Just as in my original Civilization V review, I'm going to be completely upfront about my unabashed bias regarding the franchise. From the second I heard about the existence of the expansion (and the accompanying patch which brought the much awaited multiplayer animations), I scrounged the Internet and forums for every shred of information I could find. After PAX East in early April, I emailed the link of gameplay footage to all of my friends and we collectively cyber-giggled in excitement. There just wasn't any way in which this expansion was going to get a negative review from me. The worst that could happen is that my expectations ended up way too high. Thankfully, I can always count on developer Firaxis to deliver the goods and, with the exception of a few nitpicks, Gods and Kings is no different.
The bulk of the expansion lies in the new religion and espionage mechanics. From the start of the game, you can now choose to focus your empire towards the goal of accumulating faith (through various means, such as buildings, city-state alliances, natural wonders, etc.). Once you hit the first faith threshold, a "pantheon belief" must be chosen. These bonuses (representing polytheistic ancient religions) are relatively minor, but usually fairly helpful early on. However, once you hit the second threshold, things really get interesting. In founding a proper religion, you choose a symbol, write in a custom name, and decide on various holy doctrines for both yourself as the founder (which mostly give a bonus for how much you spread your religion) and for followers (which give bonuses for each city that worships your god, regardless of nationality). So while the founder is always going to profit more than a simple follower, you can still take part in the religious gameplay without focusing any resources towards it, because eventually, your people are going to believe in something. Finally, after your religion is enhanced and you have a steady stream of faith rolling in, you can spend that faith like gold to buy all sorts of goodies, like units, buildings and even great people.
If there's a downside to all of this, it's that in a typical game, you'll barely get your religion where you want it before it starts to become marginal. It is accurate that as history marched on, religion became less and less important in foreign affairs (thank you, Enlightenment!), but it's still a shame to get invested in firing off missionaries and buying cathedrals, only to have it all fizzle out two thirds of the way through the game. I suppose it's not very damning when the worst thing you can say about a game feature is that you wish there was more of it.
Another, more technical problem is the lack of information regarding the mechanics of how religions spread. When you mouse-over a city name, it tells you how many followers of each religion reside there, but it also gives you a "pressure" value in addition. Pressure, and how much of it each religion is exerting, determines if a city flips its religious allegiance. Unfortunately, the numbers are all a bit of a mystery and I simply had to accept that, "more equals good, less equals bad". Further, some religion enhancements are supremely overpowered at spreading, such that you will suddenly be hit with +34 pressure from a foreign religion, while your holy city is only putting out a measly +8. I'm sure balance patches are already being worked on, but it can make the faith game a bit frustrating, at present.
The other big feature is, of course, espionage. Once any nation hits the Renaissance, everyone receives their first spy (with more spies added as the ages progress and sometimes as rewards for various accomplishments). These spies can be sent to rival cities to give line-of-sight and steal technology, rig city-state elections and force coups, or sit in one of your cities and guard against enemy spies. As they complete their goals, they even level up, becoming quicker to steal and more competent all around. The coolest part of the espionage system, however, is the intrigue mechanic. When sitting in a rival nation's city, sometimes you will get information such as "Elizabeth is planning a sneak attack on Napoleon," or "Washington has embarked units with escorts for a naval invasion". You may then share this information with the victim leaders for improved relations, or watch the fireworks of an attack you knew was coming. All of this goes a long way towards enhancing the "role play" aspect of the game, further immersing the player in the idea that they really are the leader of a nation in a world full of other leaders and nations.
Again, the only complaint I really have about espionage is that there aren't quite enough "things to do" with spies. Stealing technology is fun but if you are ahead in the tech race, your spies end up sitting in cities twiddling their thumbs. Wouldn't it be cool if spies could start a campaign of misinformation, spreading rumors amongst other nations that turn their relations sour with each other? Or maybe even the reverse, rename them "agents" and have them act as diplomats between two enemy nations, or even on your behalf, making nice to sooth a century-old grudge? There are tons of directions that Firaxis can take espionage in the future and I hope they expand on it because just like religion, I want more of it!
The interesting thing about this expansion is not so much the additions as the smaller refinements. City-states have had their quest system revamped for the better. Now instead of a single mission, a city-state can give the player up to three simultaneous missions that can either have time limits attached (who has accumulated the most culture in the past 45 turns?) or remain open-ended (give us a Great Scientist...whenever you get around to it). The heavier emphasis on quest completion (as opposed to the previous systems of outright bribery) goes a long way in making city-state alliance more dynamic.
