Old World might just be the perfect mix of Civilization & Crusader Kings26 May 2020 0
There have been few challengers to Civilization’s lordship over the genre of historical 4x games, and fewer still that can claim to have made any progress in chipping away at the venerable series’ defenses. Old World, from veteran developer of Civilization IV and Offworld Trading Company Soren Johnson, is coming pretty close. It won’t wholly replace Civilization as it offers a very different experience, but I believe if they carry on the current track we’ll have something equally special here.
But as it stands right now Old World is an interesting experiment in combining genres, innovative mechanics and in cementing the importance of emergent narratives in strategy games. In terms of scope, this game dials back a great deal from Civilization’s ‘stone age to space age’ timeline and instead restricts players to a mixed ancient & classical era focused around the Mediterranean and Near East.
This narrow focus is both a boon and a curse. I do appreciate the restriction, especially the tightness it brings to technological development and AI interactions. You will never be engaging spearmen with rocket artillery, something that always irked me in about Civilization as it was immersion breaking but also because it revealed the AI stumbling over its own development.
With a restricted tech tree nothing feels entirely useless, though your cataphracts will still run over mace men. The tech trees are also much easier to work out, although that’s because there’s fewer options. I feel the tightness of the tech tree is offset by the limited research options available each time you finish a tech, which depends on your nation’s political makeup.
It means you can plan ahead while still having to deal with some interesting inconsistencies. The narrow focus and tech also leads to an important negative. Aside from a few unique units and special rules here and there, the empires available to you feel fairly similar. I’m hoping as the game progresses more interesting unique features will emerge for each state. This also means that players are more restricted in the types of empires they’re going to create, as right now a lot of the civilizations play similarly.
Visually, Old World is a treat. Character Portraits and the artwork that accompanies events are exquisite. Some of the latter would make excellent art pieces to hang on the wall. The map is very readable and the UI overall is excellent. Information is always at your fingertips with highlightable tooltips and an accompanying encyclopedia that makes looking up resources and mechanics simple. A good thing too because there is no real tutorial. Audio is equally pleasant with wonderful music pieces interrupting the quiet at regular intervals. The only downside for me at this stage is the awkward animation. Most of the time, horses never move but skate along the ground. Since it happened inconsistently I feel this may be a bug waiting to be patched. Similarly some 3D textures didn’t render. The pitfalls of early access.
The actual mechanics of building your empire are worth explaining, as it's here that Old World sets itself apart. The personalities of your nation’s leading families are massively important to how each city develops, how military units raised from that city operate, and how much freedom you have in charting the forward path of your nation. Important families, especially when it comes to appointing them as spies, generals, and diplomats will want to have a say in how they’re used. I’ve had some demand war against heathens, insist upon appointments, or even threaten to overthrow me. It makes some of the more routine elements of Civilization much more interesting.
On the micro level, the individual management of units has also changed significantly. Instead of set actions for every unit, players generate orders alongside other resources. Units can use several orders to accomplish a few things per turn. In practice you have a lot more say over who can move where and do what, but it comes at the cost of having to manage your orders and their production. You don’t want to run out in the middle of an important offensive. The only downside to this, personally, is that it becomes difficult to play around enemy movements. In Civilization you can reliably plan around the AI unit’s maximum potential; with orders, things are much less predictable. This will be a positive for some and a negative for others.
The restricted timeline also leads directly into Old World’s greatest addition to the standard formula; family trees. Crusader Kings II has had quite an enduring effect on the merger of RPG elements with other strategy game genres. I loved its implementation in the forthcoming Shadow Empire from Matrix Games, but it's nice to see where Old World is taking it. Instead of controlling a single immortal leader from the beginning of time to the space age, you control a dynasty. Individual rulers must interact with individual rulers from other nations as well as prominent characters in the different families that are already a key part of your empire. This manifests primarily as a juggling act. You must keep your own family happy, healthy, and developing key skills while ensuring that relationships with other families remain good enough to reap the rewards they offer. All while balancing diplomacy with other nations.
I actually love the variability that comes from different rulers rising and falling over time. Instead of pissing off Montezuma and feeling the wrath of 500 years of grumpiness, you can have a stellar relationship with one lord sour after a faux pas only for it to rebound because you’re good friends with their son and heir. This manifested for me in some thematic and entertaining ways. I once had to deal with an ally’s young heir making a fool of himself, boasting of his martial power during a feast. I could either side with his father in laughing off the follies of youth, or else support the young man’s delusions of grandeur. Being a 65-year-old no nonsense empresses, I laughed it off with his father, the current ruler. Relations were at an all time high, until he died leaving the moody youth in charge who soured a tight alliance.
I was worried about our international relations until my youngest son died of a mysterious disease, and the once foolhardy youth came personally to offer his greatest respects and condolences, showing a personal growth that I didn’t think to find in a 4x game like this. We proceeded to start a joint war and dunk on the nearby Romans for the next 10 years. Whereas other 4x games can stagnate with the consistency of your own perceived ‘role’, the family system in Old World means generational developments lead to a natural ebb and flow in the fortunes of all. It did wonders for me during some periods in which other games would fall into a slump.
In the end the tightness of everything makes Old World feel more alive, more real and gives greater weight to a lot of the decisions. The trade-off of course is that a limited tech tree, limited geographic scope, and limited empire variety can feel the same quickly. But it’s that CK2-inspired human touch that sets things apart. It really makes the game more endearing and enduring. I believe with some tightening, some additional mechanics, and hopefully the continual addition of new stories, Old World will take its rightful place besides Civilization itself.
Old World is currently available in Early Access via the Epic Games Store. A Steam release is also planned.