Call to Power II Preview
Will this Civilization spin-off be nearly as ambitious as the Sid Meier original? We tell you inside.
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Activision's Civilization: Call to Power met with mixed reactions from fans and critics alike. Though the game delivered the familiar look and general feel of the Civilization franchise, it was not quite as polished as it could have been, and it failed to live up to its truly ambitious aspirations. Much of this has changed in Call to Power II, the forthcoming sequel that drops the Civilization name entirely but adds a great deal in terms of new features, design enhancements, and flat-out addictive gameplay.
Foremost on Call to Power II's list of new features is a revamped diplomacy system, which allows for greater delicacy or intimidation during dealings with foreign powers. Also new in this version are beefed-up AI moves and strategies, many additional units, better unit-balancing, and a wealth of minor interface tweaks that help make the game smoother and a lot more fun to play.
At its core, Call to Power II retains the same reengineered Civilization feel of its predecessor, mixing an empirecentric style of management with the basic look and feel of Sid Meier's turn-based classic. Long-time fans of the series will likely warm up to Call to Power II a lot more readily than they did to the original, while newcomers should easily fall under the sway of this very promising, very addictive game.
Like the original Call to Power, Call to Power II changes a few things that we've all come to expect from Civilization-style games. For starters, your scientific endgame no longer culminates with a trip to Alpha Centauri. After all, some other game already captures that whole alien colonization thing, so the focus in Call to Power II is the further exploration and exploitation of earthbound terrain and resources. Many of the future technological advances revolve around new uses for land and sea-based terrain, as well as many new combat units and improved means of production. And the game encompasses a 6,300-year span, so you'll have plenty of opportunity to explore new technologies.
The game still looks a bit like Civilization II and retains most of the game's basic elements - a tile-based isometric map, an all-important technology tree, the holy granaries that help cities grow - but Call to Power II is more of a major step forward for its own series than a rehash of the old. The interface offers easy access to all aspects of empire management, which is still the focus of Call to Power II, unlike the city-specific management of the old Civilization games. Although the beta we tested was a tad clunky when we moved from one menu screen to the next (the game seemed very far from optimized, and it was downright slow in areas), the basic layout of menus and option screens is very intuitive.
Without a doubt, the biggest enhancement to be found in Call to Power II is the improved suite of diplomacy options. You can, of course, perform all the basic diplomatic negotiations with fellow states as soon as you encounter them on the map. This means simply running into a single unit, setting foot inside its states' borders, or sailing near a city - once you accomplish any of these things, the diplomatic menus for that empire open to you. Basic negotiations revolve around familiar options: You can ask for or offer gold, a neighbor's world map, an entire city (good luck), or the removal of troops. You can also call for a cease-fire if hostilities have broken out between your two states or propose a peace treaty if things are calm.
However, once you produce some diplomat units and establish embassies in foreign cities, you can access a number of new diplomatic options. You can propose a specific kind of treaty - military or scientific, for example - and offer to join forces in an alliance with friendly nations. Your diplomat can also host events in foreign cities, which will generate good will between you and your neighbors.
One of the most impressive aspects of the diplomacy system is that you can threaten neighbors who fail to bow to your wishes. Should a foolish foreign leader fail to serve up their most powerful city at your request, for example, you may threaten to pirate their trade routes, embargo all trade with their empire, or attack a specific city of theirs. You may also receive threatening proposals from computer players during the game, to which you may offer a counterproposal. So if the English demand that you give them 500 gold, you can come back and say, "Sure thing, just so long as you give us London." Of course, you better have the military to back up such a foolish counteroffer.
The diplomacy system was clearly not complete in the version of Call to Power II we tested, as many of our demands came back to us instead of going to their intended recipients. (The Vikings are threatening us? Wait a minute, we are the Vikings!) Still, the basic framework of the system is in place and the AI is anything but a pushover, even at this stage of the game's development. Simple requests that would have flown in previous Civilization and Civilization-style games meet with firm resistance in Call to Power II. Never before have we seen so many countries so reluctant to share their world maps. Not only that, but simple bribes do not have the same effect that they once had. If you want something from your neighbors, you better act in good faith and offer up something in return - or be prepared to take it by force.
A key factor in all diplomatic negotiations is the system of borders that you and rival nations all establish on the world map. Your empire borders are arranged according to the location of your cities and the areas that you have explored around them. Empire borders are clearly visible on the world map, which is a big help when you move your troops in or near the territory of friendly neighbors. On the intelligence screen, you'll notice that even your so-called best allies will harbor a deep grudge if you frequently move troops in and out of their real estate. One possible glitch in the game thus far: Computer-controlled empires get mad when you have any unit in their territory, even diplomats. This makes it rather hard to earn the good will of a neighbor, especially when the one unit that can accomplish the goal is branded a military aggressor.
