Sorry, Sid Meier, but I haven't spent more than 30 minutes with any version of "Civilization." My first look at one of the games' thick manuals was enough to suggest that maybe this series, despite the universal critical acclaim, wasn't for me.
But, the idea behind "Civilization" -- world domination -- is compelling. It's this underlying interest that excited me to check out an hour-long demonstration of "Civilization Revolution," Firaxis and 2K Games' attempt to make "Civilization" console-friendly.
Most previews I've read for "Civilization Revolution" have been written from the perspective of a gamer familiar with the series. I'm absolutely not. My challenge to "Civilization Revolution" was simple: if you really are a console-friendly version of a complicated PC strategy title, I should be having fun before the demo's hour is up.
Yesterday, I made my way over the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time to visit 2K Games' offices in Novato, California, about 25 minutes north of downtown San Francisco. Finding their office was no small feat; there were no gigantic logos to guide me through the surrounding construction. 2K said I wasn't the first to lose their way.
The demo was meant to focus on the multiplayer features, but producer Jason Bergman suggested I spend a little time in the tutorial first. While the 2K Games PR representative in the room resisted at first -- the rep wanted to make sure my time was spent with the multiplayer they were specifically showing -- Bergman's suggestion eventually won out.
Good thing, too. Without the tutorial, my impressions might not have been nearly as positive (or coherent).
At its core, "Civilization Revolution" is about world domination. The game allows the player to achieve that goal in several ways: technology, combat, economics and culture. You may start out with one strategy at the beginning of a match but pursue another later. Gamers are not forced into one winning tactic. Brute force is the fastest to execute, however, so that was to be my strategy.
The pressure of trying to wrap my head around a genre foreign to me in front of two near-strangers was significant. But the tutorial provided a good area for me to familiarize myself with the controls. I left the nuances to Bergman to describe. With only an hour at our disposal, fiddling around with trial-and-error wasn't really an option.
Grasping the controls was tricky. One stick controls the camera; another controls unit movement. On paper, that sounds logical -- but trust me, it feels weird. Part of the disconnect comes from the fact that movement is unlike most console strategy games: it's tile-based. The tiles are hidden from view in "Civilization Revolution," but they are definitely there. You'll understand better when a playable multiplayer demo is released ahead of the game's release.
The tutorial provided me with little confidence that I'd grasped the basics of "Civilization Revolution," but we pressed on. Bergman assured me he'd provide tips as we entered the live multiplayer match against a developer in another room.
Multiplayer in "Civilization Revolution" currently supports up to four players over Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. The developers have implemented drop-in-drop-out play, as well. If you leave an in-progress game, it doesn't end in a draw; an A.I. takes over, but a player can also re-take that A.I.'s spot later. Bergman suggested it's possible the A.I. could actually perform better than the player, and in my case, that most certainly would be true.
I expressed some concern over the length of the multiplayer games. Bergman told me we'd only be playing a small section of a real match; most matches are expected to last between one hour and four. As of now, there's no way to "save" a match and come back, a feature present in "Civilization" on PC. Bergman admits it's probably technically possible -- albeit with some hurdles, especially with XBL's peer-to-peer service -- but it's not available this time around. Maybe next time, he suggested.
For the first 30 minutes of the match, I kept asking Bergman to remind me which buttons to press, which direction to head in and which shortcuts I should use to ensure units and buildings were created at maximum efficiency. My head was spinning, and then it happened. The controls clicked, unit movement becomes a breeze and suddenly, to Bergman's audible surprise, I was telling Egypt and Germany, two civilizations who approached me with peace, that they could take their proposal and shove it. I preferred war.
If it weren't for the fact that our demo started to wind down at this point -- they still had to show me the Nintendo DS version -- my flippantly arrogant attitude would have sentenced myself to impending doom. Luckily, a press of Xbox 360's guide button rescued me from such a fate. For now, anyway.
I felt more secure with "Civilization Revolution" at this point, but I still wasn't fully convinced. So, Bergman pulled out a copy of Nintendo DS version, apparently identical to the console versions outside of its visuals, and let me hit the ground running. This time, friends, I was on my own. And it was fantastic.
The same tutorial I'd stumbled through 60 minutes prior was a cake walk for me on the dual screen. The basic mechanics are exactly the same on the Nintendo DS, but I argued that the gameplay was notably faster in handheld form. Not true, said Bergman: I'd just figured out how to actually play the game. And I did it in an hour.
Mission accomplished, "Civilization Revolution." See you in June.