Civilization IV


posted 12/28/2005 by Tyler Sager
other articles by Tyler Sager
The Civilization series is arguably the best empire-building franchise ever to grace the PC. So when a new sequel comes along, there are some very high expectations to meet. Civilization IV meets each and every one of those expectations, giving us one of the best games of the year, of any genre. Sure, I’m a little biased toward strategy titles, and Civilization in particular, but even through that bias I see an out-and-out gem of a title, something with which to while away countless hours, spending “just one more turn”, conquering just one more city, and researching just one more technology.

Civilization veterans should find a lot of familiar ground in Civilization IV, but there is enough new and innovative content to keep everyone happy. As in previous Civilization incarnations, players get to choose from one of 18 available Civilizations. Each Civ has one or two leaders to choose from, with each Leader conferring a particular pair of Traits, some starting Techs, and the ability to build a Unique Unit specific to the Civilization in question. Civilization traits have been extensively reworked for Civ IV, and it will take some time before I get a solid handle on which Traits I like most. Thankfully, none of the traits seem overpowerful, since the developers were careful not to pair up any devastating Trait combos for a single Civ. Some of my favorite Traits include “Financial,” with the ability to generate additional commerce points from all worked city squares that already produce commerce, and “Creative,” which allows all cities to generate a small amount of Culture points per turn, negating the need to construct early Culture buildings for a border expansion. With the large combination of Traits and Civ Leaders, it’s easy to find a favorite Civ or two to fit just about any play style.

A big change has been made to the military units since Civ III. No longer do units have an “attack” and “defence” value; they now have a single “Strength” rating representing their combat effectiveness. That’s not to say that all units are equal in attack and defense, though. Units now come with a wide variety of abilities which determine how best to utilize them. For instance, Archer units gain a bonus when defending cities, and Spearmen get a bonus against mounted units. In addition, as a unit wins battles and gains experience, it gains “Promotions”, additional abilities which can further tailor units into very effective (and frightening) forces. A wide variety of Promotion abilities are available, such as bonuses against Melee, Ranged, or Mounted units, additional First Strike abilities, and terrain bonuses such as increased movement and Strength when fighting in forests, hills or jungle tiles. This Promotion scheme allows for a great deal of customization of military units, further diversifying an already-impressive selection of forces.

Building up an army requires some careful planning and use of resources, and Civilization IV introduces a great many new resources and improvements to the mix. Worker units can not only improve tiles with Farms and Mines, they now have the ability (with the proper technological advancements) of building Pastures, Watermills, Lumbermills, and Plantations to gain full advantage of the many Resources available. A very interesting tile improvement, the Cottage, actually grows as time progresses. Initially, this improvement only provides a single point of Commerce, but as the nearby city work the Cottage squares, they develop into larger and larger Hamlets, Villages, and Towns, greatly increasing their output.

Cities themselves have received a huge overhaul as well. No longer do City improvements themselves cause a drain on the entire civilization’s economy. Instead, each City has a Maintenance cost, dependent on the size of the city, distance from the Capitol, and a few other conditions. Civilization veterans will find that it is much more difficult to maintain a sprawling, several-dozen-city empire, as Maintenance ramps up quickly as the number of cities increase. Happiness is once again an issue in Civilization IV, and unhappy workers can become quite a burden on society. Open revolts are no longer an issue, but it can quickly come to pass that cities become so unhappy that it’s often easier to simply give them to a neighboring Civ rather than deal with the huge financial drain. Thankfully, the dreaded Pollution is no longer an issue in Civilization IV. Instead, each city has a Health rating, which is negatively affected by nearby jungles, flood plains, and environmentally-unsound City Improvements. As health degenerates, cities produce less and less food, ultimately resulting in starvation and population loss. Positive Health points come from Forests, access to resources such as Cows, Pigs, Rice, and Wheat, as well as health-boosting City Improvements such as the Aqueduct or Hospital.

Wonders are still a vital part of Civilization IV, and there are a wide variety to choose from. These mega-buildings can impart game-altering bonuses at a very steep production cost. Many of the old favorites are back, but most have received a change in abilities. Certain resources, such as Stone and Marble, now allow some of the wonders to be completed more quickly. In addition, the Great Engineer unit can hurry production of many of the Wonders, giving a huge leg-up in the often tense Wonder race.

Speaking of Great Engineers, Civilization IV boasts a total of 5 Great People units. The rate at which these special units appear in a given city is increased by certain Wonders, city buildings, and Civic settings. Each of these Great People can have profound effects on the Civilization. Great People can be used to instantly research a Technology, or they can be added to a city as a Super Specialist citizen, providing a large boost to Commerce, Production, or Culture. In addition, each Great Person can provide other benefits. Great Engineers, for example, can hurry production on Wonder buildings. Great Artists can create a Great Work, instantly giving a huge boost of culture to a city, often quickly expanding the city’s influence and borders and setting up a “culture bomb”. Great Scientists can construct Academies, providing a large Research boost. Great Merchants can run across the map to far away town, giving a large one-time Commerce bonus. And finally, Great Prophets can construct a Shrine in a city that founds a religion, brining that Civilization bonus commerce for each and every city in the world that has adopted that particular faith.

