Let get this straight immediately - if you have ever had an issue stopping yourself from playing an addicting game (“Just 5 more minutes” of Diablo 2, “Just one more round” of Battlefield), then do not start playing Civilization V. I’m pretty sure quite a few folks have “taken a trip to Florida” for a couple months after setting down to a play session of Sid Meier's revered culture-building sim. After a brief foray into a more take on casual world domination with Civilization Revlution, the core Civilization franchise is back with an assortment of gameplay modifications and an entirely updated look. Yet, underneath this shiny coat of paint resides the same tried and true, one-more-turn style gameplay that has addicted throngs of strategy gamers for nearly 20 years.
If you haven’t played a Civilization game before, the concept is fairly simple. You start as one of 18 civilizations (19 if you got the fancy Steam pre-order) with a single city and are tasked with guiding your tiny city-state into a worldwide superpower. You will build farms and banks, adjust your economic focus, embark on the creation of great cultural wonders, and put your enemies to the sword. Of course, it is your choice of which aspect to focus upon, with their own possible end-game victory.
Each civilization has its own unique units and abilities, and said traits will obviously factor into your gameplay style. The Americans are granted abilities which allow for easier exploration and expansion, the Japanese are military beasts with a never say die attitude (Bushido...yeah, that’s broken), and the Indians are bolstered by building fewer cities, but allowing those cities populations to grow.
To newcomers this is all probably very exciting. However, longtime Civ players may be less thrilled with the re-tooling of a few key aspects, as well as the addition and subtraction of key gameplay elements.
Veterans will instantly notice that gone are the square tiles of yesteryear, and in are hexagons (polygons - so hot right now). By adding two extra movement options on each tile, these hexes increase tactical capabilities significantly. Armies are now far more capable of outmaneuvering and flanking their opponents, and setting up defensive structures on civilization borders is of even greater importance. In addition, military units are no longer capable of being “stacked” into giant super-armies. Only a single combat unit is capable of being placed in a space at a time. Fortunately, this does not include ancillary units such as workers, settlers, and great generals who rely on combat units for protection.
Ranged units are now capable of firing from two or three tiles away, so unit formations and battlefield locations are supremely important in gaining the upper hand in military conquest. Placing your great generals at the spearhead of your army is a common strategy, but lose that unit (and thus your general) and your lines could easily be broken by the enemy, sending your entire battle plan to ruin.
Whereas in prior series incarnations, cities relied on garrisoned units to protect themselves from barbarians and enemy units, Civ V gives cities their own hit points, as well as the ability to fire volleys at oncoming enemies. This means they won’t be steam-rolled once a unit enters their tile, giving players some defensive leeway, especially in the early game. Cities will also grow and expand differently. As opposed to a city’s borders expanding in a circle upon a cultural boom, borders now expand over a single tile. This leads to a slower creep of expanding territory, but players can purchase individual tiles whenever they please - with the proper funds of course. This makes the quick acquisition of resources and luxuries a crucial strategic element. Cities are no longer the sole bearers of keeping citizens happy. Instead, your overall happiness is pooled from all your cities, improvements, and policy choices. Capturing cities and constant war can lead to an unhappy populous, but with the right choices in building and politics you can usually subdue (if not distract) your people into a more pleasant state. Finally, when conquering a city, you still have the option of burning it to the ground or installing your own governor. There is a new, third option though - the puppet state. Puppet states will produce buildings and improvements, as well as supply you with gold and culture, but you have no control over their production. The benefit of keeping a captured city as a puppet state is that you do not have to deal with the negative happiness a revolting populace places on your civ.
City-states, tiny, non-expanding civilizations which populate the map, add yet another layer of strategy to Civilization V. They have a few different AI types (militaristic, maritime, and cultured). Befriending City-states requires completing tasks (sort of like quests in an MMO) such as attacking a barbarian encampment or assaulting another City-state, or simply bribing them with piles of shiny gold, and reap benefits depending on the type of City-state involved- militaristic grants you units, maritime food for your cities, and culture, well, extra culture. A City-state’s allegiance to you will also lower over time, so keeping them happy will take dedication. You can choose to attack and conquer City-states, but taking too many liberties with their conquest can earn you the reputation of an international bully. I got a bit to liberal with my land grabbing as the Japanese in one game, and found myself at war with about 5 different City-states within a turn. Suffice it to say, the larger civs who had promised them protection were none too happy. Things got a bit chippy for the rest of that game. It may seem as if City-states are just pawns in the greater land-grab and military portion aspect of the game, but City-states get a vote in UN policies, so they play an extremely important role in the late-game diplomatic victory path. It’s nice that, in order to win diplomatically, you no longer have to rely on the votes of your direct competitors, but on those of an entire world community. That’s a plus one to realism.
