Civilization 6 review: a game of the year contender to make the hours melt away

By Alex Donaldson, Tuesday, 25 October 2016 10:03 GMT

Goodbye, life. Civ 6 has me now.

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Civilization 5 wasn’t a bad game, but it certainly failed to live up to the incredible reputation and bar of quality set by Civilization 4. It got better with its expansion, though Civ 5’s initial struggles and the lukewarm quality of Civilization: Beyond Earth had me excited and worried in equal measure when Civilization 6 was announced. Had the Firaxis mojo transferred over to the excellent XCOM series?

No, it turns out. Here comes Civilization 6 to destroy my free time, and it’s incredible. I feel like it’s too early to say if it’s truly better than the masterpiece that is Civ 4, since that game had nearly 100 hours to dig itself into my brain – but I’m feeling pretty good about it. Civ 6 is a smart game that builds on previous concepts for the series to improve them in almost every way.

“Civ 6 is a smart game that builds on previous concepts for the series to improve them in almost every way.”

The concept is still the same, of course: You pick a famous world civilization and one of their most iconic leaders and guide them through hours of turn-based evolution, taking them from warriors with clubs and discovering basic concepts like the wheel and farming through to bomber jets and nuclear fission. The journey along the way is procedural thanks to randomly generated maps and unpredictable AI, with different civs taking different approaches to the world around them and focusing their empires on different things.

As a vastly simplified celebration of broader human history civ has always worked well, and that’s true as ever here. The art has veered back towards a less realistic style, shifting into something more of a caricature which really does shine for world leaders like Queen Victoria and Gandhi. They’re well animated and bursting with personality.

The map is likewise bright and colourful in a way the previous games weren’t, and it all works. Civ is a game that has to be stared at for hours, and despite the fact that not all that much in front of you might change over the course of 4 hours the game remains easy on the eyes for the duration of a game while still conveying quite a lot of information through sight alone.

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The way the game now shows undiscovered land or the fog of war is nothing short of genius, mimicking an old hand-drawn map. If you get tired of the 3D visuals the 2D strategic map is a joy to look at, and the score is excellent. 2K has made a big deal about the game’s new theme tune, and while it’s no Baba Yetu it’s pretty damn good.

The presentation sings, then. What makes Civ 6 truly special is largely unrelated, though, and that’s how some of the basic ideas of Civ have been twisted in a new direction to encourage different kinds of play.

The real genius here is that the game has managed to take Civ habits formed over the course of more than a decade and break them. I was always about the hefty culture rush game, reaching for as many wonders and cultural landmarks as possible – in this game, I’ve stopped. I always used to ignore the religion systems but in this game I’ve found them a vital tool even if you’re not shooting for a religious victory. They’ve succeeded in making an old Civ hand think in different ways.

Key to this new way of thinking is the new district system and how Civ’s now-standard hexagonal map layout is used. Each square of the map is now at once more unique and more vital, and the layout of the area around your cities will help determine pretty much everything from adjacency bonuses to what wonders and special buildings you can construct.

“Decisions made in the early game can have a drastic impact later on. This is something that as you get acquainted with Civ 6’s systems becomes a staple of pretty much every game: chickens coming home to roost.”

In previous Civ games there was an element of randomness to the lands, of course, but you had more you could do with any given space. You’d force that land to conform to your wishes for your empire, packing it with wonders or soldiers or whatever else you needed. This time it’s more personal: you still change the land, but it too also forces you to change. Depending on what’s available around you, the approaches available to world domination will shift. Civ 6 demands a flexibility to your approach as the world itself applies pressures to you.

Changes made to the land are not easily undone, either. If you clear away a luxury resource to make way for a science-focused campus district in order to boost your scientific output, that resource is lost. Decisions made in the early game can have a drastic impact later on. This is something that as you get acquainted with Civ 6’s systems becomes a staple of pretty much every game: chickens coming home to roost.

Your use of the map around you will impact the core pillars of Civ: religion, culture, science, economy, military, entertainment, diplomacy and government. All of these systems require a level of supervision, but Civ 6 manages to strike that elusive balance between being too simple and too easy to leave unsupervised and annoyingly in need of micromanagement. These systems can be left alone with only major tweaks every so often if you wish, but if a particular area becomes vital to your survival you can get deep down into the nitty gritty with ease, something I very much appreciate.

Each of these systems interacts and interlocks with others too. Even if you don’t plan to chase culture or religion, your use of these mechanics will drastically impact your relationship with other Civs.

Each Civ has some unique traits and this makes each feel pretty unique when you play against them under AI control. Kongo’s Mvemba a Nzinga loves religion, for instance, and will be happy with you if you have one of your own that you spread to his lands. If you don’t, that’s the first step in a rocky relationship indeed.

Like the rest of Civ, managing the desires and expectations of your neighbors comes down to plate spinning. You won’t have the resources to please everyone or do everything you need to all the time, and so you’ll find yourself making tough decisions that’ll echo down throughout later turns.

If a relationship truly goes sour there’s always war, and that is one of the areas least changed from Civ 5. Later in the game you can combine units of the same type to form more powerful armies, which is a nice touch, but the biggest change actually comes in how you declare war.

The new Casus Belli system allows you to make your case for going to war to the rest of the world. Declaring a Surprise War out of nowhere will earn you disdain around the world as a warmonger. Declaring a Formal War more properly will still damage your reputation, but less so. As you research government policies in the civics tree (newly split from the science tech tree) you can unlock more reasons to go to war, however.

Perhaps it’s to liberate an ally? Or to protect an ally who is already being attacked? Maybe that Civ is so far behind in tech it’s a colonial war – all of these things have varying levels of warmonger penalty, making declaring war quite the game in itself.

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“The smaller problems with Civ 6 can be easily forgiven thanks to the overwhelmingly strong quality of the rest of the package.”

Much as with XCOM, Civ 6 isn’t quite perfect. It falls just short. The AI seems to get trapped in a hamster wheel of actions on occasion, confusing itself. The UI is excellent in some places but in others remarkably clunky. There’s a mad issue where on large-scale games the game can take ages – multiple minutes – to load. It took so long I thought it’d crashed.

The dodgy AI is the worst offender as when it’s at its most flagrant it can really drag you out of the game, but ultimately these add up to be minor frustrations. Put them next door to the colossal improvements and smart changes in just about every other area of the game and they largely melt away. Yes, Rome probably shouldn’t be running a lone Settler around in circles in the late 1900s, but it’s not making a huge difference – I’m too busy locked in an excellent war with Japan to really care. The smaller problems with Civ 6 can be easily forgiven thanks to the overwhelmingly strong quality of the rest of the package.

If Civ 4 and 5 are anything to go by, the game will also be drastically improved by expansion packs. Given the quality on display here that’s actually an alarming thought – how this can get much better, I do not know.

I know by the end of the year I’ll have dumped over 100 hours into this game. More, if I can find the time to do so. That’s the greatest compliment of all. “Just one more turn,” is a bit of a meme now, but Civ 6 is excellent enough that it’s absolutely true as well.

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