Sid Meier's Civilization 4

Platform: PC
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Sid Meier's Civilization 4
Sid Meier's Civilization 4
Sid Meier's Civilization 4
Sid Meier's Civilization 4

"One Third proven, one third improved, one third new. That's the mantra coming out of the Firaxis office, half an hour's drive from the empty fish restaurants and seedy strip clubs of downtown Baltimore (or an hour if the cabbie is a moron). Situated on an anonymous commercial estate, it's a typical American development studio, with natural light at a premium and salty snacks in ready supply. Not the most glamorous location for the worldwide unveiling of Sid Meier's Civilization IV, but the veteran developer has never really been about show business. In fact, he's not even present at the presentation, preferring to remain out of sight, pulling the strings like the man behind the curtain at the end of The Wizard Of Oz. We do eventually catch up with him, but in the meantime it's down to cold, hard facts.

A four-strong team has gathered for our interrogation, comprising a producer, a designer, a software engineer and a man whose business card lists him as a polygon wrangler (oh dear). They've got their patter worked out, though, hence the opening mission statement. The proven' is a given, as with over six million units sold since the original 1991 game, and a wealth of critical acclaim, Civilization is recognized as one of the enduring PC game franchises. You are the King, and you must please the people or not, as the case may be. Take over the world by fair means or foul, with a rough time span stretching from 4000BC to 2000AD. Again.

Clearly, Firaxis isn't going to tamper with Civ by turning it into a platform game starring a squirrel, and fans will be pleased to learn that the core values will remain in place. Turn-based strategy is what the baying hordes want and turnbased strategy is what they're going to get. Firaxis has resisted the temptation to follow the likes of Age Of Empires into the real-time arena, arguing that it's the one more turn' appeal of Civilization that gives it the edge.

As for the improved,' one area that has been given a much-needed overhaul is the interface. For the uninitiated, attempting to negotiate Civ III without recourse to the manual or tutorial is a bewilderingly frustrating experience, like trying to unlock a door with your thumb.

The purists probably love it, but the series wasn't doing itself any favours in terms of attracting new players. Thankfully it's all change this time round, with a far more modern interface that will be familiar to anyone who has ever dabbled with an RTS game. As Firaxis told us, it wants the first move the player makes with the mouse to be the right move, and this does seem a lot more intuitive than in previous instalments, having more in common with traditional strategy games such as Warcraft.

New Dimension

Moving swiftly on, a further key improvement is to the graphics engine, which now boasts a living 3D world, as the surrounding screenshots demonstrate. Doom 3 it isn't, but it is a notable advancement, and one that was perhaps inevitable, as spiritual leader' Sid Meier agreed when we finally tracked him down. It certainly became inevitable," hissed Sid, and it opens up a lot of possibilities to us. The original Civ was a top-down map with squares moving around, and then we moved to a two-and-a-half D' view of landscape with a fixed camera. Now we can move around and zoom in and out and those are powerful techniques that we can use to enrich the game and bring it to life."

He's not lying, as we can confirm having seen it with our own eyes, with the camera rotating, zooming right in on the action or panning out to offer a more global view. It's not merely eye candy though, as it also proves functional, with the close-up enabling you to see if there's a bear hiding in the woods, for instance, and the panned-out view offering a comprehensive outline of the bigger picture, with all the information available on one screen. Pastures, wineries, water mills and windmills are all represented in detail, and their current status is also immediately obvious, with smoke billowing from a factory, or a cart travelling in and out of a mine, for instance, enabling you to visually gauge how productive a city is.

Elsewhere, Firaxis is promising a faster game. With Civ III clocking in at about 550 turns, the feeling is that this was about 150 too many. As such, elements of the game have been recalibrated so that the pacing makes sense, enabling you spend the requisite amount of time in each era. Firaxis reckons you should be able to get through Civ IV in about 10-15 hours, although acknowledging that everyone wants to play the game their own way, there will be three core game speeds, namely Quick, Medium and Epic, plus a huge array of multiplayer options (see 'Civ Online', below).

This Is Religion

New stuff? For the first time, Civ will embrace actual-world religions, enabling you to carry out acts of war in the name of your favourite non-existent god. With seven different - and equally misguided -options on offer, all the big hitters will be included: Christianity, Buddhism, all that good stuff. Firaxis admits it's always been afraid to tackle real religions before, but is going at it with some gusto this time round. All religions will basically be generic, with no bonuses for a particular belief. As was explained, this was not a line Firaxis was willing to cross, as it didn't want to get firebombed.

