Thursday, September 29, 2005

We built this city on rock and roll

In this post, I will first reminisce about the impact Sid Meier's Civilization series has had on me, and then I will share my thoughts about the upcoming Civilization 4.

Civ wasn't my first love in computer games, but it came close. I'm sure that it was the first time I had spent that much on a game; up until then (circa 1992) all my games were hand-me-downs, gifts, or the occasional $5 cheapie demo disc from Software, Etc. Looking back, I'm curious what made me decide to buy it. I hadn't really dabbled in strategy games before, with the exception of "Castles", and all of my favorite games were Sierra-style adventures. I do remember getting an enthusiastic recommendation from a childhood friend, most likely Doug Hawkins, that moved me to purchase it, even though I don't think I'd ever seen it being played before.

My memory is actually pretty bad, but I can still vividly remember the visceral joy I got out of opening the box. This was in the good old days of PC game packaging, when they didn't cut corners in putting together attractive packages. It may not have had a cloth map like Ultima, but it had a beautiful manual with one of my all-time favorite covers, a black-on-black painting that showed a modern skyline with a pharaoh lying below it. There was also the Tech Tree, a long and sturdy poster showing the process of human knowledge. The contents of the manual were also great, filled with academic trivia and nuggets of political theory.

For those of you who haven't played Civilization before, let me fill you in. The slogan of the series has always been "Build an empire to stand the test of time." You start as the leader of a civilization, such as the Greeks or Chinese, around 4000 BC. At first you are nomadic settlers; you quickly found your first city, which begins to grow. You have complete control over the direction of your civilization, and can produce city improvements (like granaries, banks, and airports), military units, and settlers to found new cities and expand your empire. You eventually come into contact with other civilizations (from here on called "civs") that you must deal with, either through trade, diplomacy, or conquest.

The best part of Civ, at least for me, has been the progress of science. Early on you discover simple technologies, each of which opens up still more advanced knowledge. For example, you might first discover Bronze Working, which allows you to develop Currency, which in turn opens the door for Trade. Each technology allows you to build new improvements and units, so the range of options open to you are constantly expanding.

Civ is a turn-based strategy game, which means you always have the time to decide what actions to take: issuing orders, setting improvement goals, and moving units. After you are done, every other civ moves, and then it's your turn again. Some people find this tedious, but I love it; it appeals to the boardgamer in me, and allows for much more intricate gameplay than is possible if you're racing the clock. Fortunately, Civilization moved pretty quickly, and before you knew it your warriors had been replaced with Knights, and then with tanks, and then nuclear missiles.

I learned a great deal about strategy as I played. For my first three or so games, I would play on the Earth map as the English. I would found one city, London, and then never ever leave the few squares that made up my island. My "strategy" was to be isolationist, and put all my resources into building one super-city instead of spreading myself thin. It took me three games to discover that this just wouldn't work. I was playing on the easiest level, and at first would rapidly advance past the other civs, gaining technical superiority and building massive Wonders of the World (the Hanging Gardens of London! The Colossus of London! The Great Pyramids of London!) Somewhere around my middle ages, though, other civs would catch up to me, and quickly leave me in the dust. On my third game, I finally built a transport ship around this time and went to establish a colony. I discovered that the Zulus had conquered all of Africa and Europe, had tons of cities everywhere, and didn't like me putting a foothold in Africa. They obliterated me completely. My next game was on a random map, playing as the Elves, and from that point on things went better for me.

The first real game as the Elves (a custom civilization) was interesting. First off, I discovered that the game would simply chop off the last letter in the name to come up with the adjective. For example, as the Romans, the game would say things like "The Romans have build the Great Wall" or "Roman scientists have discovered The Wheel." For me, it would be "The Elves have wiped out the Russians" or "Elve scientists have discovered Chemistry." Besides that, things went better. I had learned to make new cities, earlier in the game, and my fear of being surpassed by the Zulus made me focus my resources on research. True to my name, I made the Elves a peaceful civilization. The two real ways to beat Civilization are to conquer the world or to build a spaceship for Alpha Centauri, so I elected the latter course. I built my spaceship while the other civs were still building wooden boats, and was elated in my first victory.

