Civilization IV: Colonization
22nd Sep 2008 | 10:55
Some time ago, I penned a feature for the magazine about PC gaming's finest villains. Inevitably, it was full of men with rocket launchers for arms and evil queens with slugs for butts. Cartoon villainy, essentially - which meant I neglected true villainy. The King of the Netherlands is the real face of evil.
His monstrousness lies in his being untouchable. He can make the most impossible demands of me, can treat me, the guy in charge of his colonies in the New World, like the dirt on his shoe, but all I can do to him is to say "no". When I do, he just makes life harder for me, refusing to buy one of my fine American exports and thus leaving my coffers bare.
Without trade I am nothing, for this remake of a turn-based strategy gem from 1993 hinges on buying and selling. Life is good to old Kingy. He's fine whether or not he gets my money, and there's not a damned thing I can do about it. He's the bully at school you can't touch because he's the headmaster's son, the seedy politician who never quite gets thrown out of office because his wife is friends with the Prime Minister's wife. He's unstoppable.
He's also absolutely essential to making a game about trading cigars and rum in 17th century America work. Without his sneering face and constant demands to kiss his ring, there wouldn't be as much drive to succeed. He instils pride and patriotism, and most of all the desire for independence. I'm chopping wood, building warehouses and shipping in new colonists not because I like collecting money, but because I desperately want enough autonomy to escape this horrible man's thrall.
Which is as it has ever been in Colonization. This is very much a remake, not a sequel. Certain aspects have been tweaked - the King, for instance, makes his tax and tribute demands with increased frequency, pushing up the difficulty a little but at the same time cementing your sense of purpose. Certain aspects have had corners cut in the name of making it all fit within the Civilization IV engine: there are definite annoyances for old Colonization hands here. Certain aspects are improved, notably the diplomatic options and the interface tics. Fundamentally though, it's the same game. The graphics are 3D, there are a few more choices to be made, but it's hard to say it's actually better than the original overall.
In some ways, it's worse. Much of Colonization's character has been lost in the graphical upgrade, so that where once there was colour and cartoon statesmen, there's now muted hues and faux-authentic portraits. Clearly you don't want a fairly complex trading/warfare game to look too silly, but the fact that Col made ostensibly dry subject matter so visually charming was a big part of its success. You'd struggle to identify this remake out of a line-up featuring Anno 1404, Rise of Nations and Age of Empires. Which is a reflection of its critical failing, really - it feels throughout like a modification of Civ IV, and not entirely like its own game. Which is, of course, very much the case. It's a professional mod, not an amateur one, but it's still hung up on lip service and not on personality.
That said, Civilization gets away with remixing the same tune time and again, so why shouldn't this? It's still a rock-solid formula, selecting a very specific slice of Civilization's timeline and mechanics then fleshing them out into a game that's similar but different, and fixated on a single goal: independence. Once you've earned and built enough, your fledgling nation becomes an engine of war, desperately fighting off the vengeful forces of its European homeland. It's a great switch, a visceral reward for all that patient tobacco trading.
Still, that battle doesn't feel quite as thrilling as before, the fussiness of the interface and blandness of the art robbing it of some of its sense of event. What does lift this above its progenitor is multiplayer. There's an old complaint about the original that none of the AI-controlled nations in the game are chasing independence themselves. While that's to the benefit of making you the hero, it's great to finally have some direct competition.
So, still a remarkable strategy game, and for newcomers it's proof that trading doesn't mean tedium. Unfortunately, it's not quite the grand resurrection that Colonization deserves. This old star has certainly got itself a facelift, but the Greatest Hits show that's paying the bills isn't being sung with much verve.