Sid Meier's Civilization® IV

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 311. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.  

Welcome to the history of Civilization, a series that has been keeping us up until silly o'clock in the morning  since the release of Sid Meier's original game in September 1991. Civ turns all of human history into a playground that you can exploit, turn by turn, to bring your chosen nation to glory. It's a fascinating series because it has been interpreted by a new lead designer in each iteration, including Alpha Centauri's Brian Reynolds, Mohawk Games' Soren Johnson, and of course Sid Meier himself. In the following pages we talk to all of them about how the series has evolved from Civilization through to Civilization VI.

Civilization

"We were young, and we had no fear" 

In 1991, MicroProse launched Sid Meier’s Civilization, a game that would define turn-based strategy for over two decades, and give birth to a genre that eventually became known as 4X: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. You probably know someone who has been struck down by One More Turn Syndrome, shackled to their PC at 3am. Maybe it’s you. Meier had no idea what he was starting. 

Meier and Bruce Shelley had finished Railroad Tycoon and were looking for another project. They wanted to expand on some of the ideas behind their last game, and Meier had been intrigued by the exploration system found in Empire, the turn-based wargame. It started by giving players a limited view of the world, but that viewpoint gradually unfurled as the world was explored. 

“Railroad Tycoon had this sense of being a large-scale game,” Meier recalls. “But we were bold and wondered what’s a bigger, more epic thing we can do? Well, how about the history of civilisation? We were young, and we had no fear.” 

It was easier to be fearless then. “The expectations in terms of graphics and team size were different in those days. We did the first half of the work on Civ with just Bruce and I, so we could try things with less risk. It was definitely not something we knew was going to work, but it looked like it would be fun to try.”

While other strategy games were offering up cities or companies as playgrounds, Meier did worry that what they were creating was going to be too much. Too daunting. How do you make a game that spans human history? To start with, they said no to hexes, which wouldn’t make it into the series until Civilization V.

“One of the reasons we used squares for mapping was we thought hexes were too geeky. We went with squares to make things accessible.”

Making Civilization turn-based was an accessibility decision, too. Meier considered creating an RTS, but after testing it, he realised that it didn’t give players enough time to get to grips with its myriad systems. “Development is a journey in itself, and it could have easily gone in different directions. There were a number of things we considered that we didn’t end up doing. Real-time is one of them. I think it’s great to look at Age of Empires, for example, because that’s how the game would have probably progressed if we’d continued down that route.”

Despite being a game of conquest, there’s always been a thread of optimism running through the series, and it’s not an accident. It was part of MicroProse’s philosophy. It wasn’t all murder and land-grabbing. “It revolved around what’s the most fun. We were criticised for not including slavery in both Civ and Pirates, for instance, but those were decisions based on what makes a satisfying and pleasant experience for the players.” 

Everyone who’s played Civ knows that Montezuma’s a dick, and for each leader, there are personality traits attributed to them. But while later iterations emphasised that, those AI personalities were basic in the first game. “Players would read more into the game then what was there in some cases,” Meier laughs. 

Some leaders might be more aggressive than others, and they were affected by player interactions, but it wasn’t quite as elaborate as the stories told by players implied. It helps, Meier thinks, that each leader and civilisation was recognisable. Players knew what to expect.

“One of the reasons Civ was successful was it tapped into things you already knew. You can enter into this world which you already know. You might know Napoleon, and Gandhi has a clear personality; these are leaders who you’ve probably heard of and already associate a personality or feeling with.” 

That success wasn’t a given, though, and Meier only realised quite how special Civilization was after seeing other people playing it. “As other people played it in the company, we’d hear, ‘Just one more turn,’ and, ‘I can’t stop playing.’ Whether the world was ready for it or not, we weren’t sure, but as the game launched and we started to get feedback, it gained momentum. We sensed that something unique was happening. 

“Good thing we left room for five more iterations.”

Civilization 2

An empire built on word of mouth. 

Brian Reynolds remembers when Sid Meier gave him a copy of Civilization. “I played until 2am,” he admits. “It combined the city, units and ‘one more turn’ of Empire with the experience of Civilization the board game. Avalon Hill games were the gold standard, and I didn’t realise computer games could do that.” He was hooked. 

He’d been working on adventure games, trying to compete with Sierra, but it wasn’t working out and everyone was worried about their jobs. So he started developing a prototype—a game about discovery and exploration. He showed it to Meier, and a week later he’d been moved to a new department to commence work on what would become known as Colonization. 

Then SimCity 2000 came out. Its predecessor had been one of Civilization’s influences, but SimCity 2000 offered up proof that iterative sequels could work, inspiring MicroProse once again. At the same time, Reynolds was moving across the Atlantic with his wife. “I moved to North Yorkshire with a PC and a mandate to make a new game: Civilization 2000.” The three zeroes would eventually be sliced off.

