Hands-on: Taking on the world in Civilization Revolution

It's something of an understatement to say that I like the Civilization franchise. I've been playing the games for a decade, and they rank highly on my list of all-time favorites. That means it's difficult for me to look at Civilization Revolution as something outside of the norm -- which it is -- because it looks and feels in many ways like Civ. Looks (and feelings) can be deceiving, however, because this isn't Civ, not really, and that works both for and against the simplified strategy game.

There have been other console Civ titles, and they've all been lacking. The mouse-and-keyboard setup is so integral to managing a huge game that taking it to the controller has just never worked, at least not for me, and attempts to streamline the game in the past simply haven't been terribly successful. That hasn't stopped them from trying, and trying again, and with Civilization Revolution, the result is a lot better than some of the past efforts.

Not familiar with the series? While you dig yourself out from under that rock, here's a brief explanation: in Civilization, you take on the role of leader of one of a range of civilizations, and you guide your people from the dawn of time, expanding all the while by building cities, exploring new technologies, constructing massive world wonders, and of course, going to war. Civilization is an exercise in management, with sprawling games that can take days, particularly if you're not one for much unit automation.

And that's exactly why it's difficult to move to a console or handheld (other than the control scheme issue). While you can play shorter games, a good Civ experience is epic by nature, and can (and should) cover the entirety of your virtual world. It's difficult to manage that well on a console; with so many strategy-based console games, even managing one battlefield can be a trial. Add in the entire world, and it becomes a nightmare.

So what has Firaxis done to make the experience a little easier this time around? They've redesigned key elements of the classic in an effort to produce shorter Civ games. Instead of days, games are set up for completion in the space of an hour or two. This means that many of the management aspects are taken out of your hands, or are now handled in a much more general way. For instance, in classic Civ, you build worker units, which you can then direct to irrigate land, build mines, roads, and more (or you can automate them). In Civilization Revolution, care of the land is automated, period, and instead of crawling square to square across the globe, building roads as you go, instead you select a menu option, pay some gold, and enjoy your new road.

One of the great things about the Civ franchise is that you can really make the game your own, and that's without getting into scenarios or even custom games. For instance, I've always been an explorer and expansionist. I typically play with the same few leaders and focus on building, diplomacy, research, and grabbing as much land mass as I can before the other guys get there. I rarely fight, unless someone's on land I decide I want (I need those gems and spices, France; get out of the way!), or I get cocky. If I'm feeling froggy and decide I'm in the mood for a fight, I choose an aggressive leader and play with an entirely different strategy. It's like having a dozen different games instead of just one, and it's a huge part of why I love the games.

Civilization Revolution doesn't feel quite as open. So far, all my starting positions have been pretty cramped, and the worlds are smaller. That, combined with the forced automation of worker units, makes me feel as though I'm pushed into combat. It's either wait around and twiddle my thumbs after assigning all my cities to building wonders in an effort to win quickly, or I take on the nearest annoying enemy. The other things that filled my turns just aren't there, and I miss them. Instead of a dozen games, I have one, or maybe two, and I feel the lack.

As I spend more time with Civ Rev, I hope to learn to appreciate this version. The gameplay is solid and offers a good challenge, especially since it retains the difficulty levels of the regular games, and there are lots of extras by way of the scenarios. Despite my remark about going from "dozens" of games in one to just a couple, even this version is basically limitless; if you're a strategy nut, you can play forever.

The controls are also solid. I have yet to run into any of the issues with the stylus that I've heard about; to me, it seems pretty precise. Also, some of the streamlining is nice. First to discover a new technology? You get a reward, which is something that happens only with certain techs in the regular games. Units and buildings are also produced much more quickly, which means fewer early turns skipped as you wait to build up your base. I do like that; in fact, I love it.

In these early stages, I'm frankly split on my opinion. It's Civilization and yet it's not. It's definitely good strategy, and the graphics look just fine on the DS (despite some questionable screenshots). It's easy to tell what everything is, which is really all you need, and the advisors and leaders look really great. Also, having tried the Xbox 360 version, I can attest that they really are the same; except for the look and the positioning of some of the menus, they feel like bigger and smaller versions of the same title. That's pretty impressive for the DS game -- Firaxis has packed a lot into this cart. It's just not as much as a regular Civilization title. For some, that will be a blessing, and for others ... not so much. Stay tuned for the forthcoming full review for more!

This article was originally published on Joystiq.