Civilization as a series has been around for 25 years now and it's a pillar of the 4X genre, truly embracing the philosophy of eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting and eXterminating. The series has evolved steadily over time, allowing the player to create and control their own growing empire in increasingly refined ways, but the differences between IV and V in particular were huge and led to a community split. The divide was due mainly to diminished content and changes to the interface. Relatively drastic changes annoyed some, although others praised Civilization V for the changes. What, then, lies in store for us in Civilization VI?
With the sixth instalment Firaxis is looking to merge the best of both games, creating a greatest hits package of sorts. This isn't to say that the game is only recycling old ideas - in fact, there is plenty that is new in here - but that Firaxis and 2K listened to the fans and their thoughts on the previous two games. When Gamereactor spoke to Lead Producer Dennis Shirk about the game at a preview event in London, he said that "more content" was the focus above all else, especially considering the complaints about Civilization V's lack thereof at launch. "There was so much content in Civilization IV, Brave New World, Beyond the Sword, [and] because all of that didn't exist when we released Civilization V, fans were a little upset about that." More options and more choices were a must for VI from the outset, and Ed Beach, the Lead Designer for the game, wanted to pull most elements from Brave New World forward. Because of this, Shirk assures fans that they will not look at VI and think that there isn't much there.
From the outset we saw what Shirk was talking about. The options given to the player from the beginning are numerous but never overwhelming, the inability to stack units helping once again to reduce confusion about who is where, for example. The interface is user-friendly and from fighting barbarians at the beginning (their camps need to be destroyed to stop them coming back again) to the trading and diplomacy as you civilization develops, nothing felt too complex, although it did certainly feel different. We could definitely tell that this was a new game and there were some clear changes that were made to increase the choices that the player has available to them.
The civics tree is one way that players can be given more options. "As many ways to play is great, more choices is great", Shirk said, adding that "the civics tree is another big change. We basically split the tech tree in two and the reason Ed [Beach] did this is because he wanted a way for the builder or the cultural player to compete with the science players".
There had been an issue with cultural players being at the mercy of the military or technological powers of others in previous games, and the civics tree allows people to be "enlightened", driving players through this new avenue just as science does with the technology tree. Instead of hardware and technology, instead these players use governments and policies to their advantage, unlocking better options for their government as they progress. This all means that cultural players are less likely to get "steamrolled", as Shirk called it, by technological players, allowing for more choices in how to play.
Governments and policies also give more freedom to tailor your civilisation as you play, by mixing and matching policies regularly, placing diplomatic, military, economic and wild cards in your government, all of which give specific advantages. The further you go into the civics tree, the more powerful policies you will get and players have the option of changing that up when they please, whether that is in reaction to a war or to try and change their civilization's focus. This feature should help add some flexibility to the game as well.
One of the most notable new features is based around urban districts in what Shirk referred to "unstacking the city." Just like units couldn't be stacked in Civilization V, neither can the city in Civilization VI, forcing players to put specialised districts in tactical locations. Ed Beach took the idea of forcing players to spread their armies by removing the ability to stack units and applied that to cities, with districts being suitable for different purposes, such as the campus for science or the theatre for culture. Most districts hold three buildings and there's unique districts too. This is all done in an effort to take the game out in the landscape and stop people focusing solely on the city centre. These districts also have certain benefits and adjacency bonuses, meaning that they have to be created and placed tactically for maximum effect, adding yet another layer to the expanding aspect of the game.
The systems regarding diplomacy are also modified from previous instalments. Like Civilization V, city states still appear in the game, but there are now more options regarding what to do with them. Envoys are key to interactions with city states now and are earned either by discovering them or by doing their quests, one example being to create a crossbowman. These quests aren't exactly narrative-based, however, but merely objectives to aim for if you want to get in a city state's good books. The city states have individual bonuses, such as increased gold or culture, when envoys are sent there, and the benefits increase when more envoys are sent. There are also rewards earned by being the ally with the most envoys at that city state, so players are encouraged even more to interact with them, especially since they provide resources for their own civilisation.
That isn't the only way diplomacy was highlighted by Shirk at the preview event, however, as the interactions with other leaders was another key area of discussion. The focus of this element is to reveal to the player what makes each leader tick. Civilization V had rather one-dimensional characters, Genghis Khan for example being a very aggressive leader and not much else, so in Civilization VI the team tried something that was historically tied in. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, has an agenda which means he favours peace on his continent and he reacts badly to warmongers.
A system called diplomatic visibility plays a key role in interacting with other leaders as well, as gossip is heard about leaders and what they are doing, allowing for more in-depth relationships with your neighbours and their rulers. Secrets agendas also come into this and are assigned when they start the game, but the player has to discover what they are. Trade routes and spies therefore have to be utilised to gather gossip about the leaders and their civilizations in order to discover their secret agenda and what they're after, meaning that it becomes a much richer experience in terms of single-player as well.
Warfare and combat are improved in Civilization VI too. They have taken what Shirk calls "the rock, scissors, paper aspect" and made it a bit more obvious. "So spearman have always been good against mounted, but now warriors are good against spearman and obviously cavalry's really good against warriors and not so much against spearman. But all of those benefits have been elevated just a little bit more". Now units have clear and distinct advantages over others as well as weaknesses, and this was done because of the feeling that this was absent in Civilization V, the units being very similar to each other a lot of the time. Although this change isn't huge and sometimes not very obvious, it stil forces the player to think tactically about how they want to approach each neighbourly interaction.
While playing the demo we noticed that there were a lot of boosts coming up on screen and this was part of a passive system that can operate with or without your conscious participation in it. It works in both the technology and civics tree and reacts to how the player approaches the campaign. The game is meant to be based on environmental factors as well, so if a player establishes a city in the middle of the map it would take a long time to research sailing, for example, but the first time you found a city on the ocean you suddenly get a boost to sailing. The system should reward people's styles of play, whatever they may be, as well as giving boosts based on other factors.
We also discussed the new-look art of the game which is a visual style that reminds the player of its central exploration driven theme. The team wanted the look of Civilization VI to reflect this and that's where visual style emerged from. In regards to undiscovered space, the clouds of Civilization V are replaced with an antique-style map with almost burned edges on it, merging that feeling of antiquity with the modern and sleek style they're aiming for. Shirk also told us that it was to make the game come to life a bit more as the clouds were claustrophobic before, and we'd have to agree - it looks superb.
In fact, it wasn't just the new visual style we were impressed with. In the 150 turns allocated to us we found the game to be extremely enjoyable and the new systems were fun to play around with. We played as Qin Shi Huang of China, focussing on construction and culture, and the new districts system fitted easily into our goal. We used districts to our cultural advantage and the civics tree also helped a lot to build an empire that was culturally superior to others. In interacting with other leaders like Theodore Roosevelt we also tested out the diplomatic visibility which worked well too, although we wonder how much real impact that will have on the relationship between leaders.
Civilization VI isn't so much about looking at what the series does in a different way, but in the best way, taking and moulding what worked in previous games while also improving the formula at the same time. By unstacking the cities, introducing districts, improving the combat and, above all else, giving players more content and choices, this should be well received both by those in the Civilization IV camp and those in team Civilization V. The demo we played was only 150 turns and so we didn't get the chance to see the later industrial and modern era, but we were still very impressed with what we saw and it looks like a very promising game. We will have to wait until October 21 to truly see what this game has in store.