Religion plays a very big role in Civilization IV. There are seven world religions available for discovery, although each is completely identical as far as game effect goes. Founding a religion is done simply by being the first Civilization to research a particular Technology. Once this is done, provided the Civ’s Civic allows it, the religion begins spreading throughout the Civ and eventually throughout the world. Religions spread on their own, or through the work of Missionary units. Players are able to adopt a particular religion as a State Religion, gaining various bonuses depending on the current Civic choice. In addition to allowing for the construction of culture-producing buildings like Temples and Monasteries, Religions also play an important role in diplomacy. Neighboring Civs are more likely to be friendly when sharing a common religion.

Civics are the Civilization IV answer to government. Rather than locking into one particular government style, there are now five different Civics, each with several different options, to choose from. For example, players may choose to get their Religion Civic at Theocracy, to increase building speed for those cities that embrace the state religion, or they may instead choose to embrace Freedom of Religion, increasing happiness for every Religion in a particular city. The Labor Civic can be set to Serfdom, Slavery, or Caste System, or Emancipation, depending on the strategy needed. Each Civic choice comes with a corresponding upkeep cost, so the “best” Civics can quickly drain an unprepared economy. Civics become available as various Technologies are researched, and it’s usually quite a powerful strategy to beeline research toward the more powerful governing styles.

The technology tree is similar to previous Civilization outings, but there are enough differences to make things interesting. The game actually begins a little earlier, technologically speaking, than previous titles. Workers no longer begin with the knowledge of how to farm, or build roads or mines. Each of these activities are keyed to a particular Tech, so early research paths are painfully difficult to choose at times. Want to make a try at founding an early religion? You may have to forego the ability to gain access to that valuable Stone quarry for a while. Fielding the very powerful Axeman unit early on could give huge advantages, but while researching Bronze Working your neighbors might be making a run for more culture-friendly technologies, and you may be sorry in the mid-game.

Civilization IV looks and sounds fantastic, better than any turn-based strategy game currently on the market. The map is a fully-zoomable 3D affair, complete with detailed and animated terrain and resources. Zooming in to a city allows one to see each and every building constructed therein, while zooming full out gives an impressive birds-eye view of the world. Each unit is well detailed and nicely animated, and the combat animations are quite fun to watch. On the audio side, the developers have picked some great music to complement each and every aspect of the game. Environmental sound effects are also top-notch. As an added bonus, the opening sequence and the technology advancement screens are narrated (often amusingly) by Leonard Nimoy.

Unfortunately, all this visual and audio flair comes at a price—the hardware requirements for  Civilization IV are surprisingly steep for a strategy game. I had no problems running the game on my primary machine, but the game barely chugs along on my 2-year-old laptop. From reading various message boards, I’m not alone in the hardware woes, so unless some major patching is done, it’s well-advised to check out the demo before purchase to ensure your particular machine is up to snuff. There are also still some technical glitches here and there throughout the game, including a few crash-to-desktop problems and what appears to be a memory leak. While these are all annoying, they don’t detract too much from the gameplay itself. I would expect most of the problems to be ironed out in the next few rounds of patches.

In addition to the single-player game, Civilization IV comes with a suite of multiplayer options, including hotseat, LAN, internet, and play-by-email. Aside from a few technical issues common to all multiplayer outings, I had relatively few problems running any of the multiplayer styles. Players can go head-to-head, include computer opponents, or team up against one another or the AI.

As far as game play goes, Civilization IV is fantastic. I was quickly able to jump in and get running, thanks to a slick interface complete with hot-key goodness. In no time I was under the spell of “just one more turn”, and hours melted away in strategic bliss. With three different speed settings, Civilization IV can be tailored to whatever style of game is desired, be it a quick and dirty run of a few hours to an epic-length, 20-hour strategy fest. Civilization IV is not without its problems, of course, many of which will be patched, but in spite of those minor annoyances, I found myself thoroughly enjoying each and every minute of play. Is Civilization IV better than its predecessors? That’s undoubtedly a highly debated issue right now. I believe it’s better than Civ III, and I’ll reserve judgment about Civ II, since that’s wrapped in nostalgia. Regardless, Civilization IV is easily the best strategy game of 2005, and I heartily recommend this title to strategy fans, both Civ veteran and newcomer.

An incredibly fun and addictive addition to the Civilization franchise. Civilization IV brings back everything that makes this series great, and adds enough innovation to keep things fresh and approachable for both veteran and newcomer. Easily one of the best games of 2005.