Firaxis' new entry to the Civilization series is out, giving both longtime fans and first-time players another fresh take on settling a pristine planet before brutally exploiting its resources, putting its occupants to the sword and setting the rest on fire.
Civilization VI offers more than any of its predecessors, but it's also weighed down by some deeply frustrating problems. Here's what gamers should expect as they venture forth into this brave new world.
Civilization VI manages to pack in most of the base content from Civ V and its expansion packs, including all the types of great people, systems of government and a barebones but functional religion system. This is no mean feat, and it's a compliment to the designers that the game feels like it has built upon its predecessor's breadth.
The selection of civilizations, world leaders and wonders natural and man-made is wonderfully fresh. While some series stalwarts like Cleopatra, Montezuma and Saladin make a return, there's an emphasis on adding less famous world leaders like Pericles, Hojo Tokimune and Trajan to the mix.
Sean Bean's narration is some of the best in the series to date.
The new district system, which requires players to develop tiles neighboring city centers with expansions like theater districts or industrial zones, is lovely and adds some much-needed depth and variety to your cities. These districts come with small but significant adjacency bonuses to other districts and terrain features. They also unlock city abilities previously native to all cities, like cultural production, the military-industrial complex, scientific research or trade.
As districts take up actual room on the map, are capped by population and require significant time and effort to build, specializing cities is now a necessity. While the elimination of global happiness has made managing cities easier, the addition of a housing mechanic which acts as a soft cap on population makes them harder to grow.
Areas that begin as stretches of pristine wilderness soon blossom into rich, vibrant fantasy kingdoms, industrial-era cityscapes and eventually modern metropolises with sections of old, historic districts and outlying neighborhoods.
The civics system from Civ V is back, but at once streamlined and elaborated upon. Instead of simply acquiring policies through research trees in a variety of areas like Aesthetics or Patronage, and then choosing from a limited set of choices split among three ideologies in the late game, Civ VI allows players to adopt a specific form of government.
These range from classical republics to full-on totalitarian states, each of which come with government type bonus but offer a set number of policy choices in military, economic, diplomatic and "wildcard" sets. Autocratic states tend to offer significant military advantages, republics offer financial ones, and theocratic and communist ones offer a mix of both with less flexibility.
Want to build a neo-fascist empire with free markets and collective activism? Or a democracy with five-year plans, wanton government expropriation and a police state? The contradictions are glaring, flavorful and fun, and it feels much more like running a real government than Civ V's policy trees or Civ IV's never-ending sliders.
Other significant changes include the strategic resource system. Where previously players would need to mine or herd whatever quantities of iron and horses were necessary to support their armies, now players require just one or two copies of those resources, depending on whether they have built particular military facilities, to build however many units they want. Unfortunately, those resources are now much rarer — so while resource micromanagement is now less of an issue, the struggle over those resources is now more important than ever.
Great people now take the form of historical personages with individualized powers rather than granting specific bonuses. In general, they feel less powerful, but more situationally useful.
The map screen is now rotatable, which helps vary the world map immensely.
Finally, though a Steam workshop for Civ VI has not yet been created, Firaxis has promised this will be the most moddable Civilization title yet. Given the massive variety of mods available for Civ V, this is something to look forward to.
Interaction with other civilizations has been dramatically improved courtesy of the different leader "agendas" — each leader you interact with has a known agenda, such as Qin Shi Huang's "Wall of 10,000 Li", which causes him to wonder rush and dislike any leader with more wonders than him. But enemy leaders seem curiously unable or unwilling to execute on these agendas in any meaningful way, and this problem seems irreparably tied to the fundamentally broken way the AI handles pathfinding and combat.
During one game as Rome, I became the suzerain of several city-states, offending German leader Frederick Barbarossa, whose agenda Iron Crown is all about crushing city-states beneath his boots and preventing others from forming city-state alliances. Barbarossa declared war, but his fairly impressive invasion fleet never arrived.
The reason? I had a single ancient-era galley, set to auto-explore ages before, near one of his ports. His embarked army surrounded this galley as if they intended to attack it. But since only naval units and not embarked land units are able to attack, nothing happened except a giant, immersion-destroying traffic jam.
Trickles of units made it to my shores on their lonesome some hundred turns later and were easily destroyed. By the time those stragglers managed to arrive, they were facing units one or even two tech levels beyond them.
The AI simply doesn't know how to handle the one-unit-per-tile system. Throughout the game, I watched as similar patterns repeated themselves. Entire armies would get logjammed around obstacles. Those armies that did make it to their destinations would just as often mill around in circles, taking heavy damage from ranged defenses while quite literally not attacking anything. Unsupported human wave attacks are usually all it's able to pull off.
The enemies are just as bad defending. Besieged city defense forces would regularly spend entire turns marching around in circles and swapping positions in the open instead of attempting to fire back at my armies.
It's one thing for a player to have a leg up on their AI opponent. It's quite another for the AI to simply be unable to play the game. These problems existed in Civ V, and they appear to have continued unabated into the newest edition of the series — in fact, it seems entirely reasonable to assume it's the same much-hated AI from the previous game.
Gamers wouldn't tolerate a Call of Duty game where enemies only knew how to run directly at you and constantly glitched on props and walls. They shouldn't tolerate such shoddy work here, either.
Other gripes are less game-breaking, but still annoying. Despite the addition of a religious victory to the game's endings, the actual mechanics for achieving it more or less amount to just building lots of missionaries and marching them across the map.
More jarringly, Firaxis has eliminated all empire-wide penalties for growth, meaning the amount of science and culture points necessary to advance to subsequent eras does not increase depending on the number of cities. Instead, district costs increase dramatically the more technologies researched, putting a soft cap on an empire's rate of expansion.
It's still thoroughly unclear whether this means tall empires are totally dead. But either way the game encourages building many, many more cities. In practice, I found this meant managing late-game empires became increasingly unwieldy and monotonous — especially since workers can no longer be automated. It doesn't help that some of the game's governing formulas, like the cost of a district, are opaque and sometimes counter-intuitive.
Finally, while this is a bit of a nit-pick given Civ VI's wide unit variety, cities become visually indistinguishable from each other past the medieval era, and districts always look exactly the same. This ends up meaning most of the world map looks like a carbon copy of the last place you visited. Furthermore, the cities never really get dense — a population 20 city will still have wide stretches of grass between all the buildings.
Civilization VI is a massive improvement on its predecessor, offering a more nuanced, entertaining and strategic experience than Civ V. But it's hobbled by game-breaking A.I. virtually unmatched by any AAA strategy game in recent memory in its sheer stupidity. Less troublingly, some of its core features are underdeveloped — though Firaxis has a history of clearing those problems up with expansion packs and mods.