Civilization games, or “Civ” as the series has come to be known in modern vernacular, are some of the most daunting 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate ) titles on the market.
2016 has been a strong year for Firaxis. First, the studio released XCOM 2 for PC, then ported the game over to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Now, the Civilization series returns to Steam with its latest rendition: Civilization VI. With the game already out as of Oct 21st, reviews are coming in. So how did the game perform? Quite well, actually.
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI is fast upon us. Releasing on Oct 21st, Civilization VI is the direct sequel to 2010’s incredibly popular Civilization V, which has seen extended life with its Gods & Kings and Brave New World expansion packs. Suffice to say, Civilization VI is one of the most highly anticipated strategy games of this year. But Firaxis and 2K are planning on celebrating the game’s release with a particularly unique event: an AI battle on Twitch.
Starting on Wednesday, Oct 19th at 3:30 pm ET, 2K and Firaxis will be letting “an entirely AI-controlled game of Civilization VI” play out live on their official Twitch page. Eight civilizations will be going head-to-head against each other in hopes of achieving victory. In particular, these civilizations are the Aztecs, Brazil, England, Greece, Japan, Rome, Russia and Spain.
Alongside the event, Civilization VI‘s developers will also be providing live commentary about the game. Which should be interesting to watch, because the developers can provide insight into how the game’s civilizations operate and describe the strategies they use during play.
More importantly, 2K and Firaxis are demonstrating a unique kind of promotional event. Instead of having a developer or let’s player stream the game, Civilization VI‘s AI Battle Royale will essentially be played out automatically. While not quite as democratic, as, say, Twitch’s (in)famous Twitch Plays series, it’s still an interesting premise: watch how well the AI plays against itself. The idea could definitely take off with other strategy game publishers who are interested in showing their players how the game runs automatically, as well as the quality behind the AI programming seen in-game.
The Civilization VI AI Battle Royale begins Wednesday, October 19, two days before the game’s official release. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for more news on the latest release as it comes along!
It’s not easy to iterate successfully on a game that still regularly sits in the top ten most played games on Steam six years after its release. But that is the exact task that the team at Firaxis has taken on with Civilization 6, and somehow it seems like they have managed to complete it successfully.
Civilization 6 is just weeks away from launch and is shaping up nicely. While the classic Civilization gameplay remains, there is a ton of new additions, from new leaders and civilisations to special tasks that will give certain technologies a research boost, as well as a beautiful new art style. Some changes are small and may not be noticeable until you are hundreds of hours into the game, whereas others alter cornerstones of the Civ formula, but there is one change that swamps all of the others in terms of its importance.
“I think the unstacking of the cities is the biggest change from Civ 5,” says Sarah Darney associate producer on Civilization 6. “The maps are randomly generated, so you don’t know what the tiles are going to be around your city, so it’s much more replayable and it really throws you off. If you have a routine you are used to in Civ 5, you don’t have that any more. You’re really depending on the map, and it’s almost like another character that you are fighting against, or with, depending on your luck. For me, especially, that is the biggest change in Civilization 6.”
Whereas Civilization 5’s big change was unstacking the units, meaning no two military units could occupy the same hex, Civilization 6 takes it one step further by unstacking the cities, with each district taking up its own hex. No longer can you just build everything in a single city as you could before, (providing you had the time and resources, of course) as each district takes up vital space. This makes specialising more important than ever.
Obviously deciding what to specialise in when forming early cities is no easy task, especially for new players, but another new feature in Civilization 6 might just make that decision for you. See, each district has adjacency bonuses, which will give you a significant boost if used correctly. Placing your campus next to mountains, for example, will give you a significant scientific boost compared to placing in the middle of nowhere.
When you consider how many districts and land types there are in Civilization 6, this starts to sound like quite the daunting prospect, especially for anyone new to the series, but Darney is confident that this won’t be another barrier to entry.
