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Review: Civilization V 399

Posted by Soulskill
from the do-not-taunt-the-giant-death-robot dept.
Turn-based strategy is an underrepresented genre of video games. Perhaps it's because they aren't as flashy, or aren't as embedded in the public consciousness as the more popular types of games. Or maybe because it's so damn hard to build them right. The first Civilization game came out 19 years ago. (Feel old? Sorry.) Despite changes in design leadership over the years, Sid Meier and the Firaxis crew realized that they had a solid foundation, and poured their efforts into refining everything that worked, and revamping everything that didn't. Civilization V reflects not just a few years of direct development after the launch of Civ 4, but also nearly two decades of continually evolving game design. Read on for the rest of my thoughts.
  • Title: Civilization V
  • Developer: Firaxis Games
  • Publisher: 2K Games
  • System: Windows
  • Reviewer: Soulskill
  • Score: 8/10

If you're new to the Civ series (or even if you just haven't played one in a while), be prepared for a serious information dump. Civ 5 tries to start you out small and easy, but such things are relative for games this complex. Even setting up a game can seem daunting, though default options and settings go a long way toward making sure your first game is a good one. There's also a tutorial that will walk you through basic situations, AI advisers that explain things and suggest goals, and even a search-able "Civilopedia" with detailed descriptions of abilities, characteristics, and historical significance.

But even with those resources, Civ 5 demands that you spend some time learning about the game before you can really enjoy it. You can get by on the AI recommendations for what you should build, but after a while it feels like you're just facilitating a game of bots vs bots. Once you get past the learning curve, a wealth of options open up before you. Understanding the "how" takes a little time, but lets you start working on "how best," which is a much broader and more difficult question, and the one from which arises the game's extreme depth. Explaining the decision-making process is almost as difficult as the process itself. What Firaxis did really well was make certain that your long-term goals are affected in some way by all of your short-term choices — your task is to solve the equivalent of the Fermi equation for getting the most out of your resources while not neglecting relations with the other empires.

At its heart, Civ 5 is about Cities. Everything else — units, buildings, diplomacy, war, resource gathering and expenditure — arises from that one constant. Once you establish a city, it will produce a variety of resources to be allocated as you direct. It will accumulate citizens, who harvest the land around them for gold, food, production capacity, strategic materials (like horses, so the Cavalry have something to ride), and luxuries (like spices, which tend to make people happier about the prospect of eating rotten onions and old shoes). Cities and citizens also produce culture and science, both of which Firaxis has quantified and made into currencies. As if that weren't enough, cities also slowly generate "Great" people, who have powerful one-time-use abilities, and citizens have a happiness rating, which strongly affects growth.

If that sounds like a lot of different resources, that's because it is — certainly, it gives you more to think about than a traditional gold-and-lumber resource system. But the real complexity comes from the way in which all the resources interact with each other. For example, say you want to get more scientific research out of your city. You can do so by spending a certain number of turns building a Library, which directly increases your research capabilities. However, another option is to build a Workshop, which will make it take less time to build a Library later, as well as other research-enhancing buildings like a Public School or a University, not to mention the dozens of buildings not relating to research. Another option is to strengthen your city's gold production, then use the gold to buy the Library outright. Similar indirect paths exist through virtually every other resource, and there's always the option of hitting your neighbor over the head and making off with his textbooks.

Your nation-building strategy arises out of the interaction between all of these smaller, simpler systems. On that scale, it works, and it's fun. Taken individually, some systems work better than others. Your cities produce Culture, which has two purposes: it makes your territory grow, and it allows you to adopt Social Policies. You can think of the Social Polices like a talent tree for your nation. After accumulating particular amounts of culture points, you spend it to slightly alter how your empire operates. While there are a lot of options to pick from, you actually make choices infrequently, and the policies themselves aren't particularly interesting. They certainly don't have enough of an effect to be discernible by an opponent. Similarly, your scientific research goes into a tech tree, and while there's a certain amount of room to pursue particular technologies before others, the penalty for doing so becomes excessive very quickly. On their own, these systems are not terribly interesting, but being part of a larger system does a lot to minimize their flaws.