Within the confines of the game, however, allying yourself to a certain religion will enable you to curry favour with other like-minded peoples. They're not as stupid as you might assume though, and come fully equipped with a tangible memory. As such, suddenly converting to the same religion will not cut the mustard. As one of the dev team succinctly explained: They'll be like, where were you a thousand years ago'?

Deciding your state religion will be a crucial area, as you face the possibility of alienating half your city depending on your choice. It also impacts on diplomacy, and you can spread word of your chosen lord by building shrines, monasteries, and missionaries to take the message further afield. As well as appeasing your so-called god, religions do serve a practical purpose, with particular faiths associated with certain technologies.

And there's more, namely Great People, again drawn from the realms of reality. Split into five types - artist, tycoon, prophet, engineer and scientist - such familiar names as Plato, Shakespeare, Newton and Einstein will turn up, depending on the type of city. The idea is to encourage specialisation, so, for example, if you nurture a cultural city full of theatres and artists, the likes of Michelangelo could turn up with some tall ladders and start splashing the Dulux on the ceiling.

As well as the meaningless kudos of having pretend real people in your pretend real city, they do serve some purpose in the game. Each Great Person has three or four tricks up their sleeve, such as boosting culture, founding academies, sparking multiple golden ages, or initiating free technologies. Talking of which, the famous tech tree is now more flexible. Instead of being split into eras as previously, it now consists of one long tree, enabling you to make more strategic choices and develop your civilization along a unique path.

War, Eh?

For all its pretensions towards culture and diplomacy, good old-fashioned war still has a big part to play in Civ, and combat is a further area that's being overhauled. Thanks to the new 3D engine, it's been enhanced graphically. Barbarians can now be seen clubbing animals to death or cleaving the skulls of any passers-by, but despite the leap in technology, Firaxis is adamant it's not going down the blood route (the last word rhymes with gout). Plus, despite the higher detail, the action will remain reasonably sanitised.

The more significant change is in the way the combat works statistically. In Civ IV, as troops win battles they gain experience points, more if the odds are against them. Each time they go up a level, you can choose to give them one of several unique abilities, such as using enemy roads, bonus attacks in cities, or moving faster in forests. In this way, units become customised - much like the design workshop of Civ spin-off Alpha Centauri - and you end up with high-level units with specific abilities, making combat more of a tactical affair.

If you're going to have a civilization, you're going to need a leader, or better still, two. Of the 19 different civilisations, there are 28 leaders to go round, which if our calculations are correct means nine civs have two leaders, and ten have just the one. These are drawn from all areas of history, and include such disparate characters as Gandhi and Montezuma, whose famous revenge is well known to eaters of Mexican food in the form of chronic diarrhoea (the revenge, not the food). Each leader has traits that provide you with various bonuses, and they also appear in animations showing their state of mind, be it beatific, indifferent or really pissed off.

Government Flu

The specific nature of government is still down to you though, but this time round it's more of an a la carte affair. Rather than adhering to the set values of communism or fascism or whatever, you can pick and mix different styles, be it free markets, Senvironmentalism, slavery, conscription or emancipation, all of which will have an effect on your citizens. As well as the traditional currencies of happiness and money, health is now also an important factor. Keep your cities clean and your populace will live long and prosper; fill them with smoke-belching factories and they'll die an early death.

It's not exactly rocket science, although rocket science does of course feature, continuing a classic Civ tradition. Of the five different ways that the game can be won,' the Spaceship victory sees you become so advanced that you manage to develop the eight or nine spaceship parts required to get you off this godforsaken rock and colonise another planet (hence Alpha Centauri). Less adventurous victory conditions are also available, namely Conquest, whereby you are the last civilisation standing; Domination, where you own some percentage of the land; Cultural, which requires you to build three cities with near perfect culture; and finally, a Diplomatic victory, for which you have to make friends and influence people.

The Civilization series has always had a disproportionate following among the programming community, and they will be chuffed to learn that the new game will be fully modifiable using XML, Python and SDK. We have to confess to not knowing much about any of that, but those that do will be in their element, tweaking entire aspects of the game, including the Al. For the layman, the in-game editor should be enough to create varied maps, fashioning coastlines like a latter-day Slartibartfast.

There's still quite a long way to go, but Civilization IV is largely up and running, undergoing some final tweaking and tinkering, or as Firaxis would have it, iterative design. Sid Meier may no longer be hands-on, but both he and his team believe that Civilization IV will be worthy of his name when it appears at the end of this year. And as ever, we'll be the judges of that.

Download Sid Meier's Civilization 4

PC

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

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