It has just occurred to me that I could waste hours writing about notable Civ games I've played, so I'll briefly address the very next game and then move on. For my next game, I decided to pretend that I was playing as the descendents of the Elves on Alpha Centauri. I bumped the difficulty level up from Chieftain to Warlord and decided to play a more aggressive game this time, again in keeping with my race's stereotype I dubbed them the Orcs. Once again I expanded and focused on science, but this time, when I entered the endgame, I instead built a vast army of tanks and battleships and went off in search of conquest. I wiped out the last of the Romans, and then discovered that the game was making things more difficult for me by respawning civs. Right next to me a settler unit for the Russians appeared; I declared war and wiped them out before their first city was founded. I continued to blitz through the world, rejoicing in the thrill of dominion, but was upset to see no acknowledgement once I had conquered the world. Viewing one of the information screens, I noticed that the Russians were still listed as a civilization, although they had no cities. I combed through every square of the world but they were nowhere to be seen. I had discovered another bug, as the game apparently didn't realize civilizations were dead unless you had conquered a city. Chagrined, I built another spaceship.

From this point on, through all civs, I played at the Prince level or higher, and had a lot of fun. I would occasionally try new strategies, but the core of my philosophy remains that which was drilled into me in those five first games: expand and research, and don't start wars you can't finish.

My devotion to this game took on an almost religious fervor. I was extremely attracted by the fact that all of human history was contained within a few floppy disks. I credit this game with sparking an interest in history for me, and I think it did a lot to help me through Mr. Bachtold's World History class; even though events in the game obviously did not parallel reality, it was so well researched and informative that you couldn't help pick up facts about a great range of history and sociology.

1996 saw my family's move to Illinois, and it also saw the release of Civilization 2. I was apprehensive about what to expect. This was before I frequented the Internet, and so I was surprised to see it one day on the shelves of Software Etcetera, seemingly springing fully-formed into existence like Athena. I was still playing Civilization on a regular basis; I would pick up other games and enjoy them, but even years later I would find myself hankering for some Civ and starting yet another game. Not yet having a job, I was reluctant to spend what seemed like a lot of money when the "old" version was serving me well enough, but it went on sale and I was sufficiently intrigued to pick it up.

When friends would ask me about my thoughts on the game, I would say, "The original Civilization is the best game that has ever been created in the history of the universe. And Civilization 2 is even better." That sounds pretentious, but it's true, at least the second part. I had been expecting a graphical update and the new Fundamentalist government, but saw a plethora of changes that only served to enhance the underlying game while not detracting from its core appeal. They had fixed so many of the things that had irritated me before, like the ultra-restrictive diplomacy options and the many small bugs. And there were many more things added that I had never considered but made the game far better, like enhanced espionage options and the ability to build airbases. They had added new units and improvements and technologies that made your options still richer. New "scenarios" would drop you in the middle of an interesting historical period, such as the rise of Rome or World War II. I wouldn't come to realize it for a while, but the best feature was that virtually all of the content in the game could be modified by users. Rather than hiding everything in binary files, simple text files described unit statistics, the names of city improvements, and the dialog from other leaders. It pleased me to modify this to make my exchanges with these diplomats more pointed and rude than before, or obsequious if my mood demanded. There was also some purely fun items that were added, like movies that would play when you build a Great Wonder, or your advisors who would counsel you on your progress. I still vividly recall the lines I would hear most often. "Give me more soldiers, noble leader, so I can strike fear in the hearts of our enemies!" "All of the world marvels at our superior intellect! I'm off to grease my abacus!" "The people? They can't get enough of you!"

My only real regret about Civ 2 was the music. The original Civilization had some of the most haunting, emotive theme music I've heard in a PC game, especially when played on a real Roland sound card. Each civ even had its own national anthem that would play at crucial times. By contrast, the music in Civ 2 was generally ambient and utterly forgettable. The one solace was that you could stick in your own CD and have it play that music instead.

Other than that complaint, I've never been tempted to return to the original Civilization.

I played Civ 2 in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. Expansion packs were regularly released and immediately snapped up. These tended to focus on adding additional scenarios, although there were also some noticeable improvements to the game engine itself. (Remember, this was before everyone was always online, so not everyone could just download a patch.) Most of the scenarios were just good for a single play, although a few held my attention. A very innovative one was based on the world of "XCOM: UFO Defense". While still using only the Civ2 engine, it did a fairly good job of emulating a completely different game, where you used soldiers on an alien planet to hunt down and destroy hostile life forms. There were two that stood out even more, though. One, the most difficult one I played, is set in an alien invasion of Earth. Three human coalitions are all left against the incredibly advanced technology of the invaders, and your only hope is to survive until you discover a breakthrough technology that will allow you to mount an effective defense. It took me many tries before finally lasting until that tech was reached, only to see my two allies fall and me needing to carry the fight alone against the invaders. I loved the way that this scenario cast you with dependable allies who would support you in a common cause without the ubiquitous backstabbing found in every other scenario. The other good one was an open-ended game set in a post-apocalyptic future, when tribes of humans and mutants try to rebuild from radioactive ashes and reestablish civilization.

