DS Fanboy Review: Civilization Revolution

Few games have inspired as many different reactions -- all heated, all extreme -- in me as Civilization Revolution. There are few aspects of the game that are just "okay" for me; everything is either really awesome or really annoying, and in the end, it's difficult to condense all of those feelings into a simple yea or nay. The short version is that Civilization Revolution is a pretty good DS game. As a Civ game ... well, it's different.

Civilization is an intense experience. After all, you're starting with a few guys dressed in ill-fitting skins and attempting to conquer the world through a variety of strategies. The games are often enormous, sprawling across a map that can take up most of the globe (oceans be damned), and due to the sheer size of the games, they've just never worked well on consoles. This game changes that, but in a very intriguing way. Civilization Revolution isn't a port. It's not a remake, or even really a reimagining. It's a complete rebuild, with such radical changes in some areas that it hardly feels like the same game, and yet, the base gameplay of one of the world's best turn-based strategy franchises somehow manages to remain intact. It's not without flaws -- and some are pretty serious -- but Civilization Revolution does manage to accomplish a very simple goal, and that's stripping down Civ and making it a manageable (and fun!) portable experience.

At first, I hated Civ Rev. It just felt so incredibly different that I couldn't wrap my head around it. The features I'd grown to love just weren't there. My preferred strategies often simply weren't possible. Time flew by. The gameplay was different. Combat seemed like Risk dice rolls on a particularly unlucky day. And then the DS accidentally fell right under my shoe ... or rather, I realized that it was supposed to be different. In order to make the games shorter and create a manageable experience, Firaxis had to make an all-new Civ, and that meant I had to, on many levels, relearn how to play. Fair warning to all other Civ junkies -- this isn't the game you're used to. It's, at best, a distant relative who happens to look eerily like your favorite aunt.

The fact that it feels and plays familiarly makes this harder to accept. On the DS, as opposed to the console versions (which I also fooled with), the stylus makes it very familiar. The stylus works more than passably well here as soon as you figure out the peculiar dragging controls used to manage units. The menus are a lot simpler; a few points, a few clicks, and your cities are under control.

But a lot of that control is taken away from you. No longer will you build roads tile-by-tile; drop some gold and it'll happen automatically, but beware: long roads will cost you. Want to develop the land around your cities in specific ways? Tough; that happens automatically here. You've got other fish to fry. Letting go of some of the control-freak aspects that make Civ such an attractive (and highly personalizeable) game is going to be a challenge for a lot of Civ lovers, but for those who are new to the franchise, or who like other DS strategy games (or both), that's part of what will make this version so palatable.

But there are some issues to be grappled with here, and they're not really gameplay issues. It's not the changes (which are mostly sensible) -- it's the interface. Civ Rev is littered with repetitive dialogue, irritating pop-up-style information screens, and empty screens that serve only to make you tap the screen or hit the A button. Luckily, there's no long, drawn-out dialogue, but as it is, there's a whole lot of extra clicking going on. A little quality control on that aspect of the game and maybe something else could have been put back in, such as manually-controlled workers. Yes, the extra screens and obstacles seemed to add that much to the game, and they were by far the worst aspect of the title.

The feeling of forced-combat I felt when previewing the title is definitely a design choice, but after I adjusted to the game, I learned to enjoy that more. I do miss the slower, craftier games in which I perch, spider-like, on my corner of the map, atop an empire of Wonders and workers, but that sort of approach just isn't possible in a fast game. In order to make the combat focus easier, adjustments have been made to Civ Rev that actually work quite well in making a combative more enjoyable, particularly in the scenarios -- which are usually my least favorite part in PC Civ. Here, they're awesome, and so well-designed that they're enough to merit a purchase without even considering the rest of the game.

The only problem with this combat-focused approach is that the combat here just isn't great. Like the interface issues, it would have benefited from a little tweaking. As mentioned above, the combat feels very like Risk and not much like the relative stats of units particularly matters. That's unfortunate, since so much of strategy depends on unit balance.

That isn't to say combat is bad, or it's all random. Terrain still has an effect (though sometimes different effects than Civ players might be used to), and certain units are still better against others. It just feels like there's a little more of an element of luck. But combat and unit management is more than workable, if not ideal, and after a few games, it becomes apparent that a lot of this Civ is about approach rather than adaptation on the fly.

Each of the sixteen civilizations available for play come with their own bonuses, and they're pretty serious advantages. At the point of deciding whom to represent, you'll be setting your strategy, and in order to win, you either need to be very on the ball, or just stick to it. While this is also a factor in PC Civ, here, you don't have the time to correct or change focus. Everything moves too quickly.

The speed of the game is one thing Firaxis got very right here. Technologies roll in, Wonders go up quickly, and there are bonuses galore. Find a river? Get paid. Discover tech before your opponents? Get a bonus unit or building, and not just for certain technologies, either. Rewards are common -- so common that you might be tempted to slack -- but they're necessary to keep things going, and to keep you in the game. At all difficulty levels, your opponents are pretty aggressive, and since space is tight, they're going to be looking to your land. You're going to need all those extras in order to defend it.

Civilization Revolution is still Civilization, but with a different approach and a different flavor. It's an interesting direction, and definitely the best non-PC attempt at Civ to date. It just may not be what longtime fans are looking for. That's okay -- the PC games aren't going anywhere, and after some necessary adjustments, this is a great alternative. After all, sometimes you have time to sit down and enjoy a steak ... and sometimes, you've only got time for a really tasty piece of beef jerky.

Visuals: The map and most of the menu screens are very simple, but effective; you can see everything that's going on and figure out where to go, which is really all you need. The combat, advisors, and leaders all look great, however!

Sound: If I never hear "Firaxlish" again, I'll be able to say my life was a good one. The sound here is simply nothing special, and after the first few sessions, I kept it turned off.

Story: Tale as old as time indeed -- this is pretty much the story of the Earth, and it's one of your design. Oh, but there's no traditional story, no, except for some slight elements that shape the scenarios.

Controls: Civlization Revolution is pretty excellent in the controls department. The stylus is accurate and easy to use, and you can switch pretty seamlessly between touchscreen and button controls.

Difficulty: All the old familiar levels of Civ difficulty are here, so at least you can choose that aspect of your game. In reality, though, it's just going to dictate how soon Gandhi or Elizabeth gets all up in your space, demanding your tech and money. Still, due to the differences from regular Civ, it's recommended that veterans start at a little lower rung than usual, unless you're in the mood for an ass-whipping of epic (but quick) proportions.

Final verdict: 8.0/10 -- if not for the sheer amount of content and replayability, this score would have been a hair lower for the pervasive interface issues. However, the problems, which are easily skippable (just annoying) aren't enough to outweigh the amount of gameplay packed into even a reduced Civilization.

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This article was originally published on Joystiq.