Civilization VI – my experience after one day

The legendary, first “Civilization” game was published in 1991. And it was the equivalent of an atomic bomb on the very idea of “videogame”: things that people didn’t imagine possible, just became so.

It looked like this,

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Remember?

but it didn’t matter: it was a brave, ambitious and epic concept, that challenged players to think in a different way, to simulate the entire history of humankind, by becoming protagonists and taking all the most important decisions.

It was groundbreaking. My teenager self was very easy to impress with a good story, and which better story could exist, than all human history? Boom. I was touched,  captivated, forever.

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Alexander back in the days of pixel graphics. Of, we were so young!

As described before, I spent countless hours on the series. Well actually, not countless. Now there are software solutions for that. I know I clocked 1,700 hours (and some) on Civ 5. Just a little math and voilà: the total duration of my relationship with the game approximates 9,000 hours. That’s the equivalent of one year of life.

Dramatic pause.

Numbers that should make me think, right?

And they do. They make me think that I want even more!

And so last friday, after a long wait full of anxieties, expectations and hundreds of preview articles and leaked bits of information (oh I love that feeling), finally it happened.

I mean, have a look at the launch trailer and tell me if it’s not epicness and greatness embodied.

And the song! “Sogno di Volare”, written by grammy-winner Cristopher Tin – the first and only videogame soundtrack ever to receive the award – with Italian lyrics apparently coming from a manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci and a dreamy, classical score for voice and orchestra.

Every single detail was inviting me to dive deep into a new, grand experience.

Of course, being now the super-veteran gamer that I am, I wanted to wait before buying it. At least read a few reviews, compare opinions from critics and users. I have lived (and played) long enough to know that even games from a long and noble franchise can disappoint, sometimes bitterly (the latest Master of Orion and Fallout 4 are examples that come to mind).

But Civ? Could Civ do this to me? (Well… does “Beyond Earth” ring a bell there? Because it should).

Anyway. Sometimes (“dear mister Spock“, adds the voice in my head) for better or worse we don’t take our decisions based only on hard logic and reasoning. It’s passion and instinct that prevail. Well, definitely this was one of those times for me.

All it took me was one – one – message on my Steam dashboard reminding me that “Civ VI was now available” and all my doubts were gone. My mouse hand was already compulsively performing the few clicks necessary to get it. And so it was mine, on day zero.

Fast forward on the following couple of days, and here are my impressions on the experience I had by playing 14 hours – so please remember, this cannot be a complete view on such an enormous project. But since you are probably here for one reason only (to learn about the new game) I will cut short with the blah blah and get to the point already.

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The map can be chaotic at times, but there is simply so much happening all the time, the world feels really like an organic entity under your eyes.

Let’s start from the bottom line: is it good? It is good, very good. One of the best of the series, without a doubt. Maybe up there with Civ IV fully upgraded. In just one day, Civ V has become completely obsolete. 

Is it perfect, amazing, the ultimate gem of perfection? No – maybe not just yet.

First: the game is HUGE. And I am saying this from the top of a lot of experience in the franchise. This is absolutely the biggest, most complex Civ game ever. It feels like there is always something else to do, learn, decide or explore.  On the release, day-zero version, it feels as deep as Civ V with all upgrades and DLC. Which is to say something.

All the features are there: religions? Check, and more articulated than ever. Cultural achievements? Check, and with more depths (you can now find relics, historical artifacts – like the “Holy Graal” – besides the works of art introduced in Civ 5). 

Trade? Check, now funnier to manage, and more embedded in the game mechanics.  Great People? Yes of course. Now better. Not anymore robot-like beings you could mass produce, different only in their name; now each of them is unique, with a specific set of abilities. And you compete  with the other civs in some sort of global market, where who can produce more point of the appropriate type wins their services (so Galileo can decide, you know what? I think I like Arabia more). They can stay in the game and give a hand on the field (much like the old great generals, but one particular scientist can cure your troops, for example), and when they retire they unlock a powerful, unique bonus to your Civ. I hope they managed to make Great Admirals good for something, finally. Haven’t tried yet. 

Diplomacy? There, with a lot more options that actually make this aspect of the game closer to the “Europa Universalis” series (and it was about time, diplomacy has always been a bit lacking in the Civ games. More on this later).

And much more of course: combat, exploration, buildings, researchthe tech tree has been split in 2 now: one for technology itself, and another for social and cultural developments. And both have consequences on the game, unlock buildings, wonders, diplomatic options and game concepts. 

And here is the stroke of genius: all the different systems are interconnected, and basically every action you take will have consequences on other sub-systems of your Civ. You found coastal cities? Your naval research gets a boost. Your religion expands? Here comes the need for social reform. And so on. The combinations are so many that way into mid-game I was still surprised by the many levels of interaction. 

It’s an element that is not confined only in the early game, but remains interesting across the whole playthrough. Nice one. 