In a new country, left to his own devices, Reynolds found himself tasked with an intimidating job. “Nobody had ever done a sequel to Civilisation or even another MicroProse game before. How do you make a sequel to a game that covered all of human history?” Luckily, he had a long list of desired features from players, who had taken to Usenet groups to tell MicroProse what they wanted to see. These ideas, coupled with Reynolds’ own, ran the gamut from alliances to handy notifications that your enemy had started work on one of the Wonders of the World. There was the all-new tech tree, as well, which had to be built from the ground up.

“It all started to feel really fresh, but for reasons you couldn’t always put your finger on. They were subtle. But the executives didn’t understand. They just thought it was Civ, but for Windows.” That didn’t mean the fact that it was being designed to run on Windows 95 wasn’t important. “We were perfectly placed with the launch of Windows 95 to be successful. It was probably the first triple-A game that could run on the operating system, and we really leaned into it.” This allowed Reynolds to play around with different screens, making the UI modular, taking advantage of the OS’s strengths. 

The original Civilization made it so that there was more than one way to win the game, but with Civ II, Reynolds wanted to double down on peaceful solutions. So there was the aforementioned alliance system, while peace treaties would force the other civilisation to remove its units from your areas. 

“We did a lot of work on diplomatic AI in Civilization II,” Reynolds stresses. “It actually quadrupled the amount of code we had to write.” These changes to diplomacy also served as the beginning of the national border system that would see use in future Civs, as well as Alpha Centauri, which Reynolds also designed. 

Despite this focus, conquest wasn’t forgotten. Indeed, it was dramatically enhanced, thanks to unit hit points. The result was considerably more tactical when compared to Civilization’s basic combat. It also made the era units were from matter more. Reynolds wanted to get rid of those moments where a phalanx could stand up to a battleship.

“It was a long journey, making it more tactical,” Reynolds recollects. Master of Magic was a source of inspiration, but he still didn’t find the combat to be much fun. “There was talk of Sid working on that side of the game, but it didn’t happen. I’d already coded the idea of hit points, getting ready for what I thought was coming, and Sid was like, ‘Yeah, my prototype isn’t as fun as that,’ so I carried on.” 

In 1993, MicroProse was sold to Spectrum Holobyte. There’d always been issues with the business side of MicroProse not understanding Civilization II. It was more invested in the multiplayer remake of the first game. This wasn’t helped by the fact that multiplayer wasn’t on the cards for the sequel. “I put a good amount of time into multiplayer logic for Civilisation II, but by 1995, there was no way we were going to get it in.” After the acquisition, things seemed to get worse. 

“When they took over, they didn’t have confidence in the game, so they did very little marketing for it. In the end, word of mouth saved it.” The publisher estimated poor sales. By the time Reynolds left the company, it had sold 2.5 million. “It established that Civ was the type of game that could support sequels. Civ III was definitely going to happen.”

Civilization III

The series returns home to its creators. 

With the unexpected success of Civilization II, another sequel was inevitable, though not before some litigation over naming rights and the launch of Activision’s Civilization: Call to Power series. After suits and countersuits, the licence eventually ended up with Hasbro, and by 2001 the company had been acquired by Infogrames. Firaxis, which was founded by Sid Meier, Brian Reynolds and Jeff Briggs in 1996, could finally work on the next game. 

And, once again, the question became: what could possibly be added to such a huge thing? “Sid and I used to joke with each other that after designing Civilization, what else could you do?” Jeff Briggs recollects. “The scope of the game spans all of human history from the agricultural revolution to the present, so we already had everything that any other game could have.” 

Luckily, Briggs had been thinking about a new version of Civilization ever since Civilization II had been released in 1996. A lot of the experimentation had already taken place in his head. It was also around that time that he started thinking in terms of thirds. One third the same, one third new and one third improved. This, he says, helped guide them through the experimentation. 

Civilization has a tradition of having a different lead designer for each entry in the series, but this started out as a coincidence. With the original Civilization, Meier felt he had poured everything into that game, so Brian Reynolds took over. The idea was for him to lead development on Civilization III, as well. “We originally planned for Brian to lead the development and design of Civ III, but he decided to start Big Huge Games instead and left Firaxis before development really got started. So I was left as the default designer—exciting and intimidating. Luckily, I had a list of features that I wanted to integrate into the game already.”

One of those features was civilisations that had unique hooks which went beyond aesthetics. In Colonization, which Briggs worked on with Reynolds, Meier and Doug Kaufman, each faction had a sort of starting ‘power’, and he wanted to tap into that. “I looked at the time in history that each of the civs had achieved some level of dominance and tried to identify units and capabilities that would signify that moment in their history. This meant that a civ would have a slight advantage during their historical prime time and shape the player’s strategy to some extent.” 

Briggs wanted to expand the game to include elements that weren’t 4X concerns. He considered civilisation as not just domination on a military and control basis. Thus, culture was introduced, making border expansion a function of shared cultural experiences. Systems for ‘Great People’ were also designed, along with works of art, music and architecture, but many of them would be dropped before development concluded due to resource and time constraints. What didn’t make it, however, found life in later games.