Inevitably, I began to dabble in the scenarios. My first contribution was a map of Middle-earth, painstakingly transcribed from the official MERP map I had bought from Iron Crown Enterprises. I created the world, set the starting locations for the Elves and Orcs and Numenoreans and Men and Hobbits and more, and then let the game proceed normally. My most ambitious project, though, was a scenario set in Raymond E. Feist's Midkemia. I had loved his Riftwar saga but was disgusted by the Serpentwar follow up, so I decided to recreate the world from the beginning of those events and let it proceed naturally. I spent months on this, proudly building up Krondor and the other cities, modifying the game files to create the necessary units, figuring out how to give each civ the appropriate starting view of the map. In my proudest moment, I figured out how to simulate the dangerous storms in a strait (barbarian sea units with 0 movement, recreated every 20 turns) and even create impassible terrain (invisible barbarian bombers with 0 movement). Every faction from the book was present, and I played some games to get the strategy right. The most enjoyable were the Western Kingdom or the invaders (I forget their name), but the other five were enjoyable as well. Sadly, the whole scenario was wiped out in a hard drive crash. No, I never back up my files. You should, though.

If anything, I played even more Civ 2 once I left high school for college. One of the nice things about Civ 2 was that it ran as a normal Windows program, and so it multitasked extremely well with everything else. I developed a habit of coming home from class and firing up my Emacs editor for CS101, my email client, AOL Instant Messenger, a web browser, and Civ 2. I would switch between the five of them depending on what was the most fun at the moment. And yes, I did fine in all my classes.

I also was pleased to come into contact with a community of Civ 2 players. I might have been the most fanatical of them, but the others were also well versed in the game and we had fun swapping strategies and telling expansive stories of our most memorable games. (Believe me, the stuff I've been writing here feels brief in comparison to the epic tales I could be telling.)

I think it was late in high school that the ultimate expansion came out, "Civilization 2: Multiplayer Gold Edition." The text files in Civ 2 had contained intriguing hints of multiplayer abilities, and there was a definite hunger for players to finally be able to take on one another. I'd even downloaded cracks before that would allow you to play a sort of hotseat multiplayer game, though I didn't have much chance to use it. With the multiplayer game, though, it was finally a reality. Sadly, the vagaries of dial-up connections made it less satisfying than I would have hoped. I did enjoy playing a three-player game with two distant friends in Minnesota, but the regular disconnections were trying. (Some of the most fun of that experience was simply chatting with each other, and I really wish I'd saved those logs because I'm sure they're full of neurotic and passive-aggressive statements. I was the strongest of the three, and one person had barely played before, so we made a pact to not attack each other so we would stay friends, but it still engendered some jealousy when I constantly eclipsed their cities.)

In the end, doing multiplayer just required too much planning to coordinate schedules, and it became a pain to need to WAIT while the other players slowly took their turns. But there was a hope on the horizon - Sid Meier, the creator of Civilization, had founded his own company, Firaxis, and had announced that they would be releasing the next game, Civilization 3.

I am an optimist at heart, and I'm the sort of person who enthusiastically suspends disbelief in search of entertainment. This time, I knew that a new Civ game was coming, and I eagerly devoured every scrap of information coming my way. It all sounded great. The screenshots and art looked wonderful. I began salivating, and pumped up my fellow Civ devotees with tales of its splendor. Now the game would have real borders! Culture! Civs with unique traits! Great leaders! The game could not come quickly enough for me.

The release date was finally announced. We all piled in to a car together and drove to the mall. I paid the extra five bucks for the Special Edition, which came in a collector's tin and included a "making of" CD and a tech tree (no longer present in the standard packaging). We raced home, installed and began playing.

By ourselves, at least. Shortly before the release, Firaxis had announced that Civ3 would be released as single-player only. I was more confused than upset, but since most of my time had been spent single-player, I reasoned it wouldn't make that much of a difference.

