Civilization Revolution (PS3)
Why update a classic? Why fix what's not broke? Why not just leave well enough alone? Civilization started out as a perfect game 17 years ago, and all that time later remains a perfect game -- one simply frosted with different flavors from time to time to attract new fans.
Looking back at the history of Civilization, all one can do is marvel about how unlikely it was in the first place. If a turn-based strategy game based on developing a civilization -- wildly mixing historical fact and fiction, famous names and impossible timelines -- seemed like a good concept, then making it so complex that it needed an in-game encyclopedia must surely have been a wrong turn. And who would play a game in which you could win by building cultural institutions, and part of the fun was deciding whether or not to send your citizens into the forest to harvest lumber or into the hills to mine for minerals? The mind boggled. It still does.
But in the good old days of gaming, no matter how bad the idea, a few dedicated and perhaps slightly nutty guys could bring it to life. What might have made the list of "worst videogame ideas ever" has instead become an elemental design that's often copied by other games, but never distilled from its original, purest form.
If you're a fan of any of the past four major Civ versions, expansions and spin-offs, Civilization Revolution -- the latest Civilization game and the first serious effort to retool the game for the console -- stands out like light beer in a biker bar. Sure, it's Civ, but what have they done to it? Trimmed-down to fit the control and display limitations of the console, it looks like designer Sid Meier and company have evaporated their stout classic into a mere wisp of its former self -- Civ Lite, Civ for Dummies, Diet Civ.
Determined to give the game a shot, loyal series fan that you are, you load it up on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 (the games are basically identical across the two platforms), ready to give it a fair shake. But really, you're just going through the motions to cement your derision of the thing -- this mini-van of the Civ world, made generic and stripped of style and class to appeal to the "mainstream."
You fire up the tutorial level as Abe Lincoln, supreme ruler of the Americans. After you have workers collecting resources and a military unit exploring the fog surrounding your first city, a cartoon battle filled with yells and clanging swords ensues when you stumble across a barbarian tribe. After you walk away with some gold and a few angry comments from the local warlord about losing his village, you flip through the well-organized in-game Civopedia and plot out a strategy for military dominance, starting with researching pottery. Dorky 3-D advisors bob onto the screen to cheer your decision with contextual hints as they jabber away in a language that sounds an awful lot like The Sims' "Simlish." Nonetheless, with visions of world domination growing, you crank out more troops, start expanding your borders, generate streams of settlers to found the fledgling cities that will fuel your war machine, and start the slow, inevitable march toward your global victory.
The peace treaty you just made with the Germans looks to placate them long enough to you continue your push to the south of the continent, right through Napoleon's flimsy defenses. At this point you realize, goddammit, you're just playing Civilization.
The endless list of new features in Civilization Revolution that take away a favorite a play tactic or a tried-and-true strategy don't matter as much as the raw appeal of steadily building up your civilization and trying to outrun everyone else in the world to the finish line. Revolution, whatever else the box says, is just Civ.
Sure, you'll miss the world map. It makes exploring more difficult, since you can't easily see the large swaths of fog that are surely hiding all kinds of goodies. (You get used to scrolling around the world with the thumbstick to look for things.) Online play works, but the turn-based formula grinds a little slowly for the console twitch culture. And certainly, the most hardcore fans will lament the lack of editors -- long a staple of nerds who happily learned Python so they could write their own game scripts.
As experienced Civ players might have worried, simplifying combat and resource management make the game easier to play while also taking away those clever strategies you've used over the years. Before, if you met a world leader who liked to fortify their cities and wait out the battle, you could use your units to tear up his roads and farms and slowly starve him into compliance. Now, it's fight or nothing. You can still tweak your city production toward a specific goal, but in most of the game's levels of difficulty, you won't have a reason to play city manager.
A consequence of this user-friendly, streamlined style of play is that Revolution seems to favor military conquest over the more high-minded economic, technological or cultural victories. Civ's always argued a "peace through superior firepower" idea -- forcing even the most pacifistic premiers to build up a heavy defensive force -- and Rev takes it a step further. In too many ways, it's easier to blow your neighbors up than to negotiate with them.
Remarkably, though, you never really feel like you are playing Civ Jr. The Civilization games always have offered you plenty of choices, but never made you think about too much about too many things. If you wanted to focus on that naval strategy, or really work on your economy, you could do that without a lot of fuss. Things could certainly go wrong, and you'd have to buy off the French or battle the Japanese -- but most of the time, you could just focus on deciding whether you wanted a new city to crank out more soldiers or settlers on the way to your next objective. The fact that you had 80,000 possible options never really mattered, as long as you had two good choices in front of you.
Meier has been famously quoted as claiming that "A game is series of interesting choices." With Revolution he seems to have figured out what fancy restaurants have known forever -- people really only want to choose from chicken, steak, pork, fish or vegetarian. They don't need Denny's encyclopedic menu of eggs prepared four dozen different ways to enjoy a meal. The cultured palette only wants to make a few strong choices and let the chef made them worthwhile.
That's what makes Revolution work. It's the choices the game offers, rather than those that it takes away, that stand center stage. As a result, it's easy to learn for the newcomer and it's masterfully prepared for the old-timer. Rev isn't a really a revolution -- it's well-balanced, nuanced and layered with extra helpings of the humor and toy-like goofiness (Come on, my tanks are the size of my cities!) that have always marked the series. Rather, it's another wonder in the Civilization empire.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by Crispy Gamer.