“So new players will not be screwed if they don’t use adjacency properly,” says Darney. “Civ is one of those games that has so many levels that you can play it very casually or very hardcore. You are not going to have the most successful experience but we do have a really good learning system. When you are placing a district it shows you what the yield is going to be like for each tile if you place it there, but also what’s giving it those bonuses – it will have icons showing terrain types are near. So I really think it helps teach players as they are playing and adds another layer of depth that is a factor right from the first few turns.”
For those that do want to dive deep into the adjacency bonus systems, it can impact every area of gameplay, from placing a city and districts through to what civilisation you play as. Take Brazil, for example: when playing as Pedro II, rainforest tiles will give you extra adjacency bonuses, meaning a city in the middle of a forest will be one of the most productive and efficient on the entire map. On the other hand, if you start your game and see no sign of any kind of rainforest, you know you will be in for a difficult game, at least to start with.
“I mean I would personally restart in that situation to make sure you have some rainforest to work with, but that’s my personal choice,” says Darney. “You could expand out towards the rainforests, but generally the leaders do spawn in an area that is going to be helpful to them. Every leader has their own rolls for spawns and you should see some of the things that you need. In some ways it’s a game of luck with the spawns, every now and again you are going to get the perfect starting position or the worst starting position, it’s luck of the draw.”
While the unstacking of the cities is easily the biggest new feature in Civilization 6 and the adjacency bonuses help that to become even more complex, the change that has split opinion the most has been the new art style. Gone is the relatively realistic look, with lots of dark colours, and in its place is a much more cartoon-like art style with bright colours and large items. Some have said that this is a step backwards in the art direction, but Darney argues that that isn’t the case, and that the new art style significantly helps in the gameplay department.
“Everything that we did with the art style was to support gameplay,” explains Darney. “We have many, many systems in the game, so by creating a more stylized art style, having these big recognisable silhouettes, it’s made everything easier to see at a glance and when you are zoomed out. We kept that in mind when we were designing the districts and making the color schemes for the districts, so you can see at a glance the colour of each tile. Also there’s the silhouette of the districts, I’m colorblind, so personally I can’t rely just on the color of the district, but the shape lines help there because they are very distinct too.”
With Civilization 6 changing so much it really does feel like a very different game to its predecessor. Placing cities in good locations is more important than it ever has been before; planning what each city’s goal is is now almost mandatory; and making sure you use those adjacency bonuses to full effect can be the difference between a win and a loss. Firaxis could have easily made a few changes here and there and then effectively repackaged Civ 5 and called it a new game, but instead they chose to revolutionise core areas of gameplay, and my god has it worked. Civilization 6 should be something truly special, and baring a major disaster with the late game, it looks like that will be the case when we get our hands on it in just a few weeks.
Author’s Note: For our take on the PC release of XCOM 2, check out Reid McCarter’s review from earlier this year!
“That’s XCOM, baby!” has become a minor meme in the XCOM community in recent years, and for good reason. It’s a response to the randomness that the games can throw at you sometimes, or in other words, bad RNG that can totally wreck your squad and break the game. Yet with 2012’s Enemy Unknown, I rarely felt like that was a contributing factor to me losing. I felt like I was in relative control of my elements, even at higher difficulty levels, and my losses were largely due to my own mistakes. Which is, in my opinion, what good difficulty should look like—crippling failures that are totally preventable with more skill.
While that may remain the case on this year’s PC release of XCOM 2, it’s too far buried in the depths of a mediocre console port for me to care.The port itself, outsourced to a third party, is uniformly awful. Cutscenes are host to all sorts of wonderful bugs from screen tearing to stuttering. Gameplay has janky collision detection, jarring drops in the framerate, and random freezes. It also completely breaks sometimes, such as a round in which none of my characters could go into Overwatch mode or one where literally no shots successfully hit any opposition.
Oh, and it’s ugly, too. Horrible aliasing, blurry textures, awkwardly stiff character models, and all sorts of graphical delights await players. In summation, XCOM 2 is a stuttering, glitchy, mess of a port, complete with hideous visuals that muck up an interesting aesthetic.
