Amiga Power1st August 1992
Published in Amiga Power #16
American strategy sim things - doncha just love 'em? We do, but there are one or two problems to iron out.
What is the world coming to? It seems we are no longer content simply to run and jump around small sections of it. Now we want it all. We want to dictate the growth of planets and manipulate lifeforms to perform for us by means of so-called God Simulations.
But as the list of them grows ever longer, my faith diminishes with every passing deity. I do like the idea of these interactive 'fish tanks', but I'm not so impressed with the clumsy way they are so often presented.
Most of these simulations seem to come from America, but I'm not going to pontificate on the inherent megalomaniacal tendencies of its population. What I will say is that a majority of American product is written for the IBM PC and compatibles, for which hard disk space is a must. The upshot of this is that the designers and coders need have less consideration for their medium than, say, memory-conscious slaves to the Amiga.
There's also the fact that American software is often imaginative but poorly implemented, as opposed to the by and large slick but vacuous European releases. My point is this: it's all very well having a product which does this, that and the other, but if it's not much fun to use then it doesn't amount to a hill of beans.
Take Civilization author Sid Meier's previous release, Railroad Tycoon. I liked it but it simply wasn't anywhere near as entertaining as it should have been. When I play with a glorified train set I want to see and hear bells and whistles in every possible sense. The problem is, for all Sid and his associates' enthusiasm, they lack a suitable sense of style and, as a result, their produce resembles a more mundane WIMP environment instead (which is too sober an interface for entertainment software like this).
Civilization does nothing to dispel my beliefs. The idea here is to develop a vast civilisation from a tiny tribe (armed with a rudimentary knowledge of such fundamental developments as irrigation) taking into consideration such essentials as economics, politics, defence, exploration of the Earth (or a fictitious world) through history (from the discovery of the wheel and the alphabet to nuclear power, robotics and space flight) and (hopefully) beyond.
All this is achieved in a game system where you get to found and develop cities, set taxes, incite revolutions, choose government systems, keep your people happy and pollution to a minimum, discover and make advances, play it so cool you are honoured with a 'We Love The (King) Day', mine and manage resources, build roads and railways, explore space, exchange information and trade with or spy on other civilisations, form armies, create weapons, prevent and cope with disasters, steal and sabotage, bribe, build impressive Wonders Of The World, and even slow diplomacy if the need arises.
And there's more! Cash, of course, plays a major role in almost every aspect of life as you make it.
Points are awarded for skillful play, and high scorers get to enter the Civilization Hall Of Fame if they retire, reach out and touch the Alpha Centauri star system or conquer the world (only the last two successes are considered 'winning'). I'm not going to dress it up any more than is necessary. The gist is this: Civilization's on a grander scale than Railroad Tycoon, only it appears more amateurish.
It's hard to feel compassion for pixels at the best of times, and Civilization's bland, lifeless icons do little to create the essential emotional bonding between the player and the product. Having to blatantly manipulate variables through a clinical system of taking 'turns' leaves me cold.
I have other gripes too which aren't as trivial as they may sound. You do, after all, pay to play professional product. The 'instruments' used for the title music are drab. I can live with that, but there's little aural feedback evident during play (the 'jingles' are simply inadequate). The typeface used throughout is plain ugly, and so is the cheap-looking window system. The interface is sluggish and fussy (you wouldn't believe how frustrating it can be to execute functions and enter text), with information flickering as it appears on screen in a sloppy manner akin to being dealt, badly, a deck of cards while you blink (a bit like the mouse-driven pointer). There aren't any decent rewards for progress either, just the occasional full-screen picture with simple animation.
Now, I can see how you would believe that I have it in for Civilization (and Sid Meier, MicroProse, his fellow countrymen and, come to think of it, the rest of the world). But, do you know, the saddest thing of all is I don't. The man has some fine concepts (no, really). And I actually got a big kick out of playing Civilization, but not a large enough one (honk) to overcome my resentment at having to channel so much effort into excusing the interface.
Look, Sid I - and many others, I'm sure - would love to spend the time developing a civilisation, but not in the same archaic way you obviously do. Don't be so selfish by bestowing your greatness only upon those prepared to persevere. People pay you to entertain them, to make the escape from reality as painless and seamless as possible. We deserve better.
Maxis' Sim City doesn't look superior I grant you, but at the least the very average rewards are easier to reap. A product such as this could be used to educate, too, but not where it's so unnecessarily uninviting as Civilization. Indeed, a civilisation simulation could be a nation-sweeping sensation, but not if its presentation's an imitation of Civilization's. (And let me take this opportunity to tell you in all fairness that Sim Earth on the IBM PC and compatibles look marginally better but isn't as playable as Civilization).
It's a great pity, for within this shoddy body beats a heart of gold and there are the bones of a healthy subject. But the road to success is not paved with good intentions. No doubt there are certain sections of the public who consider Civilization the greatest thing since the creation of life itself. But no matter how seriously you take your software (and my comments, come to think of it), you cannot deny that computer entertainment should not be a chore. As it stands. Civilization is almost excellent but I can only highly recommend it to all you mature, patient and forgiving saints out there.
The Bottom Line
Uppers: There are millennia of varied civilisation developing to be had. Here is your change to right society's wrongs and create your own utopia (well, provided other civilisations share your views and don't develop warlike tendencies, but, of course, that's unlikely).
Downers: It's no oil painting, but that's nowhere near as big a downer as the fact that it's usually frustratingly slothful in use. The flat, dead feel of the environment does not befit the theme of the nurture of life either.
Now here's the tricky bit: an overall percentage. Civilization deserves credit, make no mistake about that, for it's an impressive strategic model with plenty of depth. Its lacklustre presentation lets it down but, that said, when compared to what's come before in a similar vein, Civilization is no worse.
Indeed, in terms of potential playability, it makes many like-products seem positively trite. So maybe this rating will surprise you...