Games 7/23/08: Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution, NCAA Football 09, Elefunk

Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Alternate version available for: Nintendo DS
From: Firaxis/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol and tobacco reference, mild suggestive themes, violence)

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that “Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution” fits as comfortably as it does on machines that aren’t gifted with a mouse and keyboard. Nintendo’s “Advance Wars” series demonstrated years ago how viable turn-based strategy simulations can be on even the simplest hardware, and with real-time strategy games becoming increasingly possible on consoles, there’s no reason a turn-based game like “Civilization” shouldn’t thrive.

That said, this still is “Civilization,” and there’s nothing casual about managing multiple armies while simultaneously developing technology, establishing a government body and shoring up the economy in case any number of opposing nations should decide to attack, propose a truce or cut a deal.

“Revolution” works, and elegantly so, because it was designed explicitly with its platform in mind rather than ported down from the PC line.

Elaborately speaking, “Revolution” works because Firaxis knows when to delve into detail and when to leave things up to abstraction. Unit management and military combat, for instance, should immediately ring familiar to anyone who has ever played “Advance Wars,” and your odds in any given skirmish often come down to a single attribute number.

On the other hand, “Revolution” is always one button press away from a thorough in-game encyclopedia of “Civilization” knowledge and expertise. And while managing resources, building orders, your economy and your governmental body is never as complex as it gets in the newer PC games, there’s a ton of allowance for you to influence the course of history as you see fit — via development, through diplomacy or by force.

The abstraction trickles down through the game’s interface and into its philosophy as a whole. Though by no means a farce, “Revolution” certainly has a sense of humor, and the ways you can rearrange and mash history with your virtual Abe Lincoln or Napoleon is equal parts amusing and fascinating. Given the rather brief length of a typical campaign — anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours — there’s plenty of opportunity to try multiple scenarios with each of the game’s 16 civilizations. (An awesome trophy room, which cleverly compiles your achievements, encourages you to keep going back for more.) The only downside to this approach: No means of continuing play indefinitely once a victory condition is met, which stunts the possibilities somewhat.

“Revolution” is, of course, even more fun with friends. Though the lack of any attempt at local multiplayer is pretty disappointing, the online component (up to four players, either individually or in teams of two) works exactly as one would hope.

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NCAA Football 09
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Other versions available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PSP
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

If 2007 was the year EA Sports’ new-generation football games got their visual act relatively together, then 2008 is the year the feature set pulls even.

Specifically, “NCAA Football 09” delivers the genre’s crown jewel: an online dynasty mode. Up to 12 friends can manage every facet of 12 college programs concurrently over 60 seasons within the same alternate universe. That still leaves more than 100 schools under computer control, but managing that many human-controlled programs is a logistical mess few would wish to undertake. Though some inevitably will disagree, less definitely is more in this respect.

Elsewhere, “09” mostly refines what otherwise was an already stuffed feature lineup. The mascot game finally returns, and features introduced last year — including the awesome Campus Legend role-playing mode and the respectable highlight sharing tools — return modestly improved. The roster management tool now allows for online sharing, which means it’s a matter of time before you can download a roster of complete player names, something EA isn’t allowed to include by default per the NCAA’s licensing agreement.

“NCAA” typically shines brightest when it devises new ways to differentiate itself from the pro game. This year, the focus is on the home crowd, whose influence can reenergize the home team and rattle visiting players. It’s a small tweak, but anyone who has ever sat in the stands of a packed house on Saturday will appreciate its contribution to a game already saturated with atmosphere.

Seasoned players will spot gameplay alterations others do not, but everybody who played last year’s game should notice in no time that issues with excessive turnovers have been resolved. A new suite of tackling and rushing animations makes the battle between ballcarrier and defender that much more nuanced for those with quick fingers. Other nice touches include the ability to call bluff plays and do more than just stop the clock when calling a timeout. (About time.)

That said, “09” isn’t free of glitches and hang-ups relating to rosters and the game’s ability to simulate games realistically, though the degree to which these problems bother you will certainly vary. (Casual players may not even notice.) EA is readying a patch for distribution any day now, so time will tell how significant a role these issues play over the game’s lifespan. Unfortunately, “09’s” biggest hang-up — the occasional complete inability for defensive backs to catch up to receivers when pursuing at certain angles — likely will persist the way turnover problems did last year.

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Elefunk
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: 8bit Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $5

Sony’s Playstation Network isn’t as prolific as Xbox Live Arcade when it comes to churning out games, but as long as it continues to produce sleeper gems like “Elefunk” at a price like $5, it doesn’t need to be. “Elefunk” nicely apes the bridge-building subset of the puzzle game genre. As with other, like-minded names, the goal is to use the available pieces to construct a capable bridge, which in this case allows our elephant (and monkey) heroes to cross chasms. The story explaining this, though thin, is cleverly presented, and “Elefunk” does the genre proud in terms of graphics, control, physics and user-friendliness. Most importantly, the game requires brains. Though “Elefunk” runs only 20 levels deep, they’re diverse and legitimately challenging enough to keep most players engaged much longer than the numbers might assume. Trial and error and good games rarely go well together, but “Elefunk’s” hands-off encouragement of experimentation and persistence produces rewarding results. Leaderboards and a time attack variation are available for players who master the core game, and a two-player local/online multiplayer mode — basically Jenga with “Elefunk” pieces — provides a nice, casual departure from the rest of the package.