Of course, all of these choices depend on having the right information, which in turn requires a UI capable of communicating everything you need to know without getting cluttered. Firaxis did a great job at this. Virtually everything you need is either a mouse-hover or a mouse-click away. Hovering over your resources explains their source and their purpose. Over land, it will show the resources the land offers. By clicking on a city you can see its buildings, choose what it produces, see what it produces and modify how it does so. Manipulating units is dead simple, with mouse-hovers detailing how long it takes them to do something, combat odds relative to an enemy unit, advantages and disadvantages from ranks and terrain, and more. You can zoom in and out on the primary map, and even pull back to a two-dimensional strategic view. A giant glowing button by the minimap is your go-to for making sure units have orders and cities are building something. Every turn, important events pop up as icons on the right side of your screen, and clicking on the icons takes you to wherever you need to look.

Unfortunately, the strength of the UI doesn't carry over to the other aspects of the game that aren't directly related to the gameplay. The menuing system is a bit clunky. Civ 5 is more demanding on hardware than you might expect for a strategy game. Tabbing out is more of a pain than it should be in 2010. And Firaxis, while your introductory cinematic is very pretty, I don't want to see it every time I start the game. Furthermore, I don't want it to take 30 seconds to stop playing after I hit Escape. There are also a few strange setting restrictions. Perhaps there's a good reason not to be able to change video settings in the middle of a game, but I can't think of any. Some of the gameplay settings need to be alterable as well — at least the cosmetic ones. Also, while their implementation of an autosave feature was excellent, manual saving during multiplayer games isn't ideal.

One of most heralded changes from previous Civ games is the switch from square tiles to hexagonal tiles. Having tried it out, I think it's definitely a fun and welcome choice, though its virtues may have been overstated. It gives units a more natural movement, and removes the awkwardness of corners. It also complements another notable change: the inability to stack multiple military units on a single tile. You can no longer pile up enormous armies in the same spot and, when the time is right, flood an enemy nation without a care for placement or attack order. It's definitely a coup for reintroducing tactics to wars between nations. Besieging an enemy city with equivalent forces becomes a delicate puzzle, where each unit needs to be positioned in the right spot to fight the proper opponent or be in range to lob projectiles at them. It also creates situations where troops or terrain can create bottlenecks, which can make a stronger army hesitant to advance on a weaker but well-placed army. Sun-tzu would be pleased. On top of that, cities actually have teeth this time around — they can shoot attackers from a couple tiles away, which adds another element to planning battles.

The other major change is the introduction of City-states. These are essentially miniature empires that never expand. You can have limited diplomatic interactions with them, gaining favor by providing luxury resources or killing somebody for them, or simply by bribing them with gold. Or you can invade their tiny territories and conquer them. I was on the fence about these to start — they take a fair investment of time and resources to befriend or conquer, and they're often in spots to which you would like to expand. But they add another level of complexity to diplomacy, and when you can run an errand for them, they'll supply you with troops and resources, and even interact on other levels, like helping you attack or defend. I think the default settings put too many city-states in the game, but once that number is lowered a bit by modifying settings, they're a lot more fun.

Civ 5's AI is good at some things, and it struggles at others. It does a decent job during battles, maneuvering troops and deciding when to attack in ways that are reasonably close to what a player would do. Diplomacy is hit-and-miss. You'll often have multiple opposing AIs perform the exact same action at the same time. Sometimes it's offers for cooperation or trade agreements. Sometimes it's threats and war. Occasionally it seems like the AI massively overestimates your military capacity, and tries to buy peace from you for much, much more than you would accept. Conversely, proposing a trade is often futile, as they tend to make much higher demands than are reasonable. In a game with several strong opponents, these events can balance out, but other times it will make the game impossible to win or impossible to lose. Oh, and Montezuma's still a jerk.

One of the nice characteristics of the Civilization franchise is that it's easy to see major improvements from one game to the next. Combat tactics, the UI, and diplomatic relations all got a much-needed overhaul, and dozens of little things make for much more streamlined gameplay, allowing you to focus on decision-making without getting bogged down in minutiae. That, combined with their tried-and-true blend of staggered, long-term goals interwoven with short-term objectives makes Civ 5 a great time-waster. I'll bet that most people who play it will fall into the "just one more turn" trap as though the game were hammering away at their dopamine receptors directly.

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Review: Civilization V

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