E for All: Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution hands on

When Chad broke the news that Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution was coming to consoles, he took the chance to admit his “platonic” man crush on Mr. Meier, and I’d like to take this chance to totally agree with him. I played and loved Civilizations I – III, and I can only hope that OG turn-based strategy game makes a graceful jump into the console scene.

I can tell that Norte Chico of the Barbarians feels the same way. I mean, just look at his face. God, Afrika would be so lucky to have Norte Chico.

But, I didn’t fly across the country to talk about natives with filed teeth — I got a chance to play the Civlization Revolution demo at E for All. Hit the jump for my impressions and a little chit chat with Executive Producer Barry Caudhill.

After sitting through an appropriately austere and bloom-y intro cinematic, I was positively horrified to find a bespectacled, stylized Poindexter telling me, Salah al-Din Yusef ibn Ayyub, about my objectives. What the hell kind of Civilization demo was this? Stylized, cel-shaded graphics? And who was this wanker telling me what to do? What the hell is an objective?  I an all my years of civilizing, I’ve never had any clear-cut goals — just some abstract notion of global domination.

I can do whatever in hell I want! THIS IS LFE!” I shouted, ripping my clohes off and hiding behind the nearby Gametrailers booth. After giving my pants back, Executive Producer Barry Caudhill calmly explained that my objectives, which included capturing Thebes, were simply a way to streamline the demo, and that I needn’t worry. After breathing into a paper bag for a while and taking a nice Quaalude cocktail, my pulse went back to normal and my pupils shrank down to their regular size.

The obvious twatty question for Caudhill was, “What’s so revolutionary about Civilization Revolution?” I get no points for originality, but neither do ClearChannel, and they make millions.

The answer to such a well-crafted question, is, of course, that Firaxis and 2K are trying to bring the strategy genre to consoles in a way that won’t make gamers go Oedipal — which is to say, gouge out their eyes and wander the Grecian hills before dying lonely deaths as paupers.

“We’ve been doing strategy games for a long time now,” says Caudhill. “We feel like we’re doing pretty well.” For reference, Civilization I was released in 1991. The console iteration of the franchise also represents an attempt by Firaxis to bring in a new demographic that wouldn’t ordinarily play Civilization games.

One of the problems with bringing strategy games to consoles is that “RTS was built around mouse and keyboard,” explains Caudhill. Instead of having to tone down the gameplay to accommodate the controller (ever tried to map hotkeys onto a controller?), Civilization is turn-based — “the game is going to wait for you to make decisions.”

If you’re familiar at all with the Civilization series, you’ll feel right at home with Revolution. The core gameplay has remained largely unaffected: Build units, extract resources, develop technology, rape, loot, and pillage your way to glory. The American dream, as it were. Revolution is, in a nutshell, Civilization, on a console. While that might be the only way I know to describe it, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Civilization represents the most interesting and fun history lesson since Kristallnacht.

Accordingly, there are four victory conditions that fans of the series (and strategy games in general) will recognize — Domination, Space Victory, Cultural Victory, and Economic Victory. Domination can be achieved by capturing other capitals and slaughtering and subjugating their peoples. Cultural Victory can be attained by having the great movers and shakers of history under your rule (bummer that General Rommel isn’t included). Economic Victory is pretty straightforward as well — just save up $20,000 worth of gold. The most interesting route, though, has to be the Space Victory. The first civilization to set up shop on Alpha Centauri wins. 

“The great thing about these four Victory Conditions is that they’re always in play,” explains Caudhill. What he means by this is that, if you’re clever, there will be ways to sabotage, subvert, and manipulate seemingly hopeless situations. Has Egypt launched their rocket to the moon already? Take their capital (and, by proxy, their space station) and just wait for the eagle to land. Did Ceasar make a Roman think tank on the verge of snagging that sexy cultural victory? Zerg Rush him with a flock of spies and bring make those intellectual giants work for you.

