When I first fired up Civilization VI, Sid Meier’s latest offering to one of the most popular franchises in videogame history, I went through the intro video feeling the usual sense of pride in being a human being, a cog in the great wheel that is the story of humanity. As my eyes are assaulted with images of innovation and discovery, artistic expression and militaristic conquest, I see the theme of this particular version of Civilization: exploration. This theme is continued in the user interface, as well as the unexplored regions of the map, both using a circa 18th-century sepia toned map, the kind that might be found in a ship bringing silks and spices ’round the Horn of Africa. All in all, it looks not only pretty, but a lot more professional. This version has a UI that is much sleeker than what was found in Civilization V, and while I may not get Leonard Nimoy’s voice throwing pithy quotes from humanity’s greatest artists, scientists, and generals, we get Sean Bean instead, and that’s not nothing.
At the same time, I was worried that this new version of Civilization would be little more than a fresh coat of paint over the last. By the time I had conquered my first neighbor, all of my fears were dispelled. Civilization VI is definitely worth the $60 price tag Firaxis is asking, however, even if it IS one of the most expensive games currently on the market. First of all, the enormous, unwieldy, and occasionally nonsensical tech tree from the past five versions has been split into a Technology Tree and a Social Policy Tree, and advancing through these requires science points and culture points respectively. I like this feature because the idea of actually having to research things like philosophy or drama away seemed like a case of the game being divorced from reality. Instead, when your civilization earns enough culture points, it can advance something that is actually culture related, and the same goes for the science tree.
Researching a technology or advancing one’s culture can be sped up by achievements that actually relate to the technology or cultural advancement in question, which is also fantastic. Settle a city next to a body of water, and it takes half as long to research sailing. Train a pair of archers, and the time to research technology that unlocks crossbows suddenly has been cut in half. This game mechanic results in creating a civilization that, on one hand, is in line with what one expects (aggression from the Aztecs, or nukes from Gandhi), while at the same time organically building the fine details of that civilization based on player action and decision making.
Civilization VI continues to let the player fine-tune their civilization through the government game mechanics. Certain scientific and cultural discoveries unlock specific types of government, each of which have anywhere between zero and four slots for the government’s military, economic, and diplomatic policies. These policies are unlocked mostly through cultural achievement, though some become available through scientific research as well. Mixing and matching these policies allows the player to not only decide to have a democracy, monarchy, or fascist state but also decide what kind of democracy, monarchy, or fascist state it will be: whether it will have a well-trained military, a cheap military or some blend of the two are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the questions players will have to answer for themselves as they progress through human history as a head of state.
Cities themselves are also subject to fine-tuning and micromanagement through districts. Cities can use the surrounding tiles for something more than simple farms, trading posts, mines, and whatever tile upgrade gives you resources. Districts can also receive bonuses based on their neighboring tiles. The campus, or scientific district, receives bonuses when placed next to mountains or rainforests, while encampments (the military district) have the ability to fire on enemy troops, making the decision of where to place a city more important than ever, as armies now will face incoming fire from multiple tiles when approaching a city for the conquering. Most importantly, districts allow players to diversify cities, rewarding players who differentiate one city from the next, instead of simply giving each city the same combination of buildings.
Unfortunately, the game does have a few drawbacks, and I could not in good conscience write about this game without bringing them up. The game has some minor accessibility issues that could be easily fixed with a patch: there is no way for players to zoom in and out if they are unable to use a mouse wheel, and I can’t imagine the confusion colorblind players must face when clicking on their settlers, but these are easy fixes that Firaxis doesn’t even need to patch in, relying instead on the community of fanatics to create mods to get rid of that horrifically ugly mess my map turns into whenever I want to settle a new city. Or, at least they could if there were any integration with steam workshop. This is probably the most puzzling and glaring problem that I have with Civilization VI: where its predecessor was literally the test case for Steam Workshop, Steam’s program that allows players to create, publish, and share their own mods to video games that permit it, creating innovation in some cases for games that have long since been abandoned by their publishers. I like to think that Steam Workshop integration is just around the corner, but until I see it, Firaxis’s omission will be glaring at me every time I click on a settler.
Of course, there are some game features that I simply have not yet had a chance to see. Despite (what some might consider a laughable) 11 hours of game time played, I am still in the Renaissance era, and have not yet had a chance to see how the late game performs, as Civilization V often had trouble with memory optimization on larger maps. Also, Civilization V is notably terrible at multiplayer games, with many players experiencing an inability to reconnect to saves, and I have yet to see if these problems plague its successor. Despite these problems, however, I am still trying to figure out exactly how the amenities game mechanic works, while trying to decide if an expansionist Sumeria can be dealt with through diplomacy, espionage, or the sword. I may not know everything about this game, yet, but I am very excited to find out.