A few weeks ago, Firaxis and 2K Games ensured that fall of 2016 is going to be very busy for me. They announced Sid Meier's Civilization VI, which is due out October 21. Believe it or not, my reaction to this was actually a little bit mixed. While a new Civ game is obviously exciting, I have to fight back a feeling that it's too soon.
For one thing, I was expecting at least one more expansion for Beyond Earth, which I feel still has some annoying holes in its gameplay (most notably, its air units and generally dull orbital layer). If those holes were filled, and if the game's map could change over the course of the game, then Beyond Earth has the potential to rise out of mediocrity and stand at the same level as Civ V as a unique and engrossing sci-fi strategy game. Now, that looks very unlikely. Since the first expansion (Rising Tide) would expand the shallow naval and ocean gameplay, I had expected that a second expansion (which I had personally code-named "Falling Skies") would expand air units and orbital gameplay and maybe add flying cities.
Sean Bean introduces us to Sid Meier's Civilization VI - due October 21st.
The other reason that I felt Civ VI is too soon is because I was still hoping to get back into modding for Civ V. I still had one massive mod that I've been working on off-and-on for years that just needed some bug fixes and polish before I could release it. I had put off finishing it until after I'd completed my series of strategy guides for Civ V, and I was hoping for a few years in between games so that I could finish the mod and have time for people to play it. But now that Civ VI is announced, I feel less motivated to bother with that mod, since most players (including, most likely, me) will move onto Civ VI come October anyway. Maybe I'll work up the motivation to get that mod out anyway; we'll see. In any case, I'll hopefully get more into modding for Civ VI earlier so that I can release more content for that game, and maybe make some more ambitious projects.
Looks to be an empire-management game
The good news is that Civ VI does look to be fulfilling one of my wishes of being more focused on empire-management. From what I've read of the game's features, City management (via districts) looks to be a huge emphasis this time around, and the cities that you build look to be much more specialized (both mechanically and visually). The geography of the map seems to be a lot more relevant too, as you have to find the ideal places to place your districts, which seem to interact with the terrain.
City management (via districts) looks to be a huge element of the game.
I wonder if these districts and wonders (since they're built on the map) will be able to be pillaged by enemy units and barbarians. I had previously suggested that city sieges should be able to damage the infrastructure of a city, and so pillaging districts and wonders would certainly seem to satisfy that request. I also wonder how walls will work. Are they only built around the city center? Are they built around the city and all its districts? Are they built in circular rings around the city, such that some districts may fall inside the walls and others may be left outside (and therefore more vulnerable to attack)? These sorts of things could open up a lot of strategic and defensive possibilities.
Workers also seem to have been replaced with a "Builder" unit, which has a limited number of "charges" with which to create improvements. This means that your cities will have to continually invest in new builders. According to IGN, roads will be built by your
caravans traders. Supposedly, this will happen automatically as the units travel along trade routes. I'll talk more about this below.
With limited tiles on which to build, city specialization looks like it will become far more important.
A dedicated government tech tree
It also looks like the social policies of Civ V are out. They're being replaced with a second tech tree dedicated exclusively to government "civics". According to the IGN preview, these
techs civics will unlock interchangeable cards that can be placed in slots in a particular government. I was unclear whether the techs are the "civics", or if the cards that they unlock are the "civics". Each card will provide its own bonuses similar to Civ V's social policies, but the system as a whole sounds closer to Civ IV's civic system, in that you can only have a select few civics enacted at any given time. I'm sad to see the forward progress modeled by Social Policies go - or maybe cumulative social policies are still in, but they act as a supplement to civics? Either way, I think I like this system overall, as it gives the player a lot more options of how to govern your civilization and forces you to make mutually-exclusive decisions. This system requires that adopting a new civic might force you to repeal an older one and lose any benefit that it provided, so the cost of any decision that you make goes beyond the simply opportunity cost of not making a different (but also good) choice.
Civ VI looks to have interchangeable government cards more similar to Civ IV's civics.
Your government options can supposedly be changed each time you research a new civic. If the unlocking of civics is paced similarly to technologies, then this means you'll have plenty of opportunity to customize your government when you need to, so the decision to change governments might not be as monumental as in Civ IV. Hopefully, you don't have to deal with anarchy when you swap governments, and hopefully it's not too easy to change governments at the drop of a hat (which may trivialize the mechanic). Lead designer Ed Beach even re-affirms that "Looking at Civ 5’s system, the biggest criticism of it that I agreed with is that it was really hard to pivot in a new direction", so it seems like this new system is designed to allow players to have the bonuses they need when they need them, and to allow players greater freedom to change their grand strategy decisions as the course of the game changes. So maybe we'll be more likely to see civs go through phases of expansion, conquest, turtling, and diplomacy all within a single game, rather than feeling like you're locked into one or the other for the entire game. I wonder if the victories will change to be more flexible as well?
