War, huh? What is it good for? Well, winning games of Civilization IV, actually. Though that's only one of the ways in which you can achieve victory in Sid Meier's latest revision to his classic turn-based strategy. Diplomacy, winning the Space Race and a cultural victory are all equally viable options. That's the beauty of Civilization: there isn't one single 'right' way of playing the game. Whether you want to be a warmonger or a diplomat, Civilization IV obliges. It's rare for a title to actually give you genuine, non-trivial choices about how you want to tackle the game, so Firaxis need to be commended for providing you with multiple gameplay styles to be experimented with, all of which are rewarding in their own right.
It should be obvious from the "IV" appended to the game title that this is a franchise sequel, but just in case you're suffering from amnesia, here's a brief recap of how Civilization came to get where it is today. The original title was released way back in 1991, and was a huge success, with a universal appeal to burgeoning megalomaniacs and control freaks everywhere, and has been cited as the primary example of gameplay over graphics ever since. A full five years later, Civilization 2 was released, moving from a top-down point of view to glorious isometric graphics, adding more units, 'Wonder' movies and other refinements. Civilization 3 was released late in 2001, with significant improvements to the graphics engine, the addition of a 'Cultural' victory and revisions to the combat model (which in previous versions of the game could have Bronze Age warriors regularly defeat modern tanks). Civilization 3, however, did have a few flaws, most notably the bug that gave Democratic governments chronic levels of corruption, meaning that until now, Civilization 2 was considered to be the definitive version of the game.
'Civilization IV is, in my opinion, the best version to date.'
I say "until now", because Civilization IV is really rather good, and that may very well be the understatement of the year. It's genuinely Civilization for the 21st Century, because even though the game is still recognisably everything that made the original title in the franchise so great, Firaxis have added so many improvements to the game's presentation and game mechanics, Civilization IV is, in my opinion, the best version to date.
The most obvious improvement is to the graphics engine. Everything is now fully 3D, with a wonderful attention to detail: fish leap out of the water, sheep scuttle and bound across meadows, forges blow flames with every consignment of ore, white water foams at narrow points in rivers, and soldiers play with their weapons with nervous energy. You can zoom right in to see the faces on your Settler units, or you can retreat the camera to an almost orbital view that mimics the top-down view of the original game, albeit with wispy clouds floating by to partially obscure your view. Unit animation is equally impressive: dust is kicked up as units pass by, and you can see the stretching sinews as archers pull back their bows; Worker units take to their hammers with gusto as they build sugar plantations and farms. Civil disorder is shown by black smoke rising from cities, and sometimes spontaneous firework displays will erupt, as cities celebrate 'We Love The President' Day. There can be no doubt that this is the best looking and most atmospheric iteration of Civilization yet.
Equal attention has been lavished on the sound, too. There's a broad selection of classical music, encompassing everything from Bach to Beethoven and almost every composer of note in between, which is used alongside a score specially commissioned for the game, taking in ethnic themes from Africa to Asia. Sound effects are meatier than before, plus the unit chatter is specifically tailored to their parent civilization - i.e. Russian units talk in Russian, and so on. It all adds those precious extra millibars to the game's atmosphere, and just demonstrates the developer's superb attention to detail. A more surprising touch is the voiceover that reads out choice quotes relating to the scientific advance you've just discovered, given that they're delivered by none other than that most scientific and logical of minds, Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy), adding no small measure of gravitas to the proceedings.