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Wot I Think - Civilization VI: Gathering Storm

Armageddon ain't no biggie

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Ghengis Khan keeps sending me charity donations. The Aztecs are increasingly angrily demanding that I give them an Edgar Allen Poe novel. A volcano just erupted over Dutch Disneyland. The World Congress is trying to stop climate change by running a gameshow.

I used to fret that Civilization VI wasn’t memorable. With the Gathering Storm expansion, for better or worse, it’s unforgettable.

The second major, and jarringly expensive, expansion for Civ VI sells itself with the promise of welcoming natural disasters and catastrophic climate change into the mix, a fairly dramatic turn from the series convention of the Earth itself being an unprotesting battleground for assorted self-serving human oiks.

That’s the elevator pitch, but in practical terms what Gathering Storm’s really about is injecting some pep into a late-stage campaign, to keep players on their toes rather than grimly click through decreasingly vital build orders while waiting for one or another victory condition score to finally max out.

Coasts flooding, droughts droughting, volcanoes volcanoing and nuclear power plants Chernobyling certainly adds some new spice, and on top of everything else in Civ 6 and first expansion Rise and Fall, this is world history as a mad carnival.

That said, disasters aren’t hugely disastrous. When Beijing’s nuclear power plant exploded, it was with all the lethal finality of Mr Burns’ uranium seeping into Springfield’s water supply. 16 turns later, the ‘corruption’ was all cleaned up and a cheap Builder unit had all four affected constructions tickety-boo all over again.

Lava and ash everywhere? Send out a man with a spanner and it’s business as usual within a handful of turns. Hurricane season? That’s a couple of farms out of action for a heartbeat, which makes zero difference because you’ve so many trade routes by then that food remains abundant. Rising sea levels? Build a wall, to coin a phrase.

Presuming you’re not already in a particularly tight spot, which is unusual though a long way from impossible by the very late point in the game that the world really starts throwing its toys out of the pram, you’ll have enough resources to cope with these picosecond apocalypses, and even to have planned for them long in advance. The most catastrophic it gets is that some coastal tiles can be permanently swallowed when the sea level rises. If you’ve risked settling or building on them, you might lose something, while getting to build floating domiciles is a fun twist on managing growing population once free land becomes scarce.

A smart turn is that global warming is not a per-Civ problem, but rather something that’s going to affect everyone, unless you manage to diplomatically browbeat everyone into ditching the fossils and going big on wind farms and solar panels early on. You can be an isolationist shmuck if you want, but no amount of protecting your own borders is going to stop the icebergs from melting. Thinking globally rather than nationally is a lovely twist upon Civ convention.

So, my expectation was that more and more world would be lost as the various Civs upon it proved too slow to turn the environmental ship around, but past a certain point, our road to oblivion simply stopped. The sea had done all its rising, almost no-one had been meaningfully effected by it, and now we were all back to business as point-chasing usual.

I’m so curious about why this might be. Civ in general is fairly careful not to be political, with even the likes of fascism depicted as a strategy much more than an ideology, so I hope that climate change’s starring role here says a lot about how it is has ceased to be a controversial topic for most of us (at least those who aren’t involved with the fossil fuels industry or current US government). But it’s odd that Gathering Storm then treats it as essentially an inconvenience rather than Armageddon. Is its ultimate message, then, “go ahead, screw up the planet, it’ll sting a bit but we’ll get by”?

It also makes the game wind up mechanically conservative in its dying hours, after all the drama and oddity of the mid-to-late stages. Competing for control of or survival upon an increasingly ravaged and inhospitable planet would be a bold shift away from ancient Civ convention, even if just an option rather than a mandate. But no, it’s back to watching points. Even the new scenarios are shy about running the natural disaster ball – we get Black Death and World War II mini-campaigns.

Where I think the disasters are most effective is in shifting the needle for another strategy. For instance, Beijing’s reactor explosion temporarily disabling some of its amenities gave me a tiny extra edge in my long-term attempt to chip away at its loyalty and ultimately convert it over to my Civ.

