Civilization VI: I Had a Life, Once.

The Civilization series is one of the most popular games to ever grace Steam. It consistently holds a spot in the top concurrent player list, beaten only by giants of the platform like DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike. The series has a long history with this year marking some 25 years since the original Civilization was released. Over those decades the core game has evolved considerably, culminating in the latest release: Civilization VI. With this being the Civilization game with the longest development cycle to date, a total of 6 years, anticipation was high but it seems that this iteration has fallen a little short of the bar that was set with Civilization IV.

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The story of Civilization VI is, as always, what you make it. The historic figures representing nations are back with their traits and behaviours heavily influenced by their real world counterparts. You’ll take control of one of them, setting out on a quest to achieve victory by one of several means. What path you choose will have a dramatic effect both on how your civilization develops as well as how others percieve you. You’ll need to employ careful strategy to ensure that your path to victory is achievable whilst your opponents is not, a balancing act that unfolds over multiple hours of game time. Indeed the narratives that build out of civilization games are as interesting as the core game itself, giving you war stories to share with your fellow Civilization brethren.

Compared to its closest predecessor (Beyond Earth) Civilization VI has improved both in terms of overall graphical quality and aesthetics. The maps are much more detailed with the various landscapes, structures and units lavished with additional polygons and higher detailed textures. The bright colour palette is a welcome change as Beyond Earth would feel a bit dreary after a long session. The models for the other leaders are a bit incongruous with the rest of the game, sitting in that weird spot between too realistic and not realistic enough. It’s clear that they’re meant to be caricatures but they’re just not stylised enough, sitting firmly in the uncanny valley. The UI has also been overhauled once again making things slightly more discoverable although you’ll still need an hour or so of clicking to figure it out.

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The base game remains largely the same as it always has in Civilization games with the noted addition of a few more mechanics and a reworking of some others. Instead of all your improvements being built in the city centre you’ll now build districts for things like military, science and culture. These districts house their own improvements and have their own adjacency bonuses, making their placement a little more strategic. Units are now able to be stacked in a limited fashion, making it a little easier to handle larger armies. Tech advances can now be boosted by completing certain activities, reducing their research time by half. Culture victories are now a viable route to victory with their own tech tree called Civics, opening up a set of advantages that aren’t available elsewhere. Other than that the core game will be familiar to those who’ve played the series before, ensuring that one more turn always turns into more.

If you’re like me and only¹ play Civilization or similar games every so often then you’ll likely be as overwhelmed as ever when you start out. Thankfully it’s pretty easy to get going with Civilization presenting you with a quick start game right off the bat. However even selecting “I’m not familiar with the Civilization series” in the tutorial options still leaves a lot to be explained, requiring several trips to the Googles to help out. It’s probably best to learn by doing and failing as attempting to theorycraft your way to victory can be a torturous exercise, especially when you don’t know the right questions to ask. I think it took me about 4 failed attempts before I settled on a game which looked winnable and maybe 12 hours of total game time. For someone who hasn’t played a civilization game in 2 years I don’t think that’s too bad!

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Once you’ve set your sights on a particular victory condition it becomes easy to figure out what you should be prioritising. Like all strategy games running for the victory condition as hard as possible will likely see you fail as the other empires can outplay you quickly if you’re only focused on a single tactic. Thus the early game usually revolves around striking a balance between your preferred victory condition and ensuring the others don’t get ahead of you. This means you’ll usually have a smattering of various different victory paths going at the start before you can really dig your heels in and charge for the goal. I had (predictably) set my sights on the science victory and spent the entirety of my 20 hours in the game figuring out how best to achieve it.

Whilst this particular victory condition does give you a few notable advantages (like better units and buildings long before your opponents) it is incredibly vulnerable to things like spies and religious attacks. It’s also probably the one that takes the longest to achieve overall as you not only have to research all the required tech but also construct it. Each of the components takes around 20 turns to complete, more if you don’t have a great person to boost your output or a heavily upgraded industrial zone. In the end I think I won at turn 450, just shy of the game’s time limit of 500. Had that time come I would have still won just on points, but that would’ve felt hollow compared to achieving an actual victory.

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As I mentioned before some of the mechanics of Civilization VI are a little esoteric, requiring a bit of searching to understand them completely. Amenities, which is the replacement for happiness, is influenced by numerous things that aren’t made readily apparent. Early game it can be quite frustrating as there aren’t many ways to get them, especially if the AI isn’t extremely friendly with you (a near impossible feat it seems). Veterans of the series will likely have an easier time understanding what’s going on here than I did but for new comers it can be a little off putting. If you’re lucky enough to have dual monitors (like myself) then it might be a non-issue, just make sure you’ve always got a blank tab ready to go.

During my play through there were numerous design choices which drastically reduced player quality of life when playing. Spies had to be constantly set to guard whatever resource you wanted to protect, meaning every 6 turns would be spent sending them back to where you came. The AI is as illogical as ever with long time allies suddenly declaring war on you for no good reason. Worse still the AI will constantly denounce you for anything you do to them but has no qualms about doing the same back to you. Strangely, and I’ve not found out if this is a bug or not, cities that had been ceded to me would often result in the other empire denouncing me as a warmonger (even if it was from a war they started). This wouldn’t be an issue if it happened once or twice but it’d usually happen every 6 turns or so.

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Civilization VI is another great instalment in the series, even if it doesn’t live up to the high expectations that it’s predecessor set all those years ago. The updated visuals are great, ensuring that the long hours spent staring at units and buildings don’t get stale as quickly as they used to. The core mechanics revitalise the core game play ensuring that Civilization VI isn’t just a new coat of paint on an old engine. There’s a few rough edges, some of which I’ve heard have recently been patched out, but the overall quality of the game is still high. For long time fans of the series Civilization 6 is sure to keep you coming back for turn after turn, the hours ticking away as you build out your empire once again. Newcomers will also find a lot to like, if they can make it past the wall of bewildering choices early on. Overall Civlization 6 is a solid title in this series and that will likely be reflected in its continued popularity long after release.

Rating: 8.5/10

Civilization VI is available right now on PC for $69.95. Total play time was 20 hours with 16% of the achievements unlocked.

¹ I initially wrote “old” here (accidentally!) instead of only but I think the sentence works either way 😉

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