Some video games are all about quick, visceral pleasures: head-shotting an enemy from halfway across the map, shaving a second off your best lap-time, or KO-ing your opponent with a perfectly-timed fireball. This is not one of those games. Civilization IV: Colonization is all about long-term goals, about carefully forming a strategy and slyly putting it into action; it's about the heart-swelling pride that rushes over you when those careful plans finally fall into place - even though you're late for work and you haven't washed or showered in a week. Good things come to those who wait.
Colonization is also one of those strategy games that elicits comments from the people peering over your shoulder. "Ooh," they say. "That looks complicated!". And they're right - it is. For the first couple of hours or so, you'll struggle to get your head around precisely what it is you're supposed to be doing. Sure, Firaxis provides a typically thorough and helpful array of guides and tutorials - but you still won't fully appreciate the intricacies of the game and its world. The important thing, however, is that you'll want to learn: it's immediately apparent that there's tonnes of depth on offer here, and the sheer charm of the graphics and general presentation only serves to further draw you in. So you stick with it, try a few tactics out. And when things finally click... well, like we said: Good things come to those who wait.
As a remake of a much-loved game from 1995, Colonization asks you to conquer the Americas. Part of the initial confusion you'll experience is due to the fact that your objectives are relatively unusual when compared to most other strategy titles. Like Civ, you start out with a couple of units, set up a base and expand until you've become an empire - but the way you actually handle that expansion is quite unique. As we mentioned in our previous preview, while combat certainly has a role to play, it's money that essentially keeps your world turning.
You'll start by finding a suitable site for your first settlement, then you begin dealing with the local natives. In most Civ-like games, your cities are primarily used as factories for producing units: you gather resources, then turn them into spearmen and chariots, or whatever. Here things work the opposite way round: you import colonists and set them to work in your camp, gathering or producing items that can then be sold to local tribes or shipped back to Europe. All sorts of people are setting out for a new life in the colonies: some of your guys will be specialist workers, like weavers or gunsmiths, while others are simply reformed criminals who are good for little more than manual labour. Either way, it's up to you to make the most of what you've got. Do you use your master distiller to start making rum out of all that sugar you've been harvesting, or do you set him to work making cannons? Or perhaps you should send him over to one of your other towns to help out with a bit of farming?
Once you've got some decent goods, you can load up a boat and sail back to Europe. Here you can flog your wares for a profit, buy anything you might need, and pick up a few new workers for your fledgling nation state - then it's off back to America to repeat the whole process. It may sound a bit convoluted, but in practice it swiftly becomes very satisfying. In our last game, for example, we started transporting booze from one of our in-land towns back to the coast. There it was picked up by boat and shipped to another settlement, where our galleon was further loaded with cigars. The drinks and smokes were then taken to Amsterdam and swapped for a load of guns - a hip-hop deal, 1600's style.
Earning flash money in this manner will make you feel happy - but there's a catch. While you may feel that you're the master of the New World, in truth you're still working for the country that organised your expedition in the first place. This means that every time you trade with Europe, your King will poke his nose in and demand a cut of your profits. Not only that, but occasionally he'll bug you while you're busy sorting out America, too - he'll suddenly show up and demand money, before forcing you to kiss his ring (by which we mean his jewellery, clearly). These interruptions are terribly irritating, but they're supposed to be - because your ultimate aim in the game is to declare independence. As your colony expands, your people will become self-sufficient - and when the rebellious spirit reaches a high enough level, you'll be able to revolt. As you might expect, doing this really pisses off His Royal Highness, and soon you find yourself under attack from your former countrymen. It won't be easy, but if you beat the King's Royal Expeditionary Force you'll have finally conquered America.
You're able to monitor the growth of the REF throughout the game, and you'll notice that every time you take a significant step in the direction of freedom, the King adds to his army. This creates a wonderfully threatening undercurrent to every action you take - you constantly feel that you're being watched. When you factor in the presence of three other European nations, all of them striving for their own independence, and the potential treachery of the native tribes, the result is a surprisingly intense experience. You are helped in your efforts by the Founding Fathers - important historical figures who offer to join your cause once certain conditions are met - but even this boon adds a certain amount of pressure to your shoulders, since there's always a chance that one of your rivals will sign the bloke you're after. It's a bit like Football Manager... only completely and utterly different.
It's all a bit hectic, and at times it may all feel a bit much to handle - but then that's the challenge, isn't it? The management gameplay has a slightly tighter focus than Civ, but it's equally rewarding - and because the length of an average game is generally briefer, it's somewhat easier to get a feel for the game as a whole. As you'd expect from a Sid Meier / Firaxis strategy game, the whole shebang is extremely well organised, with intuitive controls and concise but useful descriptions of every item, unit and concept in the game. There's also a fairly generous spread of multiplayer options on offer, including the ability to play via email - something that we imagine might keep you busy for a couple of years.
Being the gloomy people that we are, we've tried pretty hard to find something we can criticise about Colonization, but there really is very little to complain about. You could argue that the game should do more to address sensitive historical issues like slavery and spread of European diseases - but you know what? Bollocks to that. Super Mario World could do a better job of simulating the life of an Italian-American plumber, but we highly doubt it would make for better gameplay... Civilization IV: Colonization takes a classic game and updates it for 2008, without screwing around with the things that made it great in the first place. Because it does this, we like it a lot. If you like absorbing strategy games, then you probably will too.