It took me several weeks before I finally admitted that Civ 3 just wasn't as much fun as Civ 2 had been. Much like Alpha Centauri before it, on paper it sounded like it should be superior, and I found it hard to quibble with the new features they had added. Ultimately, though, they had crossed some threshold, reached a critical mass where they had too much of a good thing: too many good features made for complexity, and the game began to drag.

Besides the pace, it felt like they had gone out of their way to come up with little things to annoy me. The freedom Civ 2 offered your desktop was gone; claiming that they wanted to make a more "immersive" experience, Civ 3 could only be played full-screen. Goodbye multitasking. They used the same excuse to get rid of most of the humor in the game, including the advisors and wonder movies. An infuriating copy-protection aspect required you to have the CD in the drive every time you played, even if you had done a complete install. I hate flipping discs, plus that kept me from playing my own tunes.

They also made some fairly radical changes to the gameplay. I don't particularly mind that they messed with my strategy; in order to curb the enormous sprawl of Civ2 games, they increased the effect of corruption, a preexisting concept that discouraged you from building large empires far from your capital. What did bother me, though, was the unrelenting aggressiveness of the AI, which would STILL settle every open square on the map. Their corruption would shoot through the roof and they would not be able to produce either, but they would hem you in and keep you from moving. That's probably the thing that irritated me the most, once I realized that the AI was not programmed to advance its own interests, but primarily to oppose the player's.

There were enough good aspects about Civ 3 that I kept playing it; in particular, the borders and culture were appreciated features. This time, though, the game didn't enter permanent rotation, and this time, I would find myself playing the previous Civilization on occasion. My game CD went missing a few years ago and I haven't really felt the loss that much.

So this brings us to this year. When I heard of Civilization 4, I was more cautious this time. My first instinct was to stay as far away from the publicity machine as possible: don't allow my hopes to be raised, and just wait for the reviews before deciding whether to pursue it or not. I was good for a while, and to their credit Firaxis has been much more controlled this time around at giving out information. Recently, though I've finally caved and started doing my normal scorched-earth information-gathering campaign.

I am still a little skeptical, but optimistic. It really does sound like they've listened to the concerns of fans and have taken them into account. They are particularly making promises about AI behavior that people will appreciate. One particular highlight is that, unlike in previous civs, other nations will not even be able to enter your borders without declaring war. (This is in contrast to earlier games, where if they violated your borders you would need to speak with the leader and demand that they withdraw their troops.)

They are also making changes to appeal to new players, and I believe these will be more controversial. The combat system is more simplified, with each unit now having simply "strength" instead of separate Attack and Defense values. (In some ways, this makes sense; however, it seems to actually make things more complicated. Since you don't want to encourage, say, crusaders to defend a city, certain units now get bonuses to attack or defense, so you end up getting the same result through a more complex process.) The pace of the game is supposedly much quicker now.

The big Civ 3 innovations are sticking around, although in slightly tweaked form. Resources are staying, borders are improved, culture is changing (makes enemy cities unhappy instead of "flipping"), and great leaders are improved (now there are non-military Great Persons). There are some radical changes going against even Civ 1 standards: no more pollution cleanup (just unhealthy people), no more civil unrest (just lack of production).

Perhaps most encouraging to the hard-core fan base is the level of customization. Civ 3 was relatively hard to tweak; in Civ 4, all the game data can be edited in simple XML files, and Firaxis is even providing scripting tools that will allow more substantial modifications. For example, you could create an outer space mod that would use your custom designed windows, menus, and so on. Firaxis even promises to release an SDK next year that will allow for total conversions of the game.

Somewhere along the line I came to the realization that I'm totally going to buy this game. After trying, and failing, to get some fellow civers to talk me out of it, I'm even considering preordering (which would give me the "Special Edition" for the standard price). I'm not at all convinced that this game will be better than Civ 2, but it's been so long since I've really played Civ that I need to recapture some of that feeling. And even if it's not as good as Civ 2, it sounds like it has a lot of potential. They're promising to make non-military strategies more fun and rewarding than ever, which pleases me greatly since that's the way I've enjoyed playing in the past.

October 25th is when the game comes out. I'm letting you know now, because there's a very real chance that this game will swallow me up and you won't see me again for months. If so, you'll know that I'm having a blast.

PS - Remember, Serenity comes out tomorrow! Tell your friends!

1 comment:

  1. Haha! Big brother has a blog! And he writes articles of awesomeness! USA! USA! USA!