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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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  • slightly related.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Shakrai (717556) * on Friday September 24, 2010 @11:51AM (#33688168) Journal
    ... I'd love to see somebody get the license from Paramount to release an updated version of Birth of the Federation [wikipedia.org]. It was basically Civ2 for the Star Trek TNG universe. I absolutely loved that game.
  • Great Game (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sonicmerlin (1505111) on Friday September 24, 2010 @11:51AM (#33688170)
    It's a shame they removed the religion aspect of Civ 4. While it was at times clunky and had a confusing implementation (forcing a great deal of irritating micromanagement), the effect religion has had on societies historically has perhaps been greater than any other factor. Even today religious extremism plays a huge role in politics and world affairs. I was hoping they'd refine the mechanism to make it more sensible and enjoyable, but it seems they were scared of being politically incorrect and avoided controversy by removing it altogether.
  • Re:Great Game (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Friday September 24, 2010 @11:59AM (#33688260)

    It's a shame they removed the religion aspect of Civ 4.

    But is realism entirely desirable? Religious extremism, and governmetns' responses to it, is an actual threat to many of us. When I play Civ (III), it's to have a little semi-real escaism from the worries of my day. I don't want to spend hours worrying about the same stuff I worry about in real life.

  • Re:Great Game (Score:3, Interesting)

    by canajin56 (660655) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:00PM (#33688280)
    All religious in civ 4 are 100% identical, and have no impact on politics except for, on rare occations, an AI leader demanding you convert or go to war. Not that it matters if you convert, as it has zero impact on anything other than perhaps cities with the same religion in them as you, get a microscopic happiness boost. And since a city can hold many religions even that doesn't actually matter for shit. (Especially since the best civics don't give this bonus anyway). It was a neat idea but they couldn't pull it off, and it deserved to go bye-bye.
  • by Shivetya (243324) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:01PM (#33688294) Homepage Journal

    its bad, real bad. Turns take too long to process, which is really bad when many people don't have anything to do but click next turn but one or two do have something. It can take minutes after everyone has clicked. Don't crash while in MP, sometimes its easy to get back in other times... Multi player also has animations hard coded to be off.

    As for the intro movie, pressing ENTER skips it, once it bothers to read the keyboard. Otherwise edit the user config file found under documents section of Windows. There are some other settings in the ini files that cannot be adjusted anywhere else, as in, not even the game UI provides access.

    I have it up and running on my iMac through boot camp, while I can start off max resolution and features it does chug as you fill in the map. Apparently they animate what is off screen too!

    Outside of the multi player my real hangup is the mini map, looks like MS Paint was used. Many of us thought it was obvious place holder, but alas it is still here! Minor nits include not being able to adjust any video settings while playing the game. It takes like four clicks to start a game, as in just to get to the CIV game itself. Seems Steam wants to step in the way every chance it can, even offline. Some nation specials are pretty whack, if played right you can just roll over anything. City States while nice are a great source of workers early on, usually safe to steal one per, the squash which ever City State has an annoying personality. Best hint, leave space for barbarians near them so you get free rep for occasionally bopping the barbarians.

    You do not need Steam to play the game nor do you need the DVD. You do need Steam to install it. I don't even let it start anymore, I do not need "buy this game spam" every time I exit to the desktop. I do not need the cheesy achievements and my play uploaded. Which btw, if you load a mod your ineligible for achievements, so don't even go for that clock mod.

    Most common issues, can't install the game past Steam, can't run in DX9 more or maybe not in DX11 mode (its much better in DX9), various animation or graphics artifacts, CTDs, and other typical from new releases. The manual is electronic only.

  • Re:Multi-player ? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Pojut (1027544) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:01PM (#33688298) Homepage

    It can, but you'll be best served playing with people you know. Civilization IV LANs provided some of my most memorable gaming moments (not the most memorable, but a few that rank fairly high)

    If you know anyone else that plays it, you should definitely get into it with them. Multiplayer Civ + friends = unforgettable weekend.

  • Re:Great Game (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:06PM (#33688366)

    How isn't it escapism? In Civ 4 I could do something about the religious extremist civilizations.

  • by eudas (192703) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:07PM (#33688372)

    I didn't play CIV2 but my $0.02 was that BOTF = MOO2 reskinned, which isn't surprising since both were made by Microprose.

  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:07PM (#33688376) Journal

    Taking a screenshot, scaling it down, saving it as a JPEG and then converting the result to PNG results in terrible image quality. Please don't think this reflects the actual visuals of the game.

    -molo

    Aside from bandwidth, a low resolution image from a game used in a review can protect you if the company that made the game doesn't like your review and tries to hit you with a DMCA violation for using their copyrighted images. Whenever you submit non-free content to Wikimedia Commons, there are many guidelines designed to keep you and wikimedia inside fair use and safe harbor [wikipedia.org] suggested boundaries.

