Call to Power II
Believe it or not, Civilization first hit the streets a decade ago and the same game concept - in-depth research, resource and military management based on a board divided into squares - has made the transition from the 20th to the 21st century with surprisingly few real changes.
Yes, we've moved steadily from Civilization itself - which, incidentally, was a million-seller in its day - to the much-improved Civilization 2 and on to the third-generation Call To Power, complete with spiffing 3D (ish) graphics and clever AI. Now we have the fourth-generation version, with marginally spiffier graphics and much cleverer Al. The trouble is that many of the improvements are more or less invisible to the average intellect.
One of the obvious changes is that a city's influence over the surrounding landscape now depends on its population rather than a fixed two squares. In other words, big cities can spread over more than just 20 squares. This will be seen as a fundamental change to many die-hard Civ players, and it does impact on the game in that you can concentrate on your capital city and vital ports to the exclusion of the minor ones you wish you hadn't bothered to build. On the other hand, not many cities will ever get big enough to expand over more than 20 squares, so only real Civ anoraks will ever see it happen.
The borders between neighbouring races/states/peoples are clearly defined -as in Alpha Centauri-to reduce accidental skirmishes and the combat system has been completely overhauled. This solves one of my own criticisms of the original Call To Power, of course - the fact that a gang of rock-throwing, spear-chucking natives who hadn't even learned to ride a horse or write their name could actually take out a battalion of super-heavy 22nd-century hover tanks with a lucky hit or two. In CTPII you can now group units into armies and reorganise them at will - you can even name the armies for easy reference.
Happily, the developers have also tackled my other criticism as well - you can now add units, buildings and improvements to the build queue and move them up and down in terms of priority. Another big change is that rather than just achieving victory by sheer military muscle, you can opt for victory by diplomatic means as well as scientific achievement. If you're the first to build a wonder of the world, you also get a big bonus.
Diplomacy is much improved. For instance, you can come up with counter-proposals and compound proposals to thwart obnoxious or difficult neighbours, decide on a particular diplomatic attitude to take with individual rulers, and even make threats.
CTP II takes more than a few tips from Sid Meier's masterpiece Alpha Centauri, in that it now features intelligent advisors who'll pop up and tell you what you should be doing, a city summary screen for each city, 'mayors' who'll take over the menial task of running a city, as well as automated tile improvement.
New features include a radar map that shows things such as borders and trade routes, trade income that depends on scarcity and distance rather than fixed values, as well as new units and new maps, plus the expected scenario editor.
You can play against up to seven opponents in your struggle to advance and choose from any one of 41 races, from Australian to Korean, Polish or Thai. No, I don't know why there are 41 and not 40 or 42, but frankly it makes little difference what race you decide to play because all your actions are decided by you.
Incidentally, for the sake of political correctness, you can be either a male or female ruler, but quite what difference it makes, I'm not sure. In other words, instead of being Mohandas Gandhi, you can be Indira Gandhi instead. And I always thought he was Mahatma or something. And instead of being George Washington you can be Susan B Anthony. You mean you don't know who she was? Me neither... That said, the computer does try to simulate the character of the opposing sides as realistically as possible. In other words, the English behave like the expansionist thugs the Americans think we are - or were - while the Mongols kill people for fun and the Polynesians are laid-back almost to the point of being horizontal. And so would I be if I lived on an island paradise with lots of big-breasted women in grass skirts and more fish than I could sensibly handle. That's not a sexist comment, by the way -I really don't mind whether they're male or female fish...
CTPII does add to the multiplayer aspect of the Civ series by introducing play-by-e-mail and hot-seat options as well as the level of multiplayer support you'd expect these days, either over the Internet or across a network.
As well as the complete scenario editor, you get a full world map and three fully-integrated historically-based scenarios. You can also choose from four different maps sizes, from small to absolutely-bloody-l-want-to-stay-up-all-night gigantic. Which is nice... Call To Power II really is a brilliant game but, despite the improvements, it doesn't really break much new ground. OK, so the diplomatic options are much improved. Enemies will survey the whole diplomatic scene before attacking or forming alliances or whatever. But you expected them to do that before, didn't you?
And do you care if the game has expanded to cover 6,300 years? No, of course not - you just wanted to win and didn't care what century you were in as long as you had better units than your opponents. Part of the problem faced by the game's designers is that Civilization was already close to being the perfect game for many people. It was challenging, absorbing and thoroughly addictive - and it still is. So what can you add without changing the way the game is played?
The answer, unfortunately, is very little. You can redesign the interface (successfully, I might add), alter one or two of the basic rules (just as successfully) and completely revamp the AI (equally successfully), but you can't change the fact that this is just another upgrade to one of the all-time classic games, Civilization. Oh, it's good and it's as bloody addictive as it ever was. It's also well worth buying, even for existing CTP owners but, in the end, it's essentially just a massive upgrade. No more, no less.
It happens to every Civ fanatic sooner or later. You turn up the difficulty level to 'impossible', put yourself up against the most savage and arrogant empire -1 never mentioned the Germans - and still end up hammering the AI the equivalent of 6-0. So what do you do? If you're playing Call To Power II, you select the multiplayer option, go online and search out a human opponent or two.
Unfortunately, you'll probably search for quite a while. Although Activision has released a patch to version 1.1, supposedly to correct multiplayer 'issues', it's still a pretty flaky game even across a network, with lots of spurious disconnections and frequent synching problems.
To make matters worse, the company has only allotted two servers to the game and, a month after the game's release, that's still all there is. What's worse, when we checked it out, there was nobody logged on and no games running. Is there a hidden message in that fact?
Hot-seat play and PBEM were dropped from the release version at the last moment, which is probably another indication of the number of bugs on the multiplayer side, although the code is apparently still in there. Multiplayer options are presently limited to Internet and LAN (either IPX or TCP/IP), but there is no support for online gaming services such as Mplayer.
So how do you manage to play a turn-based Civilization-style strategy game over the Internet? First of all, the game can be played In four different modes: In Normal mode turns don't advance until a player clicks on the button, while in Speed Turns mode each player gets a set amount of time to carry out their turn. Carry Over mode, a variation of Speed Turns, lets you store up those precious unused seconds, while Speed Cities mode gives each player a set amount of time, depending on how many cities they've built.
To speed up play further, Activision recommends a maximum of four players in multiplayer mode and advises against using huge maps. There are no in-game chat features, so player interaction is limited to the same diplomatic choices as in the single-player game. Boring... On the plus side, you can create customised games by specifying starting gold, number of settlers and so on, as well as tweaking the type of map you'll use. You can even exclude any units such as the eco-ranger that you feel can unbalance the game. Sensibly, you can also decide to start in a later era than usual to help online games go faster. Game configurations can also be saved for future use, but sadly you can't play custom scenarios in multiplayer mode.
Two's A Crowd
What it all means is that CTP2 is a great single-player strategy game that has missed the multiplayer mark by a couple of continents. It's fine on a local network, but close to being a disaster area in online terms. Let's just hope Sid Meier and Firaxis put a little more effort into Civilization III.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode