The Civilization series was my first foray into what came to be known as 4X games like it probably was for many others. I remember watching my friend play Civilization 1 on his 286 and being enthralled by how engaging the gameplay was. He couldn’t stop playing one more turn and I couldn’t stop watching.
Soon, watching him gave way to me actually playing it, too. Eventually, our friendship blossomed over a shared passion – nay, obsession – of Civilization 1, among other things.
Now here I am, some almost-30 years later, playing the sixth iteration of the game that started it all. I’ll come right out the gate and tell you that I’ve been very conflicted about how I feel about Civilization VI since its release.
The “cool kids” say that it takes two expansions for a new generation Civilization game to be any good. Admittedly, that was the case in my opinion with Civilization V. Furthermore, I didn’t really enjoy Civilization VI’s base game, though the Rise and Fall expansion did make the game a bit better.
Has “The Gathering Storm”, Civilization VI’s second expansion, made Civilization VI “good” now?
As I’ve never reviewed Civilization VI as a game in any form, let this review be a complete review for the base game, the “Rise and Fall” expansion, and now “The Gathering Storm” expansion. I’ll be sure to mention whether or not certain mechanics are additions from those expansions as I assess them.
Welp, here goes nothing…
What I Like:
The Art Style: I know there is a huge amount of debate – relatively – about the art style chosen for Civilization VI and whether or not it’s “too cartoony”, but I personally like it a lot and think that the hand-drawn style is timeless in some ways.
3D art, or more realistic art, shows its age much faster than the hand-drawn “cartoonish” look does. Also, I personally like how vibrant and colorful everything looks in Civ 6. Moreso, the way that the time of day changes with each turn is a really cool change to the ambiance of the game and I genuinely just enjoy looking at the game, its landscapes, its oceans, and its units.
While I think that Endless Legend has an amazing map and strategic view, I actually think that Civ 6’s aesthetics will have a longer lifespan.
I really like the faction leader models, too, but will admit to liking Civilization V’s more. That’s just a personal preference. Meanwhile, Civ 6’s leader models are incredibly well animated and I love that they speak the native language of their nation, as they have in previous iterations.
(As an aside, I do wish that the leaders spoke more lines of dialogue, however. The introduction dialogue and the one or two other lines of spoken works are fantastic and immersive, so it’s a bit off-putting to see most of the other interactions lack the voice-over work.)
So, despite what some people may say about the graphics appearing too cartoony, I’d respectfully disagree. I like them better than previous iterations, but mostly because they’re done well and make the world appear brighter and more pleasant to look at and I believe they’ll age better than “realistic graphics”.
The Districts System: Clearly inspired by Endless Legend and its city district system, Civ 6 takes this system a few steps further to great effect. Not only are they well-represented aesthetically on the map, but the function of building your cities horizontally really allows cities to feel as large as they clearly become.
It also allows for city specializations based on resources or the tile yields provided by the map and I really like that. It requires much more forward thought than previous Civilization games, and you can sometimes get “stuck” if you don’t place the pieces in the right order/locations, but it also leads to a sense of satisfaction when you can fit it all just right and develop a great city.
It may have been inspired by Endless Legend, but after many hours with Civilization VI’s districts mechanic, it’s clearly a positive evolution of that idea and it stands as a unique and interesting gameplay focus for Civilization VI’s cities.
The Map: Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, as I mentioned before, it’s also a unique-looking map that has a satisfying, old-timey feel to its fog-of-war sections. I also love – and sometimes hate – that the fog of war is peeled back only as long as you have units and/or sight of the locations revealed. The fact that the fog-of-war sections are replaced with representations of the locations previously revealed is a true spark of genius and adds a lot to the immersive feel of that map.
It’s something I really hope to see other 4X games adopt. It’s a level of polish that exceeds just about every other 4X game I’ve ever played. You can quickly and easily identify a Civilization VI map and that’s a good thing.
The Distinct Civilizations: In the past, Civilization games have only had a couple modifiers for the various Civilizations, but with Civ 6, they really went beyond their normal differentiation. Not only do they have unique units and buildings (and/or districts), but they also have modifiers significant enough to actually change the way you play the game.
