Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Rise and Fall of Sid Meier's Civilization

Those who know me well know that one of my primary hobbies is the playing of computer games. And to spend any recent time around me at home is to know that I've recently been obsessed with "Sid Meier's Civilization IV". Yes, that's the full title. Since I suspect most of my readers don't know, let's just say that "Sid Meier's Steaming Pile of Poo" would still be a best seller. He is the undisputed master of turn-based "world-building" games and historical pieces alike. Such hits as the original "Railroad Tycoon", "Colonization", "Pirates!" have burned more of my time than any other activity. Of course, the greatest of these is none other than his "Civilization" series. I've been playing them since the original "Civ" came out back in the early 90's. I played the first one into the ground, and felt a general sense of euphoria when I learned that a SEQUEL would be coming out, this time some time in the late 90's. Of course, I exhausted myself there as well, as with the third in the series, and now, the fourth.

Each game in the series has offered revisions in gameplay over its predecessor, always with zippier graphics and more depth, but the general theme has always been the same: take on the role of a historic civilization (my favorites are usually the Germans or the Greeks, for a variety of reasons), start with a single city and (typically) one military unit, and CONQUER THE FRICKIN' WORLD. The first game was just that, with little embellishment, but still, with a 6000 year timeline, it was epic in scope for its day. Each installment gradually added more complexity, with the current, fourth installment including resources, religions, huge technology trees, cultural borders, advanced diplomacy and AI options, multiple, distinct leaders for a wide variety of historic civilizations (with certain options turned on, I could play as George Washington of the Khmer empire!), and a whole host of other options.

However, I didn't come here to shout out the game's accolades, though they are many. I came to complain about the insidious PC (and I'm not talking "Personal Computers" here) vibe that seriously detracts from gameplay. First, there are religions. In the game, there are seven world religions represented, each one founded upon the initial discovery of a certain technology. For instance, were I the first to discover "Monotheism", I would establish Judaism; when I discover "Theology", Christianity is founded. While the techs are loosely correlated to their corresponding religions, they are largely assigned, I believe, to correspond approximately to the correct chronological sequence, which is why Islam takes longer than the others to establish.

My major complaint with the religion system is that the developers totally wussed out on what could have been a potentially compelling component. As it stands, each religion is completely equal; no particular benefit is derived by establishing one religion over another as the "state religion" (an option available to the player, which DOES confer some benefits). Would it not have been more interesting to allow one particular religion to confer benefits (and possibly drawbacks) different from each other religion? Of course it would have been. But then, the obvious choice would have been to allow Islam to grant some sort of military bonus, and that would have caused 10 million screaming Islamic Rage Boys to call for Sid Meier's head. So like I said, my main complaint here is that they just wussed out.

Another complaint is the method by which they deal with environmental issues. In a game I'm currently finishing up (via massive, full-scale nuclear war. Fortunately, I had nukes and they didn't), "global warming" has become a major issue. What does this mean? Well, each time "global warming strikes", as the game announcnes, a particular tile is automatically turned into desert, which thus yields no resources for city growth or production. Which can be very frustrating. What irks me about it is that, as time passes, Global Warming is taken as a given. Despite the fact that I have built every available supposedly "green" technology in every single one of my cities (Mass Transit Systems, Recycling Centers, Forest Preserves, etc.), and the fact that my cities are well spread out AND cover oh, say, 3/4 of the available building space, GW continues its inexorable march across the face of the planet. Add onto this the fact that the game only allows one to research technologies up to and only slightly past current "actual" tech levels (e.g., "Fusion" and "Genetics" are some of the highest ones), whereafter one can only research generic "Future Tech" for more points and certain generic benefits. Does the game take such a pessimistic view that no amount of technology will ever solve Global Warming, if it even exists? Moreover, the notion that, somehow (which has happened to me), TUNDRA will turn into DESERT completely ignores one of the actual BENEFITS of GW: that huge tracts of formerly uninhabitable land will be made fertile! It certainly takes the Al Gore view of things that GW both exists, is unavoidable, will be catastrophic, and that the only solution is to eliminate humanity's influence rather than rely on human ingenuity to solve things through technology itself.

And before you say "well, maybe you shouldn't have nuked an entire continent", which I did, GW was already well apace before I unleashed my atomic arsenal on those bastard Greeks and Brits.

I guess it just irks me that developers have so completely internalized the generic PC paeans that they can't "think outside the box" to make a superior game. Of course, I say "superior" when I've spent countless hours already playing it and fully intend to continue for a while longer, so perhaps things which make me less interested in the game should be considered a GOOD thing.

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Anonymous Marty said...

I may have mentioned this before, Ben, but I think you can probably hardwire the keyword "geek" on all your posts and be done with it.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Fair enough. I was thinking about going off on a rant about how comic books are so liberal, too.

Admittedly, that rambling turd I wrote above was just to fulfill my professed 1-post-per-week quota. Oh well.

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Marty said...

Don't get me wrong, Ben. It was a fine post. Well worth reading. I used to play Civilization, but I think it was version 1 or 2. I generally got one blacksmith shop and a temple built before I got nuked.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Probably woulda been Civ2, then -- I don't think there were nukes in the first one. Pussies.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are such a DORK!!!

How did you sire such a beautiful little girl?


1:11 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

So they filter Yahoo but allow you to surf blogs at work? Their IT guy must suck.

And you've seen my wife. You have your answer there.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It makes no sense.

I have not seen the milk man.

4:53 PM  

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