Civ V isn’t short on new features, but a few important elements from previous games have been cut. Religions and governments have essentially been removed. Instead, civilizations are governed via social policies. The way social policies works can be likened to skill trees in RPGs. Your civ unlocks trees by spending accumulated culture, and can progress down a skill tree to even greater benefits by spending more culture. Initially only three policies are available, but as new ages are reached, new policies open. The initial choice of policy lends a nice gravity to early game choices. Tradition allows smaller civs to grow their cities quickly, Liberty allows for rapid expansion and land grabbing, and Honor improves your armies fighting prowess. Late game policies can bolster your earlier choices, while others will help you expand into new areas or help strengthen your civ in aspects you may have overlooked. Also, completing five of the ten policy trees will now lead your civ to the new “Utopia” victory.
While this new game mechanic plays nicely into the overall design of Civ V, it seems as if a little depth has been lost. Religions were always a nice way to subtly push your culture upon another civ. Choosing different governmental types was also a nice way to role-play and even had minor strategic advantages that (while not entirely realistic) allowed you to quickly shift your civ’s focus if, say, you needed to go to war quickly. Also, the lack of any sort of espionage greatly hurts the diplomatic and scientific victory paths. It is a lot harder to disturb another world scientific power without going directly to war or convincing other civs to harass them.
Civilization V is beautiful. The map is vibrant and colorful, teeming with life. Fish jump from ocean tiles while birds circle over head. Cows, sheep, and horses graze in lush prairies. Mountains loom in the distance, breaking through the cloud cover which obscures the map in the early game. Units are detailed and well animated, with far more on-screen soldiers in each unit than before, breathing life into your actions. Swordsman rush forward and cut down their foes, musketmen drop to a knee and fire at on-rushing attackers, and ships fire thunderous, smokey volleys. It’s little additions such as this which showcase the attention to detail that has earned the Civilization series its status as a AAA strategy title.
In-game menus are also nicely updated, sporting a shiny, modern aesthetic. Buttons are large and colorful, hiding more detailed information while keeping it readily accessible, and city nametags reveal tons of vital data, like amount of turns until a city grows or production of a unit is completed. The improvement of menus allows players to take in the wonderful graphical presentation while keeping the necessary data to speed along gameplay accessible. At first, getting to certain menus, like a city’s production queue, can be a little unwieldy, but after an hour or two or play time it becomes second nature. In fact, there are quite a few menus, such as citizen specialization and deeper diplomatic and military controls, which are hidden multiple clicks beneath the main screen. This seems to be intended to focus the experience on the game world as opposed to in rows of text and menu buttons. It helps keep the games forward momentum going, and seems as if a fraction of Civilization Revolutions worked its way into the design. Switching from the standard world map to the tactical one provides you with a pleasant, hexagon-based view of the world. The first time I clicked into it I felt as if I had been transported back to the early PC strategy days. Panzer General comes to mind first. Yet, it has the appearance of a more modern board game, such as Settlers of Catan. It’s all very clean, descriptive, and surprisingly helpful once the entire world map is explored.
Interacting with different world leaders is one of the coolest portions of the presentation. You get fully-rendered models of every famous person, and they even speak in their actual language. It lends layers of personality and immersion not captured in the earlier Civ games. The AI, however, can be a bit lacking. They seem extremely aggressive and irked by your choices. And while they are more privy to your sneaky tactics - calling you out on amassing armies or purchasing tracts of land near their borders - it is relatively easy to brush them off by choosing the more diplomatic of response choices. The best way to remedy this - play with your friends. Civilization games have always been better spent with real human minds competing against your own for global conquest. This time around, there are a few less choices (no hotseat or play-by-email here), but LAN and online play are still available. Rounding up a friend or eight really helps to liven the experience, and makes total victory far harder to come by.
For newcomers to the series, or those just recently initiated by Civilization Revolution, Civilization V marks a wonderful introduction into the robust, epic gameplay of the core series. To wily vets, the newest iteration may lack depth in the diplomacy and cultural tracts, but the additions of hexagons and advanced warfare should help to lessen the blow. Civilization V will more than likely have its weaknesses addressed by DLC and expansion packs (not to mention the vast modding community, which Civ V supports in some exciting new ways), but it is far from a paltry offering in its current state. This game has nearly everything you could ask for in a world conquest simulator, and if you plan to dive in it may be best if you let your loved ones know you are going to start writing a novel. Or training for a triathlon. Just pick something that takes a really long time and sounds hard. You’re going to be busy for a while.