Thanks to its classic gameplay about guiding a nation through thousands of years of history, Sid Meier's Civilization has helped define turn-based strategy gaming on the PC over the past two decades. Now the famed designer and the team at Firaxis Games are looking to bring some of that magic to the consoles next year with Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution, a game that will distill Civ's gameplay into a package that's designed specifically for the gamepad crowd. It's a daunting task; after all, how do you squeeze a game about managing a worldwide empire, armies and navies, research efforts, diplomacy, and more onto a console? We got an opportunity to find out recently, as we got a first chance to play a work-in-progress version of the upcoming Xbox 360 game.
It would be a mistake to think that Revolution is nothing more than a stripped-down version of Civilization IV for the PC. Firaxis has basically rebuilt the game for the console, starting with the close-in view that has the camera close to the ground. This renders cities and units easily distinguishable from one another, even when you're sitting across the room from the television. At the same time, we're impressed at how Firaxis has managed to retain much of the gameplay and depth of Civ while at the same time cutting out every last bit of extraneous fat and injecting a ton of personality and historical flavor into the game.
When you start a Revolution game on the easier difficulty setting, your only task will be to select a civilization to lead. That also determines your leader, as each civilization is lead by a famous figure from history. Pretty much all the familiar Civilization staples are here, such as Rome and Caesar, Russia and the lovely Catherine, and England and Elizabeth. One nice new twist is that civilizations have entirely new bonuses that are based on their past. For example, the Egyptians will get extra trade from desert squares, while the Japanese can harvest food from water squares. Once you select a civilization you're dropped directly into the game and you get to make your first moves. At higher difficulty levels you'll be given options to change the settings for your game, such as the size of the world and the like, but the thinking at the easier difficulty levels is to get new players into the game as quickly as possible.
Like every Civilization game before it, the idea in Revolution is to start with a single city and grow from there. Establishing your first city lets you start to build military units that can be used to explore the map and battle third-party barbarians as well as rival civilizations, and cities let you construct buildings like libraries and temples that can boost your research and culture. You can also build wonders of the world in your cities, great structures from world history that can grant impressive bonuses and powers. For instance, the first great wonder available to build is Stonehenge. If you can construct Stonehenge before everyone else it will grant you a bonus to all the temples in your cities, and that helps push your culture upon your neighbors and expand your borders.
There are basically four different ways to win a game. There's world domination, where you become so powerful that the remaining civilizations basically bow to you. Then there's the space race victory, where you become the first civilization to build and launch an intergalactic spaceship to colonize the nearest star system. The remaining two victory conditions differ from the PC games. You can get a culture victory by either recruiting at least 20 great people from history, and you recruit them by researching certain technologies or achieving some other prerequisites first. Or you can also get a culture victory by "flipping" or converting enough enemy cities to your side peacefully. In other words, your civilization is so grand and powerful that citizens of other nations flock to be part of your winning team. Finally, there's the economic victory, which is achieved by hitting a series of milestones. For instance, the first economic milestone is to save up 100 gold. Doing so gives you a free trade caravan unit. The next milestone is to save 250 gold for a greater reward, and so on. The challenge, of course, is saving up that much gold, because you'll be tempted or forced to spend it on military units and other improvements.
Get CivilizedRevolution features a smaller scale, or what feels like a smaller scale, than the PC games, but that works to the game's favor. The continents in the game aren't huge, but that introduces many more strategic choke points on the map. At the same time, you don't need to worry about building a large amount of units to spread out and explore the globe, as you can focus on what's key, like developing your cities and researching your technologies. Speaking of which, the tech tree is almost identical to the ones found in the PC games, except for the later ages. There are fewer advanced technologies--missing are techs like recycling and lasers--and Firaxis hopes that this will help streamline the end of the game. At this point, you should be in a race to win before time runs out or one of your competitors beats you.
New technologies let you build more powerful military units. You start the game with the basic warrior unit, and then you unlock phalanxes, cavalry, and so on. (The names may change depending on the civilization.) Each civilization has its own unique units, too, like the Cossack cavalry for the Russians. Units can be joined together to form large armies that can steamroll individual units, and veteran units get bonuses to attack and defense. For instance, if a green unit wins three battles, it becomes a veteran unit. If it survives six battles, it becomes an elite unit, and you can grant it a special upgrade power, such as march, which lets it move two squares per turn rather than one. One neat addition to the console game is the ability to try to retreat if you sense a battle is going badly. We attacked a Mongol city with an large army of veteran warriors, only to discover that the Mongols had an even larger army of phalanx defenders to greet us. In the PC game, that would have meant instant disaster, but in Revolution we managed to pull the army back by hitting the B button to order a retreat. Then we withdrew the army to friendly territory and had it heal in place over the course of several turns.
Diplomacy is handled whenever you meet a new civilization. Upon the first meeting you can agree to live in peace with one another or you can declare war. If it's the former, you still have the option of letting slip the dogs of war at any moment later in the game. These diplomatic interactions are very colorful thanks to the larger-than-life avatars that represent the leaders, as well as your various advisors and military units. Encounter the barbarian leader Norte Chico and you may very well want to rub his shiny pot belly for good luck even while he's busy making humorous insults at you. There's just more charm in Revolution than in previous Civs. The regular civilization rankings that show you what position you're in are treated like a game show, with lots of cheering and sound effects. Create a city and you get to choose from several names that are colorfully described (like "the awesome city of Riga") or create a custom one. If you discover a new river or major geographical feature, you can also name it in addition to getting a gold reward.
Then there's espionage, which also sounds like it's going to provide a lot of fun. You can start recruiting spies as soon as you discover the writing technology (and the first civilization to discover it gets a free spy). Spies can move two squares per turn and insert a spy in another civilization's city and there's all sorts of mischief that can be done. You can destroy fortifications and sabotage productions, which are Civ staples. But you can also kidnap a great person, which opens up a whole lot of opportunities. Basically, when you get a great person you get a choice to use them up in order to access their special ability (for instance, you can sacrifice a great builder to instantly complete a wonder), or you can have them settle into that city to bestow a long-term bonus. For example, settling a great military leader in a city grants all military units built in that city extra experience, on top of the experience granted by having a barracks there. Using a spy, you can kidnap one civilization's great leader and make him or her your own.
Firaxis has had to completely rethink the interface to make all of this work on a console gamepad, and impressively, it does. The right analog stick basically moves the cursor around the map, while the face buttons let you select units and issue commands. Select a military unit, for instance, and you can order it to fortify in position (which adds a defensive bonus to it if attacked) by hitting the X button, or tell it to wait in place for one more turn by hitting the B button. If a unit is already fortified or in sentry mode, you can activate it by hitting the A button. You can toggle through units by using the left and right bumpers. Managing your cities is as easy as selecting one on the map or hitting up on the directional pad; you can then toggle through your different cities using your bumpers. The game features quite a bit of automation to take out mundane tasks, so when you create a city it automatically sends out workers to develop the squares around it. You can manually direct the workers using the city management screen.
Thanks to the sheer depth of its gameplay, there are almost countless ways that a Civilization game can unfold. That's probably why the series has endured for so long. Revolution looks like it's capturing the essence of Civ while making it much more accessible to the console crowd. We're told a good, solid single-player game can last as long as three or four hours, and when you're done you can always play a new game and challenge yourself again. There are a lot of possibilities in here, and Firaxis hasn't even really talked about the multiplayer. Revolution isn't shipping until the spring of 2008, though, so there's plenty of time to cover all that at a later date.