Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Civilization V Review (From a Civ Fan of 19 years)

I have decided to step away from politics and current events for a moment to review something else that I find near and dear to my heart - a video game.

That's right - I will spend some time to talk about a particular computer program that I have spent countless hours on, and in many ways has contributed to my love of history, politics, and foreign affairs, among other things.

This video game is none other than Sid Meier's Civilization - more specifically I want to offer a review on the latest edition, Civilization V, to be later referred to simply as Civ 5.

I have been a fan of the Civ series since the first one was released 19 years ago - I have owned every edition, and when a similar game came out, I bought those as well, so I feel that I can be classified as a Civ veteran.  Here is a list of just some of the Civ-type games I have played:
  • Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
  • Civilization: Call to Power
  • Call to Power II
  • Master of Orion 
  • Master of Orion 2
  • Master of Orion 3
  • Master of Magic
I'm sure there are probably some that I have forgotten, but I think you get the point.

Anyway, my experience with the Civ series has been very intimate - I have even created my own mods for the game - mostly for Civ 3 - and have spent much time pondering just what makes the Civ games so great, as well as trying to understand their faults.  My experimentations in modding Civ 3 had led to many great things - I had fun creating new technologies, buildings, units, governments, civilizations, resources, or anything else that could create a more balanced and indepth gameplay - some of my best games were a result of my mods (like that time I created Poland and faced destruction before my troops rallied in the Black Forest to defeat an impending Scandinavian invasion).

Anyway, as many of you may know, Civ 5 was released late last month, and as a good liitle boy, I ran out to to the nearest store (Target) and purchased the game.  Because I have been so busy, I barely read anything about the newest edition and was only familiar with the basics - hex maps, newly devised combat methods, increased diplomatic interactions.  Now that I have had the opportunity to play the game for a couple weeks, I have developed an opinion of my own that I plan to share.  Some of my complaints about the newest version are hold overs from previous versions but I am approaching this review from a particular position - one of a seasoned Civilizatoion fan, who is open to change, and therefor I will focus mostly on the parts of the game that I do not like.

First, let me begin with the positives - the game looks beautiful.  With each version of the game there has always been modifications to the basic layout.  While at first I may experience a bit of frustration because it is not exactly what I am used to, the frustration quickly subsides as I become accquainted with the new setup.  From what I have found, the menus have been simplified and for someone approaching the game for the first time, I was able to find my way around pretty quickly (having played the other Civs did help).

I also enjoyed the diplomatic screens and found that they are an improvement over the last game, although it gets annoying every couple turns when the screen changes because some civilization is unhappy that I settled a territory to close to their empire or because I am in a war that they don't approve - I think what makes it more annoying is that I am only given two options to choose from - apologize or respond negatively - and then after my response I am not given the opportunity to rebut.

Now that I got the above two points out of the way, I will move onto my complaints.  Some of my problems with the game aren't that bad - I just feel as if that some of the problems I had with past versions were not addressesd (while some were) and that the developer's reimagination of the game completely changed aspects that I had no problem with.

To begin with my list of grievances, I feel that it would be appropriate to begin with Steam.  Maybe I am an old fashioned gamer but I do not like the idea of connecting online for every little thing, so when I installed my game, I was surprised to find out that it required me to connect to the interenet at least once to begin playing the game.  I understand that many companies are trying to move to digital platforms but I personally like to have a physical copy and I do not want to depend on a third party to be able to play a game that I purchase - I understand that I'm only really purchasing the rights to play the game and not the game itself but I can't help but wonder about the "What Ifs," like what if Steam were to go out of business?

Would I no longer be able to play my game?

I'm sure that wouldn't happen and I'm sure Steam will be around for a while, and if they were to go out of business, somebody would either pick up where Steam left off or someone would program a crack that I could download.  I am reminded of several things when I think of why I do not like the idea of Steam.

I had owned a sheet music composition program that had come with a CD key, but unfortunately I had lost the key.  The company would not offer any assistance unless I could offer some proof of purchase, but I was unable to.  In that particular instance I had to rely on a crack but it was incredibly time consuming, and risky, to do - I wound up contracting a computer virus in the process that by the time I finally got the crack, I decided it was not worth it and so I purchased another program, which I actually downloaded.

A second issue I have with Steam is again with the possibility if they were to go out of business - I am reminded of Sega's Phantasy Star Online.  When Sega Dreamcast went bust, Sega ceased support for PSO and shut down their servers shortly after.  Those who bought the game were left with a pretty much useless online game.