The constraints did mean that the multiplayer side of things wasn’t ready for launch, unfortunately. If they’d waited, the game would have been delayed by a year. But Briggs doesn’t recall any serious issues or obstacles that impeded development, and with the hiring of eventual Civilization IV designer Soren Johnson, more work could be done. 

He does wish he’d removed the corruption system, however, which created an obstacle when it came to making large empires with cities spread out across great distances. “Corruption and waste had been factors in Civ and in Civ II as well. I wish I had removed it from Civ III altogether. To be honest, I don’t recall it ever coming up during development as a problem. I think we all just accepted it as a part of the system and we were a little afraid to mess with it. Oops.”

While Civilization III proved to be one of the more divisive games among veteran players, it was another success for the series. Briggs thinks that there’s something fundamental about the franchise that keeps people coming back. 

“It is the go-to game for history-of- the-world games. Several others have tried to steal this mantle but they’ve usually tried to ‘improve it’ in ways that go against the simple elegance of Sid’s original turn-based seeding of future events system. Improving graphics, adding new systems, expanding the definition of the game to include more and more elements of human history—all of this has kept it fresh.”

Civilization IV

The next generation of Civilization.

After cutting his teeth on Civilization III, Soren Johnson became the next torchbearer. It was the first in a new generation of Civilizations, built with a new 3D engine, accessible modding and multiplayer. And when it came to deciding what shape it would take, Johnson wasn’t going to give any feature a free pass.

“One thing I had a strong conviction about was that we weren’t going to do anything by default,” Johnson explains. “We weren’t going to adopt anything from the previous games by default. It’s not necessarily the most high-minded concept, but it meant that I was going to start from scratch and re-evaluate everything.” 

He wanted to place the focus on the big picture, not the tiny details, removing things like corruption and introducing religion. From other games came ideas like unit upgrades. Johnson had played Alpha Centauri, and was inspired by the armoury system. The Civilization IV version is simpler, but keeps the essence, the important decisions and different paths. This philosophy is also echoed in how Johnson approached the development of civilisations. 

“I felt like the previous games didn’t offer a lot of interesting choices about how you could develop terrain and manage citizens. In previous games it was pretty sparse, basically mines and farms. I wanted people—I think this has become a theme for the way I make games, and you can see it in Offworld Trading Company—to have a reason to play differently each time they started a new game.”

The map became littered with resources that ranged from cotton to iron, luxury and strategic goods that could be harvested by placing the appropriate building on them. But many of these resources were locked behind era-specific technologies, meaning when and if the player got access was largely up to them.

For all the new features, Civilization IV’s most dramatic changes were broader in scope. “There were a lot of things that were really development and productionstyle innovations or priorities,” Johnson recalls. And that included multiplayer. “It’s no secret that Civ has had a problematic history with multiplayer. One of the defining features of Civ IV is we also built it, initially, as a multiplayer game, not as a singleplayer game. So we knew that every system worked in multiplayer. 

“We were playing multiplayer games during the first two or three months of development,” Johnson continues. “They were rudimentary, but you don’t really need a lot of mechanics to have a fun experience with other people. We actually made a lot of progress just by being able to base it off these play sessions we had every week. It was a revelation.” 

There was a 3D engine to play with as well—a first for the series. It represented a huge graphical leap, but while the upgrade was a welcome one, it was the enhanced legibility that made all the difference when it came to navigating the map. It was easier to understand what you were looking at, be it a city or a piece of terrain, and what was happening there. Accompanying this was a slight change in perspective, too. “

It was actually a big fight between me and the artists for how the grid system would work. The 3D system in Civ IV is like a chessboard. It’s straight ahead. Artists hated that. Even though it was 3D, they still wanted that diagonal board, and I’ve always felt that it makes the distance between tiles confusing. If you move two tiles east to west versus two tiles north to south, you literally move twice as far, so it really obfuscates how close things are on the map.”

The changes to the map weren’t kept in its successor, Civilization V, which made the move to hexes. Johnson’s a bit wistful about that. “We were a bit afraid of hexes at the time.” But many features developed or established in Civilization IV have continued through the last two games. 

“If none of this had happened, Civilization would still be a landmark title. If Civ II had flopped, Civ I would still be important. But I feel like the franchise begins with Civ IV because the blueprint for how to keep iterating sort of starts there. There’s a path that’s been followed by Civ V and Civ VI, in terms of the amount of stuff you add to the game, how you manage things and the expansion format.” 

Halfway through development, the game was dropped by its publisher and sold to Take-Two. Yet Johnson remained confident. “I saw so many things that I thought needed to be improved from Civ III.” That confidence paid off for the team, and Civilization IV went on to become a series favourite. It even managed to be the first game to win a Grammy, thanks to Christopher Tin’s stirring Baba Yetu theme.

Civilization V

Squares are dead! Long live hexes!

A storm was brewing at Firaxis, and it was undeniably hexshaped. Since 1991, the series had used square grids, while more and more 4X and wargames gravitated towards the sexy angles of the hexagon. As a fan of games like Panzer General, new lead designer Jon Shafer decided to introduce Civilization and its many adherents to the joy of hex. 

