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PC Gaming: The Curious Case of Civ 4: Colonization

posted Aug 30, 2012, 12:18 AM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: August 26. 2009

I usually don’t pay no never mind to the computer/video game reviews on Amazon. I remember when Amazon first started selling digital games, and whenever a pre-release listing appeared, some numbnuts would pop up with a “review,” usually to spout about how great this game was going to be, because the previous version or a version for another platform was just totally awesome, man; etc., etc. Or because these guys were the same dudes who did this other game that completely rocked. Such posts told you nothing about the game, and everything about the poster’s need for validation.

And then, after the game was actually published, almost every good game would have its ratings weighed down by people who were too stupid to figure out how to play it and blamed the game; too stupid to understand that it just wasn’t to their taste and blamed the game; or even too stupid to figure out how to install it (in the case of PC games). And of course, they would call the game “stupid.”

This, of course, is a problem with any public forum where anyone cast post anything with a minimum of screening or moderation. And the upshot is that one simply loses patience with the signal to noise ratio.

So when I finally got around to checking out Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization,pastedGraphic.pdf I didn’t take too seriously all of the 1-star ratings that it had accumulated. It’s never a bad bet to assume that there are a lot of idiots out there. Whatever you may think about the Civ IV engine (and I’m not wild about it compared to previous versions, but I certainly don’t hate it, either), it’s still Civ, and it was developed by Firaxis, the company that Sid Meier co-founded and which has been the main keeper of his legacy for years now. What could go wrong?

I very much liked the original Colonization, which I discovered as a System 9-era Macintosh game (but the Mac version was basically a straight port of the Windows version). It was kind of schizophrenic — this business of first trying to harvest and produce stuff for the mother country, and then, suddenly, trying to beat its brains out to free yourself from its embrace— but very amusing, and worth a go if you didn’t have time for an Ancients-to-Space Age game of Civ.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that most of the discontent expressed in the reviews on Amazon was pretty well justified. The published version of the game was just impossible to beat, even at the lowest level of difficulty. In both the new and old versions of Colonization, your basic task is to build up your colony so that when you declare independence, you’re strong enough to withstand the inevitable attack by the mother country. Your success is based on pace, not time, since the longer you delay declaring independence so you can build up your colonial forces some more, the more troops the mother country will add to its forces. You have to gain strength faster than the mother country can add it.

pastedGraphic_1.pdfAnd yet, over several consecutive “Is it dawn already?” sessions, during which I applied every trick I knew from the original Colonization and every relevant trick I knew from Civilization IV, I could not for the life of me pull out a win. The mother country’s army always strengthened at a rate that allowed it to swamp my colonial forces, no matter when I declared independence.

At that point, I went to the source and consulted the Firaxis website. To its credit, the dudes at Firaxis admitted that there were problems with the difficulty level, and had patched it accordingly. I downloaded the patch, played it through a couple of times, and suddenly, it felt just like the Colonization that I had enjoyed years ago, back when I was still using an OS9-compatible Mac. The treatment of the Indians as proper NPC civilizations in Civilization IV: Colonization still strikes me as a little odd, in that it makes them seem less fearsome and bad-tempered than they were in the original game. And it also weirds me a little how they just willingly give up their land to you when you’ve demonstrated your awesome cultural prowess, although I also suppose it makes sense. But on the whole, it does feel like a respectable port of a classic game to a new engine.

My question is simply this: How did such a misshapen version of the game get released in the first place? If anyone was qualified to develop a new version of Colonization, it was Firaxis. If anyone should understand how a Sid Meier-inspired design should work, it’s them. Did their testers not recognize what was going on? Did 2K insist on publishing before it was ready? What was it? Now that I’m part of a development team working under contract for a publisher, I’m all the more interested in the answer to this question.