    For example, when I uploaded a fair use clip of Life on Mars by David Bowie [wikipedia.org], I had to set the sound quality at the absolute lowest possible value and add this rationale to the very long list of requirements to turn a snippet of a copyrighted song into non-free fair use:

    It is of a lower quality than the original recording.

    I believe that a low res distorted image may protect you from being a target by a game publisher if you wish to reserve your right to pan a game, give it a score zero and still present screen shots to add in your criticism. While it's a good idea to mention these are not game quality resolution screen shots, there may be another purpose to their degradation. The 'this is kinda what it looks like' is exactly what protects you from someone claiming ownership of that imagery accusing you of unlicensed distribution of that imagery.

    Just a thought from the world of jacked up copyright insanity. I submitted a story a short while ago that demonstrated how out of hand [slashdot.org] this exact topic can get.

  • Re:Great Game (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mongoose Disciple (722373) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:09PM (#33688404)

    In the specific case of Civ IV's implementation of it, yeah, I think it was desirable. It added another dimension of interesting choices to the game.

    Do I adopt the religion of my aggressive neighbor to try to placate them, or do I pick the religion that's spread more in my empire for its mechanical benefits, hoping I can placate or survive that aggressive neighbor another way?

    Do I prioritize researching a tech that will found a religion for its benefits, or do I want to prioritize making axes and taking my neighbor's religious city violently, or do I want to prioritize economic growth now and hope to grab another religion later?

    Should I spread the religion I founded to my larger neighbor for the gold it will feed me and in hopes they'll be Hindu buddies with me, or do I limit its spread to keep my upper hand in Apostlic Palace votes?

    etc. Basically, it feels like an interesting piece fell out of the game for no good reason. Maybe Civ V expansions will add it back in.

  • Re:Great Game (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mongoose Disciple (722373) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:12PM (#33688442)

    The objection of atheists puzzle me -- even if you hate religion, it's hard to deny the immense influence it's had on the development of civilization to this point, which is exactly the point.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:19PM (#33688512)

    I was under the impression that the conversion from JPEG to PNG would maintain the same image quality as the original JPEG. PNG is lossless, isn't it?

    The PNG probably has a larger filesize though.

  • Re:Not buying (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mr.Intel (165870) <mrintel173NO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:32PM (#33688648) Homepage Journal
    So work around it. Buy it, but install the cracked version and play to your hearts content. It's a bit of a catch-22, though. Still supporting the company that DRM's things using a third party, but getting to play an awesome game... Good luck figuring that out.
  • by molo (94384) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:36PM (#33688694) Journal

    That is silly in this case. A screenshot of a game is not the game itself, and so is already a minimization of the copyrighted work in question. Any game publisher going after reviewers of the game will quickly find themselves in a lot of hot water. Wouldn't fly, would probably get laughed out of court.

    And agreed, the FBI logo case is ridiculous.

    -molo

  • New combat (Score:4, Interesting)

    by imgod2u (812837) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:36PM (#33688698) Homepage

    While I love the new combat system, the AI is simply incapable of playing it well. It would seem that even in this day and age, the idea of forming a front-line to protect your ranged units is something a computer can't grasp. I don't think we'll need to worry about Skynet anytime soon.

  • by Culture20 (968837) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:36PM (#33688702)

    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.

    I was so set to love freeciv when I heard about it, then I found out the hard way that it wasn't turn based. People attacked me on _my_ turns. WTF? Apparently the concept of turn-based games was too hard for freeciv devs.

  • Re:ehh (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Nursie (632944) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:40PM (#33688740)

    On;y 4-5 hours?

    How long does a full game take? I remember getting hooked into Civ2 for ridiculous amounts of time. I can't rmemeber how much precisely, but the figure of 18 hours springs to mind.

  • Re:Another 8/10? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rsborg (111459) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:57PM (#33688922) Homepage

    That still doesn't mean it's the perfect game and there can never be a better game.

    I seriously hope to god you're not grading papers at an educational institution. If grades were based on all past and all future possibilities, no one would ever get an A, let alone an A+.

    Fact is, your understanding of the meaning of a grading scale is impossible to implement and not very useful to boot. Grades are subjective... when you're comparing to an infinite space (ie, all future games), you're attenuating your scale and making the edge number meaningless. Like the opposite of "turning it up to 11", you never even dial it to 10, why have it?

  • by Reapman (740286) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:00PM (#33688970)

    Amazing, yet flawed, game. Me and a bud played it for hours and hours and hours, and on newer OS's tweaked it to try and make it playable. Haven't played it in years but I have many fond memories.