I am also reminded of another video game that I was very fond of - Creatures.  Creatures, and in particular, Creatures 3, was designed to be friendly with the modding community and utilized the internet for numerous things - I had spent money on and downloaded a genetic engineering kit for the game (I had also purchased the Internet Edition).  Now that the game is defunct, the only place you kind find anything are on some of the aging fan sites, but those are becoming less frequent.

I understand the benefits of using things like Steam - for instance, I had accidentally damaged my CD for a Sony program but luckily I had registered it.  I was able to go to Sony's website, log into my account, and download the program, saving me close to $100.  While internet support is great, I am worried that Civ 5's dependence on online options will be a negative - what will happen when Steam feels it no longer wants to support Civ 5?

My next complaint, which is along the lines of online content, is the simplification of the game by developers, with the promise of additional content from the Civ community through Steam.  I feel that this was just the developers being lazy, pumping out a half-finished game - they had several years to complete it and the game has less technologies, units, civilizations, and options then previous versions.  One saving grace of past versions was that they offered more then the last.  I understand that more isn't always better, but I enjoys seeing more technologies and units.  It created interesting subtleties in each game.

I feel cheated that I had to spend $50 on a video game only to wait until someone like me makes the rest - for instance, why is it that none of the Civ games come with a detailed map of the world that has civilizations starting out in their historic location, despite typically being on of the more popular downloads on fan sites?  This was one of the first downloads available on Steam.  Another must is additional civilizations - there are numerous civilizations in the world yet the programmers for Civ 5 like to limit us to only a handful.  My favorite mods for past Civs included 30 to 50 civilizations, making for a very interesting game, which unfortunately led to some slow downs, which leads me to my next complaint - system slow downs.

I am operating off a pretty good computer - I more then meet the system requirements (not the minimum), yet the game seems to slow down as the game progresses, becoming buggy and eventually crashing.  This is a hold over complaint from both Civ 3 and Civ 4.  Civ 3 was notorious for being slow - I used to make my lunches and watch television programs in between turns.  I mention Civ 4 because I experienced some slow down with Civ 4 because of the graphics - Civ 4 changed from a 2D isometric view to a fully 3D environment.  I personally did not see the need to have a 3D environment for a turn-based simulation/strategy game and felt that it was more for show than anything else - at least there were options to disable animations and reduce the image quality.

My complaint with the graphics may stem from the fact that I am an old-school gamer (I prefer my Ataris and Nintendos to my Playstations and X-Boxes) but I rally don't see it as a necessary part of the game - sure it looks nice to see an archer shoot his arrow or a tank roll across the landscape but when you advance to the later stages of the game the time wasted on such unimportant parts of the game is amazing.  I have spent 35 hours playing a single game of Civ 5 and I am still not done and that is partly because I have to watch every unit fight its battles - for some god awful reason, the programmers decided to simplify the visual options for the game.  I have all my settings on low - the graphics are still amazing - yet I am forced to watch my troops walk around and waste my time (eating up my memory too).  If I don't allow the game to finish it's actions, I run the risk of having the game freeze - I had to up my autosaves to every 5 turns.

I do suggest playing the game using DirectX 11 - the game seemed buggier under DirectX 9 and so far the game has operated smoother with the later DirectX.

Another complaing I have is with the combat, but more so with the elimination of troop stacking and the computer's AI - while I commend the programmers for trying something new by allowing only one troop to occupy a single hex, I find that this rule can get old rather quick - a common problem I have experienced is traffic jams.  For example, the city-states of Budapest and Belgrade required my assistance in attacking the Russians but because of the geographic location, I could not get my troops into the region.  I understand the strategy involved but I also find it silly to think that an archer of mine can fire from several hexes away yet I can't fit more than one unit on a square - I like the idea suggested on some forums to change the rule to allow more than one unit, but maybe apply a limit.  The only problem is whether or not the computer would know what to do with itself but I doubt it - the AI seems dumber in this version. 

I also am displeased with the elimination of aspects introduced in Civ 4 like religion.  I thought religion offered an interesting dynamic to the game and allowed for some more varied gameplay - some of my games saw religion playing a more prominent role then others.  I felt the same way when they removed terrorism from Civ 3.

Overall, my complaints with the game stem from the reliance on on-line content - especially user created content.  Don't get me wrong - this game is still amazing but it was definitely not what it could have been.  I suspect that in a year enough mods will exist to make Civ 5 what it should have been (and in that time span I plan on becoming acquainted with the new World Builder (which so far sucks in my opinion but I will give it some time).

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