Conquer the Earth -- on Your Mac


By Charles Haddad Never mind that my opponent sported only a Mohawk and a loincloth. His warriors soon overran my musketeers and devoured my civilization ? universities, museums and all ?- like a column of ravenous army ants. So much for high culture soothing humankind's savage inclinations.

I was playing the latest version of Civilization, one of the greatest -? if not the greatest ?- computer strategy games ever written. Fans have long awaited the release of Civilization III for the Mac, and, by and large, they won't be disappointed. MacSoft has done a fairly good job of porting the Windows version to the Mac, although it has some glitches.

Civ (as it's known to addicts) was created in the early 1990s by Sid Meier as a Windows game. But it was soon ported, or converted, to the Mac, as was its sequel. Meier, however, let others write Civ II and an offshoot of the series, Call to Power, and the games bogged down in performance and complicated play. Now, Meier has retaken control of Civilization through his software company, Firaxis.

SNORTING ELEPHANTS. The general idea and motif ?- managing a civilization from wandering tribe to nuclear power ?- remains unchanged. But Meier has incorporated the stunning new graphics capabilities of faster chips and Apple's new OS X operating system. In this game, you can see the elephants of the Indian army flap their ears and snort.

In the past, Civ was a daunting venture for newbies. They were greeted with a befuddling array of windows and data, through which you command everything from local sanitation to foreign relations. Tons of decisions had to be made every turn, and your index finger could go numb from all the mouse-clicking required.

The latest incarnation has greatly clarified and simplified the decisionmaking. No longer do you have to drag a caravan turn by turn across the screen to establish a trade route with another civilization. Now, all you have to do is build a port and connect two cities with a road.

IMPROVED AI. The game also now lets you set a grand strategy and then automate the details of carrying it out. Tell a city to favor population growth over culture, and Civ then selects those choices that advance your agenda. You can also select and order a series of improvements that a city should build. Indeed, the most notable difference in the new version is its improved artificial intelligence.

That's both good and bad. A lot of longtime players such as myself, smug with past success, will find themselves thwarted by the game's new cunning. Competing civilizations, for example, will now surround you with little cities with no purpose other than to hem you in. It's a nasty little move that can force even the most peaceful players to resort to war.

In earlier versions, you had to win either through world conquest or through landing a mission on the moon. Now, you can also have a diplomatic or cultural victory. In the first, the other civilizations must elect you as head of the U.N. A cultural victory requires cowing the others with technological advances, universities, and museums. The cities of other civilizations will ask to join yours if your cultural influence is great enough. But as my opening example illustrates, such a triumph is not easy to achieve. Neither is a diplomatic one.

PAINFULLY SLOW. Overall, Civ III is a great game, but it does have some problems. I commend MacSoft for using Apple's Carbon computer language to port the Windows version to the Mac, which allows it to play either in OS 9 or OS X. But in OS X, many parts of the game run painfully slow. I'm not sure who's to blame for this: MacSoft or Apple. Players can only hope the speed will with pick up as Apple improves OS X.

Another beef: The Mac Civ III lacks the scenario editor that has been so popular in the PC version. Civedit, as it's called in Windows, lets you create your own worlds, own civilizations, and own scenarios -? such as refighting the Civil War. Again, it's unclear why. Did MacSoft omit it, or does it not work in OS X? All parties are mum on the issue.

And despite the ever-growing popularity of Internet gaming, online and multiplayer features have been stripped out in Civ III. Also, no demo of the game is available from MacSoft's Web site. And its file structure is most Windows-like. In short, Civ III for the Mac looks suspiciously like an unfinished port of a PC game rushed to market.

Despite these drawbacks, Civ III is addictive, if you fancy yourself a cyber-Napoleon or Alexander the Great. But be prepared to meet your Waterloo -- or at least get a good scalping -- on your first couple of tries. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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