In general, rival nations will agree to remove their own troops from your land, should you request it - and have the power to back up the request. Often they will find the single neutral square in the middle of your empire, retreat to it, and fortify - which is just annoying enough to be realistic.
The one thing that stuck with us while playing Call to Power II was that the computer was no fool, even on the easy settings. Although you can generally outresearch and outproduce AI empires on the lower difficulty levels, you will not always outprepare or outthink them. When your military clearly surpasses that of other nations, they will no longer welcome major battles against you. Instead, they will look to hit you where you are vulnerable by pirating undefended trade routes, for example, or by building up a strong navy when your strength lies mostly in your army.
During peacetime, you can count on rival nations to build up their military forces as needed to counter any moves you might make. During times of war, enemy armies are generally well organized, with long-range units such as archers and cannon effectively mixed in with frontline troops. If your military is weak, you can expect your frantic pleas for leniency to fall on deaf AI ears. If your military is strong, on the other hand, enemy units tend to beat feet as quickly as possible - even their naval units tend to decline confrontation if possible.
The style of the computer players varies widely, however, and you'll notice that not all neighbor states focus on war and the military. More than once, we found ourselves lagging well behind in the scientific race - even when we devoted the bulk of our resources toward research. Computer players in Call to Power II don't appear to spend much time building Wonders, however, which is something that Activision should probably address before the game goes gold.
Call to Power II retains the empire-oriented style of management introduced in the original Call to Power. For example, terrain improvements are still the responsibility of the state, not the painstaking work of slow, costly settler units. These improvements come from a public works fund, which is skimmed from the top of your empire's productivity pool. In fact, you have near-total control of every aspect of your empire, all gathered in the wheel-style menu at the bottom center of the interface.
On the empire management screen, for example, you can set the daily ration for your citizens, which affects their overall happiness but also determines the amount of food that is stored throughout the empire. You can also select the length of their workday, which predictably affects the amount of production available across the land. From this amount, you deduct a percentage to devote to public works. Then with each new turn, you can place an X number of farm, road, fishery, and other improvement tiles around your cities.
Another option on the empire management menu is for worker compensation. You select a base pay rate for your people and then assign a science tax. Immediately, you can see the net profit (or loss) you will incur with each turn. The empire management screen is a powerful tool, and a welcome one in an empire-building game, but it's just one of several key elements of Call to Power II's management features.
Other important menus include the caravan, or trade, manager. Here, advisors will point out possible trade routes open to you, which are determined by the availability of key resources near your cities. After you meet neighboring states, you can see a list of numerous cities clamoring for your goods, then filter out the highest offers and set the caravans arolling.
Of course, you can also pull up a city management screen and micromanage the production queue, population allocation, and overall arrangement of each town. But you can also set each city on autopilot, thereby allowing a computer mayor to dictate the day-to-day affairs of each burg, all according to a particular specialty that you select (for example, production, happiness, and offense). These mayors were none too bright in the beta version, often choosing to build the most bizarre items. Building a cannon when the city focus is on happiness? Maybe the people like their shiny new cannon, but an arena or theater would be more on target. We hope this aspect will smooth out a bit before the game is released.
New, Better Units
Yet another key enhancement in Call to Power II is the broader array of units available to you as your empire expands and advances. Although you'll still see the same types of units from all empires early on in the game - archers, hoplites, and so on - later scientific developments open up all manner of possibilities. In fact, the game's developer seems particularly keen on submarines and naval units, with funky futuristic designs for sea units that pop up left and right once you reach the modern technological age. The ultrafast moray striker reconnaissance sub was particularly impressive - it could hurtle through ocean at lightning speed and survive powerful attacks.
A key improvement to unconventional warfare units - lawyers and the like - now lets you spot these aggressors without having to actually have one of them yourself. Also, your troops can retreat at any point during a battle. This can be especially handy if you hurl yourself against a surprisingly well-defended city without the benefit of a spy to determine the city's defenses beforehand.
Call to Power II also has a better overall unit balance than its predecessor which, combined with the tough, crafty AI, makes for some very costly battles. Units now have an armor rating that should greatly minimize the occurrence of unlikely military upsets, such as hoplites thrashing a tank rush or fire triremes sinking ironclads.
Overall, Call to Power II looks like a tremendous step forward for the franchise. The game still has some rough spots: the previously mentioned glitches, a tendency to crash and spout bizarre error messages, and a game-halting issue whereby Wonders of the World windows refuse to go away (thereby blocking the bulk of the screen). Still, the game is in fine shape for a beta, and it seems to have the goods to take this series to the next level.