with your tongue, or Civilization that can travel through time. Civilization Smallerisation or Civilization Simplification would perhaps be more apt, but they don't look quite so good on a shop shelf. They suggest what Civilizution has done is merely to lessen itself. In truth, that's exactly what it's done. But it's done so with noble purpose, to focus on what is most important.
Civilization's globe, complexity and strategy alike have shrunk significantly, making for a game that makes sense to a newcomer within ten minutes, not ten hours, and though most of what's been lost is rolls of unnecessary flab, there will be an awful lot of people who'll lament that the chunky look kinda suited it. Civilizution is a leaner, brighter-eyed figure, with nice teeth and none of that musty PC smell, but its attention span seems a little diminished. Whenever I approached the part of what would, in an unrevolved Civ, be crunch-time, with a hundred different facets of war and expansion and uprising and construction and research and religious freedom and pollution to worry about at once, I'd suddenly find myself within spitting distance of conclusion. Half the globe was already either wiped out or absorbed into mine or another Civ, making it a straight race between me and those that remained.
Simpler. Faster. Shallower? Maybe. Also remarkably tense. There was none of this vague, elaborate points-collection or 80-turn construction of 12 different spaceship parts. Just a pulse-pounding dead heat - would my proud Japanese Empire amass 20,000 gold and claim economic triumph before Russia built a craft to sail the stars? And before the Zulus gobbled up one more rival and snatched a conquest victory? All this emerged in that game's last 20 turns, making for a genuinely thrilling race to the finish.
When a given Civ commences a game-winning action - in my case, collecting that giant cashpile and starting work on the World Bank wonder - the rest of the Civs hear about it, and where I'm doing it. No matter what careful alliances you might have forged by this point, all bets are now off. You must be stopped, at all costs. So, informed that I'd started on the World Bank, the other three remaining Civs turn on me. The still world comes suddenly to life. Troops pour out of nearby Moscow, battleships and subs slip out of Zimbabe's harbour with murderous intent. My outlying cities fall, one by one - my focus on cash meant I had little in the way of military defences. In desperation, I pour every unit I do have into Nagasaki, where the Bank was being constructed. Four turns to go. No other cities left. I look at the circling French bombers, at the Zulu tanks rumbling across the land towards Nagasaki, and steel myself for what's ahead. Truly, this is an historic last stand. Sure, I'd feel a little more heroic if it wasn't all about building a bank, but nevertheless, each time I pressed End Turn felt impossibly momentous.
The intense aggression of the other Civs is because there isn't a meaningful second or third or fourth place in Civ Rev - there is simply The Winner and the losers. While, at first, the sudden hostility of the NPC Civs whenever my victory was in sight seemed flighty and artificial, I soon realised a human player would behave exactly the same way. If you're about to win, they've nothing left to lose. Why on Earth would they want to help you? The only logical course of action is to try and bring you down, and in doing so maybe buy themselves some time. In this case, the other Civs didn't buy themselves enough. One more turn and they'd have had me, but my last Modern Infantry weathered the storm just long enough for the World Bank to complete. Victory! I might have but one city remaining, but through it now flows the global economy. Give it up, Zulus. Sucks to be you, France.
There's a fundamental difference between Civ Rev and Civ Trad, a subtle shift in thinking that makes two superficially identical games entirely separate creatures. Civ Trad is a videogame, with all the complexities and variance that often entails. Civ Rev is a board game, with all the self-contained simplicity that often entails. Yes, there are fixed, unwavering rules in Civ Trad, but it's this grand, elaborate affair designed for multiple sittings, and one in which there's this sense that the world is really turning, its people edging towards an uncertain future. In Civ Rev, the fourth wall comes down. With the victory conditions that much simpler and more easily-attained, every player - even the ones with robot brains - knows they're in a game, knows exactly what they're striving for, and knows exactly how to strive for it. You'll decide on a course of action - victory by conquest, by cash, by culture or by technology - and will doggedly turn your handful of cities towards achieving it. Within two hours, often far less, it'll all be over bar the shouting. There will, I suspect, be a lot of shouting. It's one of those games that's really made for lengthy, enthusiastic post-match analysis. The screen will dim, but you'll sit there with your headset still on, jabbering for a half hour about how you had an Artillery army just down the road, how three more turns would have built you a nuke...
To this end, the game map is a smaller place you can cross in just a few turns, there are fewer unit types (it tops out at tanks and bomber planes), far fewer technologies (researching Bronze Working enables you to build archers, harvest fish and construct the Colossus of Rhodes. Erm) and diplomacy is a slim, relatively optional affair. Success doesn't come from trading spice with Russia for wine, but simply from war and peace. In fact, it's possible to go an entire game without engaging in any diplomacy at all, bar when another Civ begs, bribes or threatens you. If you want to just build a big army and go kill stuff, you can. On the other hand, it's a lot trickier to keep your head down and concentrate on, say, a cultural victory - the AI Civs browbeat you with increasingly unfair demands, eventually forcing you to either hand over something impossibly precious or suffer their wrath. It's a little artificial, but it's a reflection of the game's philosophy - constant event, constant involvement, rather than browsing statistics screens or repeat-clicking End Turn while you wait for something to happen.
Similarly, each and every fight feels like an epochal event. When an Elite Rifleman army falls, where once you'd tut, now you'll howl. That "Elite" label references the unit's veterancy, incidentally - a key element of combat. Three and then six victories see the unit upgraded, adding to its overall clout and, on the sixth, adding a special ability. On top of that, you can - and should - stack units in groups of three. This is the only way to attack (or defend) with more than a single unit at once, and thus is absolutely vital to success. On the downside , it means that losing a fight costs you three units in one fell swoop - a truly harrowing occurrence, unless by that stage of the game you're Captain Richy Rich of Richtown, Richonia, born on the first of Rich, Nineteen-Richty-Rich.
Civ Rev is going to annoy a lot of people. On my first encounter with it, I was convinced its sheer charm and concentrated focus on what always made Civ great would win over all but the hardest Civ IV-playing hearts, but after a dozen or so games I now worry the enormity of what's been composited and removed may make it an unsatisfying single-player game to old hands. What it will be, I suspect, is a much better multiplayer game - with the goals that much clearer and more attainable, the sense of competition increases enormously. It's not a game of minute adjustments, but of major shifts - every city, every building, every unit, every unit upgrade matters so very much. What's remarkably clear throughout is that it really is not a sequel to Civilization IV - it's very much off doing its own thing, with no intention of replacing its bigger-boned PC brother. A revolution? Perhaps not. It is, however, exceptionally brave.
Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution is due out on PS3 and 360 on 13th June.