The name Sid Meier is one that should be permanently etched into the mind of any self-respecting strategy gamer. For over 25 years Meier has produced landmark games such as the Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon titles - but for most people he will forever be known as the man who gave us the Civilisation series. Civilisation IV: Colonization is a direct remake of a similarly-named release from 1994, one that challenges you to set out and conquer the Brave New World of the Americas.
Having picked a nation to play as - from a choice of the English, French, Dutch or Spanish - you'll find yourself dumped into the middle of sea with a boat and two units. As with the original, much of the early gameplay revolves around you exploring your game world and setting up new colonies. You'll also spend a fair amount of time meeting your neighbours - both the local tribes and your rival colonists. So far so Civ - but where those games would typically see you rushing to build up some form of primitive army, your main objective here is to start making money.
While warfare does play an important role in the long-term, for the most part Colonization is a game about economic dominance. That may sound a bit off-putting, but trust us when we say that this is far, far more interesting than your average collect-resources-then-build-army fodder. Your initial aim is to set your colonists to work farming natural resources like cotton or tobacco; if you desire these can then be processed into items like cloth or cigars. Either way, your main aim is to ship everything back to Europe, where you can sell your goods for a hefty profit, buy supplies and recruit specialist workers. You can trade with the American natives too, but it's the fat wallets of the idiots back home that are really worth bleeding dry.
Although Europe provides you with a decent source of income, it also gives you a major headache in the form of royalty. While you're out pretending to be Sir Walter Raleigh, there's an impatient monarch back home who wants his cut of all the riches you've harvested from the new world. Even during our short play-test, we swiftly grew to hate the King of England with his arrogant demeanour and constant, patronising demands for cash. As with all forms of in-game diplomatic relations, these communications are accompanied by a window with an animated portrait of the man himself. Firaxis has done a great job of turning the King into a real character: leave him for a second and he'll inspect his jewellery before flashing it in your face. He's a self-satisfied buffoon who oozes arrogance and menace from every pore.
Breaking away from this crowned clown is your overall objective in the game. Swelling your empire increases your nation's liberty score; once this hits a certain level, it's time to declare your independence. Doing this will result in an end-of-game showdown with the King's own Royal Expeditionary Force - a sizable army that aims to crush your rebellion. Emerge victorious from the battle and you'll have finally succeeded in creating the Home of the Brave, Land of the Free. All that remains then is for you to invent hamburgers, cable TV and a selection of sports that no-one else in the world will ever want to play or see (World Series, anyone?).
Your approach to achieving this goal will largely depend on your choice of starting nation, each of which get some form of tactical advantage. The English leaders attract new colonists quickly, allowing their sites to grow and expand quickly. The French are more trusted by native tribes, while the Dutch benefit from a more stable market in their trades with Europe. The Spanish conquistadors, as one might expect, get a bonus to the efficiency of their military forces. These are the guys you want to pick if you feel like seizing the New World by force - but bear in mind that gathering an army is a lot more time-consuming than in Civilization. There are other factors to bear in mind too: stomping on the locals will invariably sour your relations with other tribes, potentially cutting you off from important allies.
Whichever nation you choose, you'll be competing with the others for control of land and natural resources. You will also be racing each other to attract Founding Fathers - Colonization's equivalent to Civ's Wonders of the World. These visionary figures will offer to join your cause under the right conditions, conferring additional bonuses to your colonies and units. Although it probably goes without saying, each Father can only join one nation - so it's important to beat your opponents to getting the best ones on board. Throughout the game you'll need to keep one eye on your rivals and another on the natives, while constantly remembering to check on what the King is up to. In other words, you want all the help you can get.
As its prefix suggests, Colonization uses the graphics engine from Civ IV with a few added tweaks and improvements. This is No Bad Thing, of course, and so far everything seems to be looking as tight as a whistle. Far more important is the fact that the layout of menu screens, feedback and stats is all very intuitive. Governing the development of a new nation is no easy task, but the game does everything it can to make options and commands as simple as it can - with an emphasis on drag-and-drop for managing trades and assigning colonists to specific jobs. As is typical for Firaxis games, there's also an in-built encyclopaedia who proves to be totally invaluable.
All in all, Colonization is looking extremely promising. Just a few hours of tinkering was enough to remind us of years' worth of fun with Civilization. Sid Meier has a reputation for overseeing easy-to-pick-up games with ocean-sized depth - and our first impressions are that this could prove to be every bit as addictive as the titles that preceded it. The emphasis on trading and economic ingenuity may not appeal to the bombs and bullets crowd, but for gamers who enjoy getting their hands dirty with some truly demanding strategy - and who don't mind developing a smack-like level of addiction - Civilization IV: Colonization is looking to be a major treat.