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The Good and the Great

November 9th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

There is much to be learned in a comparison between Age of Empires III and Civilization IV. Both are highly anticipated sequels to legendary series. Both have had overenthusiastic preview press. Both have been mentioned many times on this blog. And both have consumed most of my gaming time in the last month or so.

But the difference in quality between the two games is astounding. Both are very good games and well worth the purchase price, I think. But plyaing Civilization IV is like discovering Civ for the very first time. Playing AoE 3 is like playing AoK again.

The differences between good and bad games are obvious. Even the line between good and average is pretty clear. (Well, one magazine gave Empire Earth 2 a near perfect score.) Since so many games fall into the bad/average/good troika that it is often easy to forget that a truly great game is a totally different experience than a merely good one – or a very good one.

What makes a game great? I could say, “Elves”, but it’s not elves exactly. For all the talk about magic and game gods and x-factors there has to be some way to express what makes one game so much more enjoyable than another.

At a cursory glance, Civ IV is just as familiar and threadbare as AoE 3 is – if not more. It hasn’t been that long since Civ III Conquests came out and there have been other Civ-like games out there. The first Civ came out a very long time ago and the formula has been barely touched. The Age series at least has shifted in time and place. Civ is just the same stone age to space age thing repeated every few years.

And Civ III wasn’t “great” – it was very good. Age of Mythology on the other hand was a really wonderful experience with a great variety of gameplay challenges. So, Civ looked like it was getting stale while Ensemble seemed to be hitting its creative stride.

But for some reason, Civ IV never fails to entertain. Every game I lose is as much fun as the games I win. Except for the terribly slow PBEM experience I’m going through, every turn is full with the immediate promise of something interesting about to happen.

In AoE 3, even as I play it over and over again, I keep asking myself why they didn’t borrow more from other recent RTS games. Every spine-tingling moment of musket fire and cavalry charges is colored by the awareness that the subgenre has moved on and Ensemble hasn’t seemed to notice – despite their own innovations in Age of Mythology.

But it’s not just the issue of doing new stuff – which Civ IV has a lot of. As crazy as it sounds, I prefer both the look and sound of the turn based game to the glorious prettiness of Age 3. The triumph over simple art direction I guess. Better interface, better manual, better in game documentation…but this is all pretty mechanical stuff, isn’t it? Shouldn’t “fun” be something less easy to quantify?

It’s not just the Civ formula – Activision’s Call to Power series never quite did it for a lot of people even though it parroted a lot of the Civ stuff. I think most gamers have a soft spot for Meier and company – few other developers have so consistently satisfied our appetites. So maybe we subconsciously cut Firaxis a little slack. I doubt that’s the case though.

There is a difference between good and great. It’s the difference between Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate. Between Puresim Baseball and Out of the Park Baseball. Between F-19 Stealth Fighter and Red Baron. And it’s different from genre to genre, case to case.

And it’s the reason that I may not bother to buy another game this year.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Michael A.

    Civ IV is definitely a good – perhaps even a great (I’m not the gushing type ;) ) – game. It just leaves me with one question.

    [rant mode on]

    Why the 3D?

    The likelihood of someone deciding to purchase Civilization based on graphics is surely miniscule, and the 3D zooming provides no significant benefits that I can see (I end up playing 99,9% of my time at the same magnification anyway – with very occasional pop outs to look at the entire map – essentially the old way). It looks pretty, but a 2D game could look just as good.

    In short – so far I’ve yet to see any actual issue where it adds to the gameplay (i.e., where 2D wouldn’t have served just as well).

    At the same time, it significantly raises the bar on modding. It’s pretty laughable that they’ve spent huge resources (building an SDK + all the Python hasn’t come cheap) to make the game extremely moddable, and then they go and make it hard for modders to change the graphics.

    And of course it creates graphic glitches – something that has struck me as well. I can play easily on my below par laptop, but my home PC (which gets told that it is below specs despite it meeting the printed requirements), is glitched. When those glitches turned into random CTDs in the endgame…

    I expect Firaxis will get this patched – at least if they wish to retain any goodwill from a good portion of the gaming community. Still the decision to go 3D candidates for the “Blunder of the Year” award.

    [/rant mode off]

  • Troy Goodfellow

    You are right that the 3D serves no really useful purpose. But very few graphical improvements do. “Can’t you do this in 2D?” isn’t a very productive gripe since good designers have found a way to do almost everything in 2D.

    The modding issue you note is, however, a legitimate concern to some extent. Very few people (percentage wise) actually do any serious modding and those with the energy to make something really interesting have access to these tools and the talent to use them. Still, 3D could be a barrier to masses of people experimenting with Civ 4.

  • roboczar

    I was originally skeptical about the whole 3D bit myself, but as I played the game, I came to realise that while it may be unnecessary, it’s also unobtrusive. It doesn’t limit or hinder gameplay in any way, and it can occasionally provide you with a nice little visual wonder when you finally reveal the whole map.

    As for the difficulty of modding, it’s actually infinitely less difficult to form a series of polygons into a recognizable shape, and takes quite a lot less skill to do so. To be able to make 2d sprites that looked good, you needed quite a good handle on isometric perspective and correct proportion. 3D design packages do all that for you now, so the actually construction of the 3D object is a no-brainer.

  • Michael A.

    You’re right its pretty unobtrusive – apart from when there is a glitch or it crashes. ;-)

    In either case, that is the core of my beef with the 3D. Why bother with the 3D, if it is merely unobtrusive?

    My worries about modding are basically those Troy mentions. Back during the CivII days, I did a little scenario myself (Conquests of Charlemagne), including modding the sprites to create some various knight variants. It’s correct that building 2D sprites from scratch is tough, but its not so hard when you can mod existing sprites.

    Creating and modding 3D sprites may be a piece of cake with 3D design packages, but I doubt many casual modders will spend the money or time to get and use those. Of course it is obvious Firaxis are gunning to satisfy the “hard-core mod” crowd; I just have my doubts about placing the bar for casual modders (which is, after all, what most new modders are) that high.

    We’ll see though. I do hope to be positively surprised.

  • Bruce

    While I acknowledge that using a 3D package may raise the modding entry bar somewhat, I always thought modders were a tiny fraction of the user base anyway, and if the shift to 3D makes it easier for the hardcore to make mods while making it more difficult for everyone else, that’s actually fine with me. That may mean we actually get more quality mods.

    The one thing I always wonder is, if the game is done in 3D, why can’t I rotate the map?

  • Knyght

    Hey, that’s not fair. F-19 Stealth Fighter is a great game. Easily comparible in greatness to Red Baron, just in different ways. How nasty of you.