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If you're a fan of the incredibly addictive Civilization strategy series and haven't bought Civilization IV yet, you can probably stop reading now to go buy the game.
If you're familiar with the Civilization series, then you're already well aware that they've traditionally been turn-based strategy games that let you play as the political leader of one of the world's nations (such as Gandhi of India or Julius Caesar of Rome) in a fictitious bid to take over the globe, starting from the Stone Age and continuing right on through to the Space Age by having a lone settler unit build your first city on the way to establishing whatever advanced society you choose to design over the course of dozens of turns. The series gives you plenty of ways to do this, such as conquering your neighbours, researching advanced technology, or, in Civilization III (and IV), creating the most cultured society on the planet. It's this great variety that helps give Civ IV the same alarmingly addictive quality its predecessors carried. And thanks to its many improvements, major and minor, and its greater emphasis on strategy over bean-counting, Civ IV isn't just as good as Civ has ever been...it's better.
Like in previous games, your political leader has two special traits that will influence his or her reign, though all the game's traits are new, such as "organised", which cuts down on maintenance costs, or "expansive", which generates bonus health in cities and helps hasten growth and expansion. And Civilization IV fundamentally offers the same goals, but in a much more evolved, more strategic, and ultimately more rewarding manner. And each of these goals comes with many more options, which should open the game up to players with busy schedules...even if it may still seem overwhelming to beginners.
The Civ series' gameplay has several components, and almost every single one of them is improved in Civ IV. For instance, the series' combat system, which pits different military units against one another based on relative unit strength and technology, has been changed to a "strength" system that seems more intuitive. Units that are greatly advanced will have a clear advantage over more-primitive ones (to avoid the commonly cited, though rare, case of a tribal spearman defeating a tank in previous games), and military units in general have many different upgrades they can earn as they receive experience points and gain power levels.
Civ IV has also improved on the way diplomacy works. While you can still make nice with your neighbours (and you can even win the game with a diplomatic victory condition), you have more options than just trading goods, cities, technologies, and/or relations. You can attempt to influence your neighbours to make war or peace with other neighbours, and you can even fence everyone out of your backyard using the game's new "open borders" system. In previous games, neighbouring nations could send their city-building settlers and their soldiers wandering across your nation, free to declare war on your vulnerable home cities and worker civilians unless you complained strenuously (which sometimes caused them to declare war anyway). In Civ IV, the new border system means that no units from any other country can enter yours unless you have agreed to open borders with that particular country... or unless you're at war with that particular country. This is a godsend for defensive players who prefer to hang back to develop an economic, scientific, or cultural infrastructure without fear of ambush. However, even this new addition is balanced, since keeping your borders locked up tightly and never coming to your neighbours' aid doesn't make many friends. Other nations actually remember your actions and are poorly disposed if you refuse them too many favours.
You can make neighbouring cities more apt to like you by adopting the same religion. One of Civ IV's brand-new features is the religion system, which is an intriguing addition, even if it isn't crucial to your success. The game's new religion system adds seven new creeds to the game, each of which is tied to a specific technology and each of which can influence your cities' culture-producing temple structures and missionaries. However, aside from the facts that some religions become available earlier in the game than others (since they're tied to earlier technologies) and that different religions lead to a different unique building (more on that later), all religions are pretty similar. Your overriding goal, should you choose to pursue a religious path, is to have all your cities -- and your rival nations' cities -- subscribe to the same faith: yours.
On the other hand, pursuing a strategy of cultural supremacy has been greatly improved in Civ IV. Nearly all cities generate a certain number of "culture points" by default each turn, so focusing heavily on cultural expansion by building culture-producing structures in your towns -- such as religious temples -- can hasten your expansion that much more quickly. If you focus specifically on developing your cities along a specific strategy, such as cultural advancement, they may produce a "great person," one of the game's all-new special units.
The new great people system is an interesting and useful addition that will probably be especially appreciated by experts. Great people can be expended in exchange for a number of powerful abilities. For instance, the culture-producing unit, the great artist, can be used to create an artistic masterpiece in a specific city, which drops a "culture bomb" that instantly generates thousands of culture points and greatly expands that city's borders. And depending on your strategy, as well as which technologies you've chosen to research, you'll also be able to create great military leaders, scientists, and religious prophets, who can all be used to create other powerful effects, like combining two or more great people to start a "golden age", in which your empire's production of units and structures is greatly increased. As it turns out, one of the game's all-new leader traits, "philosophical", increases your chances of producing a great person. So pursuing these powerful units seems like a viable strategy, though they don't seem overwhelmingly powerful, especially since they're extremely fragile and disappear whenever any of their abilities are used.
In response to fan requests to adjust the pace of the game, developer Firaxis has added three speeds: the surprisingly fast normal speed, the even-faster quick speed (in which you gain money, resources, and technology at a faster rate), and the slower-paced epic speed. While epic speed seems better suited to purists who prefer to take their time, the quick and the normal speed are conducive to much faster play. In fact, in quick speed it can actually take as little as an hour or two (or less) to take over the world. And even normal speed moves at a brisk pace.
Even single-player and multiplayer options have been improved in Civ IV. The single-player game offers much-improved artificial intelligence that seems to cheat much less than in previous games, or not at all. In the single-player game, rival nations won't mysteriously explore the entire world in two turns, nor will they use those two turns to magically build a network of five cities where there were none before. Computer-controlled nations will also make much more reasonable bids at the table, but they can't be easily bribed with small handfuls of cash, either. The single-player difficulty seems to scale extremely well by offering a very gentle introduction for beginners at the lowest levels and a suitably tough challenge for experts at the highest levels.
Multiplayer also seems to work quite well, and thanks to the game's faster pace, it seems much, much more realistic to actually finish multiplayer games, especially on the "quick" speed setting. And as you might expect from any good turn-based game, Civ IV also supports play-by-e-mail and hotseat multiplayer, along with LAN and Internet play. The game even ships with additional custom scenarios and three fan-made modifications that offer new play modes.
You don't have to be a history buff to enjoy Civilization IV, though that would help...and so would previous experience with other Civ games. Beginners will find Civ IV to be a complex strategy game with something of a learning curve, but with worthwhile rewards waiting for them once they start figuring things out. Experts will find Civ IV to be the proverbial better mousetrap: adjusted, tweaked, and sometimes completely changed. But it's still a Civ game, and with Civ IV, the series is even more engaging and addictive than ever.
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