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November 1, 2005

Citizen Kane of video games somehow falls short

I feel guilty reviewing Civilization IV. The Civilization series is one of the oldest and most popular strategy games and is as close as you can get to a true classic in the world of video games. Reviewing Civilization IV is like reviewing some sort of crazy Casablanca IV. Criticizing Sid Meier’s Civilization is like criticizing Orson Welles for Citizen Kane; you just can’t do it. That said, save your $49.99.

I received the game on Thursday in the mail. Giddy as a schoolgirl, I opened the package and stuck the “Install” disc into my drive (note the quotations—more on that later). The installation finished, and that’s when I ran into the first problem. The icon for Civilization IV appeared as a completely empty shortcut. No icon, just one of those disturbing nondescript box icons.

Warily, I slipped in the “Play” disc. And to my utter lack of surprise, the game failed to load. Apparently, the “Play” disc wasn’t in the drive. I double-checked that; indeed, the disc labeled “Play” was in the drive. I tried again, only to get the same result. So I tried using the “Install” disc, and the game finally started. Apparently, according to Firaxis Games, “Install” means “Play” and “Play” means “Sit there worthlessly on my desk until I ruin you by spilling Funyuns all over the place.”

The game was off to a rip-roaring start with a botched installation and two mislabeled disks. At least they were kind enough to include the game’s soundtrack on a separate disk.

So I fired it up, and watched an opening sequence with graphics about as impressive as a wet noodle. I realize Sid Meier wanted simple graphics so that everyone could enjoy this game, but when your great heroes are only slightly more impressive than Buzz Lightyear, you need some work. At least, I consoled myself, the music really rocked.

Hopefully, awesome game play and Civilization’s sheer addictive nature would make up for these hiccups. And it might have, if the game had actually worked. Unfortunately, it froze every time another civilization tried to contact me. Then, somehow the main screen’s console popped up while I was conversing with Cyrus the Great. The console blocked out most of my conversation options and my ability to save or quit the game.

So I hit Ctrl+Alt+Delete,and started the game up again, after performing a hecatomb and threatening my monitor with a high-powered magnet. That seemed to do the trick. The actual game began, and, being the patriotic, God-fearing lover of democracy and plebian society that I am, I chose to play the “Empire of America.”

Game play commenced, and I have to say, it was impressive. The interface was streamlined, and it was quite a bit easier to control and manage my civilization than it was in Civilization III. Movement and actions are simplified, and battle moves along very smoothly. In Civilization III, managing a large army could get tedious and boring; in Civilization IV, I was able to work through dozens of units with ease. But unfortunately, as I played on, I realized that this sequel is not that much different from its predecessor.

The game’s creators promised many new features in this highly anticipated sequel, including world religions, improved multiplayer, and “great people” to aid your civilization. This was to ensure it wouldn’t be a repeat of Civilization III.

Well, it utterly and completely failed in this respect.

While it is slightly amusing to see Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism all born in New York, I found the new features lacking in practical effect. A crafty player could probably scheme and manipulate with missionaries, slowly converting an enemy’s town. Said player is then brutally raped by the computer, which has spent its time building archers and pikemen.

The game also boasts a more varied civil system. Whereas before, the player had to choose a set government such as democracy or communism, now the player can select universal suffrage for their “government civic,” while still instituting slavery as their “labor civic.” In this way, Civilization IV hilariously, but tragically, mirrors reality. While it’s fun to mess with different combinations, ultimately there’s little difference between “Democracy” in Civilization III and “Universal Suffrage” coupled with other civics in Civilization IV.

Perhaps the most game-affecting change in Civilization IV was the inclusion of the “great people.” Every once in a while a city will generate a random great artist, engineer, scientist, prophet, or merchant. Early in the game, these great people can have an almost unbalancing impact on play, but they very quickly become nearly irrelevant. Additionally, their appearance is so infrequent early on that their “great effect” is mediated by their rarity.

I really wish I could write about Civilization IV’s multiplayer, but despite numerous attempts, the game again refused to work correctly.

I want to make it clear: Civilization IV is a better game than its predecessor, but the changes have such slight implications on game play that you’re better off saving $20 and buying Civilization III Gold. Unless you’re big on music. Then buy Civilization IV, save the music disc, and throw away both the “Play” and “Install” disks.