BY ALEJANDRO VILLARREAL: Will Civilization VI stand the test of time, or will it crumble and be forgotten? This is the full review you need to read. Review by Andrea Ritsu.
(Low on time? You can read a TLDR review by John Santina here.)
Whenever a new Civilization title is announced, I get giddy. I first played the original DOS title years ago, and I still get goosebumps just thinking about how much I love managing my cities, units, and resources to stand the test of time.
Regardless of my initial excitement, the release is always somehow frightening. There are Civilization games that I’ve not enjoyed much, for various reasons, and as such, it always feels like a gamble when the day finally comes for another release. 2010’s Civilization V was one of the games I didn’t enjoy much, though later expansion packs fixed many of my problems with the original release. But, how does Civilization VI fair? I’m not entirely sure.
Just in case you’ve never played Civilization before, let me walk you through what the series’ core is about. A player takes the role of a historical figure and must help build their civilization throughout all the eras of human history. Your goal is to stand the “test of time” and show that you can make it to the modern era, with additional victory conditions coming into play throughout this journey. While the conditions differ a little from game to game, there are always both peaceful and war-heavy options that are of equal value. To reach a victory condition, you must build your cities, gather and manage your resources and engage in diplomacy between the other civilizations of the world.
In VI there are six victory conditions in total. Domination Victory requires the player to engage in war and capture each player’s capital while holding on to their own, using any means necessary. Scientific Victory involves the player engaging in a classic space race for the stars, starting with satellites and the moon landing before ending with building the first human colony on Mars. Cultural Victory is based around a player gathering more international tourists than anybody else. Religious Victory has the player found a religion and bringing it to other players until it becomes the only practiced religion in the game’s world. Finally, Score Victory is a simple time trial, with the player that have achieved the highest score by the end of the game being victorious.
While the basic gameplay of the series hasn’t changed much in VI, Firaxis has tried to improve on what they added to the series with Civilization V. The system with which a player chooses their political policies is now much more involved with more options and customization than before. Each time a player completes cultural research they get policy cards that can be slotted into their current government, depending on what type of rulership your civilization holds different slots for different types of cards open up, with the options expanding at a very good pace over the course of the game. While it might sound overwhelming in text, I found it much simpler and more streamlined than how policies were managed in V.
Civilization VI does add one entirely new thing to the table, however: districts. Most buildings in the game are now dedicated to a type of district that must be built in the city first. These districts can offer bonuses, with several civilizations having unique variants on the basic offering. Districts take up a tile, often forcing you to make careful decisions about just where to place it to not risk ruining your chances for better resources.
While the concept of districts is good and I find myself enjoying them for the most part, they do have one major drawback. Once you’ve built a district, you can’t tear it down. This is unlike other tile improvements like farms, mines or plantations where a builder can remove it if you messed up. If you mess up with placing a district, you might have ruined your entire city without realizing it as a result.
Speaking of resources and builders, they have their own issues. While the game will sometimes give you recommended tiles to use your builder units on to build improvements, there’s no way to toggle visible markings for each tile they can use. It took me over ten hours of playing the game before I realized that if I cut down a plain forest tile I could build a farm on there for more food and housing. Now, there’s the Civilopedia, a digital handbook you can search through, that’s meant to help you learn these things. But unfortunately, most of it is written with fewer details than would be useful. A simple key-bind to let me highlight tiles I can perform actions on would have been greatly appreciated, and I don’t feel like that’d be too much to ask for a modern strategy game.
But this just highlights one of the biggest problems with Civilization VI, the presentation of information. While the user interface is visually pretty, there’s a lot of missing important information from it. For example, you can’t see the colours of the civilizations in the game, despite the leaders having portraits visible on-screen at all times. This makes it annoying when you’re trying to send a trade cart to a city, and the only thing listed are the city names in the team colours, with no info on what civilization holds it. A visual indication on the portrait of their colour would have helped a lot, saving you the time of having to scroll around the map.
Another thing missing is total game time. While the game will gladly tell you how many in-game turns have been played, there’s no tracking of real-time. This goes both for the general game’s interface as well as the final result screen. It sounds small, but it can be very satisfying to play a long game and see just how long it was in the end.
The UI will also not disclose what era you’re in without entering the tech tree screen which fills up the screen, where a city’s border lies if its tiles are adjacent to another city of the same civilization or even which resource tiles you’ve currently built on or not. While the latter can often be quickly determined from the tile’s appearance, it’d be nice for more cluttered cities to have the resource icon be given a different colour or another notification to tell you that you’ve already built on it.
I want to go back to the result screen for a brief moment once more, though, because it’s a big mess. Aside from being visually unappealing, it does not tell you actual numbers for its graphs supposed to show final game statistics, only showing lines without further context. If you lose a match, then the result screen won’t tell you what victory condition was achieved, which can be quite annoying since you’d want to know just what you could have prevented.
Sometimes you can figure it out through the statistics, but it’s not a guarantee either since tourism, the vital stat for Culture Victory, is not included in the statistics you can view. It’s no doubt one of the most useless and unsatisfying result screens I’ve seen in a modern big budget title, that’s for sure.
But the user interface is not always bad, the screens devoted to diplomatic encounters with other world leaders is full of strong details to help you know what their stances are and how they fell about you. There’s an improved pros and cons list of the things you’ve done that tip the scale on their opinion on you, making it much easier to get to a leader’s good side, or bad side if you prefer than it was in previous Civilization titles. It’s just a shame that the actual conversations with the leaders are far less detailed, using stock replies that often don’t make any sense in context, both for the AI and for the player.
