It's impossible to talk about the new expansion to Civilization VI - Gathering Storm, without some reference to that other climate, the contemporary political one. And much as the new title implies, these are dangerous waters by which to stand.
We live in a world in which in the current US president takes pride in joking on Twitter about global warming being a cure for the polar vortex parts of the US are seeing at the moment. A tweet undermined by the US National Weather Service immediately pointing out in their own tweet that climate change does produce such phenomena.
Of course, any Civ player worth their victory conditions will know these are the times humans have always lived in. Chaos, fear and the possession of power are our drivers as much as discovery, improvement and harmony. One set requires the other.
And so it is that Civilization VI: Gathering Storm brings the environment, the power of the natural world, and also the disruption of it, into the game in a way never seen before.
Does it work? We think it does. The volcanic eruptions, droughts, storms, floods, and hurricanes that are a signal feature of the new expansion bring a considerable new challenge to gameplay, as well as advantages on which to capitalise.
For the record, we played two full games at Prince level, with the environmental effects slider up to maxed· in both, out of four settings available. Our usual difficulty setting is Emperor for Civ VI, so while not among the elite of players, we're not bad either.
The key thing brought by the new environmental effects is variety. How a flood for example can set back your population growth plans, or having a unit moving to attack suddenly badly damaged in a volcanic eruption. This brings a welcome element of unpredictability, and an added factor in your city location and zone planning.
Sometimes the risk is worth the reward, and sometimes not. That sweet volcanic soil will give you a boost post-eruption, however, by Zeus, that tectonic pimple will blow again! Some things, such as flooding, can be mitigated by building dams or even flood barriers, and notably the Governor Liang has an ability that provides cities with protection from such catastrophes.
The later game Climate Change mechanic works for us too. Well, when I say it works, in our two playthroughs we were largely following strategies that worked for us in Rise & Fall, with some exceptions. And by doing so found ourselves the chief offender when it came to global pollution. And when I say chief offender, I mean we were Al Capone and everyone else was just guilty of minor traffic offences.
Us? The bad guys? That's just the price of innovation my friends. Obviously, this was a situation that could be mitigated further into the game, as technologies such as wind farms and solar plants became available - as well as city Projects such as Carbon Capture. Carbon Capture may be a controversial concept for some, as it's a method that's never been successful on an effective global scale.
Anyway, that's an argument that's outside the scope of a game review, but it does give you an idea of the territory on which Gathering Storm isn't afraid of walking.
The primary cost of this kind of environmental damage - human caused environmental damage - is rising sea levels. CO2 is the primary driver of Ice Cap loss in Gathering Storm, and hence rising sea levels. There are indicators in-game to give you an idea of the vulnerability of tiles to such flooding. In this respect, and looking at all the enviromental effects, we'd describe Gathering Storm as a game of informed risk. And that's an important concept to get.
Equally, you can turn the slider down to 1 and ignore most of it. But we prefer our metal heavy, thank you very much.
Is there a political message in all this? Well clearly there is. And one that may cause rancour in some circles. It is based on our current scientific understanding however, and that is drawn from measurable effects. But Civ is Civ and it all left us wondering if we could deliberately flood the Netherlands if we were playing against it. There is a Spy Mission to that effect.
The other biggest change Gathering Storm brings to Civilization VI is the World Congress. Well, the return of the World Congress for Civilization series veterans.
Diplomatic Favor is one hell of an important currency in Gathering Storm. Be awash with the stuff, and you can manipulate those World Congress votes to considerable advantage. Be a pauper in it, and be on the wrong end of the schemes of others.
World Congress votes happen on a cyclical basis, every 30 turns on Standard speed, with automatically generated resolutions to vote for and against on, with an added level of detail in that you'll be asked to specify which resource, building type, city state type, Civ etc is affected. Those votes cost Diplomatic Favor.
How is this earned? Well, through Alliances - yes, it really is better to have some buddies in Gathering Storm - City States, competing in global challenges such as the World's Fair, and other things such as simply trading it. And it's a pretty desirable commodity. Those AIs will make all kinds of offers to obtain your Diplomatic Favor, trust me. Think carefully about those offers is all I'll say. It can also be used to extract promises directly from other Civs via the Ask For Promise button.
Special Sessions of the World Congress are called in the event of an emergency, and you can vote on whether these Emergencies go ahead or not. Emergencies also now include intervention in environmental catastrophes. It's a good mechanic and it's really rather excellent to be able to vote an Emergency into oblivion caused by you taking someone's city, for example.
All in all, the World Congress adds welcome depth and complexity to Civilization VI. It's about decision making and planning. Thinking ahead but also seizing opportunities. With the Diplomatic Victory via Diplomatic Victory Points back in the game, it's one of your primary tools to improving your own position, or beating down rivals. Or just beating down other Civs for the hell of it. We confess, we did that. In Civ, as in love, what is possible must be explored.
And that leads us neatly into the new Grieviance system.
