golden jew

Review – Civilization 4: Colonization?

I can’t even figure out exactly what the name of the Colonization remake is, so we’ll just call it Colonization 2. In an attempt to drive sales, it has Civ 4 mixed in the title, since the game leverages the Civ 4 engine (and more importantly the Civilization brand name), but you don’t actually need Civ 4 to play. Despite the confusing title, the game itself is not confusing.

Like every Firaxis effort for the past two years or so, it’s a game with a great deal of promise and terrible QA testing that is largely carried by a talented and extremely forgiving community that does Firaxis’ work for them. Interestingly, this might be why Civ Revs is currently covered in “This game sucks” threads; the community cannot mod an Xbox 360 game. But I already covered this here.

Before getting to the review, let me give a bit more of a scathing commentary to Firaxis’ effective business model that I am depressed I have supported.

“Snoopy and I have been working on an unofficial patch to resolve the bugs in the game, rebalance certain parts, and make the game the 5/5 it deserves.”

This was posted here by Dale, one of the incredibly talented modders of the Civ community that supports Firaxis games when Firaxis doesn’t. Dale’s fixes run from the mundane, such as crash corrections to the more complicated balance issues such as the ridiculous AI behavior (your rivals failing to arm themselves at all and inevitably being exterminated by either you, or Indians who crave the white man’s firewater). I can’t help but ask the obvious: why is Firaxis mailing in every effort on every game they make? And why do we keep buying this unfinished crap?

It’s not that Colonization is a bad game. In fact, it’s a very micro-management intensive game with a heavy focus on resource and colony management. Unlike Civ, each terrain square can be worked for a variety of different goods: light woodlands, for example, might yield fur, wood, or certain crops. Nearly every good can be refined into a superior version and sold for big bucks back to your masters back in Europe, such as tobacco being made into cigars.

The initial part of the game is focused around developing an export driven economy that can fund your expansion while not irritating the locals enough to attack you. Unlike Civ 4, where any over-expansion would be brutally and swiftly punished by rape and pillage delivered by your neighbors, the vast majority of Colonization’s civilizations are relatively peaceful. Of course, given that the AI that controls the other colonies forgets to train or arm soldiers, it’s tough to tell how much of this is intentional.

There are two sets of civilizations. The first are the colonists, which are who you play as: the English, Dutch, Spanish and French, each with two leaders to choose from. The second, the natives have a single leader, but instead of having traits that benefit them, they actually have traits that benefit you, the invading conqueror.

For example, the Incans yield excessive amounts of gold when conquered, what with their propensity to hoard treasure and all. This is helpful for the astute invader, as you can tailor your native policy around who your neighbors are. Some beg to be destroyed, others beg to be proselytized by eager Jesuit missionaries.

Although the bulk of the game is focused on economics, in a historically accurate manner the game is won through war. Along the way you pick up “founding fathers” who join your continental congress, bringing with them various benefits. And keeping in tune with the rest of the game, some are ridiculously powerful and others are completely worthless. Balanced video games are so 1990’s.

To win the game, you need to generate enough “rebel sentiment” in order to cast off the shackles of your wig wearing, overweight king and start a free country where lazy game developers can ride their names to financial success while hoards of ignorant consumers keep buying their games expecting a quality product. And the “War for Independence” phase is where Colonization starts to fall apart.

As you grow into a financially successful colony, your King starts to do things like demanding tribute. However, you’re not really penalized for not paying him tribute. What you are penalized for is not playing the game in a specific way. As your rebel sentiment increases, so does the King’s Royal Expeditionary Force–that is, the ridiculous might of the empire that is going to kick your ass back into submission. The most effective (and in some ways, only) way to win is to hold off generating any rebel sentiment until the absolute last minute. Then you spam enough sentiment as fast as possible and declare independence before the REF gets so big as to make victory impossible.

Unfortunately, you won’t discover this until you play, or read the forums. And the game doesn’t scale the REF size based on difficulty either, so even on an easy difficulty you’re facing a possibly inordinately large REF (although you receive some bonuses to fight them). The result is that a successful victory is gained only in a very specific manner, and in fact one that is neither intuitive nor realistic.

Colonization reminds me of Railroads, in that it’s a game I initially had an intense love affair with but quickly realized that despite a very interesting core concept, the game itself was poorly executed. Railroads lacked the Civ 4 fan base to be modded into a decent game, so it was left to die horribly since Firaxis believes neither in QA, nor execution, nor post-release support.

Colonization has an enormous economic micromanagement style, but this ultimately falls by the wayside as you prepare for war and focus on guns, horses, and warships. Because you can only win via the War for Independence, a strong economy is needed, but then is more or less thrown away as heavy export taxes make building guns cheaper than buying them.

Because of massive balance issues between the REF and rebel sentiment, you’re handcuffed into playing the same way, and the easiest victories come from “gaming” the system. Civ 4 always had an element of this, but Civ 4 could also be won in multiple ways (cultural, technological, war, United Nations, etc), and was a robust enough game that you had multiple play styles to meet those victories (although it was limited by necessary war mongering on harder difficulties). Colonization lacks that depth.

Beyond some of the very obvious game design flaws, Colonization frustrates me because there’s so much there that isn’t properly utilized. You have a rather extensive resource management system that could somehow be leveraged into a more robust game. Perhaps being able to trade with other monarchs to buy their aid in the War of Independence would make the economy have more continuity instead of something that becomes distinctly obsolete. Or perhaps a “sell out” option where instead of fighting for freedom you choose to become a dutiful Royal Governor and set up a ridiculously lucrative colony while skimming 10% off the top and enjoying the pleasures of the native women.

But instead Firaxis delivered another game that wasn’t completed and is being generously supported by the community. So if you like games that seem great at first but can only be won in the same manner over and over again, you might want to pick up Colonization, assuming you can handle the buggy AI and the lack of official support.

While I have long been a huge fan of Firaxis games, I can no longer take seriously or support a company that doesn’t take their business or customers seriously, and this will be the last Firaxis game I buy at the time of release until they prove they know how to ship a finished product and support a product without the crutch that is the community.

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Golden Jew
Golden Jew
15 years ago

I can’t make this up:

Apparently Firaxis has decided the hard working community should enter a “contest” with the prize of a “computer” if you submit your mods for Colonization. I wonder if I could make a whole game by giving out computers? Might be cheaper than full time employees with health insurance.

15 years ago

Also to note: we had some perceived confusion about some things last time an article relating to Firaxis was made. I want to clarify:

I am not Golden Jew. He is his own man with his own words. I do not read his articles before they are published, and have no say about them. that being said, GJ is our 4x genre expert, and I put great trust in his words.

As for the game in question, it will be interesting to see what mods get submitted. Will they be mere patches in disguise, or be more extreme overhauls in order to create a new game concept. I’m afraid I don’t know anything at all about the Civ community, so I am curious as to how it compares to the community surrounding Valve Software (which generally like making total conversion mods that the company eventually supports, hosts, or even hire).

Jason Boxman
15 years ago

Wow. Reminds me of Ubisoft and the Silent Hunter franchise. Each release since SH2 (3, and 4) essentially shipped as beta, with few patches afterwards and only a vibrant community working to make the games somewhat playable. Meanwhile, I keep waiting in vain for a good X-COM remake…

15 years ago

The game is only suited to one aspect, and that’s building your Civilization. When it comes to fighting, it’s absolutely SH*T!!
There’s no tactics involved just PURE luck. (Wow.. Really just luck)? Yeah, just luck. (But surely, horsemen Vs. some sort of gunpoweder unit would lose..) F*CK NO!