by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Delivering the promise
Civilization V stripped away much of the fat that the series had taken on throughout the previous installments. While some saw that as an opportunity to re-imagine some of the core elements, others felt Firaxis went too far and wrote it off as a loss. The Gods & Kings and Brave New World DLC packs brought the game back to the glory of its predecessors and changed fan perception.
With Civilization VI, Firaxis delivers upon the hidden promise brought by the culling of V. I want a game to invoke a sense of adventure in me when I am playing. In a strategy sequel, I want to discover that the strategies that worked in the predecessor may not always be what will be best now. I want the game to force me to take a long hard look at what I am doing and give me alternatives. Above all, I want to explore and be wowed. Civilization VI does exactly that and it’s wonderful.
The core mechanics, of course, have remained exactly the same. You’re the ruler of a budding empire and destined to lead it to greatness throughout the ages. Other rulers are working to shorten your rule by any means necessary though, usually short-lived, friendships may serve to keep the peace. Trade, war and diplomacy ask for constant vigilance and vie to distract you from building up your cities, strengthening your economy and boosting your culture, religion and research. All of it is done on a lavish world map that you conquer turn by turn, one hex at a time.
Reworking a classic
Everything that you see, everything that you can do, will look very familiar but very little of it works in exactly the same way as it did before. It’s similar, but it feels new. After a couple days with the game, you’ll realize just how much of what appears to be new, is actually a more articulate version of something that was there all along.
Take Civics for instance. In previous games Civics were based on an ever growing pool of points that occasionally unlocked new policies that could be used to customize your empire to your liking. Building up points is done in pretty much the same way, but you’re unlocking new policies at a tremendous rate and get to apply policy cards to customize your empire frequently and with far greater detail. Between Civics and Religion - which can also be customized to a greater extent than before - I found myself to be far more involved in the little cogs and wheels that made my empire spin. I did not feel all the tinkering I did was required, but I did feel smart whenever I remembered to switch to a more offensive style right before declaring war, and tailor things back to growth when I was done with my warmongering.
Districts are described as a totally new feature to the game, but in reality a district is merely a… wrapper for buildings that can be grouped together. It’s a cool wrapper, mind you! But still no more than that. All research related buildings go into the Campus wrapper, culture goes into the Theatre Square and so on. For most districts, the only real difference is that you’ll have to build the wrapper before you can start adding buildings such as libraries and factories. Districts are placed outside of cities, which is new and adds some visual flavor, but that’s pretty much where it ends. Oh, yes you can pillage buildings that are outside of the city but I doubt many players pillage unless they are playing a multiplayer game.
I think Firaxis intended players to start grooming their cities towards specialization but this hasn’t really worked out. You’ll still max out production in all your cities, you’ll want all the happiness buildings that you can muster, and once you’re done you may initially pick a path towards one or the other type of buildings but will likely end up with cities that will have much the same buildings as you’d have had in Civilization V. Had Firaxis allowed us to create multiple districts of the same type, I am sure we’d be jumping at the chance to create university cities and production powerhouses. A bit of a missed opportunity but I had fun with districts nonetheless.
Interacting with others
While I’m not seeing much progress for the AI in terms of warfare ability, I did like how we can now have a peek at what makes them tick. With a little bit of effort, you can navigate your way through the maze of personalities and gain favor with specific leaders. One may want you to bring your religion to their cities, another will take you more seriously if you have a city on their continent. All of this hits the fan as soon as you've declared war once or twice, but it’s fun for a short while at least.
Which brings me to the Casus Belli mechanic. I love how this works in many other games, and the Europa Universalis type games in particular. I got quite excited about it being added to Civilization but it’s simply not balanced enough. A huge part of the issue is that warmongering penalties are extremely high. It’s 1735, I’ve declared war only twice but everyone hates me because I am a warmongering maniac. The fact that both the empires I have declared on, declared on me previously makes no difference at all. Once you are a warmonger, it’s incredibly difficult to get back into people’s good graces. It’s almost as if Firaxis is trying to sway people from conquest, which is all well and good but this game - is - about conquest and peaceful expansion is not really as viable an alternative as it was in previous games. Tempering the warmonger penalties would alleviate some of the issues, unlocking the various Casus Belli types much earlier in the game would do the rest.
An engine’s odd behaviour
There are some small technical hiccups. The icons that report things that happened during the turns of other civs are stacked by type - which is good - but getting a second or third report is annoyingly difficult, especially for the city related ones when the city detail menu is hidden. When going through the units that need orders, the game switches from the “to do” unit to unit with a short delay that is just a little bit too long, and it regularly even switches twice before activating the unit. It’s odd, and particularly frustrating during war when lots of units occupy the screen at the same time.
A rather harrowing bug happened when I was contacted by Cleopatra who went bonkers over me being a warmonger or something or other - who knows, women eh? (Did I just pull a Trump?) - and declared war. I had not met Egypt, and even more intriguingly - I was playing Egypt myself. Was I talking to a mirror?
The best Civ?
While not everything has panned out as brilliantly as I had hoped, I have to say this is the most fun I’ve had with a Civilization game since III (I know - heresy). There are tiny little surprises everywhere, like the Eureka moments that boost your research seemingly out of the blue and are triggered by your actions in the game. The interaction with city states has been greatly improved and having one on your side is a great boon to your empire, even if some spawn units a little bit too much. And the thing that excites me the most? After three solid days with the game, I feel I’ve barely scraped the surface of all the intricacies that lie underneath the game’s surface.
If Civilization V showed us just how risky it is to re imagine a classic, then Civilization VI shows us just how much you can do when you tidy things up before you make the attempt.
Fresh take on tried and true gameplay
AI still not great at warfare, a few missed opportunities