Shock news! Every single review you've read about Civilization VI is incomplete! And guess what? So is this one. That's because the huge, sprawling, wonderful behemoth that is Civilization doesn't lend itself to a cursory examination. Even the most dedicated games journalist hasn't had time to fully digest a work of this magnitude yet. It's like being handed the Old Testament and being told to write a school book review of it in a weekend.
Which, I'm quick to note in case my boss is reading, is not to say that I've shirked on my Civ playing. I, like so many other fanatics of the 'C' word, have piled hours into this game over the past week or so. And I've merely scratched the surface of this wonderful flawed diamond.
You Must Think First, Before You Move
So what's new? Well, there's a lot more stuff on the map. Cities have a way of expanding well outside the traditional one-square border, and wonders and districts now compete with farms, mines and plantations for valuable space around the city centre. These districts of which I speak? Well, they're a major new feature. If you want to build, say, a library in your city, you can't just whack it in the main city square. You need to build a campus district first, where all of your libraries and universities go. And you'll need an industrial district if you're expecting to build workshops and factories. In fact, aside from a couple of early-game basics like granaries and monuments, you're going to need districts. Placing districts is one of the more complex new systems those familiar with the series will have to grapple with. Small adjacency bonuses that reward careful district placement can become a major part of your resource economy if you use your head, and on the flip side, having an enemy's route to your city centre carry them straight over the top of your industrial district might not be the best plan.
These districts themselves are pretty pricey production-wise, so cities end up unavoidably specialising, which kind of helps to give a little character to each one in a way that cities in previous Civ games have perhaps lacked.
Speaking of character, leaders and civilisations all have very specific, thematic abilities that stretch to their agendas and unique units in order to create a team that operates optimally in a specific way. So as an example, England gets a free military unit every time you build or capture a city on another continent. While at first this might seem like an innocuous feature, those troops add up QUICK, and from a modest expeditionary force, a few early victories can lead to an instant grand army. England, therefore, invade and colonise other continents. Along similar lines, China spams early-game wonders far and wide and dislikes anyone who grabs more wonders than them. Gone are the days of civs who mostly play the same.
Government has been similarly overhauled in order to allow far more customisation, with certain types of slottable 'cards' representing policies which can be applied to any government type with the correct slot types. This simple reworking allows for feudal oligarchies and 'god-king' monarchies in a clever and engrossing way. One of Civ 6's most interesting new developments is tied to the tech tree. Or the civics tree, which is now its own complete tech tree.
Each tech or civic has its own 'mini quest' tied to it - build enough galleys and you'll get a tech boost to the shipbuilding tech, or adopt a medieval government type in order to get ahead in development of castles. Once again, this is a clever and simple mechanic that adds another layer to what makes Civilization so wonderful - the concept of no wrong answers, but so many right answers you're spoiled for choice. Add to this the fact that the city states - some of which are REALLY worth getting to know well - also handing you missions all the time, you can spend the whole time running mini-quests to grab all these added bonuses.
Communicating all of these complex systems is, however, a confusing mess in places. Let's take wonders. Aside from a tiny mouse-over icon when the wonder is first built, information about what exactly it does can be hard to find.
Information on what a city has just built is often plain wrong. Important messages appear in a panel in the corner of the screen at the start of each turn, but they can be fiddly to click on and often overloading - when two civilisations that each control a number of city states declare war on one another, there can easily be more than ten very specific messages announcing all of these conflicts, and right-clicking on them in order to dismiss them can sometimes accidentally send units off in random directions.
Remember those Districts I mentioned? Well, they're the darlings of the game - many civil policies, technologies and wonders rely on them to operate properly, but by the middle of the game they're prohibitively expensive in newer cities due to being tied inexplicably to your tech rate - a lesson I learned from Google, NOT from the game itself. Civ 6 does a poor job of explaining itself, but for any serious Civ player this'll only be a problem until we all learn the ropes. Shouldn't be longer than about 80 hours or so. Small fry in the world of Civ.
There are some other problems though, and probably the biggest of these is the AI. Once again, enemy civs aren't the smartest. They often start wars they can't finish, then either realise they can't get to you (and sue for peace by offering you some gold in a couple of turns) or drip-feed their military units to you one by one, providing few scares but plenty of free experience for your defenders. With enemies like these, who needs friends?
Trade Rules Everything Around Me - T.R.E.A.M., Get The Money...
Which is a good thing, because in my experience the diplomacy system is still - after six iterations of the game - pretty useless. Direct trade is still mostly a mystery to me. I think I use one luxury resource per four cities, so after a while I'll need a second and third source of the same resource. But when Cleopatra asks me to trade one to her, I've no way of knowing if it's in use or not. Again, this is probably something that serious players will grasp quickly, but at the moment I'm finding it bemusing.
So that's all there to show you that I'm not just a starstruck fanboy. Because there is so much about Civ 6 that I simply love. Everything is really beautiful. The map is gorgeous, and when you've explored an area but have no visibility in that area it all turns into what looks like an old sea chart. It's beautiful and just a very good idea. The musical score is themed around your civilisation, so ancient Egypt has its own music that develops and becomes more complex as your society does the same. Again, the 'polishing touches' department earns their money, and how.
Civ is a game that almost defies a straightforward 1-10 scoring system. It's a way of life. A serious undertaking which can't be quantified with a simple number. Suffice to say, this is a feature-rich and immersive iteration where attention to detail in design is apparent from the first turn and systems you didn't even realise could be significantly improved have been infused with a spark of genius. True, the AI is a woeful mess and it's lacking a few tooltips but there is none of the hollowness that Civ V had on release. Could this be a worthy successor to the majesty and awe of Civilization IV? Well, ask me again when I top the 300 hour mark. But at the moment, all signs point very clearly to yes.