Sid Meier's Civilization 4
Wham! Yells The man in the floral shirt to my left. If it were a pub quiz and he'd been asked to name the worst band of the '80s, he'd be well within his rights. Sadly, it's not. It's a Civilization IV hands-on multiplayer event in (genuinely) sunny Baltimore, and shirt-boy is celebrating another minor victory, while increasingly getting on my wick.
It could have been worse. Ten hours earlier, myself and a UK PR man were stumbling round a car park at midnight in the smack capital of the Eastern seaboard, searching desperately for entertainment having jettisoned ourselves from a meal that had degenerated into an in-depth discussion on the intricacies of Morrowind.
My fellow diners are now gathered round a table at the Firaxis office, mainly sporting the regulation uniform of polo shirts tucked into slacks, offset with greasy hair and white socks. I couldn't be any deeper in geek hell if Captain Spock were overseeing proceedings.
"So has everyone played Civ before?" asks a Firaxis beard, to audible snorts of contempt from the assembled nerderati. Accordingly, I decide not to mention that my entire Civ career consists of unsuccessfully attempting the tutorial of Civ III. Besides, I'm already unpopular enough as it is, being a) the only Brit, b) half an hour late, and c) unable to speak binary.
With this limited background, I install myself as a very outside chance in the multiplayer game that's just got underway. I am China and I am clueless. Faking it like a pro, I studiously survey the map in front of me. Clicking randomly on a few things, I remarkably manage to build the city of Beijing, rapidly putting a wall round it and defending it with a clutch of archers.
Warriors, Come Out To Play
Getting a taste for exploration, I put together some scouts and send them out into the wild, whereby they promptly kill a lion. My warriors are less successful, straying into shirt-boy territory and impetuously declaring war. As the screen zooms into a 3D battle, shirt-boy screams "Take that, caveman!" as his mounted troops vanquish my boys.
Taking it personally, I throw my best men at him, but he again comes out on top, howling: "Take that War Chariot! Think you're all cool and stuff."
During the ensuing battles, he utters the improbable line: 1 just rolled over an archer unit and it felt good," followed by a near-feral, "Bring it! Bring it! Bring it!" Calm down dear, it's a turn-based strategy game.
Thankfully, the game is soon halted due to time constraints. Remarkably, I haven't completely disgraced myself, finishing in a creditable mid-table position, with such achievements as researching fishing and animal husbandry, becoming a Buddhist, and, crucially, keeping shirt-boy out of my city. "Your horses were stomping round my rice paddies," he wistfully announces, to no-one in particular.
Saving Private Ryan
Next up is a 2v2 team game, and with the yanks rapidly pairing up, I'm left to join forces with a pasty teenager by the name of Ryan Meier, son of Sid and regular in the Firaxis QA department. Something of a result, his Germans and my Americans rapidly set about populating the East of the map, with Washington, New York and Boston sitting incongruously alongside the likes of Munich and Berlin, with trade routes established by road.
Taking a peaceful approach, we build our empire rapidly, with Ryan attempting to 'turn' rival cities by dropping a so-called culture bomb in their immediate vicinity. I, meanwhile, keep myself busy by building a couple of aqueducts and killing the odd wolf in near total silence. As the nearby PR man texts me: "Not much whoopin' and a'hollerin' coming from you Stevie boy.
This carries on for some hours, with Ryan resolutely refusing to go to war while I amass an unused army. It's a ploy that backfires, as with my low score counteracting his high score, we're behind on points with eight turns left. Going all-in, we finally attack, but it's too late and we go down to a points defeat. At this stage, I could scarcely be less popular if laid a fresh turd on the carpet. Taxi for Hill!
Download Sid Meier's Civilization 4
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
How Do You improve Civilization? It's an icon - a bastion of PC gaming. Changing the rubric of Meier's opus would be like removing the Beauty Contest card in Monopoly, turning Professor Plum green, or reintroducing the controversial 1976 Double-Nip rule back into Mornington Crescent (third edition). In short, there'd be fighting in the streets.
Civ III played it safe, almost too safe, and now Civ IV becomes the prodigal son -reappearing on our doorsteps fresh, reformed, tweaked, tucked and with a few extra features moved slightly out of view under its well-toned arm. Oh, and it's a masterpiece. Did I mention that? A bona-fide classic that's politely informing Age of Empires III that it's raining while pissing all over its shoes.
For those 14 years late to the party it falls to me to act as both pusher and pimp, so if established hacks could take a few steps back then I'll address the masses. Civ sees you direct the path of human society from club-wielding warrior through to the space age: you explore, found cities, research technology, trade, wage war and engage in all manner of nefarious diplomacy to ensure that your race (be they English, Roman or whatever) comes out on top, hits the stars first gets voted the head of the United Nations, or does one of several other notable achievements. It's turn-based, and it's the greatest board game ever created; although seeing as there's so much to it it's rubbish when played on a board and as such lives in your PC instead.