You can find many, many different tier lists and make arguments for a variety of civilizations being “god tier”, but they’re all capable of winning in a variety of ways. Sure, some, like the Russians, have a particular map setup requirement to be most efficient, but most civilizations have a variety of strengths that make them viable and strong in their own, distinct way.
It’s hard to do, I’m sure, especially considering the incredible amount of factions at this point, but they do seem to have their own flavor and feel, both through their gameplay and their aesthetics. That’s an accomplishment worthy of praise.
The Era/Age System (Rise and Fall): With the Rise and Fall expansion pack, the game introduced an era system that made some events that almost seemed forgettable in the base game now become at least little “era score” bumps. Now, little things like meeting a civilization for the first time, or building a particular district for the first time generate “era points”, which you accumulate in hopes of entering a “Golden Age”. A Golden Age is a period of time where your civilization benefits from morale and inspiration bonuses, thus improving just about every facet of your civilization and its output.
If you don’t do enough proactively, you may fall dramatically short of a Golden Age and even fall into a “Dark Age”, which has quite the opposite effect as the Golden Age, but thankfully – and a bit mercifully – reducing the era score requirements for the next Golden Age.
It’s not something that gets me all tingly inside, but it does motivate the player to take chances and to become proactive with their empire, instead of just turtling or standing by while the turns pass.
The Governors (Rise and Fall): Basically heroes for your cities that you can level up, therefore increasing their capabilities, or choose to recruit more at the cost of not leveling up existing governors. Their skill trees aren’t exactly extensive, but they do allow for city specializations beyond what you’re already capable of.
Plus, it’s just fun to level shit up and watch them get better. Again, not a serious game changer, but it’s an addition that I enjoy and when it’s time to level up my existing governors or choose another one, it’s not always clear cut and that usually means it’s interesting. And I like a series of interesting choices…
The Civilization Timeline (Rise and Fall): It’s a cool way to look back on what you’ve accomplished as a player/civilization. Sometimes you forget just how much you do in a game of Civilization until it’s staring at you in the form of a timeline. I wish more games allowed me to see a timeline of all the interesting choices I’ve made and all the things I’ve accomplished.
Emergencies (Rise and Fall and The Gathering Storm): A unique mechanic to Civ 6 and one that adds some dynamism to the game and recourse against players acting like a-holes, Emergencies are usually a pretty fun way to counter some pretty serious offenses. It keeps players in check a bit and also allows for some pretty interesting events when factions band together to take out that nuke-dropping aggressor.
The Weather System (The Gathering Storm): While not quite as game-changing as I expected, it’s still a cool addition to the Civilization series. Not only are they cool to watch (though sometimes frustrating), they also bring a sense of realism and immersion to the Civilization series that has been missing.
Hurricanes, blizzards, tornado outbreaks, volcano eruptions and more are all here, as is global climate change, and it all makes the game just a bit more interesting, even if it’s not necessarily more difficult or game-altering as some might hope.
I think that’s okay, however, as Civilization is much more mainstream than any other 4X game, so I can’t imagine that this expansion is meant to bring the game to rogue-like difficulties. It’s meant to throw some curveballs, sure, but it’s certainly an attempt to make the world more alive and evolving and it succeeds at doing just that.
The World Congress (The Gathering Storm): It’s pretty similar to other iterations of this mechanic, but The World Congress in Civilization VI does lead to some tense and exciting moments. In a recent game, I responded to Sweden’s aggression, a powerful hurricane, and various resolutions that all affected the outcome of numerous events all within the first 30 or so turns that the World Congress was founded.
It really brought forth the sense that I was really interacting with my world and its resident civilizations.
The Grievances System (The Gathering Storm): THANK GOD that the old warmonger system is gone. In its place is the Grievances system, a system that feels much more dynamic – and in some ways, forgiving – than the warmonger system ever was. Before, declaring war and being aggressive almost always came back to bite you HARD, but now, there is more nuance to the way battles play out, the way that your neighbors and other civilizations react, and the way your own civilization can move forward.
Hell, you can even “buy back” other civilizations’ grievances towards you through trade and favors, allowing for a much more dynamic diplomacy/war relationship than ever before. This may sound subtle, but it effectively changes the game in such a smart and, in my mind, significant way that I can’t imagine ever going back to pre-The-Gathering-Storm Civilization VI.