Speaking of spies, even the tiny demo shows that the spies are going to be great little units to use. I found one in a village and used her to destroy all of Thebes’ fortifications, allowing me to march right in and take it. Of course, I had a tank to slaughter their warriors, so that may be a moot point. I’m glad that Firaxis has a sense of anachronistic humor.

One thing I noticed was the ability to retreat from your battle in real-time. I’m sure some Civilization purists will lament this development, and I think I agree. It seems to diminish the importance of planning and strategizing, as I doubt that units will chase you from their cozy city walls. The enitre precept of the Civilization franchise — strategy, planning, timing — seems to be diminished if players can just retreat their military units as soon as things get hairy. 

Another concern of mine deals with the controls. Move the cursor with the analog stick and navigate menus and issue commands with A,B, X and Y (I played using a 360 controller, but I assume the SiXaXis will work similarly). Simple, right? Unfortunately, not so much. For example, to select a group of warriors, the intuitive thing to do would be to move the cursor to the unit and push X. Unfortunately, I would often unknowingly command some other unit to make a beeline to the unit I was trying to select. Canceling my orders presented an ordeal in and of itself, and the user-interface was hardly helpful or user friendly. Units can also be selected with the shoulder buttons, but get too many units in one place, and your cursor will be utterly and completely lost.

The controls and cluttered UI aren’t exactly crippling, but they are hard to use and unintuitive and create an artificial learning curve. Civilization is complex enough without trying to flub through the controls. On the up side, Firaxis has plenty of time to work out the kinks in the system should they want to — the demo is due to be released at the very end of the year, and the game won’t ship until next year.

After watching the dramatic and realistic opening cinematic, I was surprised to find colorful, cel-shaded, stylized in-game graphics. The PC iterations of Civilization were never made to push the envelope in terms of horsepower (so that even the most arcane of PCs could run it), resulting in relatively basic animations and graphics, explains Caudhill. The move to consoles, however, levels the technical playing field, and 2K decided to let its artists “run amok.” The animations are over the top, and the character designs are overly exaggerated, an attempt to “show that you can play a strategy game and still have fun,” says Caudhill. Volumetric fog and eroded terrain are other aesthetic improvements found in Revolution, additions that may creep into future PC versions.

Making the jump to consoles inspires one obvious question: multiplayer. While Civilization III was a single-player experience with multi-player shoehorned in, Civilization IV was a multi-player game from the ground up, explains Caudhill. Unfortunately, it was too deep: multi-player matches can easily take up to 12 hours. There is nothing that I want to do for 12 hours. Nothing. Not even play with puppies or eat Skittles or have meaningless sex with beautiful women. NOTHING.

Civilization Revolution, on the other hand, promises to have players in and out of full-scale multiplayer matches in about four hours — a perfectly suitable time for puppies, Skittles, and beautiful women.

“We’re embracing all of the things that Live and PSN have to offer,” says Caudhill. That includes 1 v. 1, 2 v. 2, and 4-player free for all matches, new maps, gamer pics, and new scenarios for the Game of the Week. These are pre-determined, locked scenarios that gamers can play through and compare their scores, providing some sort of standard in a game that’s difficult to qualitatively assess. 

That being said, it’s a bit of a shame that the demo doesn’t allow the player to explore some of the deeper aspects of the Civilization franchise. I never got to build roads, or levy taxes, or mine for gold and my civilization’s intellectual pursuits were perfunctory at best. That is to say that the demo I played was painfully short. After gearing myself up for a robust strategy experience, and after being surprised by how polished said experience was, it was difficult to stop after nary a half hour.

Also, it should be noted that, upon leaving, 2K and Firaxis graciously passed on one of the few gaming shirts that doesn’t look like ass. (Unfortunately, our very own Ron Workman made off with it at some point in the weekend.) Quality strategy games and a sense of style? Be still, my palpitating heart.

The game will drop on the 360, PS3 and DS next spring, with a Wii version coming Fall ’08.

Joseph Leray