Gameplay-wise, it’s the same strategy system we saw in Firaxis’ first crack at the bat, just with everything significantly more sluggish and less functional than before. The camera awkwardly snags on things and obscures your vision. Characters take entirely moronic routes from point A to point B. Physics freak out at the drop of a hat, turns feel oddly laggy and slow, cover is often irrelevant… I could go on and on. Considering that the PC version’s been patched several times over, it feels like the studio handling this version of XCOM 2 has been doing things independently of Firaxis. The result is a poor version of a better game.
When I did manage to get invested in some missions, I found myself rewarded with cheap deaths, busted enemy AI, and mechanics outright refusing to work. Strong units got one-shotted from across the map from enemies I couldn’t see, instantly killing them. I missed several times in a row on enemies I had a good chance of hitting. Regardless of the difficulty levels I attempted, the result was always the same—random garbage either making me lose or making me win. Playing poorly actually got me further, which was disappointing. To put it simply, using strategy in a strategy game actually puts you at a disadvantage. Let that sink in for a second. From my understanding, the balancing in XCOM 2 has also been patched on the PC, leaving me to think that the console version is the only one suffering from this problem.
The RNG in this game is horribly imbalanced and makes the experience woefully unfun. It’s not that the game is “too hard,” because I think “too hard” is an illegitimate complaint. XCOM 2’s problem is that its difficulty is an unsolvable, randomly generated enigma compounded by outright terrible artificial difficulty. On top of that, the missions are dull repetitions of each other. Most of them are timed, and objectives fall along the lines of, “hack X thing” or “destroy X thing,” with some occasional “save X amount of people” thrown in. The tedium sets in early on, and the further you go, the clearer it becomes that the scenario writers ran out of ideas early on in production. Repetition and artificial difficulty are bad enough as is, and together, they form a potent cocktail of anti-fun mediocrity.
Honestly, I’m confident that my problems with XCOM 2 lie in this inferior port. While the PC version doesn’t magically have a better narrative (something I just couldn’t get into,) the gameplay, performance, and overall polish are undoubtedly better.
As far as this console version goes? Consider it a critical mission failure.
After Months of offering PC Players what it was like to fight against an Alien invader, XCOM 2 will be headed to consoles in September.
Anarchy’s Children is the first DLC pack to land in the strategy-tactics alien shooter.
Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an impressive accomplishment. Tasked with reimagining an obtuse, cult-classic strategy game from the mid ‘90s for a modern audience, the developer managed to both honour and streamline the complexities of the source material. Now, nearly four years after Enemy Unknown’s release, Firaxis has set it itself a new challenge: finding a way to expand on the prior game without losing sight of what made it work so well in the first place. Add too much to what came before and XCOM 2 would lose the accessibility of its predecessor; add too little and it wouldn’t be much more than a companion piece to a past achievement.
Luckily, Firaxis has struck a welcome balance. XCOM 2, while familiar, is very much its own game and more intent on exploring new ideas than merely refining old ones.
The opening mission sees the player taking control of a handful of soldiers planning a guerrilla attack on an alien-dominated city. Whether or not the player triumphed in Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 starts with the earth having been dominated by the invaders. In the years that passed between the two games, the aliens have been integrated into national governments, leaving only a small resistance movement commanded by the player to fight back against a totalitarian force.
Despite the relative unoriginality of its underdog storyline, XCOM 2’s narrative provides a welcome change in tone from its predecessor. Where Enemy Unknown was a game about managing a deteriorating situation, the player always growing more powerful as they fought back the alien invasion, XCOM 2 is focused on making the best out of a bad situation. The overhead strategic map—an overview of the globe with points of interest marked in various regions—is dotted with oppressed nations waiting for the XCOM resistance’s help. Inside the team’s mobile base, there always seem to be at least half a dozen construction and research projects that need attention. The soldiers who drop into direct battle never seem to be as well equipped as they could be—with the game’s “supply” currency being so hard to accumulate.
