A re-release of a 14-year-old game may not be at the top of most people's "must-haves of 2008" lists, but it was for a fairly vocal minority. Colonization, originally released in 1994 when my PC proudly boasted a hard drive that's 80 times smaller than my current MP3 player, was a strategy release from the desk of Sid Meier, he of Civilization fame. Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization is a very similar game, and it's no surprise that this remake is appearing as a total conversion for the latest Civ. While Civilization has gone through several sequels and spin-offs on a variety of platforms, Colonization has gone curiously unloved ? a fact that upsets or relieves many enthusiasts, depending on their trust in Meier's ability to not ruin his cult classic.
Colonization is a microcosm of the Civilization experience, but no less involved as a consequence. While Civ deals in everything from the day we arrived on the planet ("and blinking stepped into the sun" - sing along, kids) to the day in the future where we start a space colony, Colonization takes the slightly less ambitious aim of concentrating on the embarrassing part of European history, where several nations decided it'd be fun to take on a new continent and screw over the natives by mining their resources and establishing European identities on foreign soil. As such, you start with just a simple boat on a square of blue on a black screen. As you sail your boat around the grid, the mysterious new world takes shape, and it's up to you to create your own slice of paradise for the glory of your nation.
Of course, this glory comes at the expense of those who already live on the continent. While the indigenous populations seem quite happy to live alongside you, you will gradually begin to take over the lands, convert their people with missionaries and even wipe them out in the name of taking the finite resources for yourself. But that's okay because over your shoulder, your King is constantly badgering you like a needy partner in a long-distance relationship. Constant requests such as, "Can I have 500 gold for the glory of the nation?" and "I'll take that treasure off your hands for a 50% commission," gradually make you hate the monarch you're supposed to want God to save, and it's a genius mechanism to push you toward the winning conditions: establish independence.
At the stage when your colony has established enough power to refuse to tidy its bedroom and do its homework, your parent nation will throw all of its military might at you, and the game becomes a bloodbath, no matter how cautiously you played it up until this point. It's rightly exhilarating; the game intelligently creates this perfect storm scenario to lead up to the epic final encounters. There's no going out with a whimper here, like in many strategy games, so you'll see the most exciting scenes before the end credits roll.
All of this sounds great, but I would still urge caution. I missed out on the original Colonization, but have been reliably informed that this is largely a straight conversion with a fresh coat of paint. This goes a long way to explaining some of the unnecessary complexities of the title, with countless menus of micromanagement making it so hugely user-unfriendly that newcomers will be simply overwhelmed. In some ways, the game has gone so far out of its way to avoid upsetting old hands that it has succeeded in making itself as inaccessible to newcomers as possible, barring coating the packaging in razor blades. The game packaging boasts of its tutorial that will ease newcomers into the title, but after a few minutes of desperately trying to find it, I was alarmed to discover that I'd already played it and was still a long way from being the master Viceroy of the New World that Colonization wanted me to become.
Unlike the friendly Sid Meier avatar who guides you through the basics of Civilization IV, here you are given advice panels that make suggestions without really explaining why you should follow them. To cut a long and frustrating story short, it will take a few games to really understand the cause and effect that strategy games thrive on, and even then, you may not have a strong grasp of the deeper subtleties. Considering that even on the shortest game lengths, it can take the best part of an afternoon to complete, you realize that the title is perhaps clinging too tightly to its heritage to be regarded as a genuine 21st century contender, which Civilization has gone on to become.
If you have the time and inclination to get your head around the mechanics of Colonization, you'll find it truly rewarding and successful in allowing you to triumph with your own play style. The addictive gameplay is given huge amounts of longevity, with multiple scenarios to play through, random maps and five skill levels (which get punishing further down the scale than I'm used to). The developers have also added a multiplayer component, which allows you to pit your wits against less predictable human opponents in the race to exploit the new world's limited resources. This depends on your ability to find others who are willing to get lost in trade routes and turn-based combat for a few hours (or days), but if you can, there's no doubt that it provides some outstandingly memorable moments.
The game uses the same engine as Civilization IV, which was beautiful on release and has aged pleasingly well, while still allowing older PCs like mine to feel like they're cutting edge. The "fog of war" mechanics make discovering the shapes of the new world exciting, and the settlements graphics grow as your colony does. When judging the graphics of Colonization, you have to realize that games of the Civilization ilk go for representations rather than straight realism, so a 50-foot soldier represents a whole army, rather than the developers working their way through an entire bottle of absinthe. When it goes for more detail on the diplomacy screens, the characters are nicely realized caricatures from the era: The kings are the grotesque images of greed you'd imagine, the natives have a sense of sad resignation to their impending destruction, and the other imperialist representatives are the kind of potential backstabbing politicians you'd envision.
In short, the updated graphics, which are the main attraction of upgrading from the 1994 original, live up to their expectations and make the Colonization pleasing to play. They're not jaw-dropping, but they do the job admirably, while still allowing most laptops to run it comfortably, should you want to play this during a commute. The sound is decent too, with the music following the mood; in times of peace, the music is calm and relaxed, it takes on an air of dark foreboding when things go wrong, and it works its way up to a crashing orchestral number in times of all-out war. The best thing I can say about the music is that you barely notice it, which means that it fits into the atmosphere perfectly.
So, is Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization worth the money? That depends entirely on what kind of gamer you are. If you remember the original fondly, then you have nothing to fear; it hasn't been broken. If you're not a hardcore strategy gamer or if you were weaned on them in this century, you may find the archaic mechanics and limited scope a little on the disappointing side. If this is the case, you should look for Sid's more recent titles, such as Civilization IV or Civilization Revolution to satisfy your need for turn-based diplomacy.
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