CivWorld hands-on impressions: A Facebook game that's not for the FarmVille set

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civilization world on facebookFor about a year now, we've been hearing that the classic PC game Civilization would be making its way to Facebook, in the form of Sid Meier's Civilization World (CivWorld for short). And, at long last, the wait is over. Starting today, real-time strategists and Civ fans can join the game's open beta to test their civilization building (and destruction) skills in this new breed of social game.

And by new breed of social game, I'm not talking about the fact that it's a real-time strategy game, but the fact that it has the complexity and depth that seasoned gamers have been begging to see on Facebook ever since FarmVille launched two years ago.

CivWorld is a classic take on the the strategy genre with a social twist. The goal is to work with others to build a civilization, and keep it safe while taking out the competition (other civilizations made up of other groups of players) by using military might, scientific discovery or cultural influence. In the end, the one who conquers all, wins. The game is filled with multi-level technology trees, complex strategies for conquering the world, a definite end and beginning, plus a social part made up of real-time chat systems used to coordinate with other people in your particular nation/empire. The game is, ya know, Civilization, but it lives on the Facebook gaming platform.

And that's where I see the biggest challenge ahead for this game. It's on Facebook. With everything that's going on in Civ World -- which will no doubt appeal to a small, impassioned segment of social gamers -- my initial impressions of Civ World leave me wondering just how well this game will translate to the Facebook gaming set. I'm talking about those millions of people who have been trained by Zynga games like FarmVille, FrontierVille and its newer Civilization-style game Empires & Allies to expect highly intuitive control schemes, serious hand-holding regarding how to play the game and, overall, a presumption that anyone and everyone should be able to log in and play these games without requiring some additional background knowledge on how strategy games, and in particular Civilization games, should work.

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If you don't have built-in knowledge of this long-running game series, it will be difficult to get started. You are expected to sit through a bare-bones tutorial that attempts to explain the many aspects of the game and then -- at a certain point -- are left hanging without a prompt on what to do next. If I hadn't played other Civilization games previously, it's highly likely I would have grown frustrated and stopped playing in the first 10 minutes.

Some other sticking points in CivWorld:

- It's extremely difficult to find and play a game with your fellow Facebook friends. I spent the better part of an hour trying to sync up with one of my pals, and I even though I knew his game ID number, we still had no luck connecting. I ran through the FAQ in the game's built-in Wikipedia (called the 'Civilopedia') for answers and still found nothing. If the option is available in the game, it's certainly difficult to find and is likely leave other players scratching their heads as they try to do the same.

- Navigating the CivWorld environment is also, at times, unintuitive. The navigation for the game sits at the bottom of the screen, but once you click on a tab or button, it's sometimes challenging to find your way back to the game's main screen. There were times I just kept clicking the 'Play' tab at the top of the screen (my go-to move in other Facebook games) to get back into my game and kept wondering why nothing happened.

- It's hard to sync up with other players in real-time to get stuff done. To win in CivWorld, you must join a nation, comprised of other players, and then work with them to decide what tactics you're going to use to conquer the world. Now, granted, there were a limited number of people playing this game during my initial experience, but many other players were offline and not responding to my chat requests.

- The game is sluggish and often unresponsive. This may be due to the fact that I played it pre-release, but the game loaded slowly and there is a too long of a response time after clicking on buttons. Also, where is the full-screen option?

CivWorld does manage, however, to avoid some of the more irritating pitfalls of other Facebook games. The strategy game is largely free of annoying pop-up ads that try to convince you to use Facebook Credits to buy extras for the game. It's also refreshing that you don't have to constantly beg fellow players to send items or otherwise assist you when building a new structure. And, while I bemoan the game's complexity, I also fully support the idea of creating more mature, in-depth games for Facebook. There just needs to be a better way to help the uninitiated ease into a new experience.

It's difficult to give any final "review" on a Facebook game, especially since they're constantly evolving. While I expect the FarmVille-playing masses will not necessarily latch onto CivWorld, the game will easily fill a certain niche on the Facebook platform, serving up serious real-time strategy like umpteen Civilization games have done since 1991.
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