One of the best strategy games ever makes an unexpected appearance on Nintendo Switch and it works a lot better than you’d think.
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The Switch doesn’t get much third party support from other companies, but when it does it’s always surprising exactly which games they pick and how much effort they put into making them work. To the point where we don’t know which is more surprising: that Bethesda got Doom and Wolfenstein II working so well on the Switch or that Civilization VI has turned out to be the best non-PC version of the series ever.
Not that there ever have been many other versions of Civilization, with 2008’s Civilization Revolution (newly available via backwards compatibility on Xbox One) being easily the best up till now. But this is not a spin-off but a version of the most recent PC sequel that includes almost all of the original features and yet works surprisingly well on Nintendo’s hybrid console.
The premise of Civilization VI remains exactly the same as always, as you start with a single group of settlers in pre-history and from them create and nurture a whole culture up until the space age. What you do to win is up to you though, with classic victory conditions including straight-up military conquest, cultural dominance, religious unity, and winning a space race to colonise another planet.
Military conquest is naturally most people’s first choice, and Civilization has always worked perfectly well as a straight wargame. Even if, in the name of increased realism, the sequels have gradually reduced the chances of cavemen going up against modern soldiers. You can still end up badly outclassed by rival civilisations though, who will toil away in their own countries, researching technologies, building up armies, making treaties, and constructing wonders of the world. As a kind of eternal leader you must do the same for your own civilisation, starting out with just a group of settlers and a (randomised) map of the world, that you have to fill in by exploring.
Like any leader your plans start out grand but are gradually worn down by the realities of life. And while you may imagine yourself as some modern day Alexander or Napoleon you also have to be a bean counter and mealy-mouthed politician to get anywhere. This is where much of the game’s depth comes from, but it’s also where, in previous sequels, you could get bogged down in micromanagement and an increasingly strict series of steps and tactics – which ruined the idea that you’re creating a civilisation according to your rules alone.
This is something Firaxis were well aware of when creating Civilization VI and it does its best to break old habits and ensure that creating a new city isn’t simply a case of following a pre-suggested checklist. The most obvious way this is achieved is by forcing you to place city buildings and improvements on the map in separate districts, rather than just having them exist in a netherworld of menu options. You get bonuses for putting them in sensible locations but you also have to consider that they have to be both physically defended and accessible to everyone that needs them.
This isn’t the only way in which the use of terrain has become much more important, as the technology available for you to research is also dependent on nearby resources. The technology tree has been pruned a little to move concepts such as philosophy and democracy to a new Civics tree, which helps to make the cultural victory a more viable alternative than it usually is. At the same time, a series of policy cards helps to make the business of government feel more like a set of perks from an action game, as you encourage the masses to accept yet another war or increase their building efforts.
The way religion is handled is now more nuanced than it’s ever been and, in a sad reflection of reality, makes religious wars more likely. These changes won’t mean much to Switch owners that have never played one of the games before but they’re not just in the name of realism but to ensure there’s much more variety and unpredictably to every game, rather than just picking a straight path at the beginning and trying to see it through to the end.
Civilization VI is a massive game, and if manuals were a thing that still existed the one needed here would require half a forest to print out. And yet learning to play the game at a basic level is surprisingly simple, as long as you give it your full attention. At least at the start, all you’re doing is moving your small number of explorers around the map, as you tell your cities to build and research. Everything is turn-based so you can take as long as you like about it, with combat initiated as soon as units are in range.
In terms of how all this works on the Switch it’s surprisingly seamless. The computer takes longer on its turns than it would on a decent PC, and the scrolling can be a bit jerky in docked mode, but it’s really not a problem given the nature of the game. What’s particularly impressive is how well the controls have been configured for a game that was only originally intended to be played with a mouse and keyboard.
Handheld mode is the optimal way of playing it, since the game uses touchscreen as well as physical controls, but it also works perfectly well when docked and proves, as XCOM did before it, that strategy games can work just as well with a joypad as any other control system.
And while the Switch version doesn’t include the Rise And Fall expansion it does benefit from two year’s worth of patches and refinement, and so although there are still minor legacy issues with the interface it’s all impressively readable even in handheld mode.
As with most strategy games the artificial intelligence can end up making illogical decisions, that break the illusion that you’re matching wits with history’s greatest minds. The alternative to this is playing real people, but that’s not something that the basic Civilization design was ever really meant for. The Switch is missing an online option but it does add local multiplayer support, so you can give it a try anyway – even if it’s still all a bit of a fudge.
The whole point of Civilization VI though is that you can play it how you want, and that’s still entirely true of this new console version. Rather than the downgraded port some might have expected this breathes new life into the game and makes it more accessible than ever for new players and old. It was already one of the best strategy games ever on PC and now it is on Switch as well.
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI
In Short: One of the best PC to console ports ever, with the strategy great working impressively well on the Switch and opening up the series to a whole new audience.
Pros: The same unparalleled depth and versatility as the PC original, but still surprisingly accessible even for those new to the series. Excellent portable controls and great presentation.
Cons: The artificial intelligence can still be unconvincing at times, and the interface isn’t always as clear as it should be. No online multiplayer. Turn times takes longer than on a PC.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Asypr and Firaxis Games
Release Date: 16th October 2016
Age Rating: 12