Development started in early 2007. Shafer was 21, and he wanted to do something different. “Civilization IV was such a good game, so we wanted to put a different spin on things. We acknowledged that it was going to be controversial, not everyone was going to like what we did, but we made a conscious effort to push things in a different direction.” 

What could be more controversial than killing squares? A lot of other things, it turns out. Surprising to Shafer, getting people to be open to it wasn’t all that difficult. He’d had the idea, and remembers suggesting it off the cuff, but never meant it seriously. Then, in a design meeting, someone else threw the idea out there. Sid Meier was there, and his opinion about hexes had changed over the years. He thought it was a good idea. So did the artists. And the engineers. 

It was easier to do since, like Civilization IV, the fifth iteration also used a new engine, built from scratch. It also allowed the art team to elevate the series’ aesthetic. “It broke a lot of boundaries in a lot of ways. It certainly had higher system requirements than some people were accustomed to with Civilization, but overall it was something that worked out in the end.”

In any other Civilization, the hexes might have been the headline attraction, but Schafer wasn’t joking about wanting to make big, potentially controversial changes. Stacks of doom were gone. No more could conquerors cram armies into a single tile. Instead, each unit needed its own tile, pushing things like unit placement and logistics to the forefront. It was one of the biggest changes to combat in the series’ long history. Shafer is unexpectedly ambivalent about it now. 

“The idea was to add more depth to the combat system. Lots of different systems had been tried, and none of them worked very well. But I don’t think the one-unit-per-tile system works very well, either, though it’s probably funny hearing me say that. It was an experiment, and it’s something that’s changed the series. A stack model is probably better, however; it’s more suited to a game of Civilization’s scope.” 

Despite this, the unstacking has continued in Civilization VI, and though he doesn’t think it works as well as it could, Shafer still believes that Civilization V’s combat is more interesting than it was in previous games. It gives more prominence to the map. You want to put archers on hills, hide warriors behind forests and generally pay more attention to the environment. And maps, I have learned, are one of Shafer’s passions. 

“There are very few designers who love maps as much as me. I want to put as much as I can on the map, utilise that map, utilise random maps, procedural generation,” Shafer starts to lose himself in a list of the map’s potential. He wants to use it to steer the game and highlight things that players might want to do, or explore, and in Civilization V, the result is a world that’s full of detail.

“This was something that was heavily emphasised and contributed by the art team. Our art lead, Dorian Newcomb, one of his bullet points on the art was ‘a living world’. That also fed into the design side because he was one of the first members of the team, and he said, ‘These are the pillars that we’re looking at on the art side.’ It made sense, so I thought maybe we could try to do more here.”

In hindsight, Shafer admits that there are some things he would do differently, and he has new ideas about how to bring strategy maps to life more, and what can be done with unit stacking. But he doesn’t dwell, and he certainly doesn’t regret the experiments and changes. 

“The only way I know how to do things is say, ‘What’s the craziest thing we can pull off here?’ Not everybody is going to like that approach. But there are plenty of Civ games, and there will be more in the future I’m sure, so people will have a chance to see many iterations.”

Civilization VI

Letting it all hang out.

As soon as work wrapped up on Civilization V’s final expansion, Brave New World, the design team had already moved onto Civilization VI. And with Ed Beach leading development on both, it’s not surprising that the pair share a lot of similarities, with the latter fleshing ideas introduced in the expansion and Civilization V’s other pieces of DLC. 

Ever since it appeared in the third game, culture has evolved into one of the key pillars of the Civilization series, and for Beach it was a priority in Brave New World, which saw the introduction of the tourism system. It became a priority once again in Civilization VI, culminating in a new progression system that put culture on the same level as science, complete with its own tree, but for civics rather than technology. 

“I’m a huge fan of world travel and spending time in other cultures,” Beach explains. “Every time I go to major European capitals, for example, all those opportunities to see the art that’s been collected, the museums, it’s a really interesting insight into what civilisations value and want to preserve. So I like to think about what that tells me about how civilisations should interact with each other, especially in the late game, when it’s not all about conquest.”  

This culture focus, and particularly the civics tree, greatly expanded how much you could do in the game without cracking skulls and smashing down city walls, but it also continued the philosophy of optimism and positive forward momentum that Meier espoused all the way back in the very first game. And as Beach notes, along with several of his fellow lead designers, you can still trace a lot back to the original Civilization, decades later.

Civilization VI was unusual in that, before development had even started, the team not only had a clear idea of several systems that they wanted to implement, they even knew that they worked. A great deal of the experimentation happened earlier in the process. You can see the origins of the district system, for instance, in 2010 with Civilization V’s Spain and Inca scenario pack, but placing buildings outside of cities was suggested as far back as the beginnings of the core game. 

“The earliest notion of unstacking cities was before the Civ V base game even shipped. We were wondering how the wonders were going to be visualised, and there was a push internally from a team to move them outside cities, making them seem powerful and magnificent. There were a number of people that tried to get Jon Shafer to do it, but I think he made the right call then. We had a lot on our plate already for Civ V, with the tactical combat and moving to one unit per tile.” 

