Get Ur FreeCol

By Alec Meer on June 12th, 2008 at 12:21 am.

(I can’t believe I just made a gag involving turn-based historical strategy games and Missy Elliot)

I’ve tried FreeCol, a free, open source remake of Sid Meier’s Colonization, a couple of times over the last few months, and quite inevitably the recent announcement about Civilization IV: Colonization spurred me to take another look. I desperately want C4C right now, so could this tide me over?

“Rest assured that our team will continue working on FreeCol no matter how good or bad the remake turns out”, the official website promises, but I feel really bad that the official Colonization 2 may steal their thunder.

I’d originally intended to make this an entirely positive post, but unfortunately I’ve really mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s a splendid accomplishment by talented folk working for free since 2003, and it’s getting better all the time – niggles aside, it’s a fully-functional, modern-Windows (and OSX and Linux)-friendly clone of the original. Some aspects of its interface are superior to its noble forefather, others are inferior, but in most respects you’re looking at the same game running smoothly and easily at high resolutions.

On the other hand, I hate it.

Well, bits of it. I adore much of it, and I keep firing it up in idle moments despite how much it can annoy me. It’s very much an unfinished work, still only at version 0.7.3 after over five years of development (version 1.0 is scheduled for next June), and to criticise it for anything at this stage is simply childish and unfair. Unfortunately, I’m an especially bitter man this week, so I’m going to criticise it anyway. Most superficially of me, I’m really not a fan of its super-plain, super-serious look – Colonization itself was a lot more cartoonish, while this lacks any visual distinction. The city screens especially seem really dreary. Clearly though, art can come later, and there’s absolutely no worth to my moaning about it at this stage – getting the thing working properly is by far the greatest priority.

What’s really stopped me from sticking with it, however, is some weird AI behaviour. The original game was all but brain-dead in that sense. While your colonies’ goal was to achieve independence from the motherland, the other three nations sharing the New World with you didn’t try to race you to the prize. They alsohad a horrific habit of lurking on your land for no good reason, blocking off your units from accessing your colonies, and generally going through all the motions of attacking without the actual attacking bit. FreeCol seems convinced greater bolshiness on their part is the way forward, and perhaps it is, as Colonization to certain extent leant a little too heavily on stockpiling resources rather than actual competition. Unfortunately, the bolshiness happens behind the scenes, so when it shows itself it’s to blindside you.

Every time I play, I get maybe an hour or so in, and I’m just starting to really establish my new colonies and get a sense of what my grand plan will be – then I’m suddenly informed I’m at war with someone. It’s not even that they’ve declared war on me – I’m told that apparently I decided that I would no longer tolerate the insolence of the French. I could make a stereotypical joke there, but I won’t, because I’m still so annoyed by this unexpected announcement effectively ending what was shaping up to be a very enjoyable game that I’ve no patience for comedy jingoism right now. There’d been no warning, no diplomacy, no shouting matches, nothing.

As I’d not been at all military-minded and thus was ill-prepared for war, the Frenchies don’t meet much resistance when they inevitably invade my colonies a few turns later. I could reload a savegame, but it’ll only happen again, and similarly out of the blue. I could get all my colonists geared towards weapon production and grab my lost towns back, but I can’t be bothered. It’s not how I want to play Colonization. Ctrl-Q and I’m back at my desktop, fuming and unsatisfied.

I snarl at it because I like it so much otherwise. It’s so close to realising a remake of a game I like, but it slaps me in the face whenever I start feeling comfortable with it. Again, it’s a work in progress, and a hugely impressive work in progress, but until it better incorporates options for pacifist play (at least until the mandatory massive fight with the motherland come the endgame), it’s not a game I’ll ever finish. I want an easy life, I guess, while FreeCol wants a challenging life.

