Civilization III Disappoints the Faithful

Civilization III sucks. There … I’ve said it. It took me months, but I finally said it.
I feel much better now.

I’m a big fan of the Civilization series, starting with the original computer game back in college (around about 1993). Its sequel, Civilization II. represents a pinnacle in empire-building games, in which players garner their resources, research technologies, and attempt to take over the world. Civ II, combined with its expansion packs, was the definitive game in the genre, the sort of game you’d start playing at 4 p.m. and only stop playing after being overcome with exhaustion 18 hours later.

After Civ II, there was a failing out between game designer Sid Meier and Microprose, the company that owned the Civ license, and what followed was a strange split: Meier went on to join a company called Fraxis, where he and his protege Brian Reynolds produced a Civ sequel of sorts called Alpha Centuri. Meanwhile, Microprose started turning out Civilization: Call to Power as its own sequels. Each offered innovations, but none came close to the heights that Civ II reached.

Eventually the licensing deal was straightened out, and the stage was set for Fraxis to design and release Civilization III. Civ fans like me drooled over the prospect of a new game, a fact the designers knew and played to – when the game was finally released it came out in both an ordinary box and a “Civ III” collectors tin. Looking back, the collector’s tin was one of the signs of the Civ apocalypse – call it the Horseman of Superficiality.

On its surface, Civ III looks great. The set-up is the same as the previous games: you begin as a humble settler with a solitary worker. You then found a city and proceed to build your empire, learning new technology, encountering other civilizations, and struggling to achieve the political, cultural and monetary dominance that will let you win the game.

The graphics aren’t drop dead gorgeous, but they’re an evolutionary improvement over Civ II. The game’s music is understated and loops well, providing a good gaming atmosphere. There are tactical enhancements: the cultural value of a civilization is now very important, and it’s possible to conquer enemy nations by culture alone; people are so awed by your civilization’s accomplishments that they throw off their rulers, liberate their cities, and join you. This adds a new and welcome strategic element to the game.

Also impressive are the trading options – just about everything is tradable, from cities to resources, technology to gold. There is one notable downgrade though: there doesn’t appear to be any way to trade military units (a favorite tactic of mine from Alpha Centuri; I used it to bolster allies who were fighting an enemy while I remained technically peace).

The importance of natural resources is also a nice touch. In previous games, discovering a technology automatically granted you the ability to build units based on that technology. Not so any more – now you need to acquire the resource associated with that technology to build a unit. For example, you might know how to build tanks, but if you don’t have a supply of rubber, you can’t build them. The same goes for building legionnaires and iron, or nukes and uranium.

All of this is great. But unfortunately, the game’s management tools suck. And that relegates the game to a back shelf in my closet.

The biggest single problem with Civ III is that the design team seems to have gone out of their way to make it as difficult as possible to manage an empire, while at the same time requiring the maximum amount of mouse clicks to get something done. Old standbys that existed in Civ II and were improved on in Alpha Centuri have been stripped from the game. The purpose may have been to make it simpler, but the result is to make it all but unplayable.

Take war for example: in the old days, you could set a city to automatically send the units it produced to one destination – a rally point if you will. This mean that you didn’t have to micromanage every unit that a city produced, tell each one where to go – the computer handled the details and you could concentrate on using the units to wage war against the damn communists. Civ III doesn’t do this, and the end result is hours – and I do mean hours – spent moving units from Points A-X to Point Z. It’s excruciatingly tedious.

Then there are patrols: in the old games, you could set a unit to patrol between two points. If the unit encountered something, it “woke up”, and you could deal with it accordingly. Not so in Civ III, which demands that you manage each and every unit, moving them in a parody of a patrol that’s extremely time consuming. Heck, in the initial release it wasn’t even possible to set a unit into “sleep” or “sentry” mode; the game only let you fortify units. That’s all well and good but the damn things don’t become unfortified when an enemy strolls by. The result? Even on the lower skill levels the enemy civs easily slip past any units you might have on your frontier or guarding your shoreline.

Espionage is next to useless – in earlier versions of the game there were specialized spy units that could be used to infiltrate enemy cities. These spies could bribe enemy units, inspire rebellion in enemy cities, and even target specific improvements for demolition. In Civ III, that’s all gone. Instead there are a handful of espionage options handled through mundane menus. They’re remarkably underwhelming, allowing you to create embassies and deploy spies, both of which serve only to provide you with information. Perhaps more advanced options appear later in the game, but after a half-dozen plays I never saw them.

Even the simplest of commands form the earlier game have been corrupted. “Go to” – which let you conveniently send a unit to a specific city – no longer exists. Instead you must manually click the destination for each unit you want to move via a mouse command. And if you click on a city as a destination, the “Go to” resets itself, forcing you to go through the entire procedure again!

The interface sucks. There are only three on-screen buttons to access the main menu options (like save game, civ reports and such) and they aren’t even pull-down menus! It takes two or three mouse clicks just to get to the right report screen, at least double the number required in the earlier games. And while there are myriad short cuts, you’ll be hard pressed to find them.

Corruption is a nice game concept, but it’s way too powerful, sapping the strength of anything larger than a mid-sized kingdom. Which would be ok if it weren’t for the fact that the damn AI can easily outstrip you, and doesn’t seem to have any problem with the corruption sweeping through its kingdoms.

Each of these may seem like a minor complaint, but the problem is that there are dozens, if not hundreds of these annoying little details that eventually sap your will to play the game. When it comes to Civ – which can be a horrible monster to manage – I want as many freaking management tools as possible, and I want them with a minimal amount of mouse clicks. Civ III’s management tools are non-existent, and the designers seem to have gone out of their way to reduce the game’s usability to hereto unknown depths.

It kills me to have to write a negative review of a game I thought I’d love, that’s part of a series that I’ve always enjoyed. I can not understand how the mainstream gaming press can give award after award to a game that is little more than a shadow of its former self – I have not heard one positive word-of-mouth review from any of my gamer friends, and I know of at least one Civ fan who was so disgusted that he returned the game to the store and demanded his money back.

Now, after having played the game three or four times, and having won at its lowest level … I wish I’d taken the damn thing back too. My sole hope for this game is that they will release an expansion that restores the game’s old command set and introduces new, useful management tools. There have been some signs that they’re getting the message – some of the incremental updates have restored the functionality I’m longing for, but it’s too little, too late. That said, I’m a sucker for Civ, and I know I’ll pick up the expansion – called “Play the World” – when it’s released in October. I just hope I’m not disappointed again …

Product Details

  • Civilization III
  • Publisher: Infogrames / Fraxis
  • Platform: Windows 9x-XP / Mac OS
  • MSRP: $49.99