(Edit: Archaeology and Espionage are there, too, and are promising).

government_panel_civ6 The government and social policies system is great, and fun to play! If anything, I am sorry there are not more government forms. The choice feels a bit limited for now. DLC material, maybe?

And the new government system! It has been profoundly revised, and now each player will have plenty (I mean, an awful lot) of options to customise their government form. They are organised like a collectible card game, which gives a nice “gonna catch ’em all” touch.

This way, two games will never be the same again: you can play as the Romans and focus entirely on military and conquest (with a strong, autocratic government eventually evolving into a Fascist regime), or follow a peaceful and enlightened path based on culture and science, never leaving the Republican ideas but letting them flourish into a modern Democracy. Or a Communist government can be shaped to give life to Dubček’s “socialism with a human face” :) “Socialism with a human face”, or get Soviet with a brutal liberticide dictatorship. All the choice is yours, and it feels better than ever. 

Combat is fun. Nothing new here, but each unit does its part and it feels fresh and fun. Some redundant units are gone (farewell medieval swordmen).

Back is the option to stack units together, not to create invincible armies like in Civ 4, but at least some. Nice touch: you can “attach” service units like a siege tower to a melee one, to have new game effects (the tower negates the city walls bonus).

And this brings us to the more technical aspects. From this point of view, make no mistake, this is the best game ever. It does an impressive work in the way the world feels alive and there are so many moving parts, it’s incredible. This is enough to keep the player busy and fascinated, staring at the screen for minutes at the time.

Also, cities now feel much more realistic and complex than ever. They are not anymore one single map square with everything in it, but literally sprawl around, with wonders and specialised districts (a new game concept: they can focus on military, science, culture, entertainment, etc) that mean more meaningful choices (and possible errors of course). All in all, and a lot more strategic fun and a huge replayability value.

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Here you can clearly see how the Pyramids occupy one full map hex.

The sound and music section is really super. I mean, awesomely super. Sound effects don’t limit to “getting the job done”. They are seriously good. I love the sound crossbows do when they bring their rain of destruction on the enemy. And I haven’t tried gunfire yet.

Sean Bean is voicing the text entries. In a series that has seen Leonard Nimoy at its peak, it’s a demanding job. I find he delivers with charisma and grace (and his accent). 

Soundtrack: music this time deserves a story on its own. Each civilization comes now with a full theme which evolves through the different game ages. Check for example how the Russian score goes from a simple, tribal tune to a high tech, epic symphony reminiscent of World War II glories.

Great, isn’t it? Now imagine it done for each of the civilizations in the game (they are 19 at the release, as far as I know). If you want more, here you can find the themes for Germany and here the Roman ones, real “from dust to glory” material that I love particularly. For more, just check it yourself on the Tube. They seem to be all out there.

Graphics. I read critical comments on the internet about the new, cartoonish (but mind you, not immature or childish) graphic style.

True, it’s something new. And the map visuals aren’t the easiest to read. Pretty, yes, but I found them confusing at times. The whole new look takes a bit getting used to. Once you do, it can be gratifying, but I can see how it’s a matter of taste. For sure it’s impressive, from the technical point of view. The animations and level of detail are amazing. 

I mean, look at the work on Harald, the leader of Vikings,

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Yes, I get it! You like big ships! Now stop yelling at me, please?

Isn’t it great? You bet it is. Wait until he starts demanding more and more of you, or complaining about your life choices, and then we will see “great”.

Speaking of leaders, let’s get to the diplomatic relations, in my opinion one of the strongest aspect of this new game. They have been profoundly reworked, focusing on the “human factors” and trying to portrait each leader as a distinct personality, which can give a unique turn to the events.

Each historical leader has a set personal agenda (for example: Queen Victoria loves – surprise, surprise – Imperialism) which will determine their strategy, and also the relations with the other big guys out there. 

In addition to that, they will have another random trait (for example: “fun-loving” or “industrial might”) – which again, makes sure each game will have some unique aspects. In other words, you will never meet the same Cleopatra twice.

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“Show the blade only if you wish to attack” is the warning Hojo Tokimune likes to give me. Even for no reason at all, sometimes.

This will affect profoundly the way each match develops, and soon the player realises that simply, you can’t be best friends with everybody. There will be leaders that will match the style of your civilization nicely (example, love mighty armies and cultural development), others that are born to be natural enemies (like: compete for the same city states, or for natural wonders), and some that will evolve during the course of the game (if you compete for example for the same achievements, such as bulding the Pyramids or having the strongest religious influence on the continent, love will not last forever). 

Oh well. After all, human history doesn’t seem to be all about best buddies and everlasting friendships, no?

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And Cleopatra… ehr… she likes big armies, and will be friendly towards anyone with a strong military. I am not entirely sure what to think about this.

But enough of this now.  Let’s get to the bad news, because there must be some, right?

Yes. For now, the game still feels a bit rough and unpolished. Some design choices make little sense (spamming settlers and founding city after city has no negative consequence at all? Like, really?) and the map in particular is not terribly friendly. 

