I've done loads today. In total: one cup of tea, brewed. One piece of cheese on toast, prepared. Two bladders, emptied. And then hours of the rise and fall then rise again of Spanish Taoism.
Itís terribly moreish, this recapitulation of human history in a turn-based format.
Itís always been - to use that most devalued of gaming terms - addictive. Addictive. Itís something games reviewers throw around without really thinking about, with colourful metaphors describing it in terms of something you could base "Requiem for a Dream II: This Time It's Got a Joypad" about. Itís mostly posture, and it takes something like Civilization to show how much thatís true. Theyíre not addictive. Civilization is.
I was only half-joking in the intro. I forget to eat when playing Civ. I just forget that Iím hungry. At 10:30pm, when I've wandered the streets of south Bristol looking for fast-food like a particularly determined settler trying to find a rare-resource-rich area, it wasnít because I hadnít eaten all day. Itís because Iíd finished my game. I love Civ, but didnít play much of the sequels after my experiences with the originals, mostly out of fear that theyíll actually make it so good that Iíll just disappear into it forever.
Obviously, the seriesí fortunes rose (If theyíre not hailing Alpha Centauri, thereíll be lots of players out there whoíd argue Civ2 as their favourite game ever) and fell (Civ3 picked up a fair share of disgruntlement), but the core of the game remains compelling. A turn-based world, a couple of units, stone-age technology, and then the long climb from that to a world-spanning Empire. Itís an epic unfolding before your eyes, one click at a time. How could that not be addictive?
Important proviso here: people often use addictive as a synonymous for enjoyable. Itís not really true. There are lots of games that are pretty addictive, but when you look at your emotional response, itís a flat-line. Theyíre not great games, just a focus for humanityís basal-level OCD-response. Civilization isnít that sort of addictive. Civilization is addictive like your kidís smile, or the shimmer of sweat running along your new loverís side as they sleep or...
Okay, as much as my membership of the Hyperbolic Games Reviewers Guild (UK) would insist, Iím not quite stupid enough to say something like "Best Civilization Ever". We wonít know that for at least a year, after countless bleary eyes have squinted at unexpected daylight creeping through their window and the real guts of this beautiful beast vivisected by everyone.
But itís good. Damn good. In fact, Iíll certainly go as far as saying itís the best pure strategy game Iíve played this year, and thatís good enough for me.
The changes to the formula vary from the minor tweaks that have profound influences to complete re-workings so natural that I had trouble remembering it was ever any different. Take combat, for example. The two statistics of attack and defence have been merged into one. However, rather than simplifying the system, it allows your attention to wander elsewhere. Different units have clear bonuses against different sorts, in different situations as well as special abilities. These are significant enough to genuinely alter the balance and your calculation, rewarding a mixed force; for example, Spearmenís huge bonus against mounted troops early on in the game. Equally, Siege Weaponís abilities will completely nullify even a million soldiers, because the splash damage affects everyone in the same square. In other words, the game makes units take attrition before they even lay a blow.
But then another twist is layered on top of that with the small matter of how you apply your upgrades to your troops. Having clocked up enough experience points to earn one, youíll be able to choose a special ability; but you soon realise youíre far better off choosing a specialised bonus (like getting a bonus when attacking a city, for example) than the comparatively minor general strength boost.
This causes you to tightly focus your attention on how your upgrades are going to be used. For instance, a swordsman with three levels of city attack on them is fearsomely powerful in that situation, but you risk losing a hell of a lot of work if you leave him exposed or used him in the wrong situation. Heís valuable. Things matter. And since things matter, youíre alive and questioning.
Compared to earlier games in the series, Civ IV leans much more towards specialising areas. For example, settlements tend to work best if put towards a certain task, with the right buildings constructed. Equally, despite being a phenomenally complicated game, itís one which leads players through the basics superbly. Wondering how to level up your troops? A full pop up will explain the details; with even most of the mathematics behind it coming to light. Canít work out why your peasants seem to be so annoyed? Examine the city and all the factors will roll out, and give you a chance to see where itís going wrong. And, while we're on the subject, thereís now much less of an unhappy populace simply ceasing production. Instead, some citizens stop work and it all slows down. And then thereís the stuff with pollution which...[snip - Ed]
Yes, itís easy to get lost in the details, but thatís the game - that's why I like it. The joy is that youíre getting lost in the right details in the game, and engaging with the strategy.
Meanwhile, a special mention must be made of two of the expanded sections from previous games. Religionís only ever been present as a ghost element, but Firaxis has tried to engage with how religions have influenced the world but without falling into Christianity (+4 against Roman Pantheism) or even more controversial modern equivalents.
In terms of how it works, it's quite straightforward. The seven religions are tied to the development of a technology, at which point one of your settlements will be dubbed the holy settlement of that religion. However, in function, all of them act identically. They spread naturally along trade networks to other cities or deliberately by missionaries, and then impacting on the populationís happiness. Christians want Churches built, Jews Synagogues and so on. Simple.
Religion particularly impacts on the entirely reworked Diplomacy section. Rather than having a general reputation, each of the computer players has a distinct opinion on you depending on how youíve got along. If youíve been trading, youíll have a plus. If youíve been trading with their enemies, it'll be a minus. Theyíll come begging or threatening for technology or similar, making your offers and responding with impressive intelligence to yours. However, one of the key ways to influence their opinion of you is how your State religion compares to theirs... so the spreading of your (or their) religion early on can have a profound influence to what alliances form.
This religion balance can also have more direct consequences, not just to the happiness of your people, but the happiness of your accountant. If the holy-city of the religion has the proper building constructed in it, itíll receive gold for every city in the world which follows the creed. Gloriously, beautifully, cynical. Itís also handy in certain Religion Civics, where if you take certain ones you can gain production bonuses in any city with the State religion or...
The second of the two standard-Civ elements that have been redone in a completely new way are the Civics. Previously weíd had defined government systems with set bonuses. Instead, we have Civics. Your governmentís characteristics are defined according to five different categories (Government, Legal, Labour, Economy and Religion) with eventually five research-uncovered options in each. For example, in Economy you could choose between the Free-Market and State Property. Itís much better than the old system in that thereís more freedom for you to make decisions. While most will play tactical, and go for combinations of governments which are better at peace or War, there is finally room to play proper 'What-Ifs?' in Civilization IV. For example, you could try and create a nation of Free-speaking Pacifist Communists called JohnWalkerland...
But reviewing Civ often feels like trying to review a world. Notice the number of times the phrase "for example" has turned in this piece. All weíre doing is grabbing something, pointing it at you and saying "Hey - this bitís neat. There is lots more stuff like that". So - this bitís neat. Thereís a lot more stuff like that.
And before we leave, while weíre on a surface level, itís worth noting that while no Civilization is ever going to turn the head of someone who walks up to walls in FPS then uses the sniper-scope to examine the detail on the textures, itís by far the prettiest yet. If youíre going to spend days with something, it needs the right atmosphere, and Civilization IV has nailed it. It even has great music on the start scene, which sounds just like something from the Lion King yet - somehow - awesome.
Anything else really important I should mention? Oh yeah! Multiplayer out of the box this time. Plus, if you're in a particular hurry, you can speed all the options up and play through the entire game with chums in a few hours. Yay! Review complete. We can all go home.
The only problem that remains is whether I can actually make it to bed and not start another game. Bodies need sleep. Iím sure I read it somewhere.