Critique this Civ 4 review

Editors, writers, gamers…please share your thoughts and give your feedback for this review of Civ 4, and perhaps your best FBI profile of the person who wrote it.

Designing sequels to popular games is an unenviable job. There are benefits, sure – getting your game onto store shelves is easier, which means it will sell better – but when you make a sequel, it’s almost guaranteed to disappoint someone. If you don’t make enough changes to the core mechanics, you’ll be accused of just giving a graphical overhaul to the older game and “not innovating.” If you change too much, you’ll be the target of angry cries of having betrayed the spirit of the original game. A sequel that manages to be both true to its roots and different enough to prefer over the earlier game is rare.

This is why Sid Meier’s Civilization IV is so frustrating. It could be more than just an adequate sequel, but a superb sequel. The developers have put together an innovative, enjoyable, and thoughtful refresh of the franchise. From a game design standpoint, it improves on its predecessor in nearly every way. But the game is hamstrung by shoddy construction. The fit and finish on Civilization IV, the computer program, is so poor that it obscures the good parts of Civilization IV, the game. Both the publisher, 2k Games, and the developer, Firaxis, have a lot to answer for.

The 1990 game Sid Meier’s Civilization is a game with a simple premise: rule the world. The player guides a civilization that begins with barbarism in 4000 B.C. and goes through the space age. Along the way, the player will found and develop cities, discover new technology, improve the economy, engage in diplomacy, build a military, and conquer (or be conquered by) other civilizations.

The Civilization games are successful in large part because they appeal to different types of players by offering a wide choice of options. The early game is primarily about exploration and development. The mid game can focus on economics, technology development, or combat, depending on your style of play. The end game can devolve towards combat or diplomacy. And all of these options are made possible through comparatively simple game mechanics with a minimum of number crunching, thus preserving wide appeal.

Civilization spawned a revival in turn-based strategy games. Turn-based games had a reputation for being slowly-paced, intricate, and dull re-imaginings of traditional “grognard” board games. Civilization was bright, iconic, faced-paced, and extremely approachable. The subsequent games, while not quite as approachable, maintained the simplicity and sense of wonder delivered by the original.

Most of the gameplay changes as the Civilization series developed were a consequence of this commitment to simplicity. Hardcore players could (and did) exploit weaknesses in the game’s design by using tactics that the designers hadn’t anticipated. The third game in the series, Civilization III dealt with many of these tactics (such as the trick of building a huge number of tiny cities to claim territory) by introducing “culture” as a concept, which favored larger cities over smaller ones. Civ III was a brittle game, however. It took hours to win a game, but only two or three moves to lose it. This led to a very static mid game where little happened.

Civilization IV addresses many of the shortcomings of its predecessor by complicating the model in a number of interesting ways.

One of the major changes is the introduction of a rich variety of religions in the game: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and, oddly classified, Confucianism. A nation can have a “State Religion” that will affect relations with other countries. Cities within a nation may have the State Religion, other religions, or no religion at all. A religion’s presence in a city affects the happiness of its citizens, and allows the construction of temples, monasteries, and world wonders associated with that religion.

The designers have further refined the economic and cultural system to reward the development of large mega-cities and punish the indiscriminate creation of small, unsustainable cities.

The music in the game is enjoyable and appropriate. I’ve had a hard time getting the song “Baba Yet,” a Swahili remix of the Lord’s Prayer, out of my head. Likewise, the sound design in the game is effective and understated. After playing a few turns, you’ll start recognizing city improvements by the sounds played when they are finished.

The graphics have been completely revamped. Rather than giving a fixed-perspective isometric view on the game board, all in-game objects are rendered in 3-D. This allows the user to zoom out to an overhead map-like perspective or zoom in for a close-up view of cities and units. It does not add much to gameplay, but it is pretty.

Despite all of its graphical shine, however, the game simply lacks polish. Firaxis seems to have focused on “pretty” to the exclusion of many other things, including user interface and playability. The UI in Civ IV is bad. No, not just bad; it’s terrible. To pick just one example: Most of the information about specific units and terrain in the game is communicated to the player via pop-up tool tips. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. All of the pop-up menus in the game, however, are modal. So when the game tells you “You have just finished building The Hanging Gardens. What would you like to build next?” you can’t use any of the tool tips on the map until you dismiss the build popup. Furthermore, only certain items on the build menu are tool tip-enabled. The thing you just built is not. So unless you’ve already committed the manual to memory, you will find yourself frequently being told that you’ve just built something, but you have no idea what it does.