    Cloaking was way too overpowered tho, yet at the same time was the only decent way to fight off the borg. Still, was cool when you were playing and suddenly a race would just... disappear. Then.. another.. then.. what's that cube shaped thing over my planet?

    BOTF2 would be a first day must buy IMO. Sadly I'm pretty sure it'll never happen :(

  • by timster (32400) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:10PM (#33689080)

    You know, after Starcraft II I actually forgot that most games didn't release on the Mac until months later. I've noticed that the third suggestion on Google for "civ 5" is "civ 5 mac", beating out even "civ 5 torrent". Just sayin'.

  • by thewebsiteisdown (1397957) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:22PM (#33689242)
    WTF??? ... thats ... all ....crap. All that stuff you just said. That shit makes ZERO sense. Rituals from Social Studies? Religion from English class? I dont know if you realize this (apparently not), but you were most likely raised in a cult and schooled by its members, cause I dont think the vast majority of us recieved that brand of education. Now quit yer bitchin and go prepare for the purification, the time is at hand.
  • Re:Steam = No Buy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zero_out (1705074) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:25PM (#33689276)
    I'm in the same boat. Sure, I can purchase the game, connect to the internet, and register it, then never connect again. However, I still have to deal with the bloat that Steam adds (which may be small, but is still bloat). Also, there is the issue of reinstalls and resales. I still play the original 1993 Colonization for a few weeks each year. Steam adds another level of complexity to the whole issue. I also refuse to "license" a game unless it's an MMO. This is a single-player game with a multi-player component. Therefore, I refuse to purchase this game (or license it, however you choose to label it).
  • Re:ehh (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:43PM (#33689546)

    Something changed with Civ IV that drastically increased technology progression. It was a fairly jarring experience when, after I had just upgraded all my city defenders to pikemen, it was already time to hand out the muskets. With Civ II and III, you could spend a few day's worth of play time in each major period of the game.

    In fact I remember a patch being released for Civ IV that enabled an "extra long" game mode, which slowed technology development, and it was still far too fast compared to the previous games. I guess these faster games are more conducive to multiplay, but they killed off the epic month-long empire building slog of the previous games.

  • Re:Great Game (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Himring (646324) on Friday September 24, 2010 @02:56PM (#33690584) Homepage Journal
    "Maybe Civ V expansions will add it back in."

    I highly doubt it. This is a core piece of the game decidedly left out. Expansions can do a lot, but change the actual mechanics of the game? No.

    Religion in civ4 was well done. You could opt to play a game going heavy culture, and this meant going for all possible religions. You then end up building temples/shrines/mosques for each you either founded or learned, and in the end, your city gained more culture. The more culture, the more culture kampf (taking enemies territories via the crawling culture boundary around your cities).

    And this made perfect sense. If you look at many of the great cities in history, they did just this. They either welcomed pluralism and/or had it forced on them, but it still makes for heavy cultural-centers. More culture means more chance to develope specialists and great people. More culture means more area of affect and more land and more resources.

    Rome was founded as a free city. Free meant free to outcasts and refugees, sanctuaries for fugitives and, yes, open to the founding of new religions (can anyone even begin to doubt the affect christianity had on Rome?).

    I joke with my jewish buddy all the time, that the problem with modern israel is they went too heavy religion starting out ... they fucked-up their tech tree. We get a big laugh as we discuss how they went for culture, and now have all these great religious buildings breeding both influence and war.

    Not anymore? Welcome to civ5 wherein, the fragile buttercups who don't even play the game are now no longer offended by nasty ol' religion.

    Civ6: say bye to war!...
  • Re:Great Game (Score:3, Interesting)

    by IICV (652597) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:41PM (#33691112)

    I seem to remember reading that they used to be ships (and hence why they move diagonally - they're tacking against the wind, see?) but then the Church demanded a place in the game.

  • Re:ehh (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:43PM (#33691818)

    Civ 2 is still the best.

    What about FreeCiv?

    It's unoriginal, unpolished, and unfinished. Next question?

  • by tmosley (996283) on Friday September 24, 2010 @05:11PM (#33692212)
    There was never a need for naval transport units. Even from ancient times, troops moved using boats they made themselves, even constructing a bridge across the sea when they had to.

    What I WOULD like to see is army units that can do certain types of terrain modification. It would be nice to be able to, say, burn down a forest that has enemy units in it, or build roads or fortresses (Roman Legions could do this in Civ 3), or even build cities when fortified in one area for a long enough time period. One thing that always bothered me about sending out units to he far corners of the globe in the ancient era was that they could sit in a given square for THOUSANDS of years, and never build a city. What are these guys, immortals? They have to get married and have kids at some point, and there is no way for them to do that when they are isolated from your territory by a hostile enemy. There are plenty of instances where cities formed around military encampments. That's how half the West was settled.

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