Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization VI’ repeats a history of disappointment

A publicity screenshot of the game "Sid Meier's Civilization VI." (Firaxis Games / 2K Games)

As a faithful owner of the fourth and fifth iterations of Sid Meier’s “Civilization” series, it was only appropriate to cover the latest iteration in an acclaimed series that has long been the pinnacle of the 4X genre. Many players hoped that developer Firaxis had learned its lesson after several botched releases; Don’t stock the shelves with an unfinished game. “Civilization V” (2015) was painfully devoid of features on release, and it took many months until this was resolved with expansions. Sadly, “Civilization VI,” which was released on Oct. 21, is more of the same and will need bug fixes and work on the AI before it can hope to compete with its predecessors. “Civilization V” has remained one of the most popular games on Steam for years, and hundreds of thousands of players now hold Firaxis to that same triple-A standard because they know what the company is capable of.

There’s quite a lot to like here for new and veteran players. What immediately becomes apparent is that the art style has changed, with less focus on realism, and that this game has a lot of depth that was lacking from previous titles on release. Gone are the days when you would surround cities with picturesque agrarian communes to boost growth rates; cities now have districts where you can make permanent changes to the terrain in order to boost a particular resource income. One can also modify the player’s religion to take advantage of aspects of your city, terrain bonuses and so on, along with personal playstyle choices such as whether you wish to focus on economic prosperity or military expansion. These are welcome improvements that show that Firaxis has indeed been paying attention to what fans wanted after their uproar over the vanilla “Civilization V.” Staring out over a glorious, brightly-colored empire full of wonders and skyscrapers, this reviewer felt like his nation was a sight to behold. But it wouldn’t be a “Civilization” title without its flaws on release, and there are a few glaring ones.

The AI, in particular, is a step backward. Firaxis attempted to make them more complex by adding secondary motives called “agendas” that are distinct from the primary goal of winning the game, but this merely resulted in AI players that flip flop fast. First, Teddy Roosevelt worships the ground you step on due to your peacefulness; a second later, he wants to bury you six feet under for even looking at him the wrong way. Second, Cleopatra cancels trade deals in outrage because your armies were not impressive enough, then she spontaneously wants to be bosom buddies. Whatever kind of balancing act these various motives are trying to achieve is clearly not resulting in any kind of coherent strategy, unless that strategy is to pave the way for the player to declare war on the AI players in frustration to solve the problem once and for all. In a game in which interaction with opponents through diplomacy is so important in order to obtain access to scarce resources, the inability to effectively control your relationships with other world leaders is agonizing. Even if you increase the difficulty, the AI doesn’t change; the AI civilizations just make everything faster because things have reduced cost. That’s not fun; that’s tedious.

Theological combat is a new feature that felt silly and shallow. Religious units battle through intensive debate that ends with them calling down bolts of lightning to strike from above, suggesting that one religious group gave the better argument. Though it seems to be a means of making pacifist victories more interesting, it feels like a shadow of the real military conflicts that involved far more nuance and strategy, as specific units had to be countered or flanked in order to be defeated. Oddly enough, Gandhi is no longer the ICBM-wielding horseman of the cultural apocalypse he was previously; instead, he focuses his strengths on religious debates, terrifying in his ability to rapidly convert entire civilizations to his religion. This reviewer felt that trying to debate his religious warriors was an exercise in futility. Without more units to add an element of decision-making, religious victories feel like a lackluster way to win a game.

Firaxis needs to go back and give the title some good polishing to justify the $59.99 price tag. It has some great ideas that just need slight tweaks to convince owners of “Civilization V” that this is the true successor of the game they love. Let’s hope that these changes arrive sooner rather than later.


Promising and innovative, but did not meet (our admittedly high) expectations

3.5 stars