“So,” I hear you saying, “why not just look it up in the online reference manual, the Civilopedia?” There are two answers to this question. First, the Civilopedia is disabled when a modal menu is displayed. This raises the question of who, exactly, thought it would be a great idea to include a help system in the game that can’t actually be opened when you need it most. Second, the Civilopedia itself is an unmitigated user interface disaster. The game refers to buildings and improvements by their names. The Civilopedia refers to buildings and improvements by their pictures. Therefore, when you want to look something up in the online reference, you have to hover over each of the hundred or so pictures until you find the one that matches the thing you’re looking for. As an online help system, it is fairly useless. It’s not there when you need it, and when it is there, it’s hard to use.

In addition to the user interface problems, the game is unacceptably buggy. It fails to run reliably and properly on a number of common, modern video cards. On my Sound Blaster Live equipped system, the audio stutters madly, which is apparently a widely experienced problem. The game performs poorly on even high-end systems. The longer you play, the slower it gets, and crashes after several hours are widely reported. It crashes regularly enough that I’m able to use that as a convenient way of deciding when I should stop playing.

Sid Meier’s Civilization IV is a promising game. As designed, it is both more interesting and more fun than its predecessors. It could have been – and should have been – a great game. But the slapdash workmanship displayed in the finished product keeps me from recommending it. Given the potential of the game’s great design, this is tragic.

Firaxis is rumored to be working on fixes for some of the issues in their release. If the patch is better engineered than the retail release, I might be willing to revise my opinion. But as it is, I have to go by what was actually put in the box. I wouldn’t spend my own money on what was put into this particular box.

How can we possibly critique the review when we can’t even see the score?

-Tom

Hey, this is no time for jokes. Unless you’re just trying to hide that you’re not man enough.

-Man Enough

Okay, I’m man enough. Here’s my critique of that review:

“I give it a 6 on the 7-9 scale.”

-Tom

Lengthy. A+.

Ooh, ooh, here’s what I meant to say: “Too many words.”

-Tom

P.S. But only one of them is “fun”, so it’s got that going for it.

OK, but let’s pretend, for a second, that we’re all grown-ups who know what we’re talking about. And don’t forget to profile the reviewer. This is brain training!

Personally, I found it a pretty accurate description of my experiences and impressions. I did not find the UI quite as disruptive as the review suggested, but I – like the reviewer – did indeed find Civ IV to be a great game wrapped in frustratingly shoddy execution.

Alright, listen up, people. Our reviewer has been on the internet for ninety minutes. Average typing speed on a broken keyboard barring injuries is thirty words per minute. That gives us a review of twleve pages. What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every forum, gaming blog, irc chat room, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen well known gaming sites. Your reviewer’s name is Civilization4Hata. Go get him.

Guys, it’s a fair cop. I know we all like the game, but this guy is dead on about its problems and I can see where they would be an obstacle to giving it a favorable review in good conscience. Patching is making it better, and the underlying game kicks ass, but nobody can deny the presence of these troubling issues.

Patching is making it better. Post-release support is awesome. I think the verdict of history on Civ4 will be “it’s a fucking great game – be sure to get the patch.” Presumably the expansion/silver edition/second expansion/platinum edition will incorporate the patches and improve the interface.

A vendetta is unnecessary… this time.

The reviewer is a Windows programmer.

I only skimmed the review, but the scathing indictment of the Civilopedia, aside from being incorrect (entries are listed in alphabetical order along the side of the screen when you choose one), hardly demonstrates that the online help is “fairly useless”.

Looking at it now, phrases like “slapdash workmanship”, “shoddy construction”, “unacceptably buggy”, “crashes regularly”, and “the game simply lacks polish” are pretty baffling to me. What game was he playing?

Anyway, for fear of it having been written by someone I know or work for, I’ll just say I’ve seen worse. :)

-Tom

I don’t think his complaints are inherent problems. After all, he said a patch might turn his opinion around. I also think he took too long getting to his central argument.

Oh, and he probably has a craving for Hot Pockets and a lazy eye.

Being tough on a game that the rest of the gaming press slobbered over gives this writer points with me.

I think he was overly harsh on the interface but his frustrating problems with the civilopedia not being available at the precise moment you need it is a damnable offence in my book too.

For going against the grain I give him an 8.2.

For not using the word “visceral” I give him a 9.8.

Turn back the clock a year and imagine a World of Warcraft review that just bitchslapped the game for server issues, lack of a proper PvP system, not enough level 60 content and an assortment of other problems. These were all legitimate issues, but to focus ONLY on them would make for a pretty misguided review.

That’s the vibe I get from this Civ IV review. Is the general gameplay completely lacking any entertainment at all? Does it even have multiplayer? Not only is this review desperately in need of some streamlining and reorganizing, but I don’t feel like I’m getting the whole story.

I wouldn’t try to profile the writer, but odds are, had this review been sent to me by a freelancer, there are enough red flags that I’d probably have passed on an editing job and just reassigned it ASAP.