See? I’m a bitter, bitter man. Honestly though, it’s an remarkable accomplishment, and I’m very glad it’s out there. My acidity is more about being impatient to play a finished, polished version than anything else, especially as I’m little concerned from the screenshots that the official remake being shoehorned so obviously into Civ IV’s chassis might compromise how Colonizationy it can be. FreeCol, though, is here right now, it’s free, it’s stable, it’s pretty much feature-complete and unlike its parent it has multiplayer – anyone who ever loved Colonization or Civilization should unquestionably give it a look. But it is a bit mean. Total newcomers should probably stick to the chummier original game in DOSBox, I fear.

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24 Comments »

  1. Schadenfreude says:

    I still have my old Amiga discs of Colinization lying around. There was some painful disc swapping I recall but what wonderful music. Don’t think I ever finished a game of it but I really did love running those cotton plantations. My thirteen year old self was also confused as to why the guys on horses were called dragoons; half convinced myself they must be carrying flame-throwers or something ::grins::

    I think I’ll skip on the FreeCol and DOSBox and just WinUAE this mother.

  2. Gunner says:

    This criticism seems pretty unfair to me. You’re essentially saying that you don’t like the game because the AI has now been brought up to a passable level and is able to defeat you militarily. Not trying to be offensive or anything, but have you tried playing on a lower difficulty level?

  3. Pod says:

    Meercat:
    Just play ANNO to get your tradey fix for now.

    Gunner: The AI hasn’t really “been brought up”. It just likes to declare war on you at seemingly random points for no obvious reason.

    Also: You don’t need DosBOX to run either Colonization or Colonization for Windows in XP. They both run merrily.

  4. ribminster says:

    What the hell is bolishiness?
    Nevermind, took a second to see the typo.

  5. Lh'owon says:

    Yea, having war suddenly appear out of the blue with no build-up whatsoever is incredibly frustrating. It basically means you have to play the game a certain way, which IMO isn’t the point of games like these.

  6. Andrew Armstrong says:

    Reminds me wistfully after doing the Civilization 4 tutorial (and not playing since Civ2) to start a new game and be smack next to Genghis Kahn. Yeah, I didn’t realise personalities would be like that. He stormed over my pitiful defences (hey, I was working up some nice cultural stuff) with a ton of war elephants, even after I was “friends” with him.

    At this point I realised;

    1. I will always die to some AI who likes to attack me if I have such a crappy army all the time. Especially if they are near me.
    2. Don’t build up one city, expand (I had like, 3 or 4 cities or something).
    3. Get some damn allies (I was kinda alone on this place with Genghis…).

    It’s a learning experience, perhaps it’s the same for this? I have no idea how Colonisation plays however (random attacks don’t seem really any fun). Perhaps try again, always worth trying something twice.

    The Civ4 thingy might be fun, although it’s a “standalone” expansion, so I wonder how it really fits in. Sounds like one of the several mods included with the Civ4 expansions and downloadable online, and most of them are not too much my cup of tea – much too static (map and layout kinda ways) and don’t allow much beyond fighting.

  7. Bidermaier says:

    So an open source game is half made. Excellent new.
    Now please talk about the new Eve Online expansion.

  8. Lucky says:

    Those screenshots perfectly show how dry FreeCol is in its current stage. Even though my hat’s off for any fan-made remake of a classic game, but as long as FreeCol is unenjoyable (but not unplayable) I’m sadly forced to ignore its existence.

  9. Albides says:

    Yes, that sort of dryness is the reason I could never get into Civ or Col games, with all its numbers and tiles and boggling menus. Not until, say, Civ IV, which, due to its friendliness and accessabilitiy, made me to go back and see what I had missed (Alpha Centauri!).

  10. john says:

    I’ve had trouble getting into FreeCol at first, mostly for aesthetic and performance reasons.
    I got used to the graphics, though, and some subtle interface improvements (you can explicitly load units into boats, no longer do you have to play with their sentry status and queue) made me tip.

    Oh, and the Requirements Report (F11). God DAMN! It’s what I had always needed, a quick summary of what each of my colony needed in matter of experts and ressources! That took the cake.

    Oh, and no problem with the AI, though.

