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Review: Civilization V 399

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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  • by molo ( 94384 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @11:50AM (#33688156) 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.


  • by mandark1967 ( 630856 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @11:55AM (#33688200) Homepage Journal

    I should be done in another 30yrs or so, barring accident, crime, LHC creating an earth-swallowing black hole, alien invasion (ET Type, not Mexican) or Pandemic.

    After that I think I'll need to rest a bit.

  • Another 8/10? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lunix Nutcase ( 1092239 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @11:58AM (#33688254)

    Soulskill's reviews score is mostly meaningless because probably 3/4ths of his reviews are 8/10. This was 8/10, Halo Reach was 8/10, Dragon Age: Origins was 8/10. Champions Online got an 8/10. I could go on. While he occasionally goes down to 7/10 or sometimes up to 9/10, probably 95% or more of his reviews are an above average score which makes his scale meaningless. It's like the review sites that give every game at least a 9/10 no matter how much criticism they give of it.

  • Re:ehh (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Spiked_Three ( 626260 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:12PM (#33688436)
    Agree. I've been playing civ since v1, and actually before if you count railroad tycoon that kind of started the type of game Civ is. Civ 2 is still the best.
    Civ V is ok, the UI improvements are welcomed but not consistently done. Opening and closing dialogs should be done the same everywhere - it isn't. Finding where information is located is a guessing game (until you manually find them all), being on a menu in one place, a button in another. Some title info's text brings up more info, some do not, like I said, just not consistent.
    And the game is horridly slow/long. 4-5 hours before you reach gunpowder (standard time, standard game). And only one option for increased speed, 3 options to go even slower .. wtf?
    To be honest, the xbox version has been the most enjoyable since civ 2. It is over simplified though. I'd like to have all the features, technologies of Civ V, with the speed and enjoyment of the xbox version.

    As far as the "I'll bet that most people who play it will fall into the "just one more turn" trap" comment; nope, I've played 4 games, won the last 2, and when it asked to keep playing, I said no thanks every time.
  • Not buying (Score:2, Insightful)

    by greenbird ( 859670 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:21PM (#33688546)

    As much as I'd love purchasing this game I refuse for one reason: DRM. I refuse to buy a product that someone else gets to decide whether I can use it or not.

  • by BassMan449 ( 1356143 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:28PM (#33688612)

    Using full quality images in this context should easily qualilfy as fair use. One of the most well established fair use examples is using parts of a copyrighted work for reviews of that work.

  • Re:Another 8/10? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kevinNCSU ( 1531307 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:35PM (#33688682)

    Perhaps since he isn't getting paid to write the review and likely has neither infinite time nor money like most customers he's probably capable of discerning what is crap before he spends his time and money on it and therefore doesn't? If he was a gaming magazine that was responsible for reviewing ALL games then your parroting the ancient concerns over the media's game reviews would be on target, but since he's only responsible for reviewing the games he wants to play AND review anyways, it's no surprise the games usually register in the upper end of his scale.

  • Re:Another 8/10? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Aladrin ( 926209 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:37PM (#33688718)

    That would be true if he reviewed every game that comes out.

    It appears he only reviews games that he thinks will be good, so the reviews will tend towards the higher end of the scale.

  • Re:Another 8/10? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by raddan ( 519638 ) * on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:38PM (#33688734)
    I look forward to your many in-depth reviews of games you don't like to play.

    The content of this website is provided for free by enthusiasts. A little self-selection in certain topics is inevitable.
  • DRM? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by wjousts ( 1529427 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:39PM (#33688736)
    No mention of the Steam DRM? Seems like an important piece of information for those of us that don't like to have to ask permission to play our games.
  • Re:Not buying (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wjousts ( 1529427 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:41PM (#33688750)
    Doesn't hinder you until you need to reinstall it and Steam doesn't exist anymore. People are still playing the first Civilization; luckily the down defunct Microprose didn't have DRM servers back then.
  • Re:Great Game (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Nursie ( 632944 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:44PM (#33688790)

    Words. They have meanings. Atheist - without religion. Agnostic - without knowledge. I am both, I suspect you are too.

  • Re:Not buying (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mr.Intel ( 165870 ) <(moc.oohay) (ta) (371letnirm)> on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:45PM (#33688802) Homepage Journal
    Sure, it doesn't hinder my playing. Outside of that, what if I want to resell it? I can't because it's tied to my Steam account. What if I go to reinstall it on my PC in 2020 and Steam doesn't exist? What if I can't access my Steam account because it was hacked, i lost my password, or for some other reason? $50 down the drain...
  • Re:Not buying (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 24, 2010 @12:54PM (#33688898)

    WTF are you talking about. It uses Steam. You can play online or offline and doesn't hinder you playing in anyway. Get off your high horse.

    Steam is DRM. If Valve were so inclined, they could revoke your license to play the game you bou... er... licensed.

