In the evolution of strategy game design, Civilization III is clearly the best thing since Civilization II. If you've been playing these sorts of games all along, you're going to love it. And since it includes a comprehensive scenario editor, serious players are going to be cranking out mods and scenarios that give Civ III almost impossibly long legs. You'd be hard pressed to imagine a game with more replay value than this. There's no question that this a perfect holiday treat for longtime strategy gamers. But how will it play for the casual gamers who spell the difference between critical and commercial success?
Features like culture add significantly to the series' core gameplay.
On one hand, Civilization III is more streamlined than its predecessors. It still ramps up slowly, gradually introducing new game mechanics as you advance through time and technology. In fact, the technology tree has been pruned considerably. Research doesn't meander anymore. Instead, it passes through a series of choke points that determine which of the four ages your civilization is in. As time goes on, there's less disparity, and diversity, among each civilization's technology. The dilemma of science isn't so much which path to take--since there aren't many--but whether to linger in one age to explore all the optional dead ends or whether to make a beeline for the next age. Do you stick around the industrial age to discover amphibious assaults, paratroopers, helicopters, espionage, and communism? Or do you rush into modern times to get started on nuclear subs, space flight, and stealth bombers? The new pruned tech tree keeps science focused for new players while giving experienced strategy gamers enough choice to keep it interesting.
Things such as aircraft, trade, and espionage are also streamlined--unfortunately, espionage is so streamlined that it seems tacked on as a poorly documented afterthought. There's a new emphasis on gold, which has many more uses than it did in the previous games. The combat system is flexible and intuitive, presenting numerous options for combined arms without throwing a bunch of stats at the player. There are simple rules for complex ideas, such as defensive artillery fire, zones of control, retreats, air superiority, and unit experience. The interface keeps the map under your nose whenever possible. Overall, the game is easy to manage and full of Sid Meier's trademark cross-linked screens and clearly demonstrated relationships. There are very few "soft factors" running invisibly under the hood. This is a confident, competent, accessible design that presents almost no obstacles to new players. It's built to suck you in and teach you to play. In this regard, Civ III is perfect for casual and new players. It won't scare off people who might just be considering their first epic strategy game.
At least that's the way the first five or so hours are. Civilization III has done almost nothing to solve the problem of increasing complexity as the game goes on. The endgame bogs down in as deep a morass of micromanagement as ever. Civilizations sprawl and brim over with units. Managing your workers and terrain improvements can get complicated and tedious. Pollution is still an exercise in workers scuttling to and fro. City management and terrain improvement can be turned over to the computer, but you'll get weird situations like archers being built in A.D. 1600 and cityscapes speckled with too many mines. This is a problem with most games that model the epic sweep of history, so it's not unique to Civilization III. What is unique to Civilization III is the inordinate time between turns in the later game. On a midrange system, it's not unusual for the computer to take well more than a minute between turns. This will tax the patience of even serious gamers, so it's hard to imagine casual gamers putting up with it. To its credit, however, the new victory conditions in Civilization III mean you won't necessarily be shuffling units until the bitter end.
The graphics and artwork, which are charming and varied, should do a good job of hooking you in. The map looks great, striking the perfect balance between being zoomed in close enough to look attractive and being zoomed far out enough to be useful. Animated units fight battles and cheer when they win. Cities, citizens, and advisors are updated as a game progresses through the different ages. It's amusing to see an industrial age Cleopatra in a prairie bonnet or Shaka Zulu wearing a contemporary business suit. It's also gratifying to see your city grow into brick buildings and then skyscrapers.
Civilization III will appeal to fans and new players alike.
The manual is generally decent, but it leaves a lot of information to the online Civilopedia, which isn't consistently available. On the city list, the option to sort cities doesn't work. Also, Civ III doesn't offer any decent way to find specific resources, cities, or units. Looking for oil? Wondering where your elite riflemen went? Can't remember where the closest barracks is? Have fun hunting around. Also, as the game neared completion, Firaxis decided not to ship with multiplayer support. It has suggested that multiplayer features might be added later, but if you're looking for a multiplayer grand-strategy game, then Civilization III isn't the place to look for the time being.
It speaks volumes that the most significant complaints specific to Civilization III are minor interface issues. Civ III represents solid design coupled with careful execution at its level best. Between its streamlined gameplay and unparalleled pedigree, Civilization III can open strategy gaming to a wider audience and kick off the sort of renaissance that role-playing games enjoyed after the release of Baldur's Gate. We can only hope. And even if it doesn't, well...we'll always have Civilization III.