Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Game: Uncivilized

Civilization VI, Firaxis Games

Civilization VI cover art.jpgI tend not to write bad reviews. There is so much good stuff out there I'd rather point you in that direction than whinge and moan about something that is grinding my gears. Even if I am in a situation where I confronted with imperfect productions (which is common in theater, books, and games), I tend to lay out the flaws but praise the good points (In theater terms, that's where I praise the set design).

And I am a big fan of the Civ series, from the very beginning. The overall arc from the single covered wagon to the stars is evocative, and creates the framework for the social narrative of the world. I've played each one, rolling through all the nations, and most of the spinoffs, like Alpha Centauri and Colonization.

All that said, the latest Civilization (the 6th, officially) leaves me with a big heaping pile of "Meh". I still play it, and recognize its strong points, but it is just not working for me.

The big challenge is the slowness of the game. Part of that, I thought initially, was that I had an older machine, but I put the game on my work machine (which exists to DESIGN state-of-the-art games). and found the performance just as as kludgy, even with the settings geared to be higher performance. Further, the game is continually accessing the disk, resulting a heat problem on the machine as the game progresses. For a game with a very long timeframe, this is a problem. You're spending a great deal of the game (particularly in the "middle bit" where you've expanded as far as you can easily and are just running an empire) waiting for the AI to move.

And this would not be a problem if it were not for the fact that the AI is pretty miserable. Units are not upgraded, design-making is limited, and attacks are not co-ordinated. Watching two AI empires beating each other up is pretty much watching a slap-fight. Not a lot of activity there.

Also contributing to the slowness is a new feature that I otherwise kind of like - districts. Now instead of building a temple, then a cathedral, and slowly increasing your city center, you now choose a hex to be your "holy site" where the temple and cathedral may be built. Before you can start building religious buildings you need to have already building the requisite district (similarly libraries need a campus and factories need an industrial district). So it takes longer for to get a temple up and operating, and you are limited to how many districts you can build based on size of the city, so that if you build that holy site you may have to wait a while before you start a campus.

And all this poses another challenge - location is of key importance for the new Civ. Since you have to commit a particular location for a district, you want to optimize it (campuses get a bonus if next to a mountain). That makes city planning a lot more involved, and you can plow under a district for another, but that is horribly expensive in time and money (oh, and you can't just "BUY" a district in the same fashion as buying a building in the game.

So where you place your districts have a definite effect on the productivity of your city, and it is a fiddly bit that demands attention. Actually, the game is FILLED with fiddly bits. Each minor nation contributes different effects to your empire. Your government is a hand of cards that you swap in and out, giving you different benefits. Religions have always been a collection of special abilities that you put together, and they are so here again. And the various units have their own promotional trees depending on general type.

The result is that you have a lot of small bits to handle that combine to create your civilization. Any one won't be the ultimate success of your empire, but there are enough to keep you focused on individual cities as opposed to sprawling nations. As a result, you get to a mid-sized empire and hunker down in the midgame, attacking only if attacked, which leads to many turns of watching the AI bumble around. Worse, there is not a lot of encouragement to go out and explore the world, particularly since the areas you discover disappear under a fog of war once your unit moves away from them.

One place where this multitude of fiddly bits does not occur is the tech tree, which should be where choices are important. But they have added Eureka moments which shorten up the time required to get a new tech. What this does, however, is to highlight you tech growth into channels where you have gotten a research time break and therefor don't need to spend as much time (because while you're getting that you might fill out the bonus requirement for another Eureaka).

One of the end results is that you have to commit to a particular victory condition and push hard, much moreso than in previous editions. Unless you create a strong knowledge/industrial operation, backed up by social policies which give you space benefits and space centers in multiple cities, don't even try for the rocket ship. And because everything takes so long, you have to choose early and then not change. 

Finally, let me unleash my inner grognard. Civ II had one of the best reasons to build wonders of the world - On completion, you get a little movie about that wonder. These are relatively simple little films using mostly public domain material, but were perfect cookies as a reward. They have never caught up with that in later editions. Civ VI shows the wonder being built in the game-world (yes, they require their own tile) but that's not nearly as cool as it once was (Oh, and since the wonders are limited where they can be built, there are fewer wonders showing up, particularly in your opposition, so getting cheesed out of a wonder at the last moment is a minor thing).

Also in the "soft" frustrations of the game is the quotes, which are generally weaker than in Civ 5, even if they are voiced by Sean Bean. Some of them are not real quotes, or rather the result of people doing a google search (there is a George Carlin quote for archery that I have yet to be able to find). I do miss the live advisors I had back in Civ II, who squabbled and argued with each other. The enemy leaders are cartoonish, on Pixar level, but I had to ditch the animations for performance. The units are nice (and here we are praising the set design), but I had to dial back on the graphics just to get it to run at a half-decent speed.

End result? Meh. It is true to its original in its narration, and I will still dink around with it, but only on Sunday afternoons when I have a lot of time on my hand, and a book handy while I wait for the computer to cycle through its moves. I don't think I'm going to run through all the various leaders any time soon, and will check in as they patch and fix those pieces they feel important. And we'll see where Civ VII leads.

More later,