I consider Civilization IV one of the greatest video games ever made. Three years after its release, it's easy to forget the formidable challenge it faced and overcame. Lead designer Soren Johnson and his team took one of the best and most admired strategy games of all time and made it better, brighter, deeper, and more accessible. As a slew of designers at Blizzard, Bethesda, and Firaxis will tell you, making a game that pleases the vocal hardcore fans AND welcomes curious newcomers is a very hard thing to do.
“Hi, I’m Sid. Welcome to Civilization IV." These words, accompanied by the voice and cartoon image of Sid Meier, greet the player upon first loading the game - and so begins a 100-turn tutorial conducted by the renowned father of the Civ games himself. Well-paced, incredibly informative, and delivered with a light touch, this is surely one of the best tutorials ever designed for a video game; and given the deep and complex nature of Civ IV, it's an essential addition to the game. Sid doesn't tell you everything you need to know, but by the end of the tutorial even a newcomer to the series should be well-prepared to navigate the game and discover the vast layers and options contained in Civ IV.
Now along comes Civilization Revolution, and our hero Sid is back at the helm to design "the game I've always wanted to make." Targeted for the first time at consoles, Civ Rev simplifies the core Civ gameplay and streamlines the interface to accomplish the unthinkable: Civ controlled with a gamepad. The experiment largely works - as far as I can tell a few hours in - and I'm enjoying the game from the comfort of my easy chair in ways I never thought I would. Sure, it's not Civ IV, but I'm impressed by how few compromises have been made. Civ Rev is not simply a dumbed-down version of Civilization, although it is clearly aimed at console gamers who may not fully grasp turn-based strategy games.
But the Civ Rev that really got me excited was the DS version, which Firaxis claims delivers the full Civ experience on a handheld. Are you toying with me, Sid? Civilization in my pocket with pausable and resumable "just one more turn" gameplay anywhere and anytime? Eureka! I bought the first copy I could find and prepared for a one-week trip to California. Civ on the airplane; Civ in the car; Civ when the conversation with in-laws lags...Civ anywhere!
Now it's one week later, and I feel a bit disappointed, but not for the reasons you might expect. Yes, the screen size is a serious issue. Playing a game that requires vast land management on such a small interface does diminish the experience, but a veteran player can overcome it. Yes, the graphics leave much to be desired. The DS is capable of a much better show than Civ Rev gives us, but the veteran Civ player doesn't play Civ for the graphics. The overall look of the game is fairly poor, to be honest, but it's not a show stopper.
What disappoints me about Civ Rev for the DS is that it lacks what Civ IV did so well: a comprehensive tutorial to explain the basic concepts of the game and provide a certain degree of hand-holding to the newbie. Of all the Civ Rev versions released (PS3, Xbox 360, and DS), I would think the DS is the one most in need of a robust tutorial. The control scheme and interface alone are unique challenges that must be explained and grasped, even by the the Civ veteran.
I wanted to hand my DS to my brother-in-law or father-in-law - both of whom would enjoy a game like Civ Rev - and say "Complete the tutorial and tell me what you think." But putting the game through its paces, it quickly became clear to me that Civ Rev for the DS assumes too much and provides too little context for a new player to understand how the game works. The tutorial tells you what's what, but it doesn't explain why. It doesn't offer much in the way of strategy or a big picture presentation of what Civ games are all about. Since the DS version omits the in-game Civilipedia included in the other versions, this valuable help system is unavailable as well. And the manual...well, they just don't make manuals like they used to.
It's all too bad, because the DS market is huge, but impatient. By and large, DS games that don't clearly explain themselves within the first few minutes will be DS games that sit on the shelf unplayed. This is true of games on all systems, of course, but the PC market where Civ has its roots has proven itself much more tolerant of games with steep learning curves. I don't think the average DS gamer has that much patience with a new game, and it's a shame Civ Rev for the DS doesn't take that enough into consideration. Ironically, it need only look to its big brother Civ IV for an impressive example of how to do it right.