  11. Feet says:

    Ahaha. “Get ur FreeCol”. I get it.

  12. tom says:

    I can’t believe you had to explain your pun!

  13. Feet says:

    Even with the explanation it took me a moment to get it. ¬_¬

    I’m having a slow day.

  14. fluffy bunny says:

    Schadenfreude: You can install the Amiga version to the hard drive so that you don’t have to swap disks. Probably works just as well on WinUAE.

    I agree that the Amiga version of Colonization was very well done, with proper windows and everything (for the uninitiated, it looked like this: http://www.mobygames.com/game/amiga/sid-meiers-colonization/screenshots).

    I was a bit tempted to play it, but I just remembered that I have a shrink-wrapped copy of Anno 1701 in my “new” games pile, so I have an excuse to install that now…

  15. J says:

    I feel bad for gamers that you had to explain the title joke.

    Video games could do with more Missy influence you know.

  16. tackle says:

    Explain the joke please, I’m not native english speaking

  17. Dagda says:

    Spoken out loud, the title sounds somewhat like “Get your freak on”, the well-known title of a song.

  18. tackle says:

    Hah!
    That’s what I thought, but I also thought my imagination was too odd for it to be true.

    I thought more in the lines of a town crier shouting it out.. “Get ur freecol…” “Bring out ur dead…”

  19. silencer says:

    I don’t think I’ve heard of that Missy Elliot song. You damn kids and your music.

    On the theme of criticizing it, maybe you should have titled the post FreeCol Matter.

  20. terry says:

    I highly recommend grabbing WinUAE and playing that one version which you can find on the internet device. However do not do it with Covert Action or you get cases full of expletives (really).

  21. sinister agent says:

    They also had a horrific habit of lurking on your land for no good reason, blocking off your units from accessing your colonies

    God, yeah, that always drove me utterly mental in Col. You had to form a fairly large army early on somehow, just so you could pre-emptively fortify at every isthmus and around your colonies, so that they couldn’t declare war and instantly obliterate all your colonies because they’ve had twenty dragoons sitting at the gates since 1520.

  22. Alan Au says:

    I spent some time messing around with FreeCol, and it’s simultaneously enthralling and irritating. The core gameplay design is wonderful, but of course they can’t take credit for that. My main complaints are with the interface and AI. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by the UI and gameplay tweaks of Civ IV (e.g. borders, peaceful units don’t block roads, etc.), which is why I’m probably better off waiting for the official remake.

  23. Brian Wagner says:

    I’m having fun with FreeCol, true, it’s not the original. My biggest gripe is that the City screen’s building display is a *scrolling* list instead of the old “at-a-glance” building display. Sure the graphics are ugly, but I’m a graphic artist by profession, and this weekend I’m going to put something nicer together (and share it if I think it is worthy).

    The “random” war declarations, though, are intended. From the original game, it was the fact that the mother countries got into a war, and thus the colonies were also thrown into the war, without necessarily any warning, even if they were friendly with each other. There is less explanation as to why the war started, but it is intentional.

    Lotsa lotsa fun though, I only got 2 hours sleep last night, cause I was up all night playing, reliving the old days. (Now if I could find the HD that I had archived the actual original game on…)

  24. painmaker says:

    - First: To the author of the post: I don’t think that you have understood the nature of the behind the scenes of the game. As a colony you are obligated to follow what your mother land does. In the game is very likely that other powers will be at war with your colony early on. a- because of what is decided in Europe b- because the inland colonies find your proximity a threat. You need to start your colonies far from them or start with a few cannons from the market… relatively cheap …

    2 – Second: The big problem still in freecol is the poor AI coding. If you play long enough to survive the first wave of attackers (those are the mayor troops of them) the AI starts then to send waves of unarmed civilians to your area… easy picking.. too easy that spoil the game and guarantee your victory. Since population is the key in this game, capturing these large numbers of units is the end of a descent game….

    But as everyone said it already, it is free, it is a great effort… and I hope they improve it…