So what's new in this iteration? Well, let's start with the warm niceness and the gloss, seeing as that's what strikes you first after installation. Beautiful world music chants in the background, giant globes spin, Leonard Nimoy mumbles relevant quotations whenever you discover a new technology: you're put straight into a cosy mindset that lies halfway between the striding animals of The Lion King and The Discovery Channel.
This snugness doesn't really spread to the graphics (someone standing behind me politely informed me that it "looks like it's been kicked in the face"), but by its very nature Civ isn't a game in which you care much about visual niceties. Besides, everything is as colourful, decent and obvious as you'd ever need it to be. There is the zoomy (and slightly spinny) camera that all the marketing blurb demands these days but quite frankly, who cares? This is CiV.
Having spent several evenings blankly staring into the mid-distance and pondering my nascent war with the Egyptians and wondering quite whether I can trust George Washington, I come to you as an addict with no hope of rehabilitation. I dream about it. I sit on public transport thinking about where I've gone wrong with my precious English race and what I'll do differently with my next civilisation. I sit and stew about the infamous time in which I'd left my capital city (which I've been calling 'Will is Cool' since 1991) completely unguarded -allowing those bastard Romans to sneak in from my largely unpopulated Northern coast and take it without warning. In fact I'm still fuming about that, absolutely bastard livid. I'm sitting here with my blood boiling at the impunity of a computer-generated race of Buddhist Romans, and I desperately want revenge - in this life or the next And this, my friend, is the power of the Civ.
New Tricks, Old Dog
What's new, though? Well to kick off there are the great people, engineers, artists, prophets, scientists, merchants and the like, who appear at intervals (encouraged by any wonders of the world you may have up your sleeve) and conjure up helpful bonuses -aiding city growth, researching stuff extra quick or perhaps double-teaming with other great minds and starting up a golden age of innovation. This all works very well, and certainly isn't W quite as fiddly as the (nevertheless welcome) addition of religion -something that adds another layer to the Neapolitan ice cream that is Meier's creation.
Essentially key faiths get founded in certain cities as soon as the relevant technologies are discovered - they then spread either through missionaries or trade routes regardless of national boundaries. Because of this a state religion isn't necessarily universally shared among your nation and neighbours (at one stage Will is Still Cool was Christian, Mos Eisley was Muslim and those pesky Buddhist Romans were upping the ante and trying to get me to convert to their way of thinking under threat of violence). Remember, a happy nation is a unified nation, but you're a better strategist than me if you can get it.
Cogs Of War
Cohorts 'n' combat have also been slightly upgraded this time around, and are liable to give established Civ hacks a mild shock when they march into enemy territory - so pay attention at the back. These days, units get promotions depending on how much action they see, and there's a massive range of bonuses that can be lavished upon them so you can tailor troops to your whim - city defence specialists, hillside guerrillas, woodland warriors, all that malarkey. Because of this your freshly researched musket-men won't necessarily trounce a bunch of blokes with pikes - and an added level of chin-beardery strokage is ushered in. Should anyone be watching the battles over your shoulder then they will laugh and point (it looks like three wobbly toy soldiers poking a horse until one side falls over), but for us armchair generals the import is the difference between life and death -especially if your wobbly horse is pushed over by someone you know through the magic of Civ 4s fabled multiplayer.
This is most definitely the field in which Civ has been most errant in times past (Civilization III: Play The World being nothing short of a buggy and untested demonstration of computer gaming evil).
Now, however, it's been nailed: simultaneous turns, variable game speeds, the ability to join a game on the hop by taking over an Al opponent and game dynamics that leave you despising your best friend. Quite frankly, you needn't buy another game for the entirety of next year - Civ will suffice, and it gets deeper each time you play.
It's a game that's part of the establishment rather than one of the endless parade of fleeting moonlight installations that come and go with the seasons. A much-loved part of the PC gaming furniture that's been passed down from ancient times that we'll leave to our grandchildren when they're ready. Then they can hate the Romans too.
Developer S Commentary
Civilisation, To Quote Gremlins 2: The New Batch, is, I think, what everyone wants and what very few have. The niceties. The fine points: diplomacy, compassion, standards, manners, tradition... That's what we're reaching toward. Oh, we may stumble along the way, but civilisation, yes.
The Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag. Everything our society has worked so hard to accomplish over the centuries, that's what we aspire to; we want to be civilised. No, clearly not. Fun, but in no sense civilised. Not like Soren Johnson (lead designer) and Barry Caudill (senior producer) - who, alongside Sid Meier, are the godfathers of all things Civ. Not at all.
Johnson: "I think it's two things that ** I come together. First off, it's a great topic: everyone wants to be king and rule the world. The other thing that makes it work is the turn-based gameplay that came about way back in 1991 - it's something that really hooks people into these multiple goals they're trying to accomplish over many, many turns. People feel like there's always something more to achieve: T gotta get that next tech', T gotta finish the Pyramids', 'I gotta found that next city'. So I think it's a match between great subject matter and really good gameplay mechanics. Either one on its own would be good, but I think them coming together is what makes Civilization so special."