The previous Warmongering system in Civ VI was a cause of dismay for us all. What the designers seemed not to have understood is that Civ players don't forget. I don't care if the Egyptians attacked me 1,000 years ago. I'm waiting for the damned day I can take revenge. Yet if another Civ caused your people to be taken as slaves, and your women to be in a state of considerable lamentation for some time, if you later so much as chucked a cabbage at them - WARMONGER. Most of us ended up wearing it as a badge of honour, game mechanics or not.
Well, this sorry story is over. Replaced with the Grievance system. This in effect gives points for and against all Civs in a game concerning their dealings with each other, and also dealings with their allies.
Generated by hostile acts, such as invasions, breaking promises, denying requests and so on, Grievance points act as a plus/minus with each Civ and are visible on the Diplomacy screen. This has the desirable outcome of eliminating the domino effect the Warmongering system so often brought about - where all the AI civs ended up hating you. Grievance points also seem to make it harder to effect the loyalty of others' cities, which is a nice touch and brings some more "real world" reality to the game.
In short, the Grievance system makes inter-civ relations a more complex and manipulable process. We weren't able to deliberately gather Grievance points against another Civ, but we're sure it's possible.
We're also getting an entire new era. And this is important. One of the major issues with Civilization VI has been the end game. Partly we feel this is a result of the actual game type. In such a strategy game, that can take tens of hours to complete, it becomes apparent you've won before you've actually won. Or lost for that matter.
In essence, it leads to a situation of boredom, where you're pressing that Next Turn button out of a sense of duty rather than enjoyment. We'd go far as to guess that 75% of Civ VI games are never actually finished to an actual victory.
Well, the new Future Era brings randomly selected new technologies, random new Civics and three new government types. The finish line has been moved, and the scenery along the way made much more interesting. Does it work?
We're only going off two complete Standard speed playthroughs here, one as the Inca - immense fun incidentally - and one as the Ottomans. We'd say it works to some extent. Our games were also conducted with an intensity we don't normally play Civ VI at, in order to meet deadlines. We do need maybe a dozen more relaxed playthroughs at a higher difficulty to be conclusive. So watch this space for that and some assessment of individual Civs.
Giant Death Robots are back, incidentally, for the veterans among us.
Resource consumption is now a thing. Instead of simply requiring one or two copies of a resource for a particular unit, you now accumulate that resource over each turn if you have access to it. To illustrate, you can end up with 150 Iron, or 50 Horses and so on, if you don't use them. That makes trading them more interesting and more considered. Again, an improvement to detailed play.
Power is now also an important element in the game. Your advanced cities will display a small "volt" icon on their titles as the game moves into later eras. Power can be used to improve the performance of some late game buildings but involves using resources such as uranium, coal and oil. Guess what? There's an environmental impact to that, although solar, geothermal, wind power and so on do become available later too. We also had a nuclear plant meltdown on us because we ignored the Recommission Nuclear Plant button.
There are a bunch of other improvements we'd put into the quality of life category. Bigger resource icons for starters. Archeological sites being clearly marked once you have an active archeologist. We also most welcome the return of two things from previous titles in the series: the Production Queue, allowing you to pre-plan up to eight build orders in your cities, and the City Reports.
Once again we can see the data on all our cities in one place, with yields, resources and status. It's a small thing really, but leaving it out of Civ VI was like designing a car and forgetting wheel nuts. At least for us.
The Hall of Fame is improved, with a panel detailing your previous victories, so you can more accurately assess your development as a player. Or more accurately assess why you shouldn't play drunk.
Map filters, or lenses are better too. With the Empire lens giving you a better sense of borders. for example, and the relative strength of competing civs in a way not available though just looking at scores.
We're also certain the game has been optimised too. Even running with a full roster of AI civs in the end game, turn processing times on our mid-high spec PC were great and a definite improvement on Rise & Fall.
You're also getting new World Wonders, new Natural Wonders, some new general units - such as Mr Death Robot - and nine new leaders with eight new Civs. More on those on AltChar.com soon.
So what reservations do we have? Well, we're not a fan of tall gameplay. That is, fewer, larger cities, as opposed to more, smaller ones. But we know a good number of players are. And we see nothing in Gathering Storm that makes this style more viable.
We also fail to see the utility in putting your population into buildings, as opposed to working resources. This has always been the case with Civilization VI, so much that most players ignore the possibility of doing so. Again, we've seen nothing on our two playthroughs that suggests this has changed. It's not a thought that has been tested to complete destruction or evidence though.
In summary, Gathering Storm, which launches on February 14, delivers a lot. It's a powerful evolution of the current game, whether you play vanilla or Rise & Fall. The World Congress adds an element that was sorely missing, the Environmental mechanics make for more variety and consideration in your gameplay - that all important element of risk. Diplomacy is better, and the Grievance system brings a whole area of the game back into relevance.
We think the guys at Firaxis have got this about right. Is it the perfection of Civilization VI? At least one of our jurors is still out. But we need to play the hell out of it, and the very fact that we will be doing so is quite enough praise.