Apparently the same I was playing, but not you?
I love the game, I agree with Soren on every change made to the gameplay which I think is the greatest in the series.
But getting the thing to run properly has been a bitch. After the patch the crashes are gone, but the wonder movies and sound is gone too. At least on my fairly highend new system (the old one, just refuses to run it alltogether).

And I agree on his UI comments. Especially the one about help being unavaliable when needed the most. I still have a hard time finding information when I want it.
And you’re the one that is wrong about the Civiliopedia. If you want to look up a technology or a unit, you have a page of icons to look through, no alfabethical listing (there’s a list of headers to the right). You can press Unit Categories, and then the category you need to get an alfabethical listning, but then you only get their basic stats and not the description as well as their special abilities.
The Civiliopedia is a prime example of shoddy navigation and a rubbish interface.
Allthough not a webpage, its design would probably give a guy like Jakob Nielsen an aneurism trying to explain all that was done wrong.

That doesn’t change the fact, that the game is fun enough to suffer through the bugs and bad design - life would just have been a wee bit easier, if these things were fixed.

So, wait, are you saying he’s right, Hanzii? “Slapdash workmanship”, “shoddy construction”, “unacceptably buggy”, “crashes regularly”, and “the game simply lacks polish”? These are obviously hyperbole, much like your snipes about “bad design”, “shoddy navigation”, and “rubbish interface”.

Hmm, maybe the mystery reviewer isn’t such a mystery…

Please explain to me how I’m wrong, Hanzii.

Our mystery reviewer wrote: “…when you want to look something up in the online reference, you have to hover over each of the hundred or so pictures until you find the one that matches the thing you’re looking for.”

This is incorrect. As I explained, an alphabetically arranged list is a click away. But you know this, since you noted in your post immediately after telling me I was wrong.

-Tom

It’s a poor review. I don’t get a hint of the overall in the first paragraph. Instead I’m treated to a rosy scenario and then given a definitive MAYBE, not a yes or a no. What was the point of the scenario that was set up?

The review spends a lot of time on the older civs but gives no insight about them, or says why they might make the job of a sequel unenviable. A whole paragraph was devoted to civ3 and I’m left wondering if the reviewer actually played much civ3 by the bizzarre “brittle” comment.

The reviewer claims the UI is “terrible”. I would expect a nightmare of a UI from this reading, but since I play cIV, I know it’s not the case at all. The reviewer gets stuck on a single part of the UI and fails to justify their claims in my mind. Compared to the previous civ UIs, I see plenty of improvements, although the Civilopedia is truthfully craptastic.

There are claims of poor construction, but only technical bugs are listed. Bugs != shoddy game. It seems the reviewer might have had their ear to the forums and assumed that the reported bugs were experienced by a majority. This is often not the case and it certainly wasn’t in mine. The only issues I encountered were a slight graphical gliched fixed by an Nvidia patch and sound stuttering during video play which goes away if I turn off anti-aliasing.

Worst of all, the reviewer give no clue as to what I really want to know. GAMEPLAY. Is it good? The reviewer implies that, but doesn’t actually speak to gameplay except for technical details I learned in any number of previews. Fact is cIV shows that it was relentlessly gametested. The feel of the open possibilities comes right close to SMAC, but without the easy to discover exploits. There are flaws, but the fact that the reviewer would object to spending money on this game demonstrates their ignorance of gaming.

There, someone want to give me a free copy of a game? I guess I can be a reviewer too.

Along with the critiques of the review itself (which have been getting better), this is exactly the kind of stuff I’m looking for. This is great. Other things like age and sex, hobbies, and home city/state, too, please. The sort of information, that would be needed for Tommy Lee Tromik to make an arrest, that wiseguy.

Busted! It was written by Allison Janney.

So, wait, are you saying he’s right, Hanzii? “Slapdash workmanship”, “shoddy construction”, “unacceptably buggy”, “crashes regularly”, and “the game simply lacks polish”? These are obviously hyperbole, much like your snipes about “bad design”, “shoddy navigation”, and “rubbish interface”.[/quote]

I didn’t write the review, and I don’t even think it’s a good review – too much talk about previous versions, too many details on technical issues and not enough on gameplay – but I also seem to be playing the same game as Hanzii and the reviewer.

Shoddy workmanship is precisely how I would describe the implementation (very slow, stuttering videos, display errors), and I still haven’t figured out how to use the new Civilopedia productively. The main interface would be pretty good if the game didn’t take one second or more to respond to user input in mid-to-late game. Or if all the hotkeys were documented. Or if the event notification didn’t lag several turns behind the actual events.

Maybe you could mail us your copy of the game that doesn’t have all these problems, so that we see how it’s supposed to work? :)