Sunday, October 30, 2005

Civilization 4

So, on Friday, I picked up what is largely believed to be the last copy of Civilization 4 within a 100km radius.

Now, with the sun barely rising at 6:30am on a Sunday morning (which is actually 7:30am, except clocks go back today), I have finished my first game. Shinji (the Japanese) has successfully launched for Alpha Centauri as of year 1996. It's a damned good thing too - the planet was a brutal mess. Two civs destroyed, 3 at war with me, and one friend (ahh the Chinese). As a parting gift to these annoying Civs, a wave of nuclear fire.

Now, for what you all want to hear: how is it?
Good... and bad...

First, I'll point out, no matter the changes, it's a Civ game. It is dangerously addictive. Sites like Civilization Anonymous may seem comical... until you fail your first term of school.
(note: if you're in an Electronics Boutique, try to catch the Civ4anon movie, it's worth the watch)

Note, I suggest before anyone comments, they play to the end of a game. The first few turns aren't indicative of how the game necessarily plays.

Now, some of the features which were new which I really liked:
  • Forced border control: no more computers wandering through your territory! They either have to declare war, or they have to request an open borders treaty. Open borders treaty gives access to roads too. A side effect of this is that units from non-warring factions can STACK, so a computer unit won't block your progress along your roads.
  • Better corruption! Corruption is purely a money thing: your cities can always produce just fine. Each city is taxed based on the total number of cities and its distance from the closest capital (Palace, Forbidden Palace, and a wonder or two).
  • No building maintenance, so you don't have to constantly worry about how much your buildings are costing you. This also results in tech%'s being very high, normally 80-90%.
  • Better negotiations: you get to SEE exactly what's making you popular or not with a particular race. Also, extortion works properly - they never actually went to war with me over some random greed attempt. Plus it's easy to see your deals, and choose when to renegotiate them.
  • Awesome defence bonuses: city defence bonuses are displayed, and bombardment can lower that percentage temporarily. Terrain bonuses show up on mouseover. Fortification is very cool - even if you wake the unit, the bonus isn't lost until you move the unit. Fortification increases 5% for up to five turns.
  • The UN is more understandable, and does more stuff. You can mandate certain civics, for example.
  • There's a lot more "national" wonders that each civ can build. What's better, you can only build two per city (this doesn't apply to "world" wonders)! This actually leads to some interesting planning issues - since you can't just load them all in your capital, you have to choose which pair up best (for example, two boosting gold in the same city == mega gold).
  • Easy unit grouping interface.
  • Great people are far more predictable (there's a meter, and you get one when it fills), and they can do a lot more things.
  • "Fortify until healed". 'Nuff said. In general, the concept of battlefield healing is far more refined and deterministic.
  • More treaties! I don't know how they work; didn't have a chance to use them. The "permanent alliance" will be useful for multiplayer, though I hope in multiplayer you can form it earlier (it's tech-dependent).
  • Both tech and construction progress is saved! When building in a city, you CAN'T transfer shields anymore, so no using palace builds to save up for wonders. However, if you're building something, and you choose something else, it goes on the head of the queue, before the item you were building, whose progress is saved. This is great if you need to say, build a wall in a hurry without having to throw out your wonder build.Yes, you can queue after the item as well, as in Civ3's shift-click. Tech is even more generic - progress on any tech is not lost (immediately anyways, the manual hints that a partial tech may eventually decay). You can switch between techs, and come back to the one you were working on later.

There are a few notable features, which are sort of neutral in my book.
  • Civics are kind of neat. I'm not quite sure that I agree with having only one turn of anarchy to switch them, but that's just me. I'd have liked to see this feature expanded, and some dependencies between the civics built. They seemed pointless early in the game, but later on, you do actually find yourself switching now and then.
  • The new combat system is pretty good - at first it feels more generic with 'bigger wins', but those minor details about combat bonuses make a huge difference! This is nice, for example, because you get a unit called a grenadier which has +50% vs rifleman, preventing the common Civ3 problem of rifleman turtling through the industrial age. Also, the idea of strength==health is also nice, more so because you have have fractions of a point. The downside? Micromanagement! Since you have to prepare for various contingencies, you'll have to really plan ahead, and individually promote each unit. For the sorts of stacks you were used to in Civ3, you'll spend a LOT of time just doing promotions and picking groups of units.
  • There's a LOT of luxaries. Even stuff that was just tile bonuses before, like banannas. Again, useful, but the issue of management. Most resources and luxaries require you to build a specialist structure and a road on the tile.
  • The tech tree. There's no requirement to complete a subset of an era, and in fact, the tech tree doesn't even show the eras. Many of the techs have an "or" dependency, meaning they can be reached by multiple paths. This of course gets confusing when you have an "and" dependency, since it doesn't get shown on the tree. This makes the tech tree hard to follow. On the other hand, you can easily explore very deep rather than taking a completionist view of the era. On the plus side, the exact number of potions is visible, and it overflows, so there's no tech% adjust every turn anymore. Thouhg you could easily since they've now moved it onto the main screen.

The downside? Only one, and.... well.... it's that it's a Civ game. Also known as any random 3 year old could have done a better job of testing it. It's buggy, and it's bloated as hell, and one or two of the UI features are still nasty.
  • The game is fairly heavy, taking over 500MB of RAM on a regular game as you let it suck up RAM. Game randomly slows from time to time to an unplayable pace, which can be fixed by minimizing and restoring.
  • Random glitches in UI. Sparkling units. From time to time, there's a buffer overflow leading to an "Unable to load file ". My game control menu and civlopedia disappeared completely once. My entire ancient age had no music. Tech display screen breaks when displaying a chain in progress. The Civlopedia is just crap, and is broken. Had at least one glitch in the military advisor screen.
  • I think there's a few bugs still in gameplay. I know I broke a negotiation at least once to get more cities than I should have. Negotiation screen also doesn't figure out durations for treaties.
  • UI quirks: the same as any Civ game - the issue of being constantly passed to a unit on the other side of the world as you try to wake up your stack. A new one here, to get a list of units, you single-click to activate one. Which activates the fortified unit. Getting it to sleep the turn normally involves waking and re-sleeping it. Sadly, it also seems to skip displaying the defensive combats.
  • Some advertised features, like choosing multiple leaders? Overrated. There's only at most two leaders, and many of the civs only have one, which with only 8 civ traits, means little. Religion has been implemented to be such a big deal, but in the end is just a hoop you jump through. You send missionaries to every city you can reach, they become your religion, and you're done. There's more to it than that, but the sheer enormity of it compared to its usefulness seems imbalanced. I for the life of me can't find out how to discover the balance of religions in a city's population.
Reports have indicated that there are some very serious bugs, including an outright memory leak (mine thankfully eventually frees the memory), and the fact that the game is supposedly hopeless on ATI cards. But I'll leave my discussion to what I personally saw.

So, overall, what do I think? Good game. Worth the price I paid, and makes some key improvements where they were needed. Did they change too much? Only time, and lots of multiplayer will tell. However, of course things may well change when we get the first patch. And that had better be soon.

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