Shows polish with its vibrance and expressiveness
I've even come across a gameplay video that highlights another interesting feature that's returning from Civ IV (and which I'd specifically criticized Civ V for not having). If you skip to 4:15 in the video below, you'll see a wonder video of the Oracle being built. Except this isn't the same pre-rendered wonder videos that Civ IV had; this one is rendered using the in-game engine! While it isn't quite as pretty as the pre-rendered videos of Civ IV, I actually think I like this new wonder-construction format a little more. Showing the wonder's construction on the map using the in-game engine gives it a greater sense of context and ownership in that specific game. I'm not just building the Oracle; I'm building my Oracle!
A variation of Civ IV's wonder videos seems to be back!
My only complaint with this is that the entry into the wonder video seems a bit jarring, and the finish seems a bit anti-climactic. This might just be a poor video though, so it may not be representative of how the actual wonder videos are supposed to look. It just sort of ends and then waits for the player to close a little dialogue box in the corner. I think it could still use some kind of splash screen or something at the end, with a description of the wonder's effects and other such info that punctuates the monumental nature of the construction. It probably shouldn't be something that covers up the whole screen (and it probably shouldn't cover up the wonder on screen either), but I think it needs more than a simple dialogue prompt tucked away in the corner. In any case, this sort of thing sets a precedent of higher production value and more immersive qualities than what was present in Civ V.
Civ V had a very static and plain look to its visuals. It looked great in still images, but not so great in motion. Cities all looked the same and lacked distinctive features other than the tiny wonder graphics that dotted their outskirts. The game world lacked animation other than ocean waves and some animal resources moving around or frolicking. Civ VI looks to be much more vibrant and expressive. I'm not sold on the leader screens, but at least the game map looks a lot more alive, organic, and influenced by the player's actions.
Even the fog of war seems to have taken inspiration from Total War: Shogun 2, which used a gorgeous painting of Japan to represent undiscovered regions of the map. It all looks very beautiful! I have a feeling that this game will be getting high marks from me regarding its visual design when I inevitably review it at the end of the year.
The last little thing that I noticed is that there appears to be a clock in the upper right corner of the screen. I guess I won't have any more excuses for staying up till 2 or 3 in the morning playing "one more turn". I wonder if the game will also have an alarm clock feature that will automatically save the game and exit back to windows so that I can't stay up too late playing. LoL.
Since this game does resemble Civ V so much, my biggest concern with this game is that some fundamental problems with Civ V will carry over. The biggest fear is with map size and scaling. Civ V had problems with the map feeling very claustrophobic during the second half, when large armies occupied the area of entire countries. Moving those armies through the obstacles of mountains, coastlines, forests, and even cities could become a very tedious chore. Unless the maps are larger and/or there are gameplay incentives to build cities further apart and leave more open space between them, we could end up with a lot of congestion. I would imagine that these districts would have to be passable by units; otherwise you could build walls of districts that could completely prevent friendly units from passing though. So hopefully the districts don't impede unit movement. But on a more abstract note, with cities occupying more than one tile, and with the player now having to basically "zone" districts in a manner similar to a city-builder game like SimCity or Cities: Skylines, there is the risk of exacerbating the problems of scaling local decisions against national ones.
Early previews of Civ V also avoided showing the cluttered maps and mass unit-spam
that became representative of the final product.
The early screenshots look like things are fairly well spread-out, and there seems to be plenty of room. But that's because there's only a couple of units and districts in any given screenshot. What will the map look like when every city has a dozen districts and there's a hundred units stomping around the map? Remember, Civ V's early screenshots also showcased a limited number of units and large, open spaces, but that ended up not being representative of the unit-spam that would be present in the final product. Hopefully the same doesn't happen here.
Will legacy problems return?
I'm not terribly worried about ICS, since having to build city infrastructure on the map creates a natural need to build cities with enough space for each to grow. A civ that plops dozens of cities only 3 or 4 tiles apart (which was an optimal strategy in vanilla Civ V before major patches took away automatic gold and science from cities, and significantly nerfed happiness) might suffer from the inability to build necessary districts in those cities - let alone wonders! Hopefully the A.I. will understand this, and hopefully there will be mechanics in place to limit other civs from plopping cities down in every friggin little gap that you leave between your own cities! I'm looking at you, Polynesia!
Building many cities close together seems like it would leave them without the room to build districts or wonders.
I also haven't seen much of the new diplomacy system (just a greeting screen featuring Teddy Roosevelt of America - who is awesome, by the way!). Diplomacy has traditionally been a weakness of the Civ games, so I definitely hope that improving it is a major emphasis of this version. Will there be a viable espionage system? That was a major element that Civ V left the gate without possessing. Will it be at least as good as Beyond Earth's espionage (at least in concept anyway)? Will city states feel like a step up from Civ V, or will they go down a similarly unwelcome route as Beyond Earth's stations? If the same teams behind Civ V's expansions are also the ones working on VI, then I'm confident that they will learn from V's mistakes and release a quality product.
Automatic roads makes my knee jerk
Perhaps my biggest knee-jerk reaction is to the way that roads are supposedly now created. According to the previews, roads are not built by
workers builders; instead, they are automatically built by caravans traders as they travel along a trade route path.
