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.
It’s terribly moreish, this recapitulation of human history in a turn-based format.
It’s always been - to use that most devalued of gaming terms - addictive. Addictive. It’s 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. It’s mostly posture, and it takes something like Civilization to show how much that’s true. They’re not addictive. Civilization is.
I was only half-joking in the intro. I forget to eat when playing Civ. I just forget that I’m 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 wasn’t because I hadn’t eaten all day. It’s because I’d finished my game. I love Civ, but didn’t play much of the sequels after my experiences with the originals, mostly out of fear that they’ll actually make it so good that I’ll just disappear into it forever.
Obviously, the series’ fortunes rose (If they’re not hailing Alpha Centauri, there’ll be lots of players out there who’d 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. It’s 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. It’s not really true. There are lots of games that are pretty addictive, but when you look at your emotional response, it’s a flat-line. They’re not great games, just a focus for humanity’s basal-level OCD-response. Civilization isn’t that sort of addictive. Civilization is addictive like your kid’s smile, or the shimmer of sweat running along your new lover’s side as they sleep or...
Okay, as much as my membership of the Hyperbolic Games Reviewers Guild (UK) would insist, I’m not quite stupid enough to say something like "Best Civilization Ever". We won’t 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 it’s good. Damn good. In fact, I’ll certainly go as far as saying it’s the best pure strategy game I’ve played this year, and that’s 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, Spearmen’s huge bonus against mounted troops early on in the game. Equally, Siege Weapon’s 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, you’ll be able to choose a special ability; but you soon realise you’re 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. He’s valuable. Things matter. And since things matter, you’re 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, it’s 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. Can’t 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 it’s going wrong. And, while we're on the subject, there’s now much less of an unhappy populace simply ceasing production. Instead, some citizens stop work and it all slows down. And then there’s the stuff with pollution which...[snip - Ed]
Yes, it’s easy to get lost in the details, but that’s the game - that's why I like it. The joy is that you’re 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. Religion’s 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 population’s 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 you’ve got along. If you’ve been trading, you’ll have a plus. If you’ve been trading with their enemies, it'll be a minus. They’ll 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, it’ll receive gold for every city in the world which follows the creed. Gloriously, beautifully, cynical. It’s 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 we’d had defined government systems with set bonuses. Instead, we have Civics. Your government’s 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. It’s much better than the old system in that there’s 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 we’re doing is grabbing something, pointing it at you and saying "Hey - this bit’s neat. There is lots more stuff like that". So - this bit’s neat. There’s a lot more stuff like that.
And before we leave, while we’re on a surface level, it’s 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, it’s by far the prettiest yet. If you’re 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. I’m sure I read it somewhere.