Civ IV, Revisited

Late last year I wrote a review of the then-new game Civilization IV for Played.todeath magazine. It was a hard review to write: Civ IV was a brilliantly designed game that was crippled by performance and user interface issues that made it, in my opinon, virtually unplayable.

At the time I opined:

[The developers are] rumored to be working on fixes for some of the issues in their release. If the patch is better engineered than the retail release, I might be willing to revise my opinion.

It is, and I am. I’ve recently been playing Aspyr’s Mac port of Civilization IV, and it is a much more enjoyable experience than the original Windows release. Here’s what you need to know. Most of the improvements to the codebase have been incorporated in recent Windows patches as well, so you don’t have to go the Mac route. That being said, a number of aspects of the game seem to just work better in the Aspyr version. Most notably, alt-tabbing back to the desktop is quick and painless in the Mac port, whereas when trying the same thing on Windows it always seems just too darn slow. On the downside, both the Mac and Windows versions of the game require that you keep the CD in the drive while playing, because no one ever plays games on a laptop.

The most noticeable improvements in the updated version of the game are in how it performs. No more do you suffer from intolerable slowdowns on large maps. The game moves along at a brisk pace, which allows you to enjoy the strategic improvements to the franchise that much more.

And the improvements here are not small. It’s hard to describe them adequately without getting marred in minutiae: many reviewers like to discuss the intricate system of religions, for example. I prefer to describe the matter in broad strokes. The game allows for a certain degree of strategic flexibility that was abjectly missing in Civ III. Playing Civ III was like building a house out of playing cards. Cards that had been dipped in oil. Also, you were trying to build the house on the deck of a ship, during a storm. What I mean by this is that you could spend 4 hours playing a perfect game of Civ III, and then you’d make one wrong move and your country would be annihilated in under 45 seconds.

Civ IV is more sensible, and has an arc of play more appropriate to the game’s timescale. You can still run things into the ground if you’re not careful, but through commonsense gameplay and forethought you can almost always salvage some dignity, if not an actual victory.

In other words, it’s a better game. A more balanced game. A game that, now that we can actually play it, is more fun to play.

The other issue I had with Civ IV was that I found certain aspects of the UI to be tragic. What particularly enraged me was the in-game help system, the Civilopedia, which I described as “not there when you need it, and when it is there, it’s hard to use.” The patches have solved the latter problem: they have thrown away the useless “icon view” in the Civilopedia and replaced with a simple, easily navigable hierarchy of English text. Let’s hear it for blessed simplicity. I’m still unhappy with the haphazard way the game targets tooltips, but I can live with it.

On my MacBook Pro, with all detail knobs cranked up high, I didn’t have many performance issues. When you zoom out to a great height and the game chokes for a short while trying to swap the ridiculously huge cloud texture to and from the graphics card. This same interaction brings the Windows version of the game to its knees, also. The Mac version was compatible with all of the mods I tried. The game was noticeably slower on the G5 I tried it on, and is effectively unplayable on a Powerbook G4. I’d be interested to hear from readers who have played the game on a MacBook as to how the game performs.

I’m well aware that there are many people who bought the original version of Civ IV and had absolutely no problems with it. I wasn’t one of those people: for me, and for many others, the game was a whirling nightmare of bugs and slowdowns. I am truly happy that a few months of extra engineering has resulted in a game that I can enjoy, now, too.

Disclosure statement: Aspyr graciously provided Tea Leaves with a review copy of the game.