Civilization IV E3 2005 Impressions

Firaxis has overhauled the time-tested Civilization formula, and it's fixed everything that bugged us about this otherwise immortal franchise.

We were more than a bit curious, and even slightly nervous, about Civilization IV, the next chapter in the signature PC gaming strategy series. The early screenshots of the game didn't show much, other than the new 3D look of the series. And even then, the screens looked a bit rough. Well, after seeing Civilization IV up close at the show, we were able to throw a bunch of questions at lead designer and programmer Soren Johnson. Now, we feel a whole lot better about Civ 4 and we really want to get our hands on it.

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The key thing to keep in mind is that while the overall idea hasn't changed (you guide a civilization from the dawn of time to the near future, and you'll explore the world, discover cities, research technologies, and compete against rival civilizations), the formula has been overhauled in a way that it hasn't been before. Johnson told us that the company wanted to get rid of the things that haven't been fun in Civilization, such as having to constantly clean up pollution or battle corruption or things like that. A slew of new gameplay features and ideas have now been added that have us excited about this Civ game that's unlike any other.

First of all, each civilization has two leaders you can choose from, and your choice will determine the style of your play. For example, if you play as the French, you get to choose to play either as Napoleon or Louis XIV. As the former, who is one of the most accomplished generals in history, you can adopt an aggressive style of play, and your units will get more powerful units than normal. If you play as Louis XIV, the famed Sun King, you'll have a creative leader who grants you free culture upgrades. That's right, the concept of culture is back, but it's been tweaked considerably, so you won't see cities defect back and forth between sides.

There are so many new features to talk about it's hard to know where to start. First of all, religion is now in the game, and it's kind of like how governments used to work (more on that later). You can research up to seven different religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism, and your nation will have a religion. Each religion gives you certain benefits and advantages, and you can build missionaries to try to export your religion to other cities and nations. What this means is that if you can expand your religion to your neighbors, odds are that you'll get along better with them. You'll also receive line-of-sight advantages in that city, and if you capture or control the main holy city of each religion, you will get lines of sight in all of the cities in the world that have that religion.

Governments no longer work on that traditional template model where you either had to adopt democracy, communism, or any of the other government types in previous games. Instead, governments are tied into the concept of civics. Basically, as you play, you'll get to make choices that affect the development of your civilization. Do you outlaw slavery? Do you allow freedom of speech? The choices that you make add up and affect your society in different ways. And what's cool is that this can also affect other civilizations. For instance, if your civilization is the first to outlaw slavery, it will create discontent in societies that still have slavery.

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The tech tree has been completely rethought and it is no longer broken up into eras. It's now just one really long tech tree that ties together all the major advances in history into one big timeline. What's interesting here is that the tech tree has been rewritten, so there are different routes that you can take to reach major advances. For example, in the previous Civ games everyone had to research the same technologies to reach gunpowder. But in Civ 4, you'll have different ways to reach gunpowder, and it'll be possible to skip whole branches of the tech tree if you want.

Great people units are another major new feature. Great people units include real-world figures, such as Isaac Newton, which give you certain bonuses and rewards, assuming you can get them. The units come in five different categories, such as science, art, and commerce. You get them by building specialized cities, so instead of every city ending up to be exactly the same as the others, you'll customize each city for a specific purpose, such as science or culture. The type of unit you have will determine your reward. Great engineers will allow you to rush production on building a wonder (like in previous games). But a great merchant may let you establish an extremely lucrative trade deal, or a great scientist will significantly boost your research.

Combat has been revamped, and for the better. Units will no longer have health bars, but their strength will be represented in their number. At full strength, a unit will have three units, and when it takes damage it loses a single unit until it is destroyed. Units can gain experience and level up, and then you can assign it special bonuses, such as enhancing its urban combat ability, or you can give them bonuses to use against mounted units, and so on.

Civ 4 will finally update the series to a 3D engine. Firaxis is using an updated version of the Gamebryo engine that was used in last year's Sid Meier's Pirates. And yes, the early screens looked a bit muddled, but the game looks a lot cleaner and more beautiful now and in person. You can zoom out and see the entire world (presented as a rotating globe), including continents, mountain ranges, and forests. Zoom in and you can see roads, cities, farms, and more. Most of the gameplay, including city management, takes place on the world map, and there's a what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature to the engine. So if one city builds one of the wonders, the Pyramids, you'll see a pyramid on the world map. When you're engaged in diplomacy, you'll switch to the diplomacy screen and see a 3D avatar of the leader you're bargaining with. (Oh yeah, diplomacy has also been completely overhauled).

We've got so much new information about Civ 4 that we could keep going on. But we'll end it with good news regarding the artificial intelligence and multiplayer. When asked if the AI would cheat as obviously and as rampantly as it did in Civ 3, he said that he's heard all the complaints from fans and learned a lot of lessons from that game. The AI will still be given some advantages to make it competitive, but it will no longer have perfect knowledge of the map, including where the resources are and where your cities are located. And fans know that Civilization has never had decent multiplayer gameplay. Firaxis wants to change that, and the team has focused on multiplayer as a priority since the beginning. What the team has discovered is that Civilization multiplayer only takes off when you have cooperative games where you have a teammate or two against another team. This way, each team shares everything between them, including wonder bonuses. As a result, it's possible for teammates to come to the aid of a buddy in trouble, thus giving that player an incentive to stick in the game. Civ 4 will also have traditional, play by e-mail, and hot seat multiplayer.

At this point, we simply can't wait to get our hands on Civ 4. We haven't even touched on the game's modibility, which is a major feature as well. Civilization IV will ship this holiday season, and we will most definitely keep our eyes on this game for further developments, so check back with us.

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