Another improvement comes from the overhauled combat, the largest changes of which include the conversion to 100 hit point units (previously 10hp) and the filling out of the various unit roles through the ages. The first change is a pretty simple one, but it has a drastic effect on the pace of war. Rarely are units killed in one hit, now. This means you have time to shuffle your front line around as needed, bring up reserves while wounded units heal, making tactics even more important than they used to be. The second change, filling out the unit roles, includes creating modern-era ranged units (machine guns) and bifurcating navies between ranged and melee ships. While the machine guns are just icing on the cake (fun but not game-changing), the navy revamp adds a fairly significant level of depth to all water battles. Not only that, but coastal cities can now be captured purely with a naval armada, meaning to truly protect yourself, you can't forget about ships.
As much as I want to say that it's all aces, the AI still doesn't quite know how to wage deadly wars. In fact, I've noticed very little improvement in the combat smarts of the AI from the vanilla game. They will still mass units (though they seem to build more siege units now, at least) and run them around in a seemingly random pattern. It can get so nonsensical, that sometimes I'm not even sure which city they intent to attack, as they just aimlessly shift their blob of forces to and fro, never really making strong moves in a particular direction.
Diplomacy, on the other hand, is finally polished up. It's now much easier to understand how an AI leader thinks and why they are taking this or that action. Gone is the immersion-breaking "They hate that you are trying to win the game in the same manner as them" diplomatic penalty. Now, everything is spelled out in great detail, such as "You declared war on a civilization that you previously declared a friend," and "You forgave them when they were caught spying on you". Everything feels much more natural and predictable and it's become much easier to forge lasting alliances if you so choose.
Finally, the addition of nine new civilizations and three new scenarios is always welcome, even if the results are a mixed bag. I judge a civ's value by how different the game feels to play as them (in other words, how unique they are), and there's a pretty even spread ranging from "pretty unique" to "fairly ordinary". Some civilizations, such as the Byzantines and Celts, are tailor made to excel at religion, while even some of the old nations, such as England and the Ottomans, have received a bit of upgrade. None of the new civs stand out as being amazing (not like the Incans, which, for me, are still the most game-changing to play), but a few have...less than exciting abilities (I'm looking at you, Sweden and Maya). At the very least, however, nine new faces to talk to can never be bad thing as far as variety is concerned.
I'll be honest and say that I've never been a big scenario player. Most times, you are just thrown into a situation not of your making and it's hard, at least for me, to care about what's going on. Another personal taste of mine is to play longer games, either "epic" or "marathon" speeds. So I'm already pretty biased against these three scenarios, since they are lightning-fast. The "Fall of Rome" scenario has to be the worst, as it's just one big mess of battles, Romans vs. everyone else, that has little context and almost no civilization building. On top of that, the map is quite bland and featureless, so it doesn't even look all that nice while you repeatedly crash units into each other. "Into the Renaissance" is a little better, as you get to colonize the map of Europe and try to attain various victory points (for holding holy cities, discovering the New World, etc.) and be the leader in that total by the end of 200 turns. Good for a single playthrough, but not much more than that. Lastly, the "Empires of the Smokey Skies" is more of a steam punk total conversion than a scenario. You play a fictional empire of your choosing on a randomized map starting from the early industrial era, wherein you must discover sci-fi inspired technologies and build up fantasy armies of steam-powered tanks, airships and so on. The winner is the one who can simultaneously master three of the five disciplines (such as wonder building, latest technology, etc). Clearly, this scenario received the most development attention at Firaxis and it shows, as I could see playing it numerous times before growing bored.
The impression I come away with after playing Gods and Kings for way too many hours already is one of "completion". There is just so much more to manage and focus on per turn than there ever was with vanilla Civ V. It's almost like reverse phantom limb syndrome, like I had always felt these features were missing on a subconscious level and now that they are here, it's like they've always been with me, both new and warmly familiar all at the same time. If you love Civ (and if you are reading this, the assumption is that you do), buying this expansion is simply a must. The people that are waiting for a sale before buying, I pity, because they don't know it yet, but they are playing half a game.
This review is based on a digital copy of Sid Meier's Civilization V: Gods and Kings for the PC provided by 2K Games.