Keeping The Fans Happy
Caudill: "It's a really tough tightrope to walk when you're on something like Civ IV: if you continue to cater only to the hardcore guys, you're only going to cater to an ever-shrinking circle of people. You need to find a way to bring in new people, otherwise your franchise will die. So there's this great balancing act, where we say, let's make this accessible, but let's also add this feature that the hardcore guys want'. We also did stuff like adding difficulty levels that were lower than anything we've ever had for previous games. It's always a constant back and forth, 'is that too complex?' or 'is that too simple?'. Eventually though, we all agree and pull it off."
Founding Civ Religion
Johnson: "Religion was the one really obvious and interesting topic from history that we'd never dealt with directly. It was clear to everyone that was the most likely place where we could make some good progress gameplay-wise, but we'd never done it before because it was an area of potential controversy - people might get upset and start to hate us. We were pretty conservative though. Religions are pretty much flavours - fundamentally, there's no difference between Islam, Christianity and Hinduism - from a pure gameplay point of view they're functionally identical. The interesting part comes from how it actually plays out in the game - religions getting founded, spreading through the world and their effect on diplomatic relations. It took a lot of time to get the right version too - we tried about five or six different systems before we hit the right one."
Caudill: "One of the big differences in the earlier versions was that the player was a little bit detached from religion in the game. There was a hidden algorithm going on in the background that would determine how religion was spreading through the world, spreading along rivers or trade routes between civilisations that had diplomatic relations. You would see your religion naturally spreading throughout your cities and you could do a few things to affect it, but it was only a secondary effect. It sounded good on paper, but fundamentally when you're playing Civ, all the games systems work because the player is in control."
Why The Multiplayer Love?
Caudill: ''Because of Play The World (Laughs). Every previous Civ product was a single-player game, and every single one of them was a single-player product where we tried to put multiplayer on top of them."
Johnson: "We wanted to put our resources into a new area where we could really raise the bar: multiplayer. We knew that would impress a lot of people and make people view Civ in a different way. A good chunk of the Civilization gameplay is never going to change, so you need to look for things like multiplayer to really improve."
Music To Watch The Years
GO BY: Johnson: "Sourcing the music was one of my favourite parts of the project. I set out a long-term goal to find good pieces to use from every point in history. I was fairly familiar with the baroque, so I got in contact with some musician friends of mine to get me some good requisitions for renaissance and medieval. I listened to those, found some good pieces and came up with the idea of using John Adams for the modern age. I found that pieces with big climaxes aren't that good since you don't want to take the player out of their experience - so you hear some second or third symphonies that don't start with a bang or end with a bang, along with a lot of dances that work well as they keep the same level and don't really go up or down."
Bit Like The Lion King
Johnson: "The main music was an original composition written for Civ IV. It was inspired by another piece that we wanted to use, but we couldn't for various legal reasons. The composer of that piece was a guy I was familiar with from college - he was my room-mate - and he's worked on films like X-Men and various commercials. He had a really good grasp of that world music African thing, so I called him up and asked him if he could make an inspiring flagship piece. He knew a great group who would do it for us - they're an a capella group from Stanford. He wrote the piece for them and we got it to fit well with the earth and the sunrise. We've had loads of great feedback from it - people seem to love it".
The Logical Choice
Caudill: "We had several people we were trying to get for the voice-acting. We had lots of people lined up, we were back and forth with Patrick Stewart and thought we had him, but all of a sudden he wasn't available anymore. So we sat down with the licensing guy from 2K and he showed us a list of guys and it was like: "Oh, Spock!" We hooked him up and got him in the studio twice, once to do some initial recording and a second time to do some clean-up stuff, and it worked incredibly well. He has this great recognisable voice - it really brings you in and makes you feel comfortable. What's more, just hearing the science officer from Star Trek giving all the tech quotes is great, y'know?"
Caudill: "In terms of which historical characters get included, we certainly don't want to alienate people - but at the same time if something makes sense, it makes sense; it's another tightrope we walk. We've had a few emails about the inclusion of Stalin as a leader for Russia in the Warlords expansion, and we also got a lot of emails when we included the Arabs in Play The World, in terms of who we chose as a leader and how it affected different people. We try to do our homework and make sure the person is there for a reason. Generally, we talk to scholars and find out what the real story is."
"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 Civilization 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.
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.
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.
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.
Snapshots and Media
- Ancestors: Legacy
- Empire: Total War
- Kings Bounty Dark Side
- Medieval: Total War - Gold Edition
- Napoleon: Total War
- Rome: Total War
- Rome: Total War Gold Edition
- Sid Meier's Civilization 3: Conquests
- Sid Meier's Civilization 3: Play the World
- Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword
- Sid Meier's Pirates!