This is all by design. Rather than simply use occasional cinematics and dialogue to state that the XCOM project has become small, inadequately funded, and desperately outmatched, Firaxis infuses every moment of play with a palpable sense of desperation. While resource balancing and agonizing research choices do much of the work, a significant contributor to this tone is the alien’s “Avatar Project”—an ominous icon in the middle of the ocean that the invaders are constructing. Periodically, pips on a red progress bar fill up on the top of the screen, acknowledging that the aliens are moving ever closer to Avatar’s completion. What exactly this will mean isn’t clear until near the end of the campaign, but XCOM 2 is quick to inform that, should the bar fill up and the project complete, the game is lost. The constant reminder that failure is only a few missteps away evokes a sense of doom, urging the player to consider the high stakes of every battle.
These fights, while enjoyable, aren’t as immediately novel as what surrounds them. The tactical combat design introduced in Enemy Unknown—position squad members behind battlefield cover and attempt to outmanouever similarly armed aliens—is largely unchanged. The player still needs to balance their opportunities to shoot down the enemy with the need to remain in proper cover, administer healing to wounded troops, and reload guns, knowing that a single mistake could permanently cost them a valuable soldier. The small details introduced to the game’s combat system make a big difference, though. While the troop types and menus may look familiar, XCOM 2 stresses the importance of terrain far more than its predecessor. The percentages indicating the likelihood of successfully connecting a shot increase dramatically when the player moves their units to flank enemies, gain higher ground, or obliterate their cover.
The addition of a “concealment” system works in concert with these changes. At the beginning of some fights, the XCOM squad drops onto the battlefield far enough from the aliens that they can temporarily remain hidden. Until they’ve fired an opening volley (or stumbled into the red tiles indicating an enemy’s field of awareness), troops can carefully position themselves so they’re ready to ambush the opponent. Done well, three or four aliens can be taken out in a single player turn, providing a massive advantage in the rest of the battle.
This attention to terrain is reflected in XCOM 2’s visual design, too. Whether in futuristic city streets, replete with hologram billboards and laser-grid windowpanes, or arctic woods, covered in snow and spotted with broken tree trunks, the game creates a sense of identity far stronger than Enemy Unknown. There are constant reminders that the player is participating in a world ravaged and controlled by an advanced species—that the game’s version of earth is one in which extraterrestrial culture has influenced urban architecture and past wars have destroyed much of our wilderness.
It isn’t an overstatement to say that the attention paid to diversifying the look and tactical possibilities of the levels is key to what makes XCOM 2 work. At a certain point in each of Firaxis’ XCOM games, the cycle of strategic management and (often exhaustingly stressful) on-the-ground combat inevitably becomes a bit of a grind. Despite the thrill that comes from succeeding in a battle—or the warranted frustration of a bitter defeat—the act of repeating such taxing fights, again and again and again, can begin to wear as a campaign nears its conclusion. XCOM 2 doesn’t fix this problem, but it does lessen it by offering a number of unique mission objectives more complicated than simply eliminating the enemy and, simple as it may seem, providing a far greater array of level geography.
All of this works to great effect. XCOM 2’s problems—repetitive structuring, the brutal spike in difficulty that marks a few of its late game fights—may be severe enough to put off those who hoped for a more fundamental reworking of Enemy Unknown. But, players looking to see the past game reconfigured will find a lot to appreciate. Firaxis has created a sequel dedicated to continuing the XCOM story with a real change in tone and intent. Moving from a game about a properly funded defence force fighting back a surprise invasion to one focused on that same force, reduced to scrappy rebels trying to overthrow their alien government, is a smart narrative follow-up. Ensuring that the feel of this game, from tough strategic decisions to general doomsday aesthetic, matches the story is what makes XCOM 2 notable.
In 2012, Firaxis Games released what was essentially a reboot of the turned-based tactical PC series X-COM.