PC Review

Civilization IV: Colonization

Sam calls for patches

Tie Fighter. Maybe Stunt Car Racer. If a developer is going to remake an old game using current technology let's make it something that would really benefit from the advances made over the years. A game where improved graphics, sound and a modern interface would reinvigorate the excellent gameplay and make it seem worth the bother. A strategy game, on the other hand, is not going to really gain much advantage from a straight overhaul. Sure, some interfaces in old games were more of a challenge than the game itself but generally speaking the underlying gameplay is not reliant on the bells and whistles. And if you are a developer who decides to revamp one of your older titles make sure you refrain from improving the things that don't matter while breaking the things that do. Which, most unfortunately, is what has happened with Colonization.

The original game was a wonderfully diverting trading game with a splash of military affairs thrown in. Settle the New World for a European regent, exploit the local resources to make desirable items, build up trade networks between your various settlements, cope with the natives and eventually try to free yourself from the yoke of oppression that grows increasingly heavy as that regent demands ever more from you. The idea was simple, the execution basic and the addiction deep and long lasting. A game from the early 90s, Colonization seemed a decent title to kick up into the 21st century and under the gaze of its original creator, surely it could only be a success?

At first things seem to have gone well. The use of the Civ IV engine makes things much more appealing to the eye than the 2D tiles of the original. Civ IV gamers will feel quickly at home with the interface and will soon find themselves eagerly settling promising terrain and planning future tea parties. However, even with many months of Civ IV experience under my belt I had to blindly feel around as the 'tutorial' is a woeful parody of the term. You'll want to read the manual straight through at least once, which although it is admirably old 'skool' just doesn't cut it in this day and age. I bemoan the loss of the wonderfully tome-like manuals of yore but if there's going to be a tutorial it should at least teach you something about how to play the game.

Even as you are figuring out what on Earth you're supposed to be doing you begin to notice other problems. The random map generation is far too random and makes Colonization even more susceptible to restart-itess thanks to a terrible starting position than Civ itself. There's no tech tree so you're immediately presented with a lot of building options. You need to bring in colonists from across the Atlantic as your colonies cannot initially grow at an appreciable rate based on their own production. You'll need to import specialists like farmers and fishermen to make the most out of the land while you'll probably also want some statesmen in to begin the march to independence (more on these fellas later). Once you get a grip on things - probably after a few restarts - things pickup and you begin to enjoy seeing your little hamlet grow and sprout offspring. Depending on which of the four nationalities you have chosen your relationships with the natives could be peaceful or less so. If it's the former you can convert them to your religion and eventually produce home grown specialists, some of which - like tobacco planters - cannot be created by building schools in your towns, which is the third method of maximizing efficient production. Bizarrely though, the more people you train at schools the longer it takes to teach them. After a few hours you'll have a burgeoning set of colonies producing all kinds of goodies for sale back at the homeland. Any money you make from selling cigars, coats, cloth and so on can be used to purchase equipment, weapons and colonists to help speed along your growth.

Soon enough, your colonies will be attracting bonuses from the Founding Fathers from all the liberty bells your statesmen are producing at town halls, you'll have figured out how to set automatic trade routes up despite the lack of a functioning trade screen, befriended the locals with your rolling skills (or been wiped out by them; there seems to be no middle ground), and be embellishing those earlier visions of freedom. Once 50% of your entire population has been talked into backing independence you can give the one-fingered salute to your King and brace yourself for the War for Independence. Which, until you figure out what is broken with the game, should last around ten turns as the Royal Expeditionary Force annihilates you without pausing for breath.

After this had happened to me a few times I noticed that by producing liberty bells I was causing the King to add troops to the R.E.F. The more bells I produced, the larger his army became and the more insurmountable the fight I was to later face. If I held of producing any bells at all I would forgo the production benefits and most of the Founding Fathers but at least the King would not start snowballing the size of his army right away. If I timed it just right I might have enough time to build some troops, convince 50% of my people they wouldn't get slaughtered this time and kill the entire R.E.F. before the game automatically hits the turn limit and finishes. In other words, the primary focus of the game is atrociously balanced, making the game practically unwinnable unless you exploit this design flaw. The combat itself is lifted straight from Civ and also becomes tedious once you hit on the winning tactic of letting the REF take your towns and then exploiting their lack of defensive abilities to wipe them out.

The improved graphics, the implementation of many Civ IV elements like great people and generals and the introduction of multiplayer to Colonization do not make up for the many flaws which almost break the game. Once you've figured out where the cracks are and how to exploit them the game loses almost all of its appeal. For a few days I couldn't get enough of Colonization. However, once my frustration at my seeming impotence against my nasty regent was replaced with exasperation at the lazy game mechanics I lost all interest. I still play a game of Civ IV once every few weeks (in addition to the PBEM games I've been playing for a very long time indeed), that's not just because it is wonderfully balanced but because you always know that you cannot anticipate how a game will end. Colonization must end with your victory or defeat to the REF and while this was also the case in the original in this update the path to the end game is mired by the restrictions imposed upon you by that very goal you are working towards.

This game may be cheap but it often feels even cheaper. It's not just the simplistic mechanics at work but the rough edges which begin to cut once the initial lubrications of happiness at replaying a classic title have worn away. From icons that shift slots on the UI to redundant information screens being favored over the existence of useful ones, Colonization 2008 feels more like an intern project than a game that should be sold to the public. For what is essentially a giant mod of Civ IV, gamers should expect nothing less than a complete and functioning game. They are not given that and until some serious patching occurs I sadly cannot recommend Colonization to anyone. As a life-long Sid Meier fan it pains me to say it but this is one game I shall not be waxing lyrical about for years to come.