I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of losing control of the placement and paths of my roads - especially if roads still cost maintenance (as they did in Civ V). Not having control of the road-placement also means that I'm not able to place roads over rough terrain or across rivers that my units will have to cross frequently, and so they'll be slowed considerably. Will roads be automatically built between our own cities, or are we going to have to use some equivalent of internal trade routes in order to link up all of my own cities? The layout of the roads would also be subject to the A.I. pathing of trade units. If trade units still have the same pathfinding that they did in Civ V (in which they routinely ignored roads), then we might end up with them creating the same kind of chaotic, spaghetti roads that were so ugly in Civ III and IV. Hopefully, these units will follow existing roads, rather than constantly building new ones.
Will it feel rushed out the door like Civ V did?
Following-up on the idea that this announcement feels a bit too soon, there's also instances of unfinished assets in the preview footage that was released. If you skip to 5:30 in the China gameplay video linked above, you can see a city build queue in which none of the buildings or units have icons. The civics have distinct icons; but not the stuff in the build queue. All the icons are nothing but colored geometric shapes. Is this incomplete? Or is this actually representative of the final product? Is Beyond Earth rearing its ugly interface design again? I have to imagine that icons are planned, so that you can actually see what the heck you're unlocking or building, and that the assets must just be missing, or a bug prevented them from being displayed. It's not really a big deal (because it's just an icon), but I'm really surprised to see a publisher let obviously unfinished content slip into a preview like that.
The tech tree widget [LEFT] and city build list [RIGHT] still show incomplete assets.
But who knows? Maybe all the mechanics are in place, and Firaxis is just using these last few months to put in the finalized art assets and doing some last-minute balancing and tweaking. If so, that's fine. Some little icons is a pretty trivial thing; though Beyond Earth showed us that lacking good, informative icons can really hurt a game. Seeing unfinished assets in a preview that the developer releases does throw up some red flags regarding the "readiness" of the game to meet its release deadline. I hope the game isn't being rushed by the publisher. I'd rather see a stable and finished product hitting store shelves, rather than something that feels rushed out the door. I'm not like those crazy fans of No Man's Sky who have been throwing death threats at the reporters and developer because they announced a mere two month delay. Hey, I'm looking forward to No Man's Sky as well, but if the game needs more time, then the publisher should give the developers more time! Same goes for Civ VI, if necessary.
A revolutionary jump forward? Or just a "better Civ V"?
While I like the direction that Civ VI seems to be taking, I can't shake the feeling that this game seems less like a whole new game, and more like an incremental build on Civ V that could possibly have been an expansion pack. It seems to be more like "the game that I wanted Civ V to be from the start". Civ IV and Civ V both seemed to be more like revolutionary jumps forward for the series. IV introduced fully 3-d graphics, a more robust tech tree (rather than self-contained tech trees that must be completed for each individual era), customizable governments, and a more complicated combat system based on units accumulating experience, and it presented all that deeper gameplay in a package that had production values soaring through the roof with epic (Grammy Award-winning) music, wonder videos, narration from Leonard Nimoy (may he rest long and prosper), and out-of-the-box multiplayer support. V completely reshaped the map again with the introduction of the hex grid, tactical combat and resource supply, more unique civ abilities, and city states. Civ VI looks like its taking that framework from V, making your cities utilize the hex grid (in addition to your units), and throwing in some Civ IV mechanics for the sake of variety. In that sense, it feels more like an incremental "best of both worlds" mash-up of IV and V; rather than being focuses on a revolutionary new idea.
Even Dan Stapleton (the previewer at IGN) had this to say:
"As an experienced Civilization fan, playing the first 60 turns of Sid Meier’s Civilization 6 felt familiar. A bit more so than I’d expected, relative to Civilization 5 – this isn’t as dramatic a departure as we saw from Civilization 4 to 5, for example."
- Dan Stapleton, who previewed Civ VI for IGN.
So I'm not the only one who seems to have these concerns. It is worth noting that Dan's next sentence in this preview emphasizes the "crucial differences that started to make their significance felt."
So maybe I'm being to pessimistic. Maybe I'm just mad at myself for not being more pro-active about my own Civ V modding (shame on me!). Perhaps the city districts and builder units will make a tremendous difference that will make VI feel wholly unlike its predecessors. And who knows, maybe there's still a completely re-worked diplomacy and city state engine that simply hasn't been revealed in detail yet (though something similar to Rising Tide's customizable diplomacy seems unlikely considering the historical basis of the game's leaders). I won't know until I get my hands on the game. Previews have so far indicated that other systems like religions, trade routes, natural wonders, great works, tourism, and [maybe] espionage are being ported over to Civ VI mostly in-tact, which means that this release seems unlikely to suffer from the feeling of incompleteness that plagued Civ V at launch. In the worst case, if the game ends up feeling like a "better Civ V", then at least we still get a better Civ V - which is awesome!
I'd better make an effort to finish up all the games that I've currently got sitting on my backburner, because now I know what I'll be playing come October 21st.
Civ VI looks to make a lot of improvements on V's framework, but will it be enough to warrant a numbered sequel?