Those were the days - when games were games and gamers were gamers. Back then we didn't need anything dumbed down. We didn't need motion-sensing controllers. We didn't need perfectly rounded, perfectly completable 10-hour experiences. All we needed was 100-hour hardcore God sims on the Amiga. All we needed was Sid Meier's Civilization.
But times change. People change. Gamers change and games change. Now in order to make the money needed to survive games need to be perfectly rounded, perfectly completable 10-hour experiences. Games need to have fast-paced console online multiplayer. Games need to have pick up and play controls. Games need to have easy to navigate menus. And games need to have a timer that makes sure you can't grief everyone else in a multiplayer deathmatch by buggering off for a pint down the pub. Now, all we need is Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution, due out on June 6 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo DS.
It was with this in mind that we trotted along to 2K Games' Windsor HQ to get a multiplayer hands-on of the Xbox 360 version of Civ Rev, Firaxis' console version of the classic turn-based civilisation sim. We knew Firaxis would have to make the game more accessible, building it from the ground up specifically for consoles. The essential question is, of course, have they done a good job? The answer? Yes. A resounding yes.
Along with a few other game journalists we were thrust straight into a four-player free for all match (other civilisations were handled by the AI) via system link (there's a co-op mode too). Civ Rev has some nice tech which allows players to drop in and out of multiplayer games without putting an end to their Civ's participation in the game. This hot join option sees the computer take control of your civ whenever you're not. And from what we've seen it does a decent job, too.
Despite the cartooney graphics the essence of what makes Civ so addictive and compelling has survived the fresh console translation. Civ Rev will feature 16 civilisations in total, from the English to the Japanese, each with its own unique leader, from Napoleon to Gandhi, and starting bonus. There are four ways to win a match - technological (winning the space race), economic (reaching the gold cap), domination (killing everyone) and cultural. The turn-based gameplay remains. Here, the first player to end his or her turn will trigger a countdown (the host can switch the speed of turns from slow to medium to fast), displayed on-screen by a red circle. When the countdown ends everyone's turn is over, thus stopping the potential for players to take hours over one turn and ruining the game for everyone else. During that turn you'll have loads of options open to you, even at the game's early stages, including unit movement, city founding, combat, resource tweaking and unit/building construction. As you'd expect though, the longer the game goes on the more you'll have to manage in one turn. In theory, multiplayer games will at first be very quick but eventually will slow down as players need to deal with more cities, more civs and more units at once.
During our multiplayer session it didn't quite work out like that. The countdown timer appeared to be slightly bugged, meaning it often took ages before a turn was completed. Because of this we didn't get the chance to get far along the timeline. Don't expect this to be an issue with the final game though. There's plenty of time for any bugs to be ironed out before release.
We did, however, get a good sense of how the game feels to play on a console. As we all know, the big issue with strategy PC titles coming to consoles is the control system. It's so easy to manage multiple units at once with a mouse and keyboard. As yet, no developer has completely nailed this on console. And while Firaxis hasn't completely solved the problem, playing Civ Rev on console never feels frustrating. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that it feels effortless. Left and right on the d-pad toggles on-screen units. The right thumb stick scrolls the map, the left thumbstick dishes out orders. The left trigger zooms out, giving you a slightly expanded view. The left bumper switches to the city screen, where you manage resource gathering and construction. The right bumper brings up your diplomacy options, where you can communicate with other player or AI controlled civs. The right trigger gives you an information overview, back on the Xbox 360 controller gives you city reports and technology research, and finally the B button ends your turn.
So, back to the match. We picked the all conquering Greeks, a decision partly inspired by super-cool action flick 300. We found most of our time during the early stages (4000BC and onwards) was spent toggling between units, moving them to reveal more of the map, and bringing up the city screen, where we could easily switch resource gathering from gold to science to culture to balanced depending on what we wanted to build. While a little fiddly at first we soon got a grip on the control scheme, quickly forgetting we were playing Civ on a console at all.
We were given some pointers to get us going early in the match. After we founded Athens (like in the Civ of old you need to make sure to found cities near a healthy dose of natural resources) we were advised to immediately build a unit, the Warrior, to provide defence from raiding barbarians. It wasn't long before the AI-controlled French, led by Napoleon, made contact and asked to make peace. This brought up a decision window giving the option to agree, reject or consult an advisor. For now, we went with peace. No sense getting killed before we've had the chance to found another city.
Soon, as we advanced through the tech tree, we opened up options to build new units, including the defensive unit the Hoplite and the coastal exploration unit the Trireme. We even built a new settler unit and founded Thermopylae. As we've mentioned, the game crawled along because of problems with the timer. So we only got the chance to progress a little further down the tech tree, establish relations with some other human players, build some roads between the two cities and mess about with the resource system.
We did however, sees loads of little touches which show how Civ has been tweaked to fit better on console. All the resources are placed and detectable at first but you may not be able to exploit them until you have progressed far enough in the tech tree. You can bring the tech tree up at any time and plot your path through the various scientific discoveries, government advancements and unit progression, making crucial decisions simple. Civilisation has always been steeped in history, but Civ Rev promises to take that further with the addition of famous historical figures, like Aristotle, who can turn up in your cities and provide scientific and cultural bonuses. Famous military generals will pop up from time to time too, granting an experience bonus to nearby units. Speaking of the units, they can be levelled up to Elite status and combined to form powerful armies. When a unit does level up you'll be able to tailor its skills. You might make it a medic unit, so it can heal when in enemy territory, or give it the March ability, so it can move further in one turn. The Spy, for example, can be used to infiltrate cities without having to declare war. And, get this, move a counter intelligence unit in to combat a spy and you'll trigger a James Bond style fight. Nice.
You'll also be able to discover the mythical city of Atlantis. Defeat barbarians or impress independent villagers with your amazing technology and they might point you towards areas of great importance on the map so you don't waste time revealing areas of nothingness. There's a greater emphasis on combat and declaring war on unsuspecting allies. Everything suggests a quicker, easier to manage and slightly simpler Civ compared with the PC original. Of course we knew Firaxis would need to do this. But it's great to know that Firaxis looks like it's achieved this without dumbing down the Civ experience.
Achievements will be divided up into three categories, easy, medium and medal of honour. You'll get an easy achievement for your first contact with another civilisation, for example. You'll get a medium achievement for winning the game with only one city. And an example of a Medal of Honour achievement is playing a game of Civ Rev with Sid Meier, which instantly charts in our top 10 favourite achievements ever. While this sounds highly unlikely, it may actually happen, if you're good enough. Firaxis plans a weekly game of the week contest which will be played out on a Firaxis built map. Depending on how well you perform on that map, you'll get a ranking and an online world leaderboard place. Mr Meier will be watching.
After we put down the 360 pads we got our grubby mitts on the DS version of Civ Rev, which, we're happy to report, is also looking good. Here you use the stylus to move units and manage your civ. The graphics are more basic, as expected, and it's much quicker than the console version, indeed as the Japanese we managed to win an entire map via domination in about 15 minutes. But the prospect of playing four-player wireless Civ Rev multiplayer on DS this summer is one we're extremely excited about indeed.
So far so good then. Civ Rev on Xbox 360, PS3 and DS is shaping up to be a worthy addition to the Civilisation franchise, and, more importantly, a fun and addictive proposition in the ruthless world of online console gaming. It's not the same as it was on PC, but it's not massively different either. Sometimes change is good, and this may be one of those times.
Civ Rev is due out for Xbox 360, PS3 and Nintendo DS on June 6 2008.