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Civilization VI review: Civilization VI is 4X excellence (review)

The breadth of the new civic system, the expanded cities, deeper diplomacy and research tree make your choices feel more personal, important and specialised. You feel like your Civ is your own, not like you're racing to the end of the tech tree for the umpteenth time.

The 20 leaders in the game all have unique abilities that change their play style.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

Foreign policy

All 20 Civs in the game come with their own unique abilities and units. Each Civ leader's unique abilities funnel them toward certain victory conditions based on their actual historical agendas. Saladin leads Arabia with a strong science and religion focus, where the aggressively expansionist Victoria grants England military bonuses while on different continents. They play completely differently when you're at the helm, but more importantly, they seem like more distinct players when they're controlled by AI.

City States and Great People also got a bit of an overhaul, offering specific bonuses rather than being tied to generic traits. It might sound like it's made Civ VI more predictable, and in a way it has. But it's introducing that predictability in very welcome ways. Enemy Civs aren't likely to launch surprise attacks without at least some warning, you'll be able to work out how to stay on the good side of AI, you'll know how to shoot for specific bonuses. You have more control over your destiny.

The new government systems are heavy on customisation.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

Cultural victory

Then there's the little details. The game, back with a more cartoony art style, looks gorgeous. The unexplored areas of the map look just like that -- a map awaiting a budding explorer to fill in the details.

Sean Bean reads out the now ubiquitous flavour text. I don't need to comment on the quality; that sentence should speak for itself. The music is beautifully scored, evolving as you move through the epochs of history.

The new interface means you don't need to go digging through two or three screens for important info about your cities. It just feels smoother, like it was more deliberately considered and crafted. Civ V was a master's game, Civ VI wants that information accessible for anyone to master it.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

It's not without issues -- the primary one being the old Civ bugbear of AI on higher difficulty simply cheating. They're given overwhelming numerical bonuses rather than being made more cunning, which has been the case for pretty much every Civ in recent memory. You're going to need to really earn those Deity difficulty wins. It's still got a steep learning curve. Even players returning to the series will want to tick the "New to Civ VI" box for the early tooltips and learning exactly how to map our your city to maximise the bonuses won't come easily. But that's half the fun.

Civilization VI, and Civ in general, is not a game for everyone. Dedicating dozens of hours to learning the intricacies of the game's politics, research trees, optimal ways to grow cities and other minutiae is a big ask. But if you're a fan of the franchise, or you're curious enough to dip your toe in the water, Civ VI is the best that strategy gaming has to offer.

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