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Civilization IV (PC) artwork

Civilization IV (PC) review

"You expand by building cities. The game doesn’t even feel right until you’ve done so, and once you have, the possibilities start pouring in. Each city produces food, commodities, wealth, culture, warriors, settlers, explorers and headaches. They do this over a set number of turns, so the person who builds a few cities early on will never lack things to do."

If you’re curious about the specialist display in Civilization IV, you’ll want to check out page 150 of the instruction manual. If you’re having trouble understanding what value and inconveniences the cultural borders bring to the table, you’ll do well to begin your education on page 63. There’s a lot of other information, too. Paragraphs of text detail everything from keeping your people happy enough that they’ll celebrate your good name to creating custom maps for your like-minded friends.

Some people might look at the manual and decide to return the game to the store. Who has time to read a novel just to play a game? Don’t a lot of us buy games to avoid reading the latest paperback? Fortunately, a lot of the reading in Civilization IV is purely optional. If you like, you can even ignore the whole manual and just jump into the game like I did.

Mostly, things are controlled by a slider bar at the bottom of the screen. You can choose a destination or behavior based on your current needs. Likewise, you can put units to sleep or skip a turn. When everyone under your control has been commanded, or when you just don’t feel like spending any longer on that turn, you can move onto the next. Early on, a turn doesn’t last all that long at all. Each civilization has only a few members in its population, just like you, so your rivals don’t significantly slow the game’s progression. However, growth is your obvious goal.

You expand by building cities. The game doesn’t even feel right until you’ve done so, and once you have, the possibilities start pouring in. Each city produces food, commodities, wealth, culture, warriors, settlers, explorers and headaches. They do this over a set number of turns, so the person who builds a few cities early on will never lack things to do. Hypothetically, let’s say you build a city and name it “Voluptuous Boso” (no, the ‘m’ won’t fit; I tried). You tell your nearby warrior to guard it with his life. When the turn ends, you’ll be prompted to dedicate that city’s resources to the creation or development of something. You might decide that it’s worth learning how to fish. Or you might want to create workers so that they can develop the city more quickly, or more settlers so they can start expanding your boundaries before doing so gets difficult. Context-sensitive windows appear if you hover over various options, so you never have to wonder what something will do. You just have to consider the likely outcome.

Think back to a role-playing game you might have played recently. The popular thing these days is to give you lots of customization over your character. For example, a game might let you learn cool fire spells just before the portion of the game where you venture into an icy cavern. Well, Civilization IV gives you even more freedom, with a more enticing timeline. You’re truly in charge, even if that means you decide to build one city and just really beef it up. Of course, you’re a dumbass if you do. More cities mean more resources and trade routes, more settlers and workers and soldiers and technological advancements. They mean you can be the one that builds the Parthenon. Do you see how it goes?

Even if you don’t, your in-game rivals certainly will. They’ll try to make deals, too. The minute you learn a useful skill like chemistry, you can count on the scheming Queen Victoria to ask you about a trade. She’ll be all haughty about it, even if you’re doing better than she is. That’s just how the British are. You can then counter with a request of your own. Maybe you want her to pay tribute to your greatness every turn, or maybe you want her to surrender a city (you’ll have to pry it out of her cold, dead hands). The requests you can make are going to depend upon your relationship with that civilization… and any others on the map. You can even ask a buddy nation to pick on one of your enemies. If the terms are right, you’ll have an ally.

It quickly becomes apparent that success in Civilization IV is dependent on your relationship with other nations. For the most part, they’ll leave you alone for the first few thousand years unless you pick fights. This gives you time to develop culture (which is measured in points, and basically is how the game keeps your “score”). It also lets you build garrisons and develop weapons that will give you a leg up if that self-important Washington fellow decides to declare war on you. And make no mistake: someone will decide your head would look good on a pike, even if it doesn’t happen during the first few hours of play. This is when you find out if all your preparation paid off.

That’s perhaps the game’s biggest fault: you don’t always know how well you’re doing without digging through menus. I found it fairly easy to develop a cultural lead early in the game, so my score was in the stratosphere, but my opponents were developing new technologies that really gave them the military advantage. Infrequent updates gave me some clue the situation was turning sour, but I didn’t know how bad things really were until one of my opponents suddenly came cruising in with tanks and the like. Though I had the technology, most of my city’s defenders were hurling spears. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

At such times, you might find yourself glancing back over at that fat instruction manual I mentioned. There, you’ll find all sorts of useful information about advanced strategies and rules. As I read through the later pages, I found myself nodding my head and saying “Hmm” a lot. Now I knew why one city flourished and another didn’t. Now I understood how important it was to accept some trades while rejecting others. Now I knew… a lot of things. After all, there is a lot to learn in Civilization IV. You just don’t have to learn it to get your feet wet and have a good time.

As is the case with driving a car, everything grows more natural with time. You’ll learn keyboard shortcuts. When a unit comes up for a turn, you’ll already have a move planned, or you’ll be waiting to put him to sleep for the next few rounds. You’ll right click on a destination, rather than cycling through the menu. In short, you’ll do everything that lets you know a game has captured your attention. Then you’ll start thinking about playing it online with other people (you can keep things turn-based, or go real-time). You’ll start thinking about putting the map builders to use. Or maybe you’ll start playing with different map types and sizes and nations and… it just goes on and on.

Maybe you don’t have time to lose 50 hours to a computer game. That’s fine. Two or three hours will give you all sorts of fun. Maybe you adore losing yourself in a virtual world for weeks at a time. That’s fine, too. Civilization IV has you covered even if you aren’t the sort to develop your own mods (though the manual mentions that soon, enthusiasts will be able to modify things just like the game’s original developers). In fact, there are only a few people who shouldn’t play. Who are they? Well, right now they’re working on my chariot’s wheels. I’m thinking about invading Russia.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (January 29, 2006)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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