Last month, Take-Two Interactive strongly hinted that the next installment in the Civilization series is officially in development. So far, Take-Two Interactive has not revealed any more information, not even a title, although I feel like ‘Civilization 7’ is probably a good bet.
I've spent a lot of time playing the Civilization series, especially Civilization 5 and Civilization 6, and I could write a whole article about what each game does better than the other. However, if I were to broadly generalize, I think that Civ 6 is better than Civ 5 in terms of gameplay. The mechanics surrounding city-states, culture, and religion in Civ 6 feel like more fleshed-out versions of their counterparts in Civ 5, and there is much more diversity in playable civilizations and leaders, both in terms of history/geography and gameplay. Overall, I find civilizations to be more mechanically interesting, and their Unique Abilities interact with the updated gameplay to create some truly compelling play styles. My favorite example of this is Eleanor of Acquitaine's Loyalty skill, which allows her to conquer cities without warfare.
Civ 6 isn't a perfect game, but there's a lot going for it. That being said, there’s one thing that Civ 5 did better than Civ 6. It doesn’t affect gameplay at all and I only realised how much I missed it when it was so much worse in Civ 6: the leader screens.
In retrospect, I should have realised sooner just how much this one aspect contributed to my enjoyment of these games and how important they are for these games. My first introduction to the franchise was Civilization Revolution for the PlayStation 3 when I was a preteen. CivRev was a more kid-friendly version of the mainline games, with simplified mechanics and bright cartoony visuals. The presentation of the leaders in retrospect is one of the best aspects of that game as well, for how much relevant information they could convey to a presumed younger audience.
Compared to Civ 5 and Civ 6, CivRev lacked dedicated leader screens, displaying only an animated model of the leader alongside a menu. However, the game compensated for this by utilizing unique leader designs, brief musical stings for each of them, and their animations, costumes, and appearances, all of which conveyed information about their civilizations. For example, when Japan’s Tokugawa slices a nearby buzzing insect in half with his katana as a neutral reaction to a proposed deal, it reveals that he is not someone to be underestimated. These details add to the leaders’ personalities and make the game more captivating. In fact, the leaders’ design and personalities are one of the series’ main attractions. The Civilization tag on Tumblr is filled with as much fanart for the leaders as there are posts about gameplay. There is even a small fanfiction community based on the personas of the leaders in these games, which is much more active than those based on the real-life figures they are based on.
Civilization 5 excelled in this area. Leader screens show each leader in an environment that represents the place they’re from, their time period in history, and an indication of that leader’s disposition. The leader screens varied greatly and created a strong sense of atmosphere.
Militaristic leaders like Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great often speak to you while clearly on the march. Memorably, Askia of Songhai appears to be conducting diplomacy with the burning remains of Djenne, which he has just conquered, something that immediately tells you to be wary of him. Other historic rulers speak to you from thrones, palace courtyards, or balconies (often with a representative view of their capital city in the background), all of which are visually distinctive — from the eerie green fires of Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar to the radiant yellow of Egypt’s Ramses to the overall oddly subdued nature of Augustus of Rome.
Leaders from the post-Renaissance era, like George Washington, Otto Von Bismarck, Haile Selassie, and Pedro II of Brazil, are located in their offices instead of a throne room.
Several of the screens are allusions to famous paintings of the rulers or the countries they represent. Here are just a few examples:
William of Netherlands's screen resembles Dutch Master Vermeer's painting 'The Geographer'.
Theodora's screen is a clear reference to 'L'Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée'.
Atilla appears to be plucked right out of 'The Feast of Atilla'.
The leaders in the game are not just characterized by their unique introductory messages but also by their animations on screen. The game experiments with different camera angles to give some leaders a towering presence while others are on the same level. Some leaders are animated with body language while others are not, and the game pays attention to even the smallest details, such as Venice's Doge Enrico Dandolo not "looking around" because he was blind. The leaders also have different reactions to declarations of war, with some looking pained while others are gleeful. Each leader has a unique animation for defeat, which is a chance for them to display their grace or disgrace. For instance, Harald Bluetooth of Denmark only wears his helmet during wartime, and if he is defeated, he storms off-screen and throws his helmet into the sea.
These screens also create a deep sense of atmosphere. One of the best examples of this is the Aztec leader Montezuma, who you meet standing over some sort of ritual altar of fire against a backdrop of decorative skulls, with the flames underneath casting an ominous light on the scene. Off-screen, you can hear the cheers and jeers of the crowd. Montezuma is presumably conducting the ritual. If you’re at war with him, and you try to sue for peace before he’s ready to negotiate, the crowd boos at you while he turns you down. Even though he is the only person you see, the lighting, and especially the shouts of the crowd off-screen, makes it easy to picture being in an Aztec temple. This screen is a standout for me, but there are several others like it.
This is what makes the leader screens in Civ 6 so disappointing to me. Instead of placing the leaders in an actual environment, there’s now simply a faint backdrop with an image representative of their civilization. These images rarely have much detail and, for some reason, have a single colour, which makes it difficult to even tell what you’re supposed to be looking at.
Unlike in Civ 5, these backdrops clearly aren’t meant to be paid much attention to. They don’t even occupy the entire screen, leaving the rest of the screen pitch black. This results in the leader screens all looking same-ey, with the leaders all in the same position, with a small obscured image that could be the same across all civs if you’re not paying close attention and lots and lots of black. To me, this is a clear downgrade from Civ 5.
I hate using words like ‘objectively’ with matters of opinion like this, but I simply cannot see how anyone could actively prefer the screens of Civ 6 to Civ 5.
While I’m not the only one who feels this way (a trip to the YouTube comments section of Civ 5 leader compilation videos is my source), Civ 6 has some defenders for its leader presentation.
In Civ 6, the focus appears to be on the leaders. Civ 6's leader models have a more cartoony art style compared to CivRev, but they are animated more richly and have more unique animations for different scenarios than in Civ 5. I don’t think that makes up for its many, many defects, but I feel obligated to mention this for fairness’ sake.
I think aspects related to a game’s presentation — those that don’t impact the actual gameplay - are an often-overlooked but important part of experiencing these games. That’s especially true of strategy games like Civilization where looking at menus comprises a large part of the gameplay. The common wisdom here is that if you don’t notice these aspects, that means they’ve been implemented well. However, I don’t think that’s exactly true. Games like Persona 5, Dishonored 2, and Deux Ex: Human Revolution have unique distinctive UIs, and presentation styles that you both can’t help but notice and admire. They don’t affect the mechanics of the game at all, but without them, these games just wouldn’t be the same.
I really hope that for Civ 7, Firaxis Games does another 180° turn in this aspect and pivots from barebones leader screens to ones that are even more detailed and immersive than Civ 5’s. They can keep the detailed animations from Civ 6 if they want to, but more than anything, I want to see the leaders interacting with their environments again, and for those environments to be packed with detail, references, and atmosphere. This matters to me more than I thought it would — and it took its absence for me to realise how much I value it.
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