It was an idea that wormed its way into the minds of Beach and his team, however, inspiring the occasional special building like the Incan terrace farms and the Polynesian statues, which needed to be constructed on specific tiles, such as mountains and coastlines, respectively. When Beach started work on Civilization VI, it was the first thing that the team got working. He now considers it the game’s groundbreaking achievement, transforming cities into these sprawling metropolises that expand across the land through specialised districts. 

“I’m a board game designer on the side,” Beach explains, “and there are a lot of board games that I like that are very focused on positional play and using or creating the map as you’re playing through it. That was the big stamp that we put on Civilisation VI, trying to make sure that you take advantage of the map, not just as this place you have to explore early in the game, but by putting your mark on the map, tile by tile. That’s why we unstacked the cities and included adjacency bonuses and districts.”

Unlike the other entries in this history of the series, Civilization VI isn’t finished yet. The game launched in 2016, and new civilisations and systemic changes are still being planned by Beach and his team. Religion, diplomacy and espionage will all be getting a new look before he’s done. 

“There are six of us who are working actively in either game design or AI development, and I remind the team all the time that this is a marathon and not a sprint,” Beach says. “I’ve only run one marathon myself, so I only have a little bit of an idea of what miles 15 or 16 of a marathon are like, but that’s where I feel we are now. We’ve still got quite a way to go.” 

But then Civilization is never really finished. Since the first game appeared way back in 1991, hardly any time has gone by where a new entry wasn’t being developed, or at the very least a prototype or piece of DLC. As familiar as it is, Civilization is always moving forward.

PC Gamer

Back in 1999, Outcast was arguably as close to the PC's answer to Legend of Zelda as we've ever seen. Effortlessly charismatic. A huge open world that invited free exploration. The absolute latest in graphics technology, at a time when something as simple as ripples in water was a sight to behold and huge sprawling worlds weren't simply majestic, but outright magic. For the five people who could run it, it was an unforgettable, glorious adventure.

Seventeen years later, it's a little clunkier than remembered. The good news is that the magic still lingers. Our dimension-jumping hero still has the laughably '90s name 'Cutter Slade', but the world of Adelpha in which he finds himself remains a gorgeous land full of life and varied biomes to explore, with a surprisingly deep culture to befriend in his quest to save their world and our own from a science experiment gone wrong. Think Stargate, only without every new adventure conveniently taking place in a woody part of Vancouver.

It's a testament to the original game that, seventeen years later, its aesthetic still feels so fresh. Indeed, it's no slouch if you play that version, now available as Outcast 1.1, rather than this full remake. The sense of exploring an alien world is just as captivating whether rendered in modern polygons or classic voxels—3D pixels—even if graphics have advanced to the point where ripples in water are no longer something to stare at like a cat encountering its first laser pointer. 

Somehow these guys conquered the world despite firing slowly enough to casually sidestep their shots. 

Shifting to polygons does of course detract from Outcast's unique look, but it was the right decision. They were useful before 3D accelerator cards because the CPU could handle them far better than polygons. Flight sims would use them for organic terrain, for instance. Even though the trade-off was pixels the size of Shreddies, and for Outcast, tiny resolutions and framerates best described as 'torture'. As interesting as it would have been to see what modern CPUs could do with them, going with polygons for this remake makes more real-world sense. Either way, this is easily the prettiest Outcast.

More importantly, under the skin it's still the same game, with a few quality of life improvements. Alien language translations are now included in the subtitles, so that you aren't left scratching your head when someone mentions something like a 'Daoka' or the 'Yods', and characters now have both their names and a quick description floating over their heads to spare you running between largely identical looking NPCs. There's also autosaving, and the option—off by default—to have modern health recharging rather than medikits.

And that's the legend of how the Ulukai froze his tits off instead of saving the world. 

That's about all it gives you though. There are still no handy map markers and the like, with Outcast expecting you to learn by exploring and asking the natives for directions, as well as simulation elements like having to wait for crafters to make new ammo instead of it just appearing when you hand them the resources. For veterans, the compromises feel fair and well considered.

Coming to Outcast as a brand new experience, expect a very solid adventure but probably not a second chance to party like it's 1999. The first hour in particular isn't thrilling, and the first real zone—the temples and rice-paddies of Shamazaar—arguably the hardest to navigate and figure out how to win. Much of the blame for this has to go to the outdated controls, which are clumsy in exploration, floaty in combat, and don't allow much climbing around the levels. Far too many light inclines may as well be mountains or guarded by force fields.

The good news is that after that first hour, Outcast really opens up—literally, in that you can go wherever you want, and in terms of atmosphere. The initially awkward people of Adelpha, the Talan, quickly reveal themselves to be a fun lot, with Cutter bringing a very Bruce Willis style sarcasm to their more pious speeches and his own role as their prophecied hero, the Ulukai. Particularly fun are their workarounds for being a pacifist species in the middle of a religious war—that while they are entirely peaceful, they would never tell you how to behave. With your advanced guns. And that big pile of ammo. Cough.

