Tuesday, May 01, 2007

I get knocked down! But I get up again! Ain't ever gonna keep me down!

In the latest episode of Chris Tries to Distract Himself From Buying Oblivion And Therefore Spending Thousands of Dollars, I returned to the beautiful land of Civilization 4. My last attempt at playing a Civ IV scenario turned out so well that I figured I'd return to the well.

I frequent Civ Fanatics semi-frequently; my blog posts notwithstanding, I'm actually not THAT much of a fanatic. Still, I'm regularly impressed by all the effort people put into the community, making models and maps and whatnot, and keep more or less up to date with the major movements out there.

All that being said, Fall from Heaven 2 is definitely the top modpack for Civ IV, and Rhye's and Fall of Civilization holds a strong second place. I had been somewhat intrigued by what I'd previously read about Rhye's, so it made a logical next step.

Rhye's is a mod that attempts to fix a "problem" that has plagued Civilization since the very first version: it is not an accurate game. This is most obvious when you play on an Earth map, and are confronted with the comedy of Lincoln founding Washington in 4000 BC, or the Russians invading France in 2000 BC. Even if you don't strictly follow Earth history, I think everyone understands that real history is much more complex: empires rise and fall, great nations are split apart by internal strife, and overall things are just much more fluid than "7 nations attempt to survive for 6000 years".

Rhye's is very different from FfH. FfH had a great dynamic map generator; Rhye's is always played on a phenomenally detailed Earth map. FfH eschews Civ's historical trappings while retaining some of its rhythms; Rhye's embraces the history but completely uproots the flow of the game.

You start Rhye's by choosing a civ. All of the Civ IV options are there, but leader traits are gone. Instead there are special powers that are truly unique to each Civ - Japan gets 100% city defense, Vikings get five times the plunder when sacking a city, and so on. In what might be the coolest change for this game, each civ also has unique Historical Goals in addition to the standard ways of winning the game. By accomplishing three tasks, you win the game, regardless of the state of your empire. The Indians, with their Spiritual bent, can win by (1) founding Hinduism and Buddhism; (2) found five religions total; and (3) be 1st in population in 1200 AD. On the other hand, the Aztecs must fend off European encroachment by (1) enslaving 5 European units; (2) Not allowing any European colonies in Central America and the Southern United States by 1700 AD; and (3) Entering the Industrial Age by 1820.

As with FfH, these historical goals help each civ feel totally unique. If you're a warmonger, you should go with someone like the Romans or the Vikings, who not only give you bonuses to your fighting but actively reward you for doing so. And, much as I like options like the Cultural Victory in the main game, it's great to see that you can win the game with a small and/or inaggressive civ... but only if you pick the right one and play it well.

After you choose your civ, you wait! And wait! Remember, this is an accurate historical simulation. The only civs who get to start playing immediately are the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the Babylon; otherwise, you must wait as the AI plays the game up until the point where your civ enters the stage. If you're Greece or Persia or Japan, you won't have that long to wait; if you're America, you might as well go and run some errands.

The actual mechanics of the game are fairly similar to vanilla Civ - you research technology, found cities, build units and improvements, declare war and fight battles as normal. However, Rhye has added a ton of extra stuff to the main game. I think it comes down to this: whenever there was a choice between historical accuracy or fun, the Civ IV design team always chose fun, and Rhye always chooses accuracy.

What does this mean? Well, for example, let's consider the Plague. The Plague is a devastating illness that periodically sweeps across the world, spread by trade routes and roads. It gives a tremendous kick to your cities, adding an extra 6 or so Unhealthiness markers, which can easily arrest the growth of your cities and even plunge you into a famine. That's not all, though! The Plague also affects your units, causing them to drop health every turn. And yes, they can actually DIE as a result of this! Your entire army can be destroyed as you helplessly watch!

The game also tends to be much more historically accurate. The AI is programmed to build cities at their correct historical location, with the proper name. Religions will automatically be founded in the proper time at the right city if nobody discovers them before then. The AI also seems to be very good at pursuing their historical goals, and thus behaving accurately, whether it means strong territorial aggression or single-minded research.

One of the most radical aspects of the game is the founding of empires. Not only is this scattered, as described above, but it's also very disruptive. Once an empire is founded, cities in nearby civilizations will often revolt and try to join the new civ.

Overall, I was extremely impressed by this game - it is technically brilliant, has a high level of polish, and is undeniably more realistic than the main game of Civ. Ultimately, though, I'm not playing Civ because I want to run a historical civilization; I'm playing it because I want to have fun. There are so many aspects of Rhye's which seem really cool until they happen to you, at which point it's easy to get frustrated. Even when you do everything right, you can get blindsided by something you have no control over, and you may find it impossible to recover. It's true that life isn't fair, but that doesn't mean unfairness makes games fun.

All that being said, I did enjoy the one game I played, but it felt like a lot of work; I'll probably return to FfH before I return to this game. Here I played a game as Greece; I did it on the easiest possible setting, and still had to do a lot of save-and-loads to keep from getting utterly wiped out. In one case I restored all the way back to Turn 1; one of their goals is to build four wonders (Oracle, Parthenon, Colossus, and Temple of Artemis) by 50 AD, and by the turn of the millennium I only had one wonder and one city. Oops!

The second attempt went better - I founded my second city pretty rapidly, and a third a bit after that, and set all three to work churning out Wonders. It was tough, but I was making good progress... until Rome was founded. Promptly, my second city revolted, then Rome invaded and I got the plague and died. Oops!

I went back to the founding of Rome and changed tacks, declaring war on them immediately, trying to hold them off at the sea as long as I could, then giving them lots of technology as I sued for peace. One really nice thing about this game is that a lot of bad situations don't seem as bad as they would in the main game - I ordinarily hate giving up research, but if I'm planning to beat the game in a few hundred years, it won't necessarily make that great of a difference.

Things went better in this pass, but I still just barely squeaked the Temple of Artemis in under 50 AD with a single turn to spare. That goal proved to be the hardest. The next - being the first civ to discover Philosophy - was actually pretty easy, albeit time-consuming. The third and most interesting was being the first to circumnavigate the globe.

Once again, I needed to confront a powerful Mediterranean power; this time it was Carthage. They didn't like me, and wouldn't let my ships go through their territory to the Atlantic. I broke the treaty and moved ships through. They promptly sent over an invasion force and seized Athena. Oops.

Restore. This time I made them my bestest friends in the whole world, gifting Carthage all my spare resources and some free techs. They came to like me, and after a few decades of patient waiting, they agreed to Open Borders. With a "Yippee!" I sent out some Triremes, followed a century later by my first Caravel. From here on out, it was just a matter of juggling Carthage, Rome and Persia as I waited for those fragile ships to complete their all-important quest.

It all turned out well in the end, despite a terrifying outbreak of the plague that would have left me completely defenseless if Rome had decided to invade again.

Oh, one thing I should note - another cool feature of the game is that, if you don't like the way your civ is going (say you failed to hit a Historical Goal in time), you can have the option to take over another Civ when it's born. So even failure doesn't have to be permanent; I just got a little fixated on winning a game as Greece.

So: I would definitely recommend this mod to anyone who wants to squeeze some more fun out of Civ IV; even if it isn't your cup of tea, it's worth playing at least one game just to get an appreciation for the amazing flexibility of the Civ IV engine. Hard-core players are most likely to appreciate this mod, while more casual gamers may find it frustrating after the initial cool factor wears off.

And now, I just need to wait a few more months until Beyond the Sword comes out. Gaming goodness never ends!

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