The new 4X from the designer of Civ 4 takes you back to ancient times for a characterful deep-dive through history.
If you've ever played a historical 4X game the chances are you've played an iteration of Civilization, Sid Meier's long-running and ongoing strategy series that walks you through the pages of history until some sort of victory has been achieved by one of its competing nations. It's the reference point for the entire genre, but it's doubly important when talking about Old World as this new historical 4X is the work of Soren Johnson's studio, Mohawk Games. Johnson was a key designer on Civilization III and the lead designer of Civilization IV. After leaving Firaxis his not-really-that-new-anymore studio first took to the stars with Offworld Trading Company, a financially-driven RTS that put a new spin on an established formula, and now the developer's second game is looking to pull a similar trick in a genre where Johnson has already demonstrated his credentials.
On the face of it, Old World has a lot in common with Civilization, thanks to a similar UI and a recognisable visual language that ensures anyone who has played the Firaxis series will feel right at home, at least at first. In short, you control the leader of a city-state (Assyria, Carthage, Egypt, Rome, etc) and just-one-more-turn your way through history while always working to expand your influence. The differences make themselves apparent steadily over time, but the key thing that separates the two is their focus; where Civ is a grand tour through the historical record, the Old World is kept on a much tighter leash. Instead of taking us from humanity's dawn through to the modern age, Old World does exactly as the name implies and zooms in on the ancient world, on the first civilisations, and on taking those first steps towards modern society.
It's also about people and not national mascots, as we've seen from the vast majority of 4X games in the past where gameplay hides behind a colourful but ultimately soulless figurehead. Instead of casting you in the role of one of history's timeless leaders, Old World takes a weathered scroll out of the Crusader Kings playbook with its more personable focus. It's not quite a role-playing strategy hybrid in the same vein as the upcoming Crusader Kings III, yet leaders have a personality that you can connect with via your actions, with children born and marriages to arrange, rival families competing for attention, and one-off events popping up where your decisions can have a ripple effect. In one more lighthearted instance, our court was plagued by a cheeky monkey who would steal the possessions of our courtiers, and our decision about how to proceed had a series of minor consequences that played out against the more traditional backdrop of aggressive expansion on a regional scale.
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Another interesting diversion from the norm is the way that units move. Instead of being limited to moving a set number of spaces, unit movement is drawn from a pool of orders (the size of which is determined by a number of factors). This is fine if you've only got a couple of units as you can move them until they're exhausted and then go about your business, but once you've built up a number of units you'll have to decide who to move where and when it's best to do so. You can even spend additional resources on pushing units past the point of exhaustion, giving you an ever greater degree of control as you move pieces around the board.
We still had barbarians all around that needed dealing with. To our surprise, the camps that we cleared out early on returned not long after and needed our attention again, splitting our focus early on and giving our neighbour an early excuse to declare war, which they did despite a recent marriage that we had arranged precisely to stop that sort of thing from happening. There are several AI difficulty settings and the one we're playing on seems quite aggressive because after only 30 turns our neighbour had managed to amass what can only be considered an invasion force that was able to easily roll over our smaller, divided army.
Old World is fairly traditional in a couple of other respects, for example, with research taking a set number of the game's year-long turns to complete. However, even then we see the application of an interesting twist where sometimes when selecting what to research next you have the option to conjure up an additional military unit instead, which will be tempting if you're preparing for war. We had a few skirmishes during our time with the pre-early access build and to be honest, the combat seems to be the most straightforward and by-the-book part of the whole thing.
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War is an unavoidable part of life in ancient times and it's clear from our time so far that you'll need to prepare as such. On top of putting your cities to work on making new units, you can speed things up by leaning into a healthy economy, and for that, you'll need to take care of your cities by expanding and enhancing them with workers. By taking advantage of the natural features around you, each city can be made increasingly productive. They also represent the seats of power for the great families that bicker and scheme in the background as they contend for influence and power, another system that feeds into both the strategy and the role-playing.
The result is an interesting blend of ideas, both new twists and old favourites, that come together to create a 4X that feels fresh and unique but also not so different that you'll have to relearn everything in order to access it. It's an interesting time to be a fan of this type of game, with Civilization VI in good health and about to be challenged by both Old World and Amplitude's Humankind, two titles trying different things within the relatively tight confines of the same history-infused strategy sub-genre. We're very intrigued by the blend of ingredients being thrown into the pot by Mohawk Games, and we're going to keep a close eye on Old World as it continues its march through early access on Epic Games Store PC.