The Mod Scene (All Versions): The R.E.D. mod, the CQUI mod, and many more have become mods that I simply won’t play Civ 6 without. Civilization VI’s mod scene is as strong as any other game’s and perhaps even better than most.
Simply put, the modders make Civilization VI a better game and should be commended for their hard work.
What I Don’t Like:
The AI: To a certain degree, I feel like nearly every 4X game I play, I will find fault in one aspect or another of the game’s AI. There are so few 4X games that have managed to crack the code, so to speak, on how to make computer-controlled players play the game in a life-like manner.
This is true for Civilization VI, but it’s actually not super egregious. The worst part of Civ 6’s AI is its ridiculous trade-request spam, most of which are absolute garbage deals, and the schizophrenic behavior that they display.
Granted, it does seem to be a bit better with The Gathering Storm, but I still see absolutely ridiculous requests being made of me, and once-friendly civilizations turning their back on me one minute, only to attempt to befriend me a few turns later.
I’d love to see this issue be a serious focus of a free update to Civilization VI, but I just don’t see it happening to the degree that I want it. Firaxis has its head in the sand regarding the AI’s behavior for some reason, which is a true shame. Nevertheless, it’s not a deal breaker, but it is super frustrating sometimes.
Forward Settling: This might be my most hated AI behavior. So much so that instead of lumping it in with the AI complaint, I’m adding it here as its own separate complaint. Forward settling, i.e. when the AI settles incredibly close to your borders, is one of the most frustrating activities that the AI engages in. What’s worse is that there’s very little I, as the player, can do about it short of declaring war and either killing the settler before it settles or assaulting the new city.
It’s not only annoying but most of the time, it just doesn’t make sense strategically. Why the AI does it is beyond me and it’s something I wish would just go away forever.
Missionary Spam: This is also better in my experience with The Gathering Storm, but it still needs to be mitigated. AI players love to spam missionaries in hopes of spreading their religions. There are some hilarious screenshots out there that show the AI carpeting maps with missionaries.
I’ve never seen it that bad, but they do seem to prioritize missionary production to a degree that they shouldn’t.
I guess the kids are right. With Civilization VI’s second expansion, the game finally feels like a game that I not only enjoy, but feel excited to get back to. As most 4X games tend to do, it bogs down as you get closer to the end, but with the new near-future technologies and the pretty-exciting-yet-ultimately-anticlimactic climate changes in the end game, the game stays fresh just long enough to finish your current playthrough.
Not only that, but the journey to that destination is much more eventful, immersive, and enticing than it has ever been. The foundation laid out by the core game with the additions of free patches, a few DLC, two major expansions, and some pretty fantastic mod support has finally shaped Civ 6 into the “One More Turn” type of game that I always wanted it to be.
It’s not often that I find myself unable to tear away from a game in the wee hours of the morning, but since The Gathering Storm’s release, I’ve done that on numerous occasions, much to my wife’s chagrin. However, a huge part of me laments the fact that it takes this long for a Civilization game to find its legs. Perhaps Firaxis has become its own worst enemy in this way, as each new iteration draws comparisons to the last iteration, and it’s almost never favorable for the new game on the block.
I don’t know what the answer is, but perhaps it’s time to shake up the formula a lot more than what they’ve done in the past. Perhaps it’ll alienate some fans, but the Civilization series has played it a bit too safe for a bit too long. I have my doubts, but maybe if it received some competition in the historical 4X realm, it might be willing to spread its wings a bit more and bring more innovation. I’m hoping that Soren Johnson and Mohawk Games can shake things up with their upcoming 10 Crowns, at least.
Regardless, Civilization VI is fun as hell as it is right now and I’m really happy I can say that. I’d only put 22 hours into the base game and Rise and Fall and have already doubled that since The Gathering Storm released. Moreover, I plan to keep playing, restarting as new civilizations, which is a sharp change to my previous history with the game.
It’s an expensive combination of the base game plus DLC, plus expansions that make this game this fun, but for 4X fans that have may have fallen away from Civilization VI, The Gathering Storm might just be what it takes to fall in love with this iteration once and for all.