Later, winning one of the World Congress’ new competitions – in this case a race to see who could provide most financial aid to poor, volcano-blighted Montezuma – rewarded me with enough Diplomatic Favour to aggressively vote that my Civ should be given two Diplomacy victory points. This instantly put me within a whisker of triumph. Eat my diplomatic dust, Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

Tiny cogs shifting tiny cogs shifting tiny cogs – that’s Civ VI + Rise and Fall + Gathering Storm. The sheer number of different types of points and point-trackers involved now, the sheer number of numbers blobbed around the interface — this is less feature creep, more feature bullet train. Kudos that the interface, though busy, isn’t actually a mess, given how much it has to contain now. The depth is certainly rewarding if you can give yourself over to it, but I pity the Civ newbie who buys the complete Civ 6 collection in a Steam sale and is thrown straight into this sea of stats.

I enjoyed myself, by which I mean I found getting to grips with all these new systems, these several dozen spinning plates, to be very satisfying, but at the same time I find this latest version of Civ to feel more artificial and even inelegant than ever. Long-standing problems with diplomacy, and with AI Civs’ randomly aggressive tendencies — like they just downed four pints of Stella without having dinner first — haven’t really been treated at source, but rather papered over with system after system, numbers after numbers.

I get fair warning now before Gilgamesh goes for my throat, and why he’s doing so, which means there’s far less chance that my long game is horribly disrupted just because, for all I know, some barista wrote ‘Jill’s A Mess’ on his cup that morning. I like that. But the dense matrix of points-based reasons dictating who can invade, when, why and with what consequences feels a bit like that Friends episode where Ross writes an exhaustive list of what he does and doesn’t like in the two women he’s trying to choose between. Civ VI has solved some deep-rooted problems now it’s two expansions deep, but maybe a little bit of the joy has been lost.

Which makes me into something of a hypocrite, as something I’ve previously lamented about recent Civs is that war is their default, violence at some point inevitable, even if you yourself are pursuing a peaceful victory. In Gathering Storm, which is to say the culmination of Civ 6’s expansions, war now genuinely feels like an option rather than a sporadic necessity. The new approach to diplomacy, the aforementioned World Congress, enables you to spend diplomatic favour earned from various neighbourly actions or even traded for, on basically lobbying for votes to go in your favour — or against your enemies’.

When China started to visibly tank-up because of some ancient territorial dispute they couldn’t let go of, I was able to spend my accumulated Favour on making it much harder for them to build key military units. The expected attack never came. When the Netherlands kept spamming my Civ with Hindu priests, I made religious units far more costly for a few dozen turns. Wheels within wheels, again, but it all adds up to quietly pupeteering the global stage into something which favours you, without ever firing a shot.

I found this stuff, subtle though it was, far more compelling and satisfying than the disasters. They, too, can be mitigated by fiddling congress votes so that every Civ becomes avoidant of fossil fuels or pro-renewables. You can even vote to have a sort of global gameshow, wherein the civ that generates the least C02 wins big prizes. It’s gloriously silly in concept, but again, in my experience, the calamities weren’t calamitous enough to make this feel entirely necessary. It seems to shy from drama.

For all that, Civ 6: Gathering Storm’s greatest triumph is that a game that is in so many ways so conservative is also absolutely crackerjack bonkers. The image I’ve long had of Civ 6 in my head, of going slowly and not unpleasantly through very familiar motions, is now replaced with one where volcanoes are going off all the time, everyone’s happy to hold a jolly sporting contest in the middle of a world war, laser deathbots patrol a (temporary) nuclear wasteland and Ghandi is a passionate flat-Earther.

Gathering Storm’s the best version of Civilization VI we’ve ever had, and feels a lot more like a game about civilisation rather than conquest. It also follows the Civ V trajectory of not feeling a done deal until it’s had two expansions: I don’t expect to struggle to remember that Civ 6 exists any more.

I don’t generally enjoy discussing prices, but I’ll note that yes, this is very expensive for an expansion pack – not far off buying a whole new game, which this very much is not, for all its additions. If, however, you dig Civ VI already there’s zero question that you’ll get hundreds of hours of play out of Gathering Storm – you know as well as I how mercilessly these things take over our evenings and brains.

Gathering Storm is a chunky collection of small remixes that amount to a big difference. All the same, I’m left feeling that the next Civ game, whatever it is, really needs a root and branch rethink rather than attempts to retroactively justify its existence through expensive expansion packs.

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