The next Civ game has been a long time coming, but has Firaxis improved the series or has it taken a turn for the worse?
This preview is based on a build of Civilization VI with limited content compared to the final release.
As we ascend from the cradle of civilisation, the first thing that strikes us is that this is, unmistakably, a Civilization game. We start out with a warrior and a settler. The map is divided into hexagonal tiles representing different terrain types. Some tiles have basic resources; others are occupied by luxuries. Rivers carve their way through the landscape. The first thing on the agenda is settling a capital, choosing what to produce and what research to conduct first. This initial familiarity persists as we progress through the ages. This isn't a surprise, though, since the Civilization franchise has always been built upon the same, familiar foundations, with relatively minor developments and changes from iteration to iteration.
Although much is familiar, we soon discover that there are many new features and changes too. We're quite satisfied with the changes in design philosophy since the last game. Our civilisation feels more unique, both compared to the other civilisations in the game, but also within itself; each of my cities feel distinct from the others.
The biggest advancement this time around is city planning. Districts and wonders now occupy individual tiles, so each and every city development must be carefully considered. To make room for a theatre district, perhaps a good farming tile must be sacrificed. Some districts gain bonuses from adjacent tiles, such as mountains or forests, adding more depth to city planning. Previously, only cities with direct access to the ocean were able to produce naval units, but now cities built inland may gain such access through construction of a harbour district. Similarly, aqueducts can provide fresh water supply to cities which previously didn't have any, allowing for greater flexibility in initial city placement. There is much more strategy in building cities, and the end result is more satisfying than in any previous Civilization game.
There are other, subtler changes too; for example, cities can no longer fire at attacking forces without first building walls, making early warfare less costly for the attacker. In general, Firaxis has reduced unnecessary complexities without reducing the strategic depth of the game. Trade units are no longer divided into caravans and trade ships, but are allowed to alternate between the roles. This is the same with regular workers, who are able to build improvements in water as well as on land. In the mid and late game, military units are able to be combined into corps and armies, reducing the number of units you have to manage compared to previous Civilization games. All these minor adjustments and changes add up, and perhaps the most positive thing to be said about Civilization VI thus far is that the tedious, time-consuming micromanagement has been reduced dramatically.
This said, not every change is welcome. For example, roads are no longer built directly, but appear automatically along trade routes. This becomes an issue when you want to connect two cities, but would like to trade somewhere else. Another example is the notification log, where important information regarding barbarians or other nations is shown, is much less obvious, leading to many important notifications being missed entirely. In addition, envoys to rival civilizations send a constant stream of messages, the majority of which are entirely uninteresting, but occasionally contain vital information, such as the initiation of a new wonder construction by a rival.
On top of this, there are sadly quite a few basic mechanisms which feel clumsily implemented. For instance, in previous games you could move the camera by moving the cursor to the edges of the screen, but in Civilization VI, menus along the edges prevent you from doing so - including the permanent resource bar along the top of the screen. Additionally, the camera is not automatically moved to an active unit, causing us to repeatedly move an entirely different unit than intended. These are just a couple of examples, but there are many others. Just like all the little improvements being the highlight of our experience so far, all the small annoyances amounted to the biggest issue with the game in its current form. That said, since this was a preview build, many of these issues may be fixed by the time of release.
Firaxis has in the past struggled with each new iteration of the franchise requiring an expansion or two in order to truly become an improvement over its predecessor. In Civilization V, for instance, religion was curiously absent at release. This time around, however, we think Firaxis may have broken the curse. There is nothing conspicuously absent, and it looks like a combination of the big and small changes will elevate Civilization VI above its predecessors. We're looking forward to trying the full version of the game to see whether this first impression lingers.