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Sulla’s Civ 5 Brave New World Review

This guy’s quickly become one of my favorite game reporters/reviewers recently, able to make seemingly banal game experiences fun and insightful. Unsurprisingly, one of the immediate reactions people have to seeing his site is that it’s from the 1990s because the coding and presentation seems to be old. Well, fuck that, because the content is classic and continues to be good, even if the flash isn’t there. A link to the Brave New World Review in question:

I went on a recent Civilization 5 binge, fueled by a borderline aspergian obsession to finish all the difficulties. Once I won on Deity however, I didn’t want to play the game anymore, as it didn’t seem fun or fresh. While I couldn’t totally understand all the reasons behind how I felt about the game, this game writer pretty much illuminated many of them with his detailed explanations of game mechanics, and game balance experience himself as a former member of Civ 4’s balance team.

The eventual conclusion he comes to, after being disappointed by the vanilla version of Civilization 5 and ultimately returning to play and review Brave New World, is basically a trend across many aspects of our culture: the dumbing down of everything, handing out participation rewards and superficially appealing to casuals. You see it in music, games, media, everything. In his own words:

“All of the things that I’ve been criticizing for long paragraphs here in this review – the freebies handed out constantly, the endless filler stuff that looks important but isn’t, the One Unit Per Tile combat that makes anyone look like a tactical genius, the simplified happiness system, the passive and reactive style of gameplay – the exact things that irritate many veterans of the Civilization series are the same things that make many newcomers love Civ5. Think about all of the ways that the gameplay has been reworked to cater to less experienced players. It was very common for newcomers to be confused by how the sliders worked in past Civ games. They’re gone, replaced with science/culture/faith/etc. counters that tick up automatically in the background. Less experienced players tend to build few cities and fewer workers. (I’ve introduced many non-gaming friends to Civ games over the years, and this is the number one thing that always jumps out at me when I see them play.) Civ5 tones down the need for expansion, and flat-out gives the players a free worker and a free settler if they take the Liberty tree. Then there’s the endless deluge of free stuff that constantly gets handed down throughout Civ5. This is the Facebook style of gameplay introduced to the Civilization series. Who doesn’t like getting free stuff? Keep giving out a constant trickle of rewards just for playing the game, and you’ll keep players hooked on Mafia Wars Civilization 5.”

I’m no veteran Civ player, but the one game of Brave New World I played was incredibly unsatisfying. The additions were basically exact clones of existing successful features (the ‘skill tree’ social policy system duplicated for religion and ideology), or completely pointless filler crap (archaeologists), or just cool additions to the presentation (such as actual pieces of artwork, or short snippets of music for Great Artists). There was more, but not better. Preach, Sulla:

“The gameplay in Civ5 has been deliberately set up to appeal to this sort of less experienced player. When I watch my non-gaming friends play one of the Civilization games, most of the time they’re just sitting around hitting next turn. “Do something!” I think in my head. Build more cities and units, come up with a plan, something, anything. But no, they’re just having fun experiencing the ambiance of the game, they don’t have any particular goals or strategy in mind. Civ5’s passive style of gameplay is a perfect fit for this sort of player. You can sit back and keep hitting next turn without doing much of anything; eventually, the game will keep popping up to give you free rewards, and tell you how awesome you are for playing the game. Remember, Civ5 is a game where stuff largely happens to you, not the other way around. It’s the exact opposite of a game like Civ4, where if you don’t MAKE things happen, nothing WILL happen. That’s boring to newcomers! People who are not bigtime strategy fans are far more likely to enjoy Civ5 than they are Civ4. They don’t have to build many cities. They can automate workers and generally do OK (since the tile improvements are a lot simpler in Civ5). They don’t have to bother much with diplomacy, with no techs to trade. If they do get attacked, then they can show off how awesome they are by exploiting the horrendous incompetence of the combat AI. Keep in mind that they vast, VAST majority of people playing a Civilization game will not be playing on high difficulty, and they’ll only play a couple of games before moving on to something else. We had a rough number when I was working on Civ4 that something like 80% of all players would never try anything other than Chieftain difficulty. The complex breakdown of the gameplay mechanics that I’m mentioning here are completely irrelevant for the overwhelming majority of the Civ5 playerbase. They could care less about this stuff! Most of them are just enjoying moving units around and building wonders, and Civ5 does a tremendous job of making that a pleasant experience with its beautiful graphics and lovely orchestral music. Civ5 is winning these customers over in a big way.”

The sad truth is many of the iconic presences in my early gaming life, especially Blizzard and including Sid Meier’s Civ games, are all taking this route for one reason or another. Blizzard was making tremendous genre-altering strides at one point in its mid ’90s to early ’00s run: Starcraft, Warcraft 2/3, World of Warcraft, and Diablo I/II each either created or totally redefined their own dimensions of games. You could certainly argue that World of Warcraft was the beginning of the panderous era, but the vanilla game and its first expansion proved a nice combination of challenging endgame content, accessibility, and presentation without making everything dumb easy. Warcraft 3 remains a totally awesome and unique take on the RTS genre, taking it from a big-picture level to a very detailed tactical challenge, spawning its own descendant MOBA games. But Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3, regardless of initial commercial success, have been relative duds. They’ve been safe and profitable, and that’s what the shareholders demand, but no new ground is being broken. The trust capital is gone.

And the people you usually should trust even less when it comes to this game are the reviewers and critics: the vast majority of them are either complete casuals, or in bed with the companies making the games they’re paid to write about! This isn’t quite as dire a situation as the whole regulatory capture phenomenon in industries like banking, but it’s still a circlejerking cycle where everyone scratches each others back, more product gets sold, and filth proliferates.

I guess at some point, we all ‘grow up’ and start having to worry about responsibilities in lieu of things we’d rather be doing. We usually have to ‘sell out’ in our own ways, often out of necessity. But here and today is a shoutout to Sulla, one of the many who will keep doing things the right way, regardless of how it looks or whether it sells.


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