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Review: Addictive ‘Civilization VI’ keeps the wonder alive

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By: Gordon Cameron

My Greek empire had spent the past five thousand years keeping its nose in front of the other civilizations in the world. We attacked neighbors who encroached too closely and captured their cities. We aggressively developed our technology to become the first on our continent with muskets, then later with aircraft. But there was always balance – always restraint. We destroyed no rival civilizations; they were merely kept in their place. Our overall score stayed comfortably in front, and with only a few turns to go, victory seemed certain.

But the Scythians, who occupied the northwestern portion of our continent, had been quietly building their space program in the hope of attaining a Science victory. They were somehow just two steps from the final goal of sending a colony ship to Mars. Fortunately, we’d been building nuclear weapons and constructing missile silos along our borders as a last resort against just such an eventuality. We didn’t want nuclear war, but we had to win the game. What choice was there?

In his 1985 diplomacy simulation “Balance of Power,” Chris Crawford famously rebuked players who initiated a nuclear war, withholding animated explosions on the ground that “we do not reward failure.” But now, it was the animations that caused me to feel real regret when I obliterated my neighbor in “Sid Meier’s Civilization VI”.” There’s no spectacle quite as terrifying as the slow crawl of an ICBM into the heavens.

In evoking that terror, with the added awareness that I’d initiated it, “Civilization VI” did what this series has always done best: make the player glimpse, however briefly, the enormous complexity and responsibility intrinsic to the business of governance. To reveal such insights through play, without the didacticism of an imposed narrative, has been the beloved strategy franchise’s great achievement for a quarter of a century.

Rule your world with ‘Civilization VI.’

Of course, we buy new games to see them achieve new things. So what’s this one got going for it? The answer is “plenty,” but most of it on the subtle side. “Civilization VI” is a smart refinement that introduces a few new mechanisms while keeping the classic ‘one more turn’ gameplay largely intact.

As with its predecessors, “Civilization VI” puts you in charge of a fledgling empire and lets you guide its development from a crude Stone Age tribe to a splendid array of gleaming metropolises, powerful armies, and wondrous artworks. Competing with rival nations, you can attain victory in a number of ways: maintaining a high score across all indices of advancement; conquering your neighbors through cultural or religious domination; or developing a space program that will launch you into the heavens.

A new religion

The religious system has been heavily revamped. Faith is now a currency not unlike gold; you can accumulate it over time and spend it on certain units and buildings. If you turn your government into a Theocracy, you can buy whatever units you want with Faith, but otherwise you’re mostly limited to purchasing Apostles, Inquisitors, and Missionaries, whose purpose is to spread your creed to other cities. These units exist in a sort of parallel world, untouchable by normal military units but able to be destroyed by their own kind. Apostles from rival civilizations engage in “theological combat,” which, I guess, is meant to be an abstracted version of haranguing.

While it’s nice to be able to guide your religious expansion in as granular a way as your military, “Civilization VI’s” faith model has a couple of problems. For one thing, it fails to acknowledge that historically, religions often were spread at the point of a sword, not via theologian-on-theologian smack downs. The total separation of these two modes of combat feels contrived. Also, theological warfare is less fun than the standard sort, if only because there are fewer units to choose from. After a few games to try out the different styles, you’re more likely to want to go for a Domination victory than a religious one.

China joins the world stage.

Another notable change is the introduction of districts. These are designated tiles outside the city center, which group together all buildings of a single type. A religious district will contain temples and shrines, a commercial district will contain markets and financial structures, and so on. Because establishing districts erases the underlying resources on a tile of land, there are tough decisions to be made about where to place them. And during warfare, you can place units to pillage particular districts in enemy cities. (Military districts are also capable of ranged attacks against enemy units, just like city centers – effectively doubling the defensive capabilities of a city that contains them.)

Still, the overall impact on gameplay feels minor. Districts are just interesting enough to avoid feeling like a redundant layer of complexity, and they provide the pretext for some nice eye candy on the world map. But they’re far from a major innovation.

Diplomatic dissonance

Where “Civilization VI” continues to disappoint, as have so many other games in this series, is in its diplomatic model. It still lacks a sense of continuity, of being able to make meaningful decisions based not only on what is happening, but on educated guesses about what will happen next. The standard format of diplomatic interactions — pop-ups that interrupt the gameplay so a rival can denounce you or ask for silk or something — feels fragmentary and disjointed.

Nor is there a strong sense of cause-and-effect; another civilization, for instance, may denounce you repeatedly without attacking or cutting off trade or doing anything else that might do more than annoy. And the bargaining interface is largely pointless. There’s no ability to horse-trade effectively, to push for a little more, to haggle, to call in favors in a coherent way. Adjust a proposed exchange by even a single gold piece and it instantly becomes unacceptable to the other side.

