Sid Meier’s Civilization V:

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Complete Review & Description

Ever since I received my preview copy of Civilization V I have been preoccupied. It’s been a bit frustrating. I just haven’t gotten anything else done. Even when I wasn’t playing the game I was thinking about it. It was just sitting there, patiently, at home on my computer, ready for the next turn.

I’m going to make a confession right away. I am quite the fan of Firaxis and the Civilization series. Sid Meier is something of a gaming icon for many, myself included. Civilization II was one of the first games I ever seriously played. I devoted hours to Civ III and until the fifth instalment arrived, I was still regularly playing Civ IV both online and against the clock. But my love of this franchise can only be beneficial. My expectations are rather high.

There is a lot to these games. They are complicated, and they are very, very addictive. A hint is in the name – this is a turn based strategy title that allows you to create, destroy and develop entire worlds. Worlds full of cities, wonders, allies and enemies. This is not a game you can skim through. If you are serious about computer games, you’re going to need to put aside days – if not weeks – to really get in to this title. This is a game with so much replayability that you are only really limited by the size of your world-map and your own creativity. So, here is your warning – this review is not going to be short and sweet.

The Civilization series is a turn based strategy franchise that places you in the shoes of a benevolent (or malevolent) leader of a great civilization. You are tasked with developing your civilization from one tiny settlement into an empire that can rule the seas, skies or even outer space. Along the way you must compete with other civilizations, manage your economy, keep your citizens happy, research new technologies, build new buildings, develop your cities and most importantly, deal with the encroachments of other world leaders. All of whom are hungry for a slice of your civilization pie. Some will play nice to get it. But some will be very bad indeed.

Civilization V continues in this vein but it is not a carbon copy of what came before. It develops the gameplay in new and unfamiliar directions. In doing that it adds a nice dash of polish to the graphical elements and animations that Civilization IV introduced to the series. This ensures that the title is now fully compatible with the graphical intensity we have come to expect from next-gen video cards and improvements to DirectX coding.

With a title this large it’s difficult to know where to start. So why not start at the beginning. Civilization V’s interface has been significantly altered from its previous instalments. The skeleton is still here, your gold, tech and culture quotients are displayed in the top left – your menus parallel to them. Your mini-map is prominently displayed for ease-of-strategic-reference. But the clutter of earlier installments has been streamlined. In many respects this is a welcomed. Civilization V is clearly trying to divert your attention to the world map, instead of presenting players with screeds of menu screens and information panels. Helpful hints, messages, and notifications pop up on the right hand side in sequential order – anyone who has spent time with Anno 1404 will find this style instantly recognisable. In addition, the city screens – the switchboards for the engine rooms of your civilization – are toned down in the quest for simplicity. No longer do they take up the whole screen, enabling you to select new production options while still maintaining an eye on the world map. For players who have grown accustomed to the bookish technocracy of earlier installments, do not be too alarmed. The simplification of the interface has not removed any of the complexity of city management and economic reporting. But it has made things slightly alien; it may take a little time to familiarise yourself.

But the simplification of the interface does have its downsides. For certain bits of information you are going to need to go digging. It is slightly frustrating that while your civilization advisors can now suggest improvements in the city screen (their suggested production options are highlighted by their respective symbols) when you enter the advisory screen itself, the advice they give is not time stamped. For a lone wolf like me who (perhaps unwisely) doesn’t care too much for his advisor’s opinions, it can be a little peculiar to find snippets of helpful unread information that might be woefully out of date. Relying on these can be a little disastrous. Sure, Alexander the Great might have been ripe for the plundering one hundred turns ago, but now he has gunpowder. All out war would not be a very good idea. In order to keep on top of the computer’s advice, you’re going to have to remember to check in with your cabinet at every turn.

