Some game reviews are more difficult to write than others. The rare few, like this one, are almost intimidating because of the franchise that the game under review represents. Reviewing Sid Meier’s Civilization 3 is akin to reviewing mom’s apple pie – it’s an American institution, or at least a computer institution. I’ve spent hundreds, ne’ perhaps thousands of hours playing Civilization, and probably another thousand playing Civilization 2. As a planet we’ve collectively spent so much time playing some incarnation of the Civilization series, that if they had never been created there’s no telling how far man might have come. We might have cured cancer, terraformed Mars, ended world hunger, discovered new energy sources, developed interstellar travel, and met fantastic alien races. But Civilization does exist, and instead we have sleepless nights, eye strain, bad backs, and a futile promise that we will never, ever play Civilization until the sun comes up again, even if we have the Russians on the ropes and Moscow is ripe for the taking as soon as we develop the artillery unit.
You could say I’m a pretty big fan of Civilization. You may as well say that I’m a pretty big fan of oxygen, for the understatement would be equivalent. You want a sweeping generalization? Civilization is the greatest 4x ever created, period (note to myself, write Making the Game 4x column asap). I think, by and large, subsequent versions of Civilization (including Call to Power and Alpha Centauri) were just tweaks to the original, and could well have been called Civilization V.1.XX. Actually, that’s not quite true. I saw Alpha Centauri as a pretty big step backwards, as the eye-searing red planetscape roasted my retina and I spent countless hours in the instruction manual trying to figure out what Molecular Hydrodynamics and Biomagnetism would buy me as technological advances. As usual you are welcome to disagree with me, only in this instance you would be blatantly wrong. Anyway, to say that I was looking forward to Civilization 3 would be another understatement like the oxygen thing, and I verily leapt at the change to review it, despite my hesitation to piss on the computer game equivalent of the American flag, should I find the game deserves it.
Much to my relief, then, I found that playing Civilization 3 was, exactly contrary to Eddie Money’s hypothesis, like going home again. Civilization 3 is more like its predecessors than unlike them, and a quick perusal of the two-hundred-plus page manual was all I needed to bring my fledgling Romans onto the world map and found Rome. For those of you unfamiliar with the gameplay of Civilization, who have somehow spent the past ten years or so in some kind of tiny, tiny box isolated from all light and sound, the following nutshell is for you: in Civilization you found cities, terraform land, research new technologies, build military units, and try to cope with the other races on the map, either through diplomacy or the proverbial sharpened stick. It is really the pinnacle of micromanaging 4x gameplay, with plenty of stuff to do, and yet avoids the pitfall of too much micromanaging making the game more of a chore than a joy to play. There, that’s for the shut-ins. For the rest of you, I’d like to discuss some of the changes that have been made, some of them significant, and some of them very good.
One of the changes that I like most is the advanced handling of resources. There are many more resources now, but you don’t see many of them on the world map until you’ve researched the technology associated with them. For example, it’s only after researching ‘Iron Working’ that you see iron deposits on the map. And then knowing ‘Iron Working’ isn’t of any use to you if none of your cities happen to be near said iron deposits. Once when I was playing I researched ‘Gunpowder’ which had often been a big turning point militarily in the earlier Civilization incarnations, only to find that there was absolutely no saltpeter near any of my cities. The Egyptians had saltpeter, but being technologically backwards they had no idea what to do with it. I’m an advanced democratic society in a pitched battle with arrows and spears trying to get control of a saltpeter mine. Frustrating, but cool!
The zone of control of a city now increases as the city grows. A large city can suck up a huge chunk of the resources in an area, and as your cities and those of your enemy grow, you’ll find their zones butting heads. Two peaceful hamlets owned by different civilizations side by side can become the basis for an entire war when they increase in size and it becomes necessary to fight over the resources around them. A large city with a high culture rating, as calculated by the types of buildings that are in it, can actually attract smaller enemy cities nearby to switch sides.