Getting to work in ‘Civilization VI.’

Granted, diplomacy is a lot harder to render in a video game than combat. Even figuring out what sort of interface should be used to convey it is a tough problem. Duplicity, bluffs, loyalty, personality traits alloyed by realpolitik and national self-interest – it’s a bear of a design challenge. But it’s been 25 years and it feels like this aspect of “Civilization’s” design has progressed the least. With each new “Civilization” game, I hope for something special diplomatically, and each time I’m let down again. It’s time for a ground-up reimagining of this dimension of “Civilization’s” gameplay.

Governing with glitches

It’s frustrating, too, that the game’s interface and mechanics remain so opaque. Tooltips are inadequate, seldom providing all the necessary information about the unit or terrain feature you’re mousing over. For instance, the “builder” unit – equivalent to the “worker” from earlier “Civs” – now only gets three charges. Once it has performed three improvements, it vanishes. But the tooltip says nothing about this; there isn’t even an obvious “poof” animation to let you know the builder is gone after the third use.

(There is a “Builds” number tracking how many charges the builder has remaining, but it’s cryptically written and unlikely to make sense until you already know what’s up.)

I spent hours trying to figure out why my builders were disappearing, before I finally looked the unit up in the Civilopedia and learned about the three-charge restriction. Elusive information like this is scattered all over the game. Try to figure out a simple question like “Do I have to build an improvement on a rare resource in order to obtain it?” and you’re unlikely to find an answer anywhere short of a public user forum.

The interface itself, for that matter, is a little glitchy. Sometimes, when you’re ordering units around on the map, the game won’t recognize your mouse clicks. Other times, a unit will be sent on a multiple-turn path and then for no obvious reason forget where it was going and just sit there unless redirected. You’ll occasionally get notifications of phantom religious-unit promotions that seem not to exist at all. These gripes gradually fade with playtime, as you learn the interface quirks and pick up information through trial and error, but it can make the initial hours hard going, even for someone familiar with previous “Civilization” titles.

For all its frustrations, though, “Civilization VI” remains incredibly addictive. Even when you know you’re going to have to wait a while as your PC chugs through all your opponents’ turns, the call of the “End Turn” button is strong. It takes a strong will to tear yourself away. It’s a secret sauce that few turn-based strategy games have been able to replicate. Whether you’re moving units around, choosing a city’s next production goal, or picking a new tech to research, there are usually at least two items at any given time that are just about to complete. And so you play a little longer, and a little longer, and then it’s 2:45 in the morning. Again.

Meaty multiplayer

For those who don’t like to take their “Civilization” solo, there’s a set of multiplayer modes. You can play online, on a local area network (do people still do that?), or in a ‘hot seat’ setup where everybody takes turns on the same computer. Online play is reasonably stable, but make sure you have plenty of time. You can jump into a game online against strangers — at least at launch, the servers are fairly well populated — but even at the fastest speed it’ll take hours to finish a session. An organized group of buddies may get mileage out of the multiplayer, but the sheer scope of the game lends itself best to single player.

No matter how you play, it looks great. “Civilization VI” has a slightly more cartoonish aesthetic than its predecessor. Unit animations are nicely done, and there’s a lovely fog-of-war effect that renders features beyond your line of sight as if they were etched on a medieval parchment map. There are some other nice visual touches, like the way you’ll see wonders under construction on the world map long before they’re completed.

“Civ” has always been a game that lends itself to custom soundtracks — whenever I hear Schubert’s 3rd Symphony I still get visions of Settler tiles scooting around, thanks to my “Civ”-soaked summer of 1993 — but some more distinctive in-game tunes would have been nice. For the title song, “Civilization IV” composer Christopher Tin has written a soaring, swaggering choral tune. It’s got the requisite pomp and uplift, but it’s no “Baba Yetu.”

Every time the Firaxis design team gets together to plot out the next “Civilization” game, it must be stressful. In their hands rests one of the most prestigious franchises in gaming. “Civilization” isn’t the game you bring up when you’re trying to make the case that games are art; it’s the one you bring up when you want to argue that it doesn’t matter whether games are art. It’s a tall order to keep it fresh and relevant in an industry that’s so fast-paced, but so far, so good.

What’s Hot: The addiction is back; cool new graphics; tons of mechanics at play; still the most enjoyable way to get flashes of insight into the human condition

What’s Not: Diplomacy model continues to disappoint; religious combat isn’t entirely successful; many mechanics aren’t explained well; new districts are pretty but have limited gameplay impact

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