A lot of people mistake Civilization IV: Colonization for a Civ IV expansion pack. What else could it be when it has another game's name in its title, right? The reality of the situation, though, is that Colonization is a completely freestanding title that uses very little from Civ IV beyond some basic gameplay concepts and the sharp-looking 3-D engine. It's entirely possible to buy and play it separately from Civ IV, although this isn't a course of action I recommend. Unless you're very familiar with the basic strategy of Civ IV or at least with the original PC game, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the difficulty and sheer complexity inherent in Colonization.
As hinted above, Civilization IV: Colonization is a remake of the 1994 PC game that ran on the Civilization engine, but was otherwise a totally separate experience. Like the original, Colonization challenges players to take control of one of four colonial powers (England, France, the Netherlands and Spain) and take a settlement through the fairly narrow and complex series of events required to declare absolute victory. You must first found a thriving colony and then use liberty-inspiring tactics to incite your colonists to want to rebel from the mother country. Once you declare rebellion, you must weather an invasion by your mother country and successfully kill all of its ground troops. Only then can you declare independence and say you've won the game.
Colonization's rigid and complicated victory conditions inspire you to plan out your colony's life cycle far in advance, selecting where to build with an eye toward resources you may not need for quite some time into the future. Founding your colony's first city on poor terrain can effectively end a game in the first 10 turns by making it impossible to build up the necessary resources to both generate rebel sentiment and build up a continental army. Taking too long to explore a large map for an advantageous place to build a city can also doom you by making sure you don't have enough turns left to suitably build up your civilization and an army to defend it.
The actual process of building up your city and managing your colonists is intuitive and delightful, but you are going to lose most of your battles with the CPU unless you opt to play titles on Epic or Marathon length. Even then, fighting off your mother country's army is a Herculean task, although clearly by design. The game supports online multiplayer and is almost certain to be most enjoyable in that mode, especially with its integrated voice chat. We were unable to test out that portion of the game, so this preview rather strictly talks about the single-player game modes, which are typical of what you might expect of something from the Civilization lineage but somehow less satisfying than the more open-ended gameplay allowed in the core games.
From the launch screen, your main options for a single-player game are the standard Play Now! mode, which uses randomized maps, and the Scenario mode, which offers four pre-designed maps that conform more closely to actual history than the usual randomly designed maps of the basic mode. You get a map based on the Northwest Passage, a map based on South America, and two differently sized maps that let you conquer all of the Western Hemisphere. Beyond the pre-designed maps, playing the scenarios is basically identical to playing in the basic game, but you're less likely to run into difficulties stemming from location of resource tiles.
Otherwise, if you're starting up the basic game, you get to select which of the four major powers you're going to represent. Each colonial power gets one stable bonus, and then another bonus depending on which of the two possible leaders are selected for that colony. The Dutch, for instance, get Peter Stuyvesant, who increases labor, or Adriaen Van Der Donck, who increases time between royal tax increases. The English get immigrants more easily, and then can choose from George Washington, who equips soldiers more cheaply, or John Adams, who generated rebellious sentiment more quickly. The Spanish have an advantage when it comes to attacking Natives, with commanders Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin each offering boosts to unit strength in combat. The French gain bonuses toward peaceful coexistence with Natives, with Samuel de Champlain granted higher conversion rates of friendly Natives at missions, and Louis de Frontenac granting free promotion to mounted units. Obviously, each colonial power broadly reflects a certain play style, creating particular strengths and weakness. Early on, it's best to play as a power that best suits your personal tastes. My favorite ended up being the French, since I liked to get along with the Natives as much as possible. Once you've gotten the hang of the system, you'll be able to do well with any of the colonies or leaders and can have fun using the Random setting to get a random colony and leader.
