Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
04 December 2008
REVIEW: Civilization Revolution DS
The novelty of being able to play Civilization on a pocket-sized device got to me, and I bought Civilization Revolution for my DS. The result is rather good, excellent even, but it also suffers from a number of irritating little lacks, lacks that result from the developers not taking the DS version seriously.

Let's do the DS stuff first, and talk about Civilization Revolution itself, as a game divorced from platform, later. It's a major point in the DS version's favor that, although it lacks the Civilopedia, that massive database of information on everything in the game, and scoreboard support, it is an essentially-complete version of the game. As far as the core gameplay is concerned, it has been crippled in no way by being for the DS. The DS version of Civilization Revolution is, basically, the same game as that for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. It uses the same game rules (a simplified mix from across all four Civilization games), it has the same four victory conditions, and the same punishing A.I. drives the computer players.

And why shouldn't it be the same game? The DS is not an underpowered piece of hardware, compared to many systems. It's much more muscular than the Gameboy Advance, and that handled Advance Wars 2 with style. It turns out that, in Japan, the Super Famicom got a release of the original Civilization, and that's on a processor clocked at less than 2 mHz. These are turn-based strategy games, which are not known for tiring out a processor unless it's high-level chess or something similarly insane. If the core logic of a Civilization game is demanding enough that it requires a Cell processor to make it run then frankly I don't think I'd want to play it. Let's keep the difficulty level within the realm of human ability, hm?

In one respect the DS version is better than the 360 and PS3 versions. Because it's a portable system, no one expects it to have great graphics, so visually the game has been graphically regressed to Civ 1 style. And to that let me add: it's about time!

Isometric tiles and 3D interfaces may look great, but they're really fancier than a Civilization game has to be, a feature to sucker people into buying it who have no real idea what Civilization is about, and probably have no business playing it anyway. This is a game series that, even from the first version, was pushing it concerning control complexity. Adding in visual clutter was ill-advised. "Normal" players might be drawn to the game by the visuals, but the players who are really serious about Civilization will want to keep the display as simple as possible. And the DS version of the game does this pretty well. Screenshots of the 360 and PS3 versions reveal that the graphics in those versions has been given a thick coat of fluorescent paint. Oh well, at least it's not gray and brown.

The primary advantages of the DS version are simplified display and holy cow porta-Civ. These are huge benefits, enough that, if done perfectly this could have been the version of Civilization Revolution to own. It seems it was hard for the developers to believe because there is ample evidence they viewed the DS version as a throwaway project. There are a few notable lacks that, while I'm not sure they're not similarly lacking in the other versions, I doubt it.

One of the most surprising has to do with an outright error in the inexcusably-poor manual. It claims that on the easiest difficulty the requirements for winning are relaxed, but this is completely false: I've played several Chieftain-level games, and none of them has ended early.

Second, although they tried to make the interface DS-ish by using the second screen a bit (and having a a battle display obviously inspired by Advance Wars), I'd much rather have that screen used to provide an overview map of the known world. There is no way to get a view zoomed out any more than the normal view. It's infuriating, especially since the game is obviously capable of displaying a zoomed-out map: it uses just such a map to show the game history movie at the end! (That movie, by the way, is itself buggy and inaccurate with nation borders. Did this game get put through QA or not?)

As mentioned before, leaderboards are not supported in the DS version of the game. But why? The end-of-game score list ranks the player on what looks very much like a vanity board, but it doesn't persist; the next time you play, your game will be ranked against the same list of default names. Considering that the first time the game is turned on it spends several minutes erasing an epic amount of EEPROM storage, it seems laughable that they couldn't spare a few hundred of those bytes to implement a real score list.

One particularly galling lack amounts to the only gameplay difference between the versions that I can see, but strangely it has nothing to do with system power. I've not played the other versions in order to verify, but cross-platform reviews remark that the DS version is lacking the ability to sell units for gold. Why this might be missing, of all features, I have no idea. It's as if they simply forgot to add that button to the game. I suspect that whatever reason they might give would be an incredibly poor one.

There's a UI flaw that I find consistently annoying. After a unit's last move is used, the game will instantly scroll the map over to the next unit to be moved, even if there was something more you could have done with the previous unit. This is really obnoxious when you want to have a settler build a city before an enemy unit captures it. Also, when a unit with automatic moves lined up gets its turn, it moves immediately; those moves aren't queued for the end of the turn. This gives the player a reduced chance to stop it if he wishes the movement to be aborted.

Another bugs that crops up from time to time involves the Oxford University Wonder of the World. When built, it's supposed to grant the player a random advanced technology. The computer players go for it fairly reliably on higher difficulties, but when the human player goes for it, something like half the time, upon completion, it vanishes, replaced by a nearly-useless SDI Defense building. When this happens the Wonder completion message fails to appear , and apparently the player doesn't get credit for it, although it does disappear from the Wonders-to-be-built selection. Whether this is intentional or not isn't explained by the (again, woefully inadequate) manual, and I have no idea if it happens in other versions, but even if it is somehow planned behavior, the very least the lack of feedback to the player that it has happened is infuriating.

All this may sound like I'm griping. And I am, dammit, none of these limitations are excusable. But the game itself is still marvelously addictive. In the couple of months I've had it I've played dozens of games, and it's yet to get old. In all, Civilzation Revolution is one of the best versions of Civilization. It might lack some of the epic sweep of other versions, but as a pick-up-and-play game that can be completed in an afternoon it's excellent. And the DS version, played on a portable, is well-suited towards just that scale of experience. It's a shame that the developers didn't have that vision for the game, because with a better UI this could well have been an Advance Wars killer. Even the game's bugs and maddening limitations can't quite diminish the brilliance here. It is just really nice to play.

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--John Harris at 21:55
Comment [ 3 ]

Comments on this post:

Just wanted to point out that a lot of the flaws you mention are also present in the big-brother 360 version: no leaderboards, no way to sell units for gold, units move automatically at the start of a turn. The 'Chieftain isn't easy' I'm not sure, since I only played one game at each difficulty before settling myself at Deity. If poor use of the upper screen and no way to zoom out are the only DS-specific flaws, I think I'll wait for the PSP version in June to sate my handheld Civ craving. Despite your derision, I happen to like the shiny coat of paint on the 360 version, and it will probably be reproduced more closely on the PSP.

By Blogger muad'dib, at 06 December, 2008 12:05  

Ah, thanks for the input. I didn't say Chieftain wasn't easy, I said that the manual was incorrect about its nature, it wasn't a shortened game. If anyone should know this, shouldn't it be the guys who wrote the manual?

I've been slowly advancing through the difficulties. Lately I've been playing Emperor difficulty and am just getting to the point where I win consistently, so it might be time for me to head to Deity as well.

By Blogger JohnH, at 07 December, 2008 08:02  

Good review. I haven't had the opportunity to play many of the civilization games but they all seem very interesting. I'm going to have to give this a shot.

On a completely unrelated note, I've always felt that if mobile gaming were to take it off, it'd fine a solid market in the turn-base strategy/RPG base.

What do you think?

By Blogger Darren, at 13 December, 2008 19:59  

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