Every zone starts with a big fight. Stock up before hitting the not-stargazes. 

They're also a fair bit more complex than your average NPCs, being able to find each other, and offering ways to sabotage the enemies through quests. Stop the farmers of Shamazaar supplying them, for instance, and enemies in the area drop to half-toughness. Admittedly, by modern standards it's not super convincing and you can definitely see the strings, but it's still more than most games bother with—along with some surprisingly advanced friendly AI.

For new and returning players though, Outcast still has its most important quality—that deep charm. It covers up the often awkward combat and movement, and adds immeasurably to just running around and exploring and learning Talan culture in a way James Cameron can only wish folks wanted for the Na'vi. Adelpha remains a wonderful world to spend time in, and its story knows exactly how long you'll want to do so. It remains a shame we never got the planned sequel, but at least its legend and legacy now live on in style.

Just Survive

Last month, developer Daybreak Games suggested the still-in-early-access battle royale shooter aimed to simplify its UI and menus. It's been taking directions from its community on this front—and its latest update implements a number of weapons balances based on this advice.  

As outlined in the following trailer, the latest update also brings with it a new so-called Combat Zone map, and a series of Daily Challenges. Here's lead systems designer Tony "Carto" Morton with the skinny on that, as well as details on the game's next competitive circuit event:

Speaking to the new Combat Zone, it's designed to give players "non-stop action" and a practicing ground to hone their skills within. The new map is 2x2 km in size and includes a shooting range. The dev points out that players won't parachute into this map—but that they'll start full equipped and ready to go from the off. Instant respawns also apply in the event of your demise.

As for the Daily Challenges, these are built to encourage "bragging right opportunities" whereby completing in-game objectives results in rewards. Daybreak notes that each day brings three levels of difficulty to challenges, and that players will earn Skulls as a currency to purchase items such as skins. 

"Daily Challenges aren’t just limited to one match and can be completed over a series of games in a day," says the developer. More information on this and more can be found via H1Z1's official site

Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord

Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord developer Taleworlds wants combat in its forthcoming medieval battle 'em up to be both realistic and fun. A new blog post considers how types of damage, speed bonuses, weapon impact and more inform how this balance is achieved. 

Striking this balance is far from straightforward, however, as the developer touched upon earlier this month. Weighing too heavily in either direction can break immersion and the credibility of combat, which is something the developer goes into more detail via this Steam Community update. Here's an excerpt from that: 

"Damage is a difficult concept to get right in a computer game. Making the damage model realistic could be desirable since this can help with immersion and depth, on the other hand, what happens in a real-life physical trauma is incredibly complex and trying to replicate that in a computer model could easily get needlessly complicated with little benefit to gameplay.

"While working on the system we made great use of an excellent article written by George Turner. The article was an eye opener about the intricacies and fine points of weapon dynamics. Of course, during implementation we had to make several simplifications and assumptions and if there are any unrealistic elements or errors in the end result, the fault lies with us and not the article."

More obvious considerations such as an attack's point of impact and the specific weapons used expectedly influence damage rates, however the ways in which speed and speed bonuses operate differently this time round sound particularly interesting.  

"As our calculations are physically based, we no longer need to calculate an extra 'speed bonus' like we do in the previous games in the series," the Steam Community post adds. "We simply get the attacker’s and target’s velocities and feed these into our equations. This results in a realistic and accurate way where the attack damage is affected by speed." 

With that, Taleworlds aims to sidestep the perils of RNG or similarly hidden random variables within its combat system. 

Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord is as yet without a hard release date—I enjoyed my hands-on time with its multiplayer at this year's Gamescom.  

PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS

The two greatest three-point shooters to ever play in Oracle Arena are now, officially, Steph Curry and Noble Esports' Edakulous. 

I mean, just look at this beauty from the end of Game 7 at IEM Oakland. It is, without a doubt, the most devastating grenade in the young history of professional Battlegrounds.

Evil Geniuses has been on the wrong end of some truly stunning highlights this weekend. Earlier today we showed off a dispiriting clip of them getting their souls blown out by a detonating car. To wrap up their inglorious run, they caught Edakulous' pineapple like it was a chest pass. Boom. That's a triple kill, and a long flight home. As soon as it left his hands, you knew it was over. IEM's analyst desk said that this was the loudest they've heard the crowd this weekend.

To be fair, this is barely EG's fault. The scramble at the end of a PUBG game leaves everyone out of position, and Edakulous' throw, which leveraged a slight incline in the terrain to travel about 30 yards, was one-in-a-million. If they ran, they would've immediately been gunned down by the teams on their flanks—their only choice was to suck it up and blast off.

This is the thing that sets a great Battlegrounds player apart. The game encourages a boatload of unpredictable situations, but despite that, Edakoulos has clearly played enough to be absolutely positive he could land a grenade in Evil Geniuses' breadbasket from his positioning. To me, that's more impressive than memorizing every corner of de_dust down to the pixel.