Next, you'll chose whether you want to play a "New World" game or a "Caribbean" game. A New World game generates landmasses roughly analogous to the shape of North and South America, while a Caribbean game generates a series of small islands. Generally, Caribbean maps are more challenging than New World maps because your options for expansion are limited and you need to construct more ships. Then it comes time to select your game speed, difficulty, and map size. There are a refreshing seven difficulty levels, ranging from super-forgiving to ridiculously unfair, and four game speeds. The Normal speed gives you about 400 turns to use to win the game. Quick gives you less, and the Epic and Marathon settings give you much more. It is easiest to win games on Marathon, but the length is true to its name. A Marathon game can take several play sessions to complete, while your average normal game resolves in around four hours. You will frequently find yourself quitting out of games because after a while, you'll be able to recognize a losing situation far more quickly than the game can force you to stop playing. Map size can also influence game progression to a staggering degree, as a tiny map forces more interaction between the involved players than a huge map does, and it also offers fewer advantageous areas to settle your first colonists.
A finicky or advanced player can use the Custom menu to set up the game in a way to suit his liking. You can set any of three winning conditions in your game (Europe, Independence or Time), set how many AI players you want competing with you in a one-player game, set parameters for the behavior of the AI, and even control parameters of the map generation algorithm. Perhaps most useful to a finicky player, you can also opt to start games with your civilization already developed to a particular point … say, ready to declare independence if you want an action game, or with your first colonies already founded if you dislike the early exploration phase of the game. The Custom commands can be applied to any game you start or to a Scenario game, and they may very well save the game in the eyes of players who really like or dislike particular features.
Once you've actually started a game, the actual course of play is fairly straightforward, though not exactly simple. Colonization is really a series of very minor decisions that can amount to huge advantages or disadvantages further on down the line. You'll settle your colony and assign people to gather resources from nearby areas. You'll need to balance gathering food, building improvements to your town, and growing cash crops you can take back to Europe and sell. You always start with a ship appropriate to your colony's fleet that can run back and forth to Europe for you, selling goods and bringing back new colonists. Growing your colony is very dependent on strategically importing colonists with skills you need at particular points at the game, like Expert Farmers to grow more food and Master Carpenters to build things more quickly. You'll rapidly amass bonuses from your buildings, compounded by bonuses you earn from attracting Founding Fathers to your cause and any bonuses you get from your other units.
Everything you do is helped and hindered by one massive bonus you develop by investing resources in creating rebellious sentiment, a resource that the game calls "Liberty" and represents with little bells. You can found newspapers and install elder statesmen in your Town Hall to build up liberty more quickly, which turns into a flat percentage of rebel sentiment in that particular town of your colony. As rebel sentiment increases, your colonists begin spontaneously doing things more efficiently, working faster and producing extra goods. At high levels of building development and rebel sentiment, wacky things like guns spontaneously generating in your town from nothingness can start happening. It's really quite cool.
You need to balance the way you grow your rebel sentiment, though. If it grows too quickly, you alarm the King, and he'll begin adding more troops to the Royal Expeditionary Force you have to fight when the time comes for you to declare independence, which can be any time after total rebel sentiment among your entire population is 50 percent or greater. The King's view of your colonies can also be damaged by rapidly growing rebel sentiment, if he asks for money and you turn him down, or refuse to agree to tax increases. Of course, it's very difficult to amass all of the resources you need for a victory without taking advantage of liberty bonuses from very early in the game, forcing you to constantly deal with rebel sentiment in a risk-reward fashion. Once you declare independence, you get to determine certain characteristics of your civilization, which decide the bonuses and penalties that affect you for the rest of the game. Then the game shifts to a very aggressive, combat-oriented phase. Your settlement will be swarmed by potent European Man o' Wars carrying tons of ground troops from early in the conflict, forcing you to fight cautiously if you want to keep enemy units from reaching your cities. The actual mechanics of combat are very much like Civ IV's, to the point where there's almost no need to discuss how it works independently of that game. The array of units at your disposal is obviously different, but the underlying engine feels fundamentally the same.
Civilization IV: Colonization is a wonderful, expansive game. It's trying to be something very different from Civilization and yet is fundamentally too similar to be considered really separate. Powerful customization tools let you create exactly the game you want. The game tries to appeal to beginners with extensive tutorial tooltips and a Civilopedia that's packed with information about how different units and mechanics work. Colonization is certainly going to be a fun game when it ships later this month.
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