Monday, March 17, 2008


Firstly, I just want to mention that the version of FreeCiv that Ubuntu installs is out of date. This is going to be a negative review, and a few of the issues I had may have been fixed with later releases. The release I'm reviewing is 2.0.9, released in February of last year; the latest stable release is 2.1.3, released in January of this year (2008, if this blog is still around in the future).

When I started this quest, I was looking forward to FreeCiv a lot. Since the first Civilizations! game came out, there's been some form of Civ on every PC I've owned; right now, I have CivIII installed on my XP partition. I figured I'd be wading through a lot of alpha-level, poorly designed and coded crap. FreeCiv was going to be my reward for getting through all the games from 'A' to 'E'.

After trying to get into it for over a week, I just can't stand to play it. I could write an epic monologue on all the problems I had with it, but quite frankly, I'm ready to move on. So here's the gist:

The biggest problem is that it's sluggish. It's just very unresponsive on my machine, and it shouldn't be; the graphics are about at the level of CivI. There's a split-second of delay whenever I do anything, and an awfully long - sometimes a full second - pause whenever I re-center the map, or try to drag the map to a different view.

A second is not a very long time. But it's something you're doing anywhere from a handful to a few dozen times per turn, depending on the action. Those seconds and fractions of seconds add up to make gameplay a source of annoyance and irritation.

The other big problem? I don't expect this one to be fixed by a further release. The controls are clunky and un-ergonomic. I have a list of a thousand tiny little complaints, but what they all add up to is that neither the keyboard nor the mouse is very good at anything; you have to use both, constantly.

And switching back and forth is just obnoxious, when it wasn't much of a hassle in the retail games that inspired FreeCiv. I don't know how or why they decided to break the game-control, but they did, and as someone who's played tons of retail-Civ, FreeCiv is just full of things that irritate me to no end.

Quick example of an annoying feature: the 'City Management' screen has five tabs. You can't change what you're producing from the default one. In Civ I-III, you can, from one screen, see all the production you're doing, the buildings you have, the units that are stationed in the city, and all the other stats... and you can change them all, from that one screen.

In FreeCiv, I can see what I'm building from the main screen, and even after a week, I'm still absently clicking on that, and then remembering it doesn't doing anything, and then clicking the 'Production' tab, and selecting what I want to build from the list. There's no reason at all for production to be altered on a separate screen. I can envision the arguments made in support of it, but everything that's added to flexibility doesn't make up for the huge sacrifice in ergonomics. Especially to someone who's familiar with the retail versions.

Graphically, the game's not pleasing. Not only is it not pretty (in any of the default tile-sets), it's a weird mish-mash of default window-elements and graphical-elements that is offensive to the eye, if you care about such things. Generally, I would say that what's important about a Civ game is the gameplay, but since they broke that, it would be nice for the game to at least be as aesthetically pleasing as the first Civ game. I should also point out that I occasionally got artifacts and glitchiness when scrolling the map, so the graphics aren't just ugly, they're broken.

For the record, I keep seeing screenshots of a prettier setup for FreeCiv but I can't figure out what it is. If you go to this page, the first and last screenshots show a GUI that's very nice looking. I think the difference must be that it's the SDL version, as those are the only screenshots that mention being the SDL client. That version isn't available for Linux. Oh well.

I couldn't get sound working. No idea why. There were no additional soundpacks or anything to download, ala Abuse, and the game gives two options for sound engines; both work in other games, just not in Civ. Again, sound's not a huge part of what's attractive about Civ games (though I do like the sound effects in CivIII a lot), but it would be nice for it to work.

There are some neat things about FreeCiv. Customizable rule-sets and themes are a cool idea, and the number of nations you can play as is awe-inspiring; you can be Mordor, for god's sake. It's playable multi-player in a weird real-time turn-based combination that sounds quite interesting. FreeCiv is very feature-rich.

Unfortunately, it's also a pain in the ass to play, ugly, clunky, and poorly designed. Just out of curiosity, I dusted off my surprisingly-without-bad-sectors copy of Civilizations! and got it running under DosBox. It looked better, it ran better, and it controlled better. The same is true of Civilization III which is currently available for five bucks from most major retailers with a discount-software section. I'm sure it plays fine under Wine, and five dollars is close enough to free that I don't see why you'd bother with FreeCiv, except for the multi-player.

1 comment:

Alex said...

When I upgraded to Ubuntu 8.04, it also upgraded FreeCiv to version 2.1.3. The graphics are considerably nicer, but the interface is still sluggish.

The thing that really sucks about FreeCiv for me is that it after playing it for a few minutes, it messes up the mouse. You can click on the map and move around, but if you click on a city and try to go to the "production" tab, it doesn't respond. Worse, even if you manage to figure out how to exit FreeCiv (you have to use keyboard shortcuts because you can't just click the close button any more), you find that the mouse isn't just screwed up for FreeCiv, but for all of Ubuntu, until you finally reboot.