The AI overall is vastly improved. The enemy no longer throws dozens of units against a single city that they can’t take. They attack weak points in your defenses, and put cities in locations that make you fight for natural resources. They also no longer fall for the old “I’ll accept a peace treaty with you now while you amass troops on my borders.” They’re as dirty and underhanded as I am, wisely pressing the advantage if they have it, and trying to acquiesce to stronger opponents with a minimum of damage. Diplomacy has been expanded to allow trading of technology, cash, cities, and other stuff. It is no longer possible to bribe enemy units and cities, which puts to an end my strategy of raising my tax rate and buying out an enemy that I can’t beat militarily. Your advisors no longer deluge you with moronic information. You city advisor in particular tries to anticipate what you would like to build next based on previous build choices in other cities, and it does a passable job of doing so. Also, automating the workers around your city to irrigate and mine and build roads works better than before – perhaps not as well as you could do it, but at least they don’t waste time running roads to nowhere.
The look of the game has been modernized. The drop-down menu system is mostly gone and has been replaced with mostly buttons. I personally liked the drop-down menus, but the buttons work too. Graphics are much improved – the world map looks better, and units are all animated. Information about a city’s growth rate and present construction project is shown on the city banner of the world map. It is no longer necessary to open the city window to see this information, and that alone probably saved me an hour in opening and closing windows. Sound effects won’t give your Dolby 5.1 system a workout, but they’re new and improved as well.
Downsides? Oh, even now in rev 3 there are some things that just are not right. The combat system is better than that in Civilization 1 that occasionally had you laughably losing an aircraft carrier or stealth bomber to a guy with a spear, but there are still some problems. For example, twenty guys with bows and arrows have no better chance of killing a single enemy than one guy with a bow and arrow attacking twenty times. And while you can combine units together to form armies that move together, they still don’t really attack together, at least not mathematically speaking. And there is still no concept of a ranged attack versus a hand-to-hand type of combat, which allows units to do damage to other units they really shouldn’t even be able to reach. As much of the game involves combat I’d like to have seen it done better.
The Wonders of the World are not well handled. Building the Pyramids has the effect of putting a granary in every city, but it’s still up to you to go around selling all the granaries currently in your cities, or you’ll be paying for granaries you don’t need. Why couldn’t the computer do that, or at least ask you if you wanted it done?
One disappointment that might strike a lot of people is that the game has no multiplayer capability at all. I’m not sure why that is, and I can’t recall if earlier versions allowed multiplayer or not. In my opinion, coordinating a number of people to get together to play for the hours and hours it takes to complete a game of Civ3 is problematic at best, but I know that there are people who would like to try, and the fact that Civ3 doesn’t allow for it in this increasingly wired world is glaring.
Oh, and one note on bugs. I’ve given up completely trying to evaluate the buginess level of a game. Back about a month ago when I reviewed Conquest: Frontier Wars I found it to be pretty much bug free – twice in the whole time I played I had the game end up in some state where units would fight if attacked but I couldn’t command them to do anything, and the problem went away if I saved and loaded the game. Anyway, after writing my review, like some conspiracy, I had half a dozen people write me who pointed out that I hadn’t mentioned that C:FW was a completely bug free game. Then a couple of days later I got letters from two people who asked me why I hadn’t mentioned that the game was so buggy that it crashed every time they tried to run it. It’s clear that we’re running all kinds of the computers with all kinds of hardware configurations running everything from Win95 to Linux, and, as the warning says, your performance may vary. I found Civ3 to be clean. Sometimes late in the game when I had lots of military units traipsing around the globe the game would seem to lose its place, asking me to repeatedly move the same unit, but its movement allowance was spent and the game wouldn’t let me move it, and I couldn’t seem to get the game to end my turn. Again, saving and loading fixed it. The game might cause your monitor to explode sending jagged shards of glass deep into your eyes. It didn’t happen to me and I’ve got nothing to say about it.
There’s lots of stuff I haven’t covered in this review. There are some new units and pollution is handled differently as are settler units, and there is now a queuing system for science research, and there’s no caravan unit in the game at all anymore. There’s frankly too much stuff going on to cover in a review of a length that anyone would care to read. Games like Civilization provide for nearly infinite possibilities. In the past week or so I’ve played a dozen games through to their conclusion on various difficulty levels, and no two were the same. That will probably continue to be true over the next two months as I play dozens of more games. This one’s going to stay on my hard drive for awhile, and will probably be the game that eats all my spare time, at least until Master of Orion 3 comes along.