As you’re playing the game, you’ll be getting notifications on events around the world. These come in two types, rumours and reports about other civilizations that pop up in large rectangular message boxes on-screen in real-time and detailed updates on units, tiles, cities and more that pop up as small icons in the lower right corner of the UI.
The former type of notifications is a problem as they quickly stack on the screen, to the point where they can cover the entire screen at once. And you can’t check a backlog of them later unless you know which leader it was about so you can check their world leader screen. The latter notifications are fine in concept and are basically the old standard Civilization notifications. The problem is that they often don’t recognize the mouse cursor, meaning that they’ll not show the message until you get lucky with hovering the icon.
But even when the notifications work they lack in some useful information. Should you have sent a scout to automatically explore, an action hidden behind a semi-hidden button for some reason, there won’t be a notification for when they can no longer explore new areas, instead the scout will just run back and forth between the same tiles until you either give them new movement abilities or cancel their order. That’s if you can cancel their order, for that matter. Because if you’ve turned on the automatic skip turn feature and you’re not currently in a forced state of control you can’t cancel a unit’s movement until you disable the skip turn feature.
Giving orders for units can be tricky on its own, however. If you’re attacking another unit, you can’t click their unit icon; you have to click the tile they’re standing on. I often find myself instinctively clicking the icon and accidentally ordering my unit to walk to the tile behind the unit I meant to attack.
But, that little mistake is nothing compared to the game forcefully moving to what it considers the “next unit” when you’re in the middle of giving orders, moving the camera to where they’re standing, forcing you to give an order to the wrong unit and wasting that unit’s turn. The automatic camera movement can’t be disabled in the game’s options, but the ability to turn it off is possible by editing the game’s configuration file. I highly recommend it, as it improves the game greatly.
The maps themselves are randomly generated with a pretty good outcome most of the time. There are several settings you can mess with to suit your taste regarding map size and what type of land you’ll be seeing, but I’ve yet to have a map I disliked playing on.
With that said, there’s one issue that has bugged me. There’s a tile that no unit can pass through, a massive block of ice. It doesn’t matter if you’re a helicopter or land unit, you can’t move through it. That’s fine, but sometimes a tribal village or resource ends up randomly trapped behind ice tiles pressed up to the map’s edge, making it impossible to reach. It’s not a big deal, but it’s happened enough times to me by now that it’s annoying.
Tribal villages are tiles that grant you new knowledge or resources when found, and to serve as the positive opposite to barbarian outposts, which also appear all over the map. In fact, I feel that unless you turn off barbarian outposts, entirely they tend to have far too many outposts at the start of the game, making it a bit too heavy on fighting barbarians than I’d like. I wish there were more options than a simple on or off switch instead. Thankfully the barbarians aren’t too hard to fight off at the start of the game, but if you miss an outpost or two they’ll eventually run you over with tanks, and that’s less fun. Though the AI is generally quite easy to predict or manipulate when you’ve played a few games.
Civilization VI let you play as 19 different world leaders, with a 20th leader, Montezuma, being pre-order DLC set to release for other customers at a later date. My annoyance with the gatekeeping of a classic Civilization leader aside, it’s a good mix overall with returning leaders like Cleopatra and Mohandas Gandhi and newcomers like Teddy Roosevelt and Tomyris of Scythia. Each leader have their own unique abilities, focus, and units to help you play the way you want. Their visual design is another plus for Civilization VI, with each character having a good mix of realism and cartoon-like exaggerated features to make them interesting and fun. Big points for having female characters with strong facial details too, a rarity both in past Civilization titles and games in general.
But the game isn’t just pretty; it sounds great too. The soundtrack by Grammy award-winning Christopher Tin, who previously composed the soundtrack for Civilization IV as well, is absolutely marvelous, with the main theme Sogno di Volare being the standout video game track of the year. But it’s not a Civilization game without a ton of historical quotes, which of course needs a narrator. For VI the role has fallen on Sean Bean, who does a tremendous job at making each sentence sound grand. Even when it’s something as silly as quoting The Terminator. While I do still miss the voice of the late and great Leonard Nimoy from Civilization IV, I couldn’t be happier with Bean‘s performance.
I’d love to say that this sums up the good and bad of the game, but that’s unfortunately not the case. As a release, Civilization VI is riddled with bugs and issues on a seemingly growing scales. From random crashes to the game locking up during loading screens, it can be hard even to get a game going at times. And if you do get it going you might suddenly find yourself soft-locked in a world leader conversation that you can’t exit, or with a unit needing orders despite the unit order button not working at the moment. VI also has a problem of lagging behind with menu clicks, often stopping on a screen and waiting a few extra seconds before transitioning. This can be annoying since you can’t skip world leader conversations and sometimes you just want to get them over with.
I like Civilization VI, I really do. The addition of districts is fun; the new policy system is a great improvement, and even the advisor system is better than it’s been in recent titles. But the game is full of so many small issues that pile up into one big mess that it’s hard to see the great game hiding beneath. With a few months of updates, I can see this game truly shine and possibly be one of the best titles in the series, but as it stands now it feels like it was rushed out of the oven before it was done.
So it’s here I return to the first question I asked, how does Civilization VI fair? You know, I’m still not entirely sure. But I like it.