Sometimes in bed, I’ll play vanilla Civilization 6 on my iPad. I’m a huge fan of the Civ series, and it’s always fun for me to create my own little empire, especially while I’m snuggled up in my duvet.
But there’s a snag. The iPad version does not yet include last year’s Rise and Fall update, which I’m accustomed to playing on my desktop PC. And this leaves the iPad-playing, bed-dwelling version of me feeling frustrated. Because basic Civ 6 is not as good as updated, advanced, additional Civ 6. One is more fun than the other.
So it is with Gathering Storm, the newest non-iPad update, which comes out on Feb. 14. It’s mainly an attempt to liven up the endgame, which can feel bloated and dull. Now that I’ve spent time with the DLC, I can see that it’s better than previous iterations, that it offers new problems to solve in the late game. I won’t go back to Civ 6, pre-Gathering Storm.
But that doesn’t mean I’m happy. In fact, I’m pretty peeved. While Gathering Storm is an improvement, it costs $40, which is a poor value.
So I’m going to just say that if you’re looking for a better, more advanced, more complicated Civ 6, then Gathering Storm is just fine. But if you’re looking for value, if you don’t want to feel like you’re being gouged and punished for being a fan, I’m inclined to suggest you wait for a price cut.
In Gathering Storm, developer Firaxis attempts to address the grim reality of global warming. In the early parts of the game, I endure dangerous natural phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions and river plain floods.
The risk/reward dynamic is straightforward. Disasters result in population loss. They cost resources, as I send in units to clean up the mess. But as in the real world, these locations also yield highly fertile ground. The choice is: Either settle these areas, or don’t. Most players will take the risk, because the downside is a minor inconvenience. Volcanoes and floodplains make for nice graphical sequences and pretty map tiles, but their strategic considerations are minimal.
Later in the game, they become even less bothersome. The volcanoes go to sleep. I learn how to build flood barriers, and the problem is solved. There’s not much in this that you could describe as a strategic challenge. It’s more a small series of chores prompted by binary considerations. Do I want to be fussing around, cleaning up after a flood, or don’t I? I build a flood barrier, much as I build city walls. It’s insurance.
In the industrial age, human activities result in rising greenhouse gas emissions, which leads to rising sea levels, which threaten low-lying cities. Once again, I counter this by building barriers.
Certain buildings contribute to global warming, such as coal-burning power plants and industrial military units. If I’m an environmental asshole, I can annoy my neighbors by contributing to global warming. If I’m nice (I’m nice), I’ll do my bit to avoid industrial-era pollution, relying instead on nature’s bounty or on later technological innovations, such as solar farms and hydroelectric dams.
If I play as the hyper-environmentally sensitive Maori, I gain double resources from untouched woodlands and jungle tiles. I get to play as an environmental good guy, which is novel and enjoyable.
But again, there’s not much of a challenge. Global warming turns out to be just another reason for rival AIs to get pissy, one of a long list that includes such crimes as not building enough ships, or failing to invest in military buildings. Mainly, environmental protection feels like a personal microchallenge — much like playing as a pacifist — rather than a genuine game-changer.
There is no way to “win” as an environmentalist. Equally, so far as I can tell, human civilization will not be destroyed by human activity, no matter how grotesquely short-sighted. The risk/reward offering is too weak to be of any real consequence.
I’m also bothered by the game’s insistence that all problems can be fixed through technology, or that industrial-level growth spurts can be achieved by means other than building factories. The Maori are, if anything, overpowered, due to their generous resource attributes. They don’t need to build factories.
If the Civilization series is anything, it’s a way to create fantasy versions of history. Here I am, conquering the world as Eleanor of Aquitaine. That’s cool. But history — the reality of it — must be the basic template. Forests that behave like factories are a cop-out. Firaxis has turned a genuinely difficult historical problem into an asinine, binary problem.
The second major thrust in Gathering Storm is a rehaul in Civ 6’s ever-troublesome diplomacy system. The Civ series has always been criticized for enemy AI behavior patterns that range from daft to incomprehensible to outright unhinged.
Having played the DLC for a few dozen hours, it’s clear to me that enemies are less likely to behave stupidly than before. Their actions are generally explicable and based on reasonable interpretations of the world, from their point of view. This is a welcome fix, that ought to have been implemented (a) earlier and (b) without charge to long-suffering players.
Enemies now display a “Grievance” count, based on my actions. I also have a “Grievance” count against their actions. This means that if my enemy is behaving like a dick, I have some wiggle room to be dickish right back, without the unwelcome consequence of, say, global condemnation. This helps a lot in my dealings with AIs. We all agree to the Golden Rule.
That said, the AIs are still inclined to make silly proposals that I’m surely going to reject, creating the toil of my turning away their sorry overtures, over and over again. No, Brazilian dude, I don’t want to trade all my horses for a piece of gold. And their perspectives are still based on monomaniacal obsessions. The Vikings are still going to be mad at me until I build a bunch of ships, even if I don’t need or want them.
There’s also a new victory condition, based on diplomacy. I can collect a currency called Diplomatic Favors. These are earned through alliances and city state suzerainty. I then spend them during United Nations-like gatherings called a World Congress, in which various proposals are voted upon.
Sometimes, this Favor currency has real value and feels like a genuine strategic catalyst. If I have a lot of points, I can invade another city and vote down any proposal to punish me. Or I can vote to increase the value of a resource which I own in abundance. This is real power.
As the game advances, the World Council holds a regular vote to distribute two Diplomatic Victory points every few decades. Again, if I’ve collected lots of Favors, I lard the vote again and again, and pick up the 10 points I need to trigger victory.
This is a fun alternative to the established victory conditions, and creates a novel situation in which I can win the game by being nice to my neighbors. If Cleopatra is suffering from a drought, I can send her money and resources, and I’m rewarded with Victory Points. Poor Cleopatra receives my aid packages, while I augment my power. It’s downright Machiavellian. I like it.
This challenge is undone slightly by AIs that, in the early game at least, seem eager to trade away their Favors, throwing them around like peanut shells. It’s too easy to amass far more Favors than anyone else, diminishing the novelty and the challenge.
There’s a bunch of other new stuff in Gathering Storm, much of it pleasing. The new civs offer fresh ways to play the game, most especially the Maori, who begin the game on a raft in the middle of the ocean.
I enjoy using a Military Engineer to create tunnels through mountains. I like improving my tourism stats by turning mountains into ski resorts. On the whole, I get a kick out of just trying out new units, buildings, and challenges.
Gathering Storm is a useful evolution of Civilization 6. Firaxis has made smart choices in addressing global warming, diplomacy, and its own sagging late-game. But even when it’s all added together, I don’t believe it warrants a price tag of $40. As much as I love this game, and as much as I don’t expect to be loved back, I do expect to be at least respected.
Civilization 6: Gathering Storm will be released Feb. 14 on Mac and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by 2K Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.