Aesthetically, the in-game menus (and the game’s look itself) are heavily influenced by the art-deco style of the 1920’s and 30’s. At first blush this does give the title a slightly cartoony feel. Early reports of the title criticised it for this, but it does have a reason. Art-deco is all about voluptuous images and angular curves. At its core, it was about making modernism sexy again. For a game that revels in creative destruction and god-like freedom, this design choice – while slightly garish – does serve a useful purpose. And to be frank, it’s just really clever. And I like clever.

The world map itself has been radically redesigned. At the strategic level, Firaxis have shifted from square game tiles to hexagonal ones. This is a very interesting change, and one that is surely going to lead to a greater combination of movement paths and unit positions. Additionally, this allows for a much greater level of combat depth, particularly when it comes to city sieges and combat movement.

The world itself is a contender for the best looking game-map ever presented in a turn based strategy game. The developers have done a masterful job of making the globe come alive. The terrain is artfully rendered, and the randomised worlds are now more carefully put together. Unlike Civilization IV that had mountain chains seemingly springing out of nowhere, Civilization V has managed to provide more fluidity to its world creation. And that’s important. Players who start building in the middle of mountain ranges will have an instant defensive bonus against those on the flatland. But those on the flatland will have an easier time filling the bellies of their ever growing, and increasingly hungry citizens. But while Civilization V isn’t going to max out your computer’s hardware (provided you’re recently up to date) it does have a few graphical glitches. Sometimes when loading a save game, the “fog of war” (artfully represented as moving clouds) would fail to render properly, instead reverting to a blocky grey mass. At other times, combat animations briefly stuttered. But these incidences were minor, and I’m fairly confident they will be easily remedied post release.

There are essentially two things that you need to do in any Civilization title if you want to be successful. The first is in how you manage your cities (and by extension your economy) and the second is in how you deal with your military. Both have been altered in this franchise’s fifth instalment.

In Civilization V, Firaxis have tinkered with city management. Cities now expand beyond single tiles, and they no longer need to be garrisoned with units in order to be protected. Instead, each city is given hit-points which increase as your city grows. If threatened by an enemy unit coming into its borders, it can bombard it. Like in previous titles, your city’s boundaries expand incrementally, depending on its growth rate. For expansionists like me, this is crucial to claiming new territory. But I got the sense that in Civilization V the growth of your city borders is not quite as quick. It takes a lot longer for city boundaries to develop.

While you can use gold to purchase city tiles if need be, the fact that you now need to build your cities closer together in order for them to link up does detract from the rapid empire expansion that was so alluring in previous versions. This change in pacing is slightly difficult, as it makes imperial play much harder to achieve. For some players, this will be disappointing – part of Civ’s addictive value comes from the ability to expand voraciously. But this can be remedied by changing your settler placements.

But to expand you need productive citizens, and happy citizens are the best for the job. Like in Civ IV, unhappy citizens are not going to bring your cities to their knees, but they will harm production. To keep them pleased there are the usual techniques of civic policies, sanitation and crowd pleasing structures. But now theatres and coliseums spread happiness around your entire empire, with their benefits felt in every city. This has its benefits and its disadvantages – for new players it will help keep early civilizations manageable. But it will also make it easier for players to placate conquered metropolises, by pumping out fun-filled buildings in the end game. This change is slightly artificial, but is does make countering unhappiness more user-friendly.

On the plus side, the frustrations of culture mixed with religion have been done away with. In Civilization V culture is now earned right from the get go and is now much more important to your civilization’s progression. It is used as a commodity to purchase “social policies”, new societal buffs that can develop your Civ in certain directions. There are five social policy areas to choose from. Not all of them are immediately available to you and are only unlocked when your progress into a new historical era, but each new section provides you with different bonuses. Within each tree are a series of connected policies, providing further incentives. Once you’ve collected the set, their benefits are multiplied.

This is a bold and radical move from Firaxis, and it works incredibly well. Culture now becomes just as important as gold, and forms a vital part of your economy. Buildings that generate culture will become crucial early on and the “build-order” stratagems of other titles are nicely integrated into the civilization experience. In addition, each new cultural building increases the chances of generating a great person, who can now trigger golden ages (periods of increased productivity) by themselves.