Fallout 4

I've just spent the morning getting the shit kicked out of me at the Abernathy farm. As a quick recap, I'm playing Fallout 4 with the non-lethal (and great) Knockout Framework mod, which allows you to knock out NPCs and creatures, and even stuff them into a sack and carry their unconscious bodies around. The non-lethal part is going well, except for when it comes to myself. While I haven't killed anyone, the Abernathys have killed me about six times in the last 30 minutes.

The problem is, I'm not simply trying to play non-lethally, but also trying to prevent anyone else from killing things, too. And, with Codsworth hanging out in Sanctuary eager to kill anything that attacks me, and with molerats infesting Red Rocket Truck Stop attacking me each time they wake up from being knocked out, I don't have an unoccupied settlement where I can craft in peace. My idea was: knock out the Abernathy clan and relocate them in my sack—I don't know where, exactly—and then take over their farm. Thing is, these farmers just won't go down. Last week I knocked out a raider with two hits of my baton, but these rustic farmers, who I am beating on repeatedly with a tire iron, simply won't drop.

Me? I drop. A lot.

Sometimes they shoot me to death, sometimes they pistol-whip or baseball-bat me to the ground, and usually it's a mixture of the two. Even when I manage to disarm Blake, the other two farmers overwhelm me.

After my umpteenth pathetic death, I decide to give up. I want to fight some easier targets than the surprisingly indestructible Abernathy farmhands. Maybe I should actually do a quest, then? I'm supposed to be playing through Fallout 4, after all, not obsessing over settlements and getting schooled by melon-farmers.

Blake Abernathy has a quest: to retrieve a stolen locket from the raiders who murdered his daughter, who are holed-up in USAF Satellite Station Olivia. I accept the mission, though after witnessing the durability and brutality of these farmers, I'm left puzzled why they don't just get the locket and kill the raiders themselves.

After my repeated humblings at the hands of a small collection of peaceful settlers, the quest perks me up immediately. I run into a group of raiders along the way, knock them all out, and leave them unconscious. At the satellite base, I dash up to the first raider and put his lights out with one swing, then take down the next two, before heading into the bowels of the base and bashing my way through four or five more. I do take some damage and have to hide and heal for a minute, but I'm having much more luck, and fun, fighting heavily armed psychopaths than those three quiet farmers.

Even the lead raider, named Ack-Ack, who is armed with a minigun, falls quickly before my fearsome tire iron. After I retrieve Blake's daughter's locket and do some more looting, I find myself stuffing the unconscious body of Ack-Ack into my sack. 

An idea is formulating. It's not exactly a non-lethal idea, I'm afraid, but I think I'm going to do it anyway. I carry Ack-Ack back to the Abernathy Farm along with the locket. I've completed the quest, but brought along a bonus for the farmer.

I dump Ack-Ack on the ground next to Blake Abernathy. Let's face it: knocking out people is fun. Carrying around people in a sack is fun. Trying to make sure nobody dies: not so much fun. It's time to make a small adjustment.

I figure the sight of the raider responsible for killing his daughter will make Blake crazy with rage. It, uh, doesn't. Even after waking up Ack-Ack, Blake continues with his peaceful melon-tending. Ack-Ack, meanwhile, begins yelling and punching me in the face. I can't say I blame her.

Finally, Blake notices his daughter's murderer punching the helpful stranger in the head, and actually does something.

Okay. That was way more satisfying. I've delivered a murderer to the father of her victim, and allowed him to dole out true justice. I mean, eventual true justice, after he finally took a break from his damn melons and casually shot his daughter's murderer in the back after she spent a minute punching me in the mouth.

I've finally found a good use for my sack, and a stronger purpose than just punching random people unconscious. I will still attempt to play non-lethally myself, but I will, on occasion, become an agent of sack-based revenge killings by others.

Next week: Heroes wear a sack!

PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS

Perhaps the most exciting moment of the first day of IEM Oakland's PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds Invitational happened at the tail end of game four. Evil Geniuses built a makeshift fortress out of cars and motorcycles in an extremely compromising open field. 40 people were still alive, and the circle of death was funneling everyone into a tight, frantic murderhouse. EG seemed content to play as defensively as possible before shifting position—until Fuzzface, who plays for FaZe Clan, sensed a one-in-a-million opportunity. 

He jumped out of cover, took aim at one of the rickety humvees guarding the their flank, and detonated it with a few well-placed assault rifle rounds. Both of the remaining Geniuses were killed by the explosion, and FaZe went on to secure a fifth place finish for the day. 

If there's been one centralized theme from the second major LAN PUBG tournament, it's that pro teams are still figuring out the best way to use vehicles without getting killed. Evil Geniuses' decision to hunker down behind their barrier of cars wasn't even a terrible call on paper—in the second game of the afternoon Cloud 9 did the exact same thing to bleed out the other teams in the last circle—but in a game with so many variables, there's a pretty fine line between a smart tactical outmaneuvering and a spectacular suicide. 

Obviously, you need mobility to loot buildings and outrun timers, but when you're playing against the best marksmen in the world, you're fixing a pretty huge target to your back when you're behind the wheel. 

