Welcome back to the revenge of the sequels! The fall gaming season is always filled up with a myriad of games seeking to repeat the success of earlier franchise entries. Civilization V is definitely in line with that trend, attempting to capture sales based on the commercial and critical success of 2005’s Civilization IV while also taking the franchise in some new directions. So how did they do? Read on and find out!
Sid Meier’s Civilization V is the fifth offering in the multi-award winning Civilization turn-based PC strategy game series. As with earlier installments in the series, Civilization V features the famous “just one more turn” addictive gameplay that has made it one of the greatest game series of all time. In addition to this it also features improved diplomacy, unprecedented modding tools and functionality, new ranged combat over a hex oriented board rather than squares, an in-game community hub facilitating improved online play and more.
The Civilization series started in 1991 as Microprose released the game created by Sid Meier with the tag line “build an empire to stand the test of time”. That was followed up in 1996 by Civilization II, which had two expansions and is considered one of the best all-time games. Civilization III in 2001 was somewhat of a let-down, managing only to be ‘great’. Civilization IV in 2005 had people once again debating about which entry was the best, and whether Civ II or IV was better, the massive amount of content added through the expansions in 2006 and 2007, as well as the remake of Colonization added to the game in 2008!
After spending hundreds of hours on Civ IV, I – and many others – wondered … what next? As reported last year, what was ‘next’ was moving from square grids to a hex grid, a re-balancing of everything and a renewed focus on the ‘long game’.
In technical terms the franchise took a huge graphical leap forward in Civilization IV, which continues in the new game – but this time things scale much better meaning you can play it on a relatively lower powered PC than you could when Civ IV came out. But if you have a reasonably powerful computer you can expect detailed graphics depicting terrain, weather effects, movement, combat, and so on. There are scenes where leaders from other nations and city-states speak to you, and they are all done in detailed CGI,
The game also features an epic soundtrack, with era and region appropriate sounds that keep you company as you play into the wee hours. In a twist for the franchise, each of the world leaders speaks in their native voice. It adds another level of depth and historical nuance to a game already steeped in both!
But the real draw here is the actual turn-to-turn gameplay, and it is better than ever!
Let me spell out the flow of a game. You start by selecting whether to play a pre-defined scenario or a custom game. For most game you will choose the ‘Set Up Game’ option, which then has you select a historical leader (I tend to like Catherine the Great of Russia), a map type, map size, difficulty level, and game pace. You can choose the advanced setup options and then further tweak the setup, from types of potential victories to starting era to some customer options like a turn-limit for the game.
Once you start the game, you are at 4000 B.C., with a single settler and a single warrior unit. You build a capital city, choose what to produce in that city, and what technology to research. Then you end your turn and all other players get to make their own moves. In terms of the single player game, all other players are computer controlled – and there are loads of them!
Each game has a number of other factions involved: as in previous games you are competing for victory against a number of other civilizations seeking to dominate the world through force, culture, diplomacy, economic production, or technology. But now you also have to deal with a number of city states, which can have only a single city and therefore tend to be leverage points in the game: they occupy often key locations on the maps, and allying with them for cooperation and protection can help you. Also, if you are going for a diplomatic win you need them to ‘vote’ for you – so if you conquer a few, forget about a diplomatic win!
Each turn occupies a certain amount of historical time – when you start out it can be between 10-20 years, and as you hit the modern age it rapidly decreases until each turn is just a single year. Of course, your choice of pacing impacts this as well. There are also ‘ages’ such as the Renaissance, Medieval, Classical and so on. These ages are dictated by the pace of what you are accomplishing, not strictly the passage of time. One time I hit the Renaissance in about 1200 B.C. (more than 2000 years early for non-history buffs!).
The game offers a variety of development opportunities via research. Each new bit of research opens up further things to discover along the tech-tree, as well as making production of certain things immediately available. There are advisers available to help you with your choices in all areas, and generally the game will provide solid guidance about which research item will most benefit a certain course (such as economic or cultural).
The other choice you will be constantly making is what to produce in each of your cities. First off you will need settlers, since you definitely want to expand your territory in order to gain more resources – you will need them regardless of how you plan to win. If you plan a military victory you can also expand through conquest – but it will be a very costly route, as you need to gather resources to build up your military and then build up enough strength to take out cities.
Combat has undergone huge changes since Civilization IV. In that game, if you didn’t garrison troops you would immediately forfeit the city to anyone who walked into it. Now each city has an intrinsic defense as well as troops that can be set up. Also, whereas Civ IV allowed you to endlessly stack troops to create roaming mega-forces and often ended up in a battle of attrition between armies, Civ V has two dramatic changes: one unit per tile, and unit production is SLOW. You can get to the point where your best city is producing reasonably powerful troops every few turns, but you will never have the surplus of power you had in Civ IV.
An added challenge is that Barbarians will constantly spring up on the map, and progress at the average rate of all civilizations, meaning that if you are taking a cultural route against warmongering civilizations, chances are that the Barbarians will be more powerful than you!
The depth of the diplomatic elements has been debated by some serious grognards, but as a more casual player I like the changes. You engage with either other civilizations or city-states and can negotiate various treaties such as open borders, secrecy pasts, protection, and so on. City states can also call for another city-state to get wiped out … but be careful as you might run into an alliance with one of your neighbors that launches you into an all out war!
As you progress through the campaign you will meet challenges: shortages of resources, difficult enemies pooling together against you, and other problems.
Aside from the custom games, there are a number of ‘scenarios’ available to force you to try to win the game in a certain way. These are great options to improve your skills because you start with an already established civilization with resources and cities … and opponents who are equally built up. Sometimes you need to use force – and other times you cannot use force! It makes for a nice alternative to building your own history every time.
One of the big draws for a strategy game is playing against other people. Naturally, playing a massive turn-based game against others has challenges, but starting with Civ IV they have been handled very well. You can choose the traditional one-turn-at-a-time mode or simultaneous turns with time limits, which makes things happen at a much quicker pace and also has a subtle impact on how things progress.
You can have up to 16 people in a multiplayer match, and can fill any number of slots with AI opponents. Not only that, but you can designate whether a game should freeze or proceed with an AI substitute if one of the human opponents has to drop out for a while. This is handled seamlessly and is a great addition – though during heavy combat periods things get rather frantic and start to feel more like a RTS click-fest than a grand strategy session!
Notes on the Mac version:
Since I started writing this review the Mac version arrived, so naturally I installed it to quickly check it out … which turned into yet another massive time-sink! (I should really know better by now!) The performance definitely lagged the PC version, though I had none of the issues I discussed here.
Multiplayer was limited to Mac-to-Mac only as expected, which was made easier with the creation of a Steam group called Civilization 5 Mac Players . All in all, a decent experience – better than I thought based on reading various forums … but I’ll stick with the PC version until they get it all sorted out.
Civilization V is the best game I have played this year, and I don’t think that will change. It has sucked dozens of hours from me, kept me up way too late, and just been a completely absorbing and compelling experience. This in spite of the fact that the game is very much an evolution of the wonderful Civilization IV. Amazingly the new game doesn’t ‘ruin’ the old one as so many sequels do … I started up a round of Civ IV and found the experience is quite different, which is a definite positive in addition to all of the other great things Civilization V brings to the table.
Review: Civilization V
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
Price: $49.99 (Currently on sale for $29.99)
What I Like: Additions really matter, such as new diplomacy options, social policies, and so on; combat system changes completely change the feel; language and historical alignments bring a much greater sense of realism; the hours just melt away …
What Needs Improvement: Mac version needs help; still some AI glitches and multiplayer ‘roughness’ needing a patch