Everybody wants to rule the world.
Every artistic medium has its venerable grandmasters – Mozart, Chaplin, Michelangelo, Miles Davis, Orson Welles, Shakespeare, artists who appeared on the scene with such vision and talent that everything produced after them had to be viewed in a new light.
Computer games are new enough that our meager grandmasters are, in fact, still alive, which I'm sure they must be pleased about. In turn, the most pleased and possibly the grandest of those masters has to be Sid Meier.
In no small way did Sid contribute to the rapid, early success of computer gaming thanks to his legendary games Pirates! and Civilization. Rather than rest on his laurels…oh wait, Sid pretty much did rest on his laurels. Other than a few side projects like Gettysburg and Alpha Centauri, Sid has mostly spent his game development time playing off or improving on his early classics. Enter Civilization IV, Sid's latest hobby and another step forward for gamerkind.
Is there really anyone reading this who hasn't played a Civilization game? I actually feel a bit silly writing this paragraph, but heaven forbid you're unaware, Civilization IV is a turn-based world simulator modeled after real-world cultures. All your units are laid out on a grid, you make your moves, and each player takes their turn in an effort to turn their tribe into one of the world's great civilizations.
Civilization IV (like the other three) starts you off with some primitive warriors armed with clubs and a Stone Age family with which you can found the town of Bedrock, or whatever you care to name it. Gradually, as your city grows, you can invent agriculture and pottery, build more cities, explore the continent, train swordsmen, adopt new forms of government, build roads and factories, all culminating in the invention of space travel and, we hope, the George Foreman Grill.
That is, of course, a wildly simplified explanation for this wildly complex game, but it is a testament to the strength of the original game design of Civilization that the underlying game structure of Civilization IV is almost totally unchanged. This is merely an uber-refinement of the 1991 game, which means it's still fun, challenging and insanely addictive.
The experience itself sees few major changes, but countless minor ones. The act of warmongering is a bit different thanks to a tweaked combat system. More advanced units clearly perform better against more primitive units, cutting down the chances of a few bow and arrows taking out a jet. All units also gain experience and can be upgraded with new abilities, giving you a reasonable incentive to keep certain squads alive. It's nothing shocking, but the subtleties do add some depth.
More obvious is the brand new religion system. You can found or adopt any of the world's great religions, and then attempt to spread them in acts of merciful manifest destiny. These opiates of the masses can help keep your people happy and aid in cultural domination, but they aren't essential – you can still go the atheist route if you like.
In another nice touch, you'll draw 'Great People' from history to your culture depending which road to global domination you decide to travel. If you pour all your money into science, dazzling the world with your innovations and technological delights, don't be surprised if Einstein himself decides to make your nation his home. You'll then gain added buffs just by having this figure around and watching him or her work their renowned magic.
The biggest change is in the snazzy graphics. Civilization III was a notable graphical upgrade, but this one is far more interesting. Your units don't have a particularly high poly count, but they look good, the terrain is fully 3D and your cities actually change depending on how you build them. Build an aqueduct, and there's actually a tiny aqueduct connecting your city to the nearest water source. Most impressive of all is the incredibly cool zoom feature. You can literally pull the camera back until you can see the whole globe, and spin it underneath you while you forge your plans of global conquest.
And that conquest can take on many forms. As in other Civilizations, there are multiple victory conditions. You can simply kill everyone else with your military might, advance your culture to the point where everyone adopts your ways, win diplomatically by building the UN and getting them to vote you world leader, or be the first to launch colony ships to the stars with your scientific prowess. There are truly a lot of ways to play Civilization IV.
Want more? The game includes a bunch of pre-loaded scenarios, so you can play the American Revolution (from either side) or take over Rome in 1000 A.D. and try to survive the barbarian hordes. Alternately, you can try building a civilization during the Ice Age or even invent your own scenario and share it with the world via the Interweb.
That's also where you can check out the multiplayer, which actually works this time. You can still have months-long games with your friends via e-mail, but the faster paced live games are more interesting. How do you play a game that can literally take 24 hours or more online? Civ IV presents an outside-the-box solution dubbed "persistent rolling games." When you're playing online, anyone who leaves the game is replaced by a computer player until another live person joins, at which point they take over where the CPU left off. Indeed, that means when you join an ongoing game, you may find yourself in a very precarious situation through no fault of your own, but hey, you're up to the challenge, right? It's a great idea and works well despite its potential for disaster.
Even the sound is quite good, from the cheesy Lion King-esque intro to a tremendous library of music featuring works by Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. The sounds of war can get repetitive over time and after a few games you'll probably end up turning off the battle animations, but generally speaking this is a classy audio package.
Really, that can be extended to the whole game. From start to finish this is a terrific, addictive, deep, rewarding turn-based affair. Its new engine and revamped multiplayer breathe new life into an old standby, leading to another winner for Sid. It doesn't invent a new wheel, but this Civilization might be his greatest yet.