This is especially an issue at IEM, where assault rifles are being distributed with a frequency bonus. It doesn't take long for an AR to chew through a PUBG vehicle's health pool, and it's been interesting watching teams come up with ways to mitigate the damage. Some are each independently travelling in their own cars—like a patrol squadron—so they won't be utterly decimated if one goes down. 

Of course, not every team gets lucky enough to find a wealth of resources like that, and then you might end up like Teabone and Jazza, who bailed out of their flaming car in no man's land and were essentially pinned down for the rest of the match. 

The Battlegrounds meta is still in its embryonic phase, but I think one thing has become absolutely clear: spend as little time inside the vehicles as possible.

RimWorld

Sci-fi colony sim RimWorld's latest update finally brings the game into beta, adding features big and small. Alongside three new biomes and a revamped melee combat system is a chance for your colonists to go on a "targeted insulting spree" if they have a mental breakdown, where they "follow around a specific other colonist, insulting them repeatedly". Excellent stuff.

The new additions come in the Beta 18 update, which signals that the game is in its final stretch of development, and there won't be any "major content additions" before a 1.0 release.

The big changes include three new swamp biomes filled with plants, a handful of new 'incidents'—including tornadoes and meteor strikes—and a rework of melee combat. A new combat log will chronicle each strike, miss and block so you can review it after the action.

But the minor changes interest me more. The beta adds a lot of 'mental breaks' including the aforementioned barrage of insults, bedroom tantrums, corpse obsessions (colonists dig up a random corpse and drop it in a high-traffic area) and murderous rages.

It also adds new mental inspirations, basically the opposite of mental breaks. A colonist might work extra hard for a day, walk extra fast or shoot more accurately.

The full list of changes is here, and you can watch the developer go into more details on the changes in the video above.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

In the inaugural match of the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive semifinals today at the Intel Extreme Masters in Oakland, California, perennial Swedish faves Ninjas in Pyjamas got off to a rough start. After losing their first pistol round to SK Gaming—the number-one ranked team in the world going into this tournament—the Ninjas proceeded to lose four more rounds consecutively due to some aggressive flanking maneuvers from SK’s fer.

Round six appeared to be heading in a similar direction, with NiP’s Xizt left alone at half health to defend the bomb against two opponents. All signs pointed to an unstoppable-looking SK continuing to dominate the match, but Xizt proved why he’s been an instrumental part of the NiP lineup for half a decade now with a beautiful AK-47 spray into A bombsite that eliminated both surviving SK players.

Despite SK Gaming winning the next two rounds, bringing the score to 7-1 in their favour, the momentum had shifted out from under the Brazilian team. Ninjas in Pyjamas found new strategies to shut down SK’s aggression, and won every round for the rest of the half, leaving them at 8-7 going into their CT side.The second half of the map was similarly lopsided, with SK Gaming only winning 2 more rounds before NiP closed out the first game of the best-of-three series 16-9. For a match against ostensibly the best team in the world, on the map that SK had selected to play on, this was an impressive result for a NiP squad that has struggled to produce results at recent LAN events.

Compounding the impression that they were finding their formerly world-beating form once again, Ninjas in Pyjamas went on to win the semifinal match 2 maps to 1, losing on Cache courtesy of a massive 32-frag performance from SK’s coldzera, then coming back to close the match out on Inferno.NiP’s GeT_RiGhT put on a show of his own in the final rounds of the third map, with a flanking maneuver so good that he surprised even the announcers.

Ninjas in Pyjamas will now move on to face the winner of the other semifinal match between Cloud9 and FaZe Clan, attempting to add one more championship trophy to their already impressive mantle tomorrow afternoon. If they pull it off, it will be a ringing reminder of their potential to a viewership that had begun counting them out of this tournament before it had even begun. 

West of Loathing

I was confused, and strangely kind of relieved, to find my family alive and well when I started West of Loathing earlier today. Turns out I got West of Loathing mixed up with Westerado—or combined, really, so that I thought West of Loathing was a comedy western where you're searching for the man who murdered your family. Glad they're OK.

After briefly alt-tabbing to google 'that other western game where you're trying to find the guy who killed your family,' I continued on confident that I didn't actually know what West of Loathing was about. Very quickly I unlocked the 'silly walks' option, and was certain that I would never turn it off and will definitely continue west for whatever reason I selected (fortune, I think). I'm enjoying playing something that isn't about serious people doing serious war stuff.

But what are you playing this weekend, or whenever you have some time off? If it's Battlefront 2, which I reviewed this week, let me know how you're feeling about it. Some think I liked it too much, some think it's brilliant and I just don't get it, while others think I am wonderful and perfect and always right. I'm just assuming.

An update on West of Loathing before I go: I opened it just now to grab a screenshot, and my dog is currently tilting her head every time my character steps in horse poop and it makes a squish sound, so it looks like we're both fans. Check out Chris' review if that isn't enough of a recommendation. And speaking of Chris, I highly recommend his story about pumpkin farming and extreme duck ownership.

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