“History As You Know It, Is History” – Sid Meier’s Civilization IV Review


From the start of time until its end...the road is yours to travel

As a general rule of thumb, I tend to avoid strategy games. I have never really been one for wanting to plan an attack in a game world situation – I play games to escape the planning of real life, and would much rather jump off some platforms and swing a sword around in my virtual world. All this considered, it makes my opinion on Sid Meier’s Civilization IV all the more surprising. I picked it up two years ago from a bargain bin in my local Morrison’s for just £6, and it may well be the best deal I have ever found, because there is so much game tucked away in Civilization IV’s disc that it beggars belief at times.

The Civilization series has long been seen as one of the kings of the strategy genre, alongside other heavyweights such as Age Of Empires. I like to think that a good deal of the appeal derives from the games relatively simple concept – starting in the year 4000 BC, you choose one out of a variety of historical leaders (ranging from the likes of Montezuma to Gandhi and from Julius Caesar to Queen Victoria) and have up until 2050 AD to rewrite history and become the greatest civilization the world has ever seen. Standing in the way of your noble quest are such challenges as politics, keeping your population healthy, raising education, and of course defending your empire from the other leaders on the map trying to create their great societies.

The great strength of Civilization IV is how fine tuned it all feels, and this can be felt in every aspect of the game, big or small. Take for example the most basic choices you have to undertake before launching a game – all the different civilizations that you could potentially take control of have different perks which can greatly affect your style of play. Some leaders like Montezuma are aggressive, and can give military units extra experience for example, whereas a more cultured civilization like India can expand their culture at a greater rate than other leaders. Different civilizations also get a unique unit that no-one else can get, and again this can affect the style of play – do you play as Kublai Khan and use your Horse Archers for a quick and incisive blow against your enemies, or do you play the long game with the German Empire and unleash the Panzer Tanks towards the end of the game? There is a combination for everyone, and you will soon find a leader that you are comfortable with. Once you have this sorted, there is an extensive set of options to tailor the game to yourself even more; you can choose how the world will roughly take shape, the sea levels, the length of the game (ranging from a shortish 200 turns to a marathon of well over 1000 turns), and the level of difficulty that the AI will play at.

And then you get into the game: and this is where Civilization IV trumps pretty much every other game I have ever played, because no two games are ever the same. This means that there is a new and fresh challenge every time you start up a game, which gives it immense replayability. How you wish to advance the game is completely up to you – there are several ways to win (eliminate all other civilizations, win the space race, have three cities with legendary culture, win diplomatic elections triggered by the UN, or just have the highest score at the end), but the means of getting there are ever changing. Fortunately there are an extensive amount of units and buildings that you can produce in order to help you build up your cities. You don’t get everything on a platter however because maps are generated at random, and its complete luck whether or not you will get a favourable patch of land with resources to build your empire upon. Your progress can also be greatly affected by the technologies you pursue to study. Every turn you create a small bit of scientific knowledge which automatically levels up a technology (which are very cleverly organised into real world time periods – don’t expect to have the required knowledge for atom bombs before the Modern era for example), and because technologies are ordered into different stems, it once again promotes the sense that you can do what you want, when you want. Sometimes it can become a bit intimidating, but the game is always on hand to make suggestions and notify you of the major actions being taken in the world around you, so you can relax. If ever so slightly.

You can get more with a kind word and a nuclear missile...than you can with just a kind word

One last thing to throw into the bewitching cocktail is the thorny issue of religion, which made its debut in the Civilization franchise in this game. There are six religions to be founded during the course of the game, again adhering to rough frames of time – Buddhism and Hinduism will be founded quite early for example, followed by Confucianism and Christianity in the middle ages and then Islam and Taoism a bit further on. Adopting a religion can be a double edged sword; cities with your state religion will have increased levels of happiness, but you can attract unwanted aggression from empires with rival religions. Despite a few odd cases I have come across (in one game, Isabella Of Spain changed religion six times in the space of 200 years), it’s a well implemented feature, and the game is stronger for it.

It is really quite difficult to give a definitive statement on the gameplay of Civilization IV; there’s far too much hidden in the bowels of the game that could be covered in the words of a normal review, but all you need to know is that its all crucially important and it all works to a tee. I always find the small things to be the most fascinating – from the food value of an individual tile to working out the odds in a military battle, there is a hell of a lot of maths going on in the background that would stump even the most brilliant scholars. There is even a fully fleshed out in-game encyclopaedia accessible at any time that gives a breakdown of every unit, building, technology and gubbin within the game, along with a detailed description of their historical/scientific/cultural impact. It is utterly, utterly fantastic, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Civilization IV will happily keep you occupied for years.

So what of the other things that cover up the maths in the background? Visually, Civilization IV is not the prettiest game in the world; even on a computer running the highest specifications, zooming right in on the world show the character models to be blocky and the animations to be basic at best. However, one feels that people playing this game won’t be caring much for the graphics over the core gameplay, and therefore the functional display on offer is more than adequate. Anyway, its quite nice to zoom out a bit and look at how the individual cogs of your empire are acting, from workers toiling the plains for farmland to the little wisps of smoke coming out of the mines.

Even on an average PC, this game still looks fine when close up

Few games I have played have quite as accomplished a soundtrack as Civilization IV either. The main theme, Baba Yetu, holds the envious title of being the only piece of video game music in history to be nominated for, or win, an Emmy award, and the rest of the soundtrack is pretty top notch as well. Divided into the different era’s you can progress through (Classical, Medieval, Renaissance etc.), there is a wide selection of songs that help create a ample mood, such as the chorus of a Christian choir as you progress through the Medieval age. My personal favourites lie in the Industrial era, if nothing else because I find that a bit of classical music in a game makes it very classy (and I am reminded heavily of Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ in Project Gotham Racing 3 here as an example), and I adore Dvorak’s 9th Symphony…also known as ‘the music from the Hovis Bread advert’. The icing of the cake here however is the in game narration, performed by the ever eloquent Leonard Nimoy (Spock from Star Trek). Upon discovering a new technology, Nimoy voice will chime in with an appropriate quote from history to make the moment seem all the more significant.

From what you have read thus far, Civilization IV is making a strong case for a perfect mark you may think. Sadly, as good as the game is, it is not perfection. My major concerns with the game lie in the issue of difficulty; there are about 10 levels of difficulty, and although they are separated out to cater for as many people as possible, relative newbies to strategy like myself will struggle with anything beyond Noble difficulty – and that’s the fourth easiest one you can pick. Trying to play a purely diplomatic and peaceful game is nigh on impossible as your rival’s will nearly always force you into a war for some trivial matter. And if you do get involved in a war, there can be some highly frustrating moments to be had in combat – the game will sometimes decide that via minute odds a low level unit like a Longbowman can take down an Apache helicopter gunship. These moments are rare, but they induce extreme rage when it does happen. My final problem is admittedly self inflicted, but it does comment upon the game – I can never get round to finishing a game off. I always get very close to the year 2000 AD, but then I lose track of what my stupidly high number of units are getting up to, and decide to start again. Perhaps implementing some time of reminder mechanism would have been a welcome addition.

Considering my lack of experience with strategy games, I’m unsure of how to properly mark Civilization IV. By default, it’s the best strategy game I have ever played, and it is my favourite PC game ahead of Team Fortress 2 and….Solitaire, I guess. It’s always good for making a few hours of time warp by, and as a History student it’s quite nice to rewrite the events of the past and see the hilarious consequences that evolve from it. And for £6, I really can’t complain for the amount of fun I have got out of it. The score I have given it therefore seems a respectable compromise, and long time players of strategy games can knock the mark up by half a mark.

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