I find it’s not always immediate to understand what is happening on each square (mines in particular have microscopic details), and I have to use the mouseover a lot more than I wished. Also, the interface can be improved with little usability touches like optimising double or right clicks, or keyboard shortcuts (what happened to them? People still use keyboards in 2016, or is it only me?).

The game on marathon mode (because I start with the longest possible game, what else), could not be perfectly balanced. The ancient age felt too short. Medieval and Renaissance were better. Don’t know about the rest yet. 

The real bad, possibly infuriating side is that the AI still… how to put it… well guys, the AI sucks. 

On my first playthrough, I was defeated after barely half an hour, with a surprise attack I definitely didn’t see coming after years on Civ V which made me lazy and spoiled. Great, I thought, here comes a new challenge. 

But for now, it seems that my initial impression was wrong. In the second run (and last, as I write) with a little more luck on my starting position, I feel like I can kick everybody’s ass, if I just wanted to. I don’t want, of course, being a magnanimous and cultured world leader, but the feeling is there and it’s not great.

It really helps that the diplomatic mechanisms are made transparent and now relations are for the most part a game of numbers – little green bonuses / red penalties that sum up to determine if you can befriend America, or rather must see it as the real Empire of Evil). It makes the whole thing feel less arbitrary, explanations are provided, and I never got the feeling (“why the hell are you mad at me now”) that is normally experienced only in married life. 

But some situations simply make no sense at all and will need serious patchwork.

Like, I bought a priceless relic for a handful of gold coins (poor, fool Cleopatra). And then it’s impossible, impossible to sell resources for a fair price. No matter how my counterpart likes me or not.

Or again: my neighbours kept declaring war against me, despite my clear superiority, and offered me fantastic peace conditions after just a few turns. Again and again.

And like, England being mad at me for a city I conquered some eight hundred years ago? I don’t know if that penalty to relations is ever going to disappear, but it seems not. Boy, that’s some serious holding grudges issues right there. 

And all of this is something you don’t get in Europa Universalis or Crusader Kings II. It can be easily fixed, especially after users feedback starts coming in. Let’s just not be dicks. I am confident Firaxis will be responsive to their players community. 

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You would definitely NOT pass a Turing test, dear Queen Victoria, and the sun will soon set on your pathetic Empire.

Civ VI is a demanding experience. In technical terms, yes. As it happened before, a modern Civ game is a technical colossus.  Graphics, sound and the sheer amount of data to process each turn will put your machine to a serious test. And yes, the game can run on less ambitious systems, but with a lot of graphic optimisation work, a smaller map and fewer opponents. Not really the best way to experience the game. 

So, if you were thinking to give away a few of your hard-earned seashells for a computer upgrade, this might be the perfect time.

And demanding in terms of time. As I said, after playing half a day I barely feel I was scratching the surface of this giant. Which will be nothing new to the classic fans of the series, but of course can be intimidating for newcomers or occasional gamers (btw: there is a setting intended for “super fast” multiplayer games, but frankly I wouldn’t even consider touching it once. Simply, not my style).

But not intimidating at all from the gameplay perspective. And this is frankly nothing short of amazing.  Such a huge game, a level of complexity with few equals, which at the same time feels fresh, friendly and easy to approach, thanks to the tons of feedback, a great tutorial that can be customised at will, and a very intuitive game platform design. All the information is there, easy to access and nicely streamlined. You are always just one click away from everything you need (and you don’t get this kind of treatment in many other strategy games, Paradox included).

Really a superb example of how to make a gigantic work feel friendly and inviting, rather than menacing and offsetting. I honestly think the choice to give the game a more playful and less intimidating look has also to with this: making everybody feel like at home.

In conclusion: Civilization VI seems among the best of the series. Up there with the top. It brings a hell of a lot of new content and ideas to the table (enough to keep also the most experienced players engaged with learning and possibilities), but manages to do it in a friendly and fresh way.

The game has a huge complexity and loses nothing of its traditional epic scale and depth. I still feel I am exploring its possibilities. And it’s addictive. Freakingly, scaringly addictive. Seriously, it should come with a health warning.

It is not without issues, particularly in the interface and the poor AI, but experience – or maybe blind faith – tells me that they will be (at least partially) addressed in future patches and improvements.

As usual, the modding community will also do its part (have they started already? They probably have by now), and contribute to make this one a gigantic, infinitely rewarding gaming and learning experience.

If you are a fan of the series, just buy it, seriously. The rest feels old already.

If you are a fan of strategy games, just buy it. The Civ series has been raising the bar for the genre over 25 years now, and Civ VI does it even better.

And if you are just curious, this might be the best time to try one of the best classics in the history of games. But be warned, it’s not a casual experience.

If you are not any of the above… Well, thank you for reading all this anyway!

Civilization VI will definitely stand the test of time. 

I am so grateful for it. I need to go now. But wait… just… one more turn…

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