With Firaxis' superlative Civilization III, that old-school, up-till-5am-addictive, and one-more-turn-based grand-strategy gaming that was introduced 10 years ago in the original Civilization is back. And it's back with a vengeance. This sequel to one of the greatest games ever, which was itself the sequel to one of the greatest games ever, lives up to its lineage. It is a paean to the principles of solid design, sleek interface, sharp artwork, unlimited replayability, open architecture, and epic storytelling. It is yet another example of Sid Meier and company's cunning insight into what makes games good. Civilization III is, in short, a triumphant proclamation that strategy gaming is alive and well and still able to keep you rooted in front of your computer for hours at a time.
Civ is back--and better than ever.
There are two ways to look at Civilization III: either as it stands on its own, or as the most recent version in the evolution of a line of games stretching back to Sid Meier's original Civilization. As the latter, it's immediately clear that Civilization III's apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. In fact, you might even be disappointed when you start your first game of what feels like a warmed-over version of Civ II. But this feeling fades with time. The more you play, the more you'll realize that the new game's seemingly subtle changes have a significant impact.
Many of these changes are carried over from Firaxis' Alpha Centauri, which introduced concepts such as unique factions, national borders, and a living map. All of these are present in Civilization III, but it isn't just Alpha Centauri with a historical setting. Although the game's various civilizations aren't as distinct as Alpha Centauri's factions, they each have a unique unit and two "strengths" that give them special advantages. The unique units, which are really just souped-up versions of common units, are useful for only a limited time. For instance, everyone eventually gets jet fighters, but the Americans can build F-15s that hit a little harder. However, this doesn't come into play until late in the game, during the modern age. Similarly, the Romans' legionaries are slightly better than the commonly available swordsmen, but this isn't much help once history progresses into the middle ages. Unique units have their brief moments in the sun of time, providing their civilizations with a temporary military ace up the sleeve.
The civilization strengths, on the other hand, tweak the basic rules and have long-term implications for how you play the game. For instance, when you play as the Babylonians, who enjoy their strengths of being "scientific" and "religious," you pay half price for scientific and religious structures, you get a free technology every time you enter a new age, and you can instantly change governments without a period of anarchy. You might not appreciate the impact of these bonuses until you're playing a civilization that doesn't get them. Suddenly, important structures cost more, technology doesn't come as easily, and you're not as flexible when it comes to changing governments. With your choice of civilization, the dynamics of the game vary just enough to make you sit up and take notice.
The concepts of national borders and a living map have advanced significantly since Alpha Centauri. Each city accumulates culture depending on what you've built. A 3,000-year-old city with an ancient coliseum, cathedral, library, and university will have a whole heap of culture, whereas a new backwater village with a small temple will barely register. This is important because borders extend from cities based on how much culture they have. With enough culture pushing them out, your borders can swallow neighboring cities and bring them into your empire. Civilization III models the seductive power of entertainment, art, and religion. It's a form of conquest with sitcoms, music, and priests rather than soldiers, and it adds an important new dimension to the game.
The technology tree is more streamlined but still complex.
Another powerful and subtle difference is the role that the map plays in Civilization III. Terrain is no longer just a source of food, shields, and trade arrows. Rivers are a significant factor in combat and the development of cities, even well into the later game. Roads, railways, harbors, and airports connect your cities to each other and let you import goods from other civilizations. Cutting a certain stretch of road or blockading a particular harbor can plunge an entire civilization into panic or shut down the production of tanks, airplanes, and railroads. Because it's important to link to a certain resource, remote patches of land might take on new significance as the game progresses. The geopolitical shape of the world will shift as technology comes to rely on iron, then coal, then oil, then uranium. In Civ III, the map lives and breathes and drives the game. It's much more than simply a place to put your cities.
The computer's artificial intelligence is formidable, but it's not clear how much of this is due to "cheats," which are bonuses commonly given to make up for the fact that a computer AI can't see the big picture as well as a human can. Some suspicious things go on during the computer's turns. Units shuffle back and forth pointlessly as if they were patrolling. Twenty workers will march all at once to irrigate a single square. There'll be an awful lot of outdated troops loitering around the AI's empires as the 20th century rolls around. But on the whole, the computer is surprisingly capable of providing a smart and competent challenge. It seems to recognize the importance of strategic resources on the map. It will pillage important terrain improvements and attack in numbers, making good use of combined arms. In terms of diplomacy, the AI civilizations don't react as abruptly or unpredictably as they have in the earlier games. In fact, diplomacy in Civilization III is a slow, ponderous, and frail process. Two sides starting a war can drag their allies with them, and world peace can collapse like a house of cards. Civilization III features overnight cataclysms of World War I proportions.