Oh, excuse me, Marvel’s Midnight Suns. Not that the game will ever let you forget it.
And so we reach the arguable zenith of the Civilization series, the peak from which there is only a slow decline into senescence and eventual barbarism. Civilization 4 is actually the game that triggered this whole chain of posts, as I was looking for something relatively meaty to play over Christmas that would run on the Macbook I had with me while I was visiting family. It was meant to give me something to do in the evenings in between coding, reading and writing. Instead it ended up sucking me for two games in a row, like it was just released yesterday instead of almost fourteen years ago, and it’s the only one of the series where I barely notice the seams. Civilization 4 may well be ageless — Civilization 5 has aged far worse than 4 has, for god’s sake — and that’s entirely down to Firaxis’s drive to imbue the game with some of the character it had lost in Civilization 3’s relatively sterile treatment of the world, and an absolutely stellar piece of design work on the part of the game designers, especially lead designer Soren Johnson.
Civilization 3 was the first Civilization I actually bought with money. It was released in 2001, and by that point I wasn’t having to rely on bootleg copies or swiping my brother’s Civilization 2 CD when he wasn’t looking; I was still in sixth form1 but had a small amount of disposable income thanks to a rather unpleasant summer job, and so I wandered down to Dixons2 the lunchtime of release day and bought what might actually have been my very last big-box3 PC game ever.
It was a big disappointment.
I’ve not dabbled with mods for many years. That might sound a little strange considering the high volume of PC games that I get through, but it’s partly because of the high volume of PC games that I get through: I usually play games with an eye to reviewing them, you can’t review them fairly if they’re plastered in mods, and over the last few years I’ve had little time to revisit games I’ve already played to see how they change. With the slightly more relaxed (or less obsessive, anyway) attitude I’m taking this year, though, I have the opportunity to do ridiculous, time-expensive things like reinstalling XCOM 2 along with the recently-released Long War mod for it to see what all the fuss is about.
God help me, but I was actually looking forward to Civilization VI. After experiencing both Civilization V and Beyond Earth at launch I really shouldn’t have been; both were eventually patched into a decent state and after two expansions Civ V even went on to surpass its predecessors, but at launch they were flawed, buggy messes with plenty of basic functionality missing. Given Firaxis’s previous track record here it seems foolish to have expected great things from Civilization VI on launch, but after peeking at the development videos I just couldn’t help myself. The lead designer is the guy who pulled Civ V out of the muck. As a headline idea I can’t exactly call unpacking city management onto the world map inspired since Endless Legend got there first, but it’s potentially completely game-changing and Civ VI looked like it was going to explore the concept in far more depth. And in a departure from previous Civs they weren’t going to leave trade, espionage and religion for the expansion packs and instead integrated them into Civ VI as core features, essentially making it a Greatest Hits version of Civ V post-expansions. How could this possibly go wrong?
About six months after my glowing review of the original XCOM reboot I wrote a followup piece that comprehensively laid into the game for flaws that had become apparent on subsequent playthroughs. The aliens’ completely passive presence on the geoscape. The introduction of new, tougher enemy types being linked to your completing plot missions that had no time factor involved, allowing you to game the system by researching endgame weapons and armour before tackling any of them. An inverse difficulty curve where the first three months of the game were by far the hardest as you desperately tried to keep your rookies alive with only basic weapons and equipment. A whole host of paper tiger systems (such as panic), where the various NPCs screamed at you to play the game in a certain way in an attempt to mask the fact that playing slowly and cautiously — and liberally vomiting explosives anywhere in direct contravention of Vahlen’s instructions — would result in flawless completion of 95% of missions. The Enemy Within expansion pack alleviated some of these flaws, but it couldn’t fix the worst of them as they were baked into the very structure of the game itself. Any trulycomprehensive cure would require a complete restructure of XCOM’s systems that only a sequel could provide.
Firaxis are a developer with a reputation for releasing expansion packs that dramatically improve their base game. Yes, you can say that this is partly because the base games tend to be broken, unbalanced or otherwise underwhelming in some way, but there’s no arguing that Civilization V was a much better game after Gods and Kings, and while Enemy Within added some flab in the form of Exalt it did wonders for the pacing and balancing of the XCOM campaign as a whole. They’re commendably committed to improving and expanding on their games post-launch; even so, the existence of the Rising Tide expansion pack for Civ-V-In-Space ‘em up Beyond Earth surprises me more than a little. There was so much wrong with Beyond Earth that I was convinced that this time around Firaxis would just tie a rock to it and let it sink rather than send good development money after bad.