I do not have enough words here to fully explain the social policy options available to you – and I don’t want to. Part of the pleasure of my reviewing experience was the joy of finding out what new political options the game served up for me. As new policies become available the strategies of your opponents modify and react – ensuring that even against the AI in the same game, your experience remains fresh, interesting and worthwhile.

And you will be dealing with the AI even more than before. Aside from the changes to the way the world economies now run, diplomacy now plays an even greater role in the game. This multiplies the intensity of earlier civilization titles, by removing the effectiveness of the rolling thunder approach to international relations. In Civilization V if you want to win, you need to talk. You just won’t survive without a good grasp of diplomatic niceties.

If the world is your chess board, then Civ V’s addition of city-states provides the pawns. A new addition to the series, they totally change the political cut and thrust of any game. They are not civilizations, so they won’t raise an army against you. But they are unpredictable. If you piss them off they will ally against you, but get them onside and they will follow you into hell and back. Well, maybe not that far – but they will periodically gift you with units or resources. But just remember to keep them appeased, as their support will degrade over time.

These new city-states transform how diplomacy works in Civilization V. They totally change the action and push negotiation and bargaining right to the fore of any serious game. Again, getting used to their constant presence and demands for assistance will take a bit of time – but their inclusion is probably the most revolutionary aspect of the Civ experience since the inclusion of culture. While the diplomacy of other Civilizations is still a little tactless, the inclusion of city-states was a masterful stroke from Firaxis and takes the strategic gameplay to a completely new level.

But diplomacy only gets you so far. It was Niccolo Machiavelli who opined “it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” He also said “before all else, be armed.” Combat forms the counter-weight to diplomatic negotiation, and Civilization V’s changes to the combat mechanic are inspired.

Gone is the mechanical ability to stick all your units in one tile. They can now only occupy one tile each. The result of this is twofold. Firstly, the game’s combat is spread out over a much wider area and your units are much more mobile. As a consequence you are going to need to be more strategic in how you use them. The addition of hexagonal tiles certainly helps, but it means that the pervasive tactic of launching fifty musket men against enemy cities is over. Secondly, you are going to be building fewer units, but using them more carefully. As a result of this, the experience system that was underdeveloped in Civilization IV really comes into its own. In (one) of my current games I am launching an attack on a rouge city-state that needs to be quashed under the heel of my glorious German empire. Its obstinate resistance has resulted in my Panzers attacking and retreating a dozen or so times. Each time, they earn experience, and each time I am tasked with micro-managing their approaches. And each time they engage they do so accompanied by great audio and some excellent battle animations.

Thankfully, Civ V has continued its predecessor’s attention to unit balancing, and the result is that the bizarre “spearmen-beats-tank” result of earlier titles is all but gone. But that’s a good thing; it forces players to tech up relentlessly, ensuring that the game does not stagnate. With these changes to the combat mechanic, Firaxis has managed to implement a compelling and exciting game-within-a-game, finally marrying tactical warfare and grand strategy within the turn-based genre.

There are many things I have not had time to cover in this review. That is in the nature of a title as expansive as this. But some solid conclusions can be made. Civilization V is an impressive addition to the series and without a doubt it meets the incredibly high standards we have come to expect from Firaxis. It is a title that carves out a space for the thinking gamer and provides ample space for the slower, more methodical approach to video gaming. It’s masterful blend of high politics, international diplomacy, economics, technology, strategy and tactics is a must-have addition to the collections of any serious strategy fan.

But above all else this title is its own. While its predecessor is still well loved, Civ V is not a mere clone of what came before. For the most hardcore Civ addicts out there, some of the changes may be a little unfamiliar. But Civilization V retains the ethos of this iconic series, while modernising, simplifying and improving both its look and its feel. This series’ ability to turn a static turn-based, board-game-esque world into a microcosm of war and peace is unparalleled. And Civilization V is just the next jewel in its crown.

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