The Good: As addictive as ever. Hex-based map increases combat strategy. The Bad: Peculiar AI decisions. Tends to bog system down with increasing numbers of cities and units. The Ugly: Nothing.
Here’s the part where I firmly establish myself as the Game-Over resident old guy. Nineteen years ago, when I was in graduate school, I lost more hours, saw more sunrises, and in general spent a couple of hundred if not a thousand hours that could well have been spent, say, curing cancer, beating up on the French, the Russians, the Americans – whoever stood in the way of my grand emperorship greatness and my rush to Alpha Centauri. Such was the addictiveness of Civilization I, the great-granddaddy of the vast number of Civ-like games that spanned the past nineteen years. So after all of these years Civilization V has landed on my desk, and I’m pleased to report that the crack-cocaineness that made the whole civilization concept so addictive remains intact, and is in some ways improved. It is only some extremely quirky AI decisions and a crushing system load that can really bog your computer down later in the game that keeps it from phenomenal greatness. Perhaps a few patches will even correct some of that.
For those who have been living in a cave for the last few decades and somehow missed all the Civilizations (and Colonizations, Call to Powers, Master of Orions, Alpha Centauri, etc), the concept is fairly simple. Using an isometric world map the player founds cities and then manages the activities of those cities, allocating resources towards creating new structures in the cities, researching new technologies, balancing the happiness of their subjects, and constructing units to expand the player’s world influence. At the same time, in a turn-based fashion, the computer (or other players online or on LAN) is doing the same thing with their own empires. When you and those other civilizations butt heads war is not the only option – there are a full range of diplomatic options and a number of winning non-military strategies. Sure, you can wipe out the other civilizations, but you could also choose to become a center for scientific excellence and win the space race, or foster diplomatic relationships and win a vote for world domination at the United Nations.
If all of that doesn’t sound addictive, and reading it over it really doesn’t, it’s because I’m not describing the beautiful simplicity of running your little world. The maps, the interfaces, and the computer advisor assistants all serve to make accomplishing the minor tasks easy, while the major strategic goals remain deceptively hard. So you go along, growing your cities, advancing your influence, and you say to yourself “I’ll just play until that city completes construction of a tank battalion.” That’s an easy goal, just a few minutes tops depending how many other cities you’re dealing with. Then the tank is built and you say to yourself “Now I’ll just move the tank to my enemy’s border.” Again, just a couple of turns - a few minutes. Then you say to yourself, “Just until I take their first city,” then “their next city,” then “their next one,” then “I need to build another tank.” Then, “When the hell did the sun come up?” Believe me, I’ve used enough Visine to relieve sleep-deprived eyes to wash the Hoover Dam away.
For those who haven’t missed the last two decades, you’re probably curious about what this version of Civilization brings that the previous ones didn’t. One of the largest changes is that the map now uses a hex-based map grid (previous versions used a square grid). Speaking as an old hand at Avalon Hill board games, I’m surprised it has taken this long to do so. This comes in addition to the change that only one military unit can occupy a single hex at a time (with narrow exceptions) which avoids a problem in the previous games known by most as “stacks of death.” These two changes dramatically alter the way in which wars are fought and units form blockades.
More subtlety, this version of civilization has changed the way religion and government structures are dealt with. Previously you would research religions and government structures as any other technology like The Wheel or Gunpowder. These are now dealt with in the format of “social policies” which are more or less purchased using cultural points. These policies are not called monotheism or democracy, but courage or piety (there are ten in all) – they hold many similar bonuses to the previous technologies, but are different in that they form a structured tree; selecting one policy may conflict with others later. Finally this Civilization implements independent cities that function essentially as NPCs. They offer you sort of mini-quests (attack another city, repel barbarians, bring some trade resource to the city) that will curry their favor, and if fulfilled they repay you with strategic assets (military units, votes in the UN). If ignored, it is possible they will ally with your enemies. Oh, oh, oh – I forgot one more really important change: if you conquer a city you are no longer limited to razing it or occupying it, but may not turn it into a puppet regime. This avoids the domestic unrest caused by occupation and the senseless destruction of wanton city razing because it is difficult to maintain the happiness of your society otherwise. A puppet regime grants you all of the material benefits of the city without the ability to control how it runs or what it builds.
Civilization V is at once simple and complex. You can certainly play on the surface. You probably won’t become a master of the finer points and will always score a somewhat less-successful victory, but you can just let the cities more or less run themselves (albeit in an un-optimized fashion) while you concentrate on some smaller facet – like the military portion or the diplomatic portion. There’s plenty of fun to be had there. Or you can dredge in, accessing the phenomenal quantity of data there is to be had on each of your cities and work to maximize the dozens of parameters under your control.
There are only two real problems that I came across as I played. One, opposing civilizations under computer control do some wonky things sometimes. I’ve had smaller civilizations that I was essentially leaving alone declare war, throwing themselves pointlessly in front of me like a speed bump for no apparent purpose. I’ve also had a civilization refuse a peace treaty, only to try and bribe me to accept a peace treaty just a few turns later. Perplexing. Secondly, late in the game when a lot of units and cities are around, the game really becomes quite slow, with every keystroke taking a measurable amount of time to be registered and combat happening in slow motion.
I should probably, just for completeness, throw in a comment about the graphics. I like how you can zoom way in and watch individual battles take place, and then zoom way out and get a good strategic picture. The main gameplay screen is well laid out and even somewhat customizable. It can be a little difficult recognizing the various natural resources – just as well, I probably wouldn’t recognize spices if they didn’t come in McCormick bottles – but you can hover over the map location and get more information about it. I should mention that there is an opening movie that you can’t skip because the game is busy loading in the background while it plays so there’s nothing to skip it to.
Sure, I’m losing my job, divorcing the wife, and skipping my chemotherapy treatments, but I’m glad to see Civilization has still got it. As I read over my review, I’ve likely missed dozens of changes in this version (many of which I may not yet have seen myself) but that’s what Civilization is all about – layers. Every game I play, I see something new. Somehow where a lot of 4X games fail (I’m looking at you Master of Orion 3), Civilization keeps changing the game without losing the magic.