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.

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.

Winning the Space Race is only one possible conclusion to the game

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.

The North Africa campaign in WWII is an included game scenario

You'll no doubt be pleased to hear that equally profound revisions have been made to the core mechanics of the game: Civilization IV isn't simply an exercise in polishing up the presentation to keep the bank manager happy for another year or two. A fully comprehensive tutorial (hosted by Sid Meier himself) is provided for newcomers, and Sid's personal playing tips are provided at the city build menu to give you extra help in trying to determine what you should construct next. The governance model has been significantly revamped, meaning that elements of Feudalism and Communism (for example) are no longer mutually exclusive. The Civics menu comprises of five elements: the Government model, the Labour model, the Legal model, the Economic model and last, but by no means least, Religion. The implementation of Religion in Civilization is arguably long overdue, but has at least been worth the wait. With religions as diverse as Taoism, Judaism, Islam and Confucianism to pick from, there is plenty of scale for religious conflict. More aggressive cultures will take a hard line with you if you have "fallen under the sway of a heathen religion", making it difficult to avoid conflict. From a civic standpoint, however, the religion you choose isn't necessarily so important, with the way you apply it to your government being what really counts. This also applies to the other options in the Civics menu.

Let me explain: Each of the five civic elements has five potential options, leaving plenty of room for experimentation. At the beginning of the game, you naturally start out with the most crude in each, whose low upkeep costs make up for their lack of management finesse. As you work your way through the tech-tree, extra options will become available to you. Monarchy, for example, will allow you to use Hereditary Rule in the Government model which gives happiness bonuses to cities containing military units, whilst Communism gives rise to the economic concept of State Property, reducing your maintenance and upkeep costs to almost nil. The Religion options vary from cheerful Paganism to Theocracy (which prevents non-State religions from spreading in your territory) to Free Religion, which confers happiness and scientific research bonuses. With well over one hundred distinct Civic combinations, the system has a huge amount of flexibility, and allows you to tailor the governance of your culture to favour science, trade or war, as you see fit. The game also announces civic changes in the governments of rival civilizations, which not only allows you to deduce how far behind you they are on the tech-tree, but also can give you a clue as to their intentions. It can also give you a chuckle or two when you notice that Gandhi has adopted Slavery as his Labour model...

With Civilization, it's very important to know how you're going to tackle a particular game from the outset. If you dither too long making a choice between going for a scientific or a conquest victory for a hundred turns, you're going to find it very tough to achieve anything at all during the end-game. Conquest games are by far the most challenging, as striking the correct balance between expansion by conquest and settling new cities yourself is very difficult, especially at higher skill levels. You'll have to sacrifice scientific output in order to feed your war machine, and this can leave you behind the cutting edge of battlefield technology, making your job even harder. Diplomatic victories (through the United Nations Wonder) are harder than you might think, as with up to a dozen competing races, it's nigh on impossible to keep them all happy. Pleasing one culture will inevitably irk another; there are so many toes on the floor, it's inevitable that you'll tread on some along the way. The classic Space Race victory still has a great appeal, though pursuing this will mean you need to favour expansion and scientific pursuits more than military ambition, which can often leave you open to attack by less cerebral leaders.

It's this variety that makes Civilization IV so exceptional. Never do you feel like you're being compelled into playing the game one specific way in order to win, which in turn leads to its colossal replayability factor. With so many cultures to play with, and with around a half-dozen scenarios to try, this is a title that you could happily play for years - literally. That's not to say the game is without annoyances or flaws. The game can occasionally throw you a curveball by not giving you access to strategic resources, like iron or oil, just through a quirk of where they occur on the map. If they happen to exist in your territory, great; if not, tough - and there's nothing you can do about it, barring waging a war to take it from someone else (Fighting wars over oil? That'd never happen in real life). I've also found Multiplayer to be quite unstable (when I've been able to get it running at all), which is also a disappointment. This will undoubtedly be addressed in future patches though, and given that the execution of the single-player game is so good, that's bound to keep you more than occupied in the meantime, anyway.

In short, Civilization IV is an exceptional title that showcases the very best that the turn-based strategy genre has to offer: it's a videogame that's been built to stand the test of time. Just hope that you can say the same for your civilization when you play it...