By Adam Smith on September 9th, 2011 at 7:45 pm.
Sometimes the work that goes into a mod is breathtaking. Civilisation V NiGHTS is such a thing, born perhaps equally out of admiration and frustration. The team, led by Markus Beutel, have looked at Civilisation V, stripped it down and rebuilt it from the ground up. They describe the mod as a total conversion but that doesn’t mean it gives you fantasy units, adds magic or allows the use of Achron-style time travel (which I now want, mod community). Instead, this is a remake of the game Firaxis released. A game that is conveniently 75% on Steam this very weekend. The mod has been available and actively updating for almost a year now by my reckoning and it is currently the only way I play Civ V. And I play Civ V a lot.
A brief and personal history of Civilisation. I’ve been a fan of the series since I first saw a screenshot of a newspaper saying “The Zulus have invented gunpowder.” It feels like that was around 1842 (the screenshot, not the invention) but careful research tells me it was 1991. I’m not sure if I remember the details of that screenshot exactly but I do know it was the first time I became aware of the game and all the mad possibilities locked inside it. Rather than being a simple strategy game, it seemed to be an alternate history creating device. I’ve since discovered better ways to indulge those particular urges but I’ve never stopped playing Civ.
I still remember my first game. I played on the Earth map, because I wanted to warp our reality not a random one, and I was the Romans. I tried to be just like the real Romans but with a twist. In my world, we were pacifists. More than that. We were cowards. It’s a template that I took with me through the series. I build a few glorious cities and I watch those lovely beakers full of science stretch across bars until I discover yet more glorious things to put in my glorious cities. When culture came along in Civ III, it was one more bar I was happy to fill up. It soon became my favourite. Even better than science.
Civilisation V was the first game in the series to really make the military appealing to me. I’d always thought I was just a benign ruler who didn’t want to be responsible for bloodshed. I imagined my citizens were paragons of virtue, living in a utopia built upon respect for all nations and people. They were artists, not warriors. Judging by how fast my cities were growing, they were lovers as well. They built cathedrals but they were not dedicated to a vengeful God but to beauty and the power of the human spirit. I had raised my people to be the benevolent and meek inheritors of the Earth. Then Civ V happened and I realised none of that was true. I just didn’t like unit stacking very much.
That’s not to say I’m always the leader of a bloodthirsty gang of militant murderers in Civ V, but I do enjoy building and deploying armies now. If that leads to the occasional destruction of an entire way of life, so be it. For a game in such a long-running series to alter my playstyle so dramatically is quite impressive and I do love Civ V but I also accept its faults. It giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. And then there’s another hand stuffed full of DLC. I’ve mostly ignored that one because of its uncanny nature.
Here’s three of the things I loved: hexes, the removal of unit stacking and policies. Hexes because they feel more natural and contribute to the beauty of the maps, the unit stacking for the reasons mentioned above, and policies because they lent an RPG-like personality to my civ. Yes, they may just be toggles to adjust numbers but, stripped down, everything is.
Here’s three things I didn’t like. The AI, the computer opponents and the AI. The perceptive among you will notice what I’ve done there. I’ve effectively repeated the same thing three times. It’s very clever. Twice I actually used the exact same term. Read it again if you don’t believe me.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as many have, that the AI is broken. I’ve played many games to completion and even though dominance is often far easier than I’d like my main problem is that games tend to play out the same way over and over again. There’s not enough unpredictability and sometimes the AI doesn’t seem to understand all the rules it’s playing with. Other times there’s a distinct impression that it doesn’t actually want to win, or perhaps no one told it how.
Thankfully, the modding scene for Civ V has become something rather special. It’s at the point where I can keep all the things I love and see massive improvements in the things I didn’t like. That doesn’t just mean turning Civ V into Civ IV. It was already possible to do that by uninstalling Civ V and reinstalling Civ IV. I’d even argue that the games played so differently, it was worth having them both installed. My favourite Civ V mods are the ones that expand on what was unique and worthwhile in the game. The things that make it different to its predecessors.
It would be bold and incorrect to say that Civilisation NiGHTS eliminates all the problems with the AI but it does a damn good job. While there are still issues, over an entire game I find opponents to be more unpredictable, more difficult to box in and more believable. That’s a very good thing and tackles my three major complaints but it’s the parts that I didn’t want to change that impress me the most.
I said earlier that I loved policies. Now I adore them. There are seven branches now and over a 100 policies to choose from. Although you have to start from the bottom of each branch, they’re all open and picking one will never lock off another. This means a civilisation can change more dramatically over time, adapting to its new place as the political situation evolves. Crucially, players don’t need to decide which victory type they’re aiming for quite so early on in proceedings. There’s more.
“Each tree unlocks 2-3 Governments at various points, and as you get further down each tree, they unlock special synergy abilities that boost a variety of buildings from the Renaissance Era onwards. This is to ensure that as you progress through the game, buildings in later eras feel powerful compared to their early era counterparts. These bonuses are also listed in the tool-tips for the buildings themselves.”
Not only is that a lot of new stuff but it’s been added with a high degree of polish. The tool-tips are accurate, and the policy screen looks professional while fitting the graphical style of the game. What’s more, whenever DLC or patches are added to the game, Civilisation NiGHTS is made to fit them, not just so that it doesn’t crash but so that anything new that requires tuning is integrated.
I haven’t even touched on the biggest difference, which overhauls the way that Civ V plays completely. That’s the way the mod deals with happiness. In Civ V, citizens generate unhappiness. It’s a view I find myself in agreement with. The more of us there are, the more miserable we become. It’s why I escape the concrete confines of the city whenever the chance presents itself. NiGHTS doesn’t agree with me though. In the mod, citizens actually generate happiness. Expansion and militarisation take it away again. It changes the balance of the game to the extent that you’ll have to relearn a lot of things but it’s all implemented so well, with much much more than I’ve described going on both above and beneath the hood, that the learning process feels natural. At first it’s not quite clear how much has changed but almost everything has.
You can read all the details over at Civ Fanatics, including the installation instructions. If you’ve been frustrated by Civ V, this may be your way back in. And if you’re enjoying the base game already, give this a try and you may well find you never want to go back to vanilla.
It’s not the only big mod for Civ V out there but it’s the one that I’ve stuck with. There was another update a short while ago and, alongside the constant balancing and responses to feedback, there are plans for the implementation of more detail in areas such as the handling of religion.
I shall take this opportunity to remind you once last time that Civ V is 75% off on Steam this weekend.