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

    by timster ( 32400 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:06PM (#33689030)

    Most atheists in real life don't have some "belief" that there is no God. What most of us believe is that belief in God is detrimental. Agnostics seem to think it doesn't matter whether someone believes in God or not. This is untrue.

  • Re:DRM? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wjousts ( 1529427 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:07PM (#33689046)
    And when Steam does out-of-business and I can't reinstall?
  • by snarfies ( 115214 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:10PM (#33689096) Homepage

    I've owned every Civ game since the original. I've sunk hundreds of hours into each iteration of the game since to 1990s. I will not be buying Civ5, because I can't "buy" it, I can only "rent" it via Steam. I do not purchase any software that requires online activation of any form. If I need somebody's permission to play, forget it. Sure, I know there are probably cracks already, but that isn't the point. When (not IF, WHEN) Steam ceases to exist someday, anyone who owns this will own a useless plastic disc.

  • Re:Not buying (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mc moss ( 1163007 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:12PM (#33689118)

    No need to be dismissive. Whether you like it or not, Steam is DRM. I also refuse to buy any game that requires Steam.

  • Re:DRM? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by radish ( 98371 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:36PM (#33689424) Homepage

    Then you won't be able to play it (without cracking it). However, then you'll just be in the same state you'd be in anyway if you didn't buy it. If however you do buy it, you'll have many years of Civ 5 fun between now and then.

    There is such a thing as cutting off your nose to spite your face.

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

    by jjohnson ( 62583 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:36PM (#33689426) Homepage

    These seem like really silly arguments insofar as the risk of their potential is small, and you'll almost certainly be done with the game long before any of them happen.

    Look at it in terms of dollars spent per hours of entertainment. A movie in the theater costs around $6/hour; renting it is $2/hour. A nice meal in a restaurant is around $20/hour. Going skiing for the day? Easily over $20/hour, depending.

    So if you buy Civ V, play it for fifty hours, and then lose it in a Steam implosion, you've payed about $1/hour for entertainment. Since you can be pretty confident that Steam's going nowhere in the next year, it's a pretty safe investment in some entertainment, even if you can't play it again in 2020.

  • by Orga ( 1720130 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:39PM (#33689472)
    I have a feeling we're going to see new leaders sold as well, with new traits. I remember in CIV IV everything was customizable, a lot of that appears lacking in V, I assume to boost sales through add-ons
  • Re:Great Game (Score:3, Insightful)

    by FauxPasIII ( 75900 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:39PM (#33689474)

    -nod- I'm on the strident atheist side of the spectrum, but I loved this aspect of Civ 4. In fact, my favorite tactic was to rush and found _all_ the religions if I could manage to keep my research pumped high enough. I did so because I recognized that religion in Civ 4 works just like religion in real life; it's a great way for leaders to extract money from the population while keeping them happy and obedient. =)

  • by Pulzar ( 81031 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @01:49PM (#33689644)

    This post is a carbon copy post of dozens of similar ones, I'm not sure what's so insightful about this point of view any more.

    Sure, I know there are probably cracks already, but that isn't the point. When (not IF, WHEN) Steam ceases to exist someday, anyone who owns this will own a useless plastic disc.

    What's the point, then? Until Steam ceases to exist, I, and others who own it, will be play a fun game. When Steam ceases to exist, I'll use the crack. I'm not really sure what else do you want.

  • Re:DRM? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Rockoon ( 1252108 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @02:14PM (#33690034)

    And there is such a thing as encouraging bad practice by publishers. I've played every Civ game up to now, but I can get on with my life without Civ V.

    Why doesnt the Civ4 rootkit concern you, but the Civ5 DRM does?

    ..oh, I get it.. you think CD checks with kernel mode rootkits are cool. You *like* finding the CD, hoping that your drive will still read it, and hoping that a newer OS doesnt change the driver model so that the older kernel root kits like the one found in Civ4 wont work any more.... you LIKE that, right?

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

    by qeveren ( 318805 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @02:26PM (#33690228)

    Atheism is a belief system in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

  • by MorpheousMarty ( 1094907 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:16PM (#33690844)

    When Steam ceases to exist, I'll use the crack. I'm not really sure what else do you want.

    I love Steam, but if you ask me what I want, it would be this. I want to buy a game and be able to use it forever without the need to go to some shady crack site. If it is a single player game I'd like to be able to run without Internet access. I want DRM to be a problem for pirates, not for legitimate copies.

  • by penguinchris ( 1020961 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [sirhcniugnep]> on Friday September 24, 2010 @03:41PM (#33691108) Homepage

    My system is apparently capable of playing the DX11 mode (which has nicer graphics and animated leaders), because that's what I played at first. Then I started getting weird artifacts and so forth, to the point where the artifacts blocked the whole screen (except the 2D UI) and then it froze when I went to save the game so I could restart (the save luckily did go through). I think it's just buggy. I assume that's what other people are having problems with too. I suppose if you really have a top-notch system (mine isn't) you'll have less of a problem, but I bet the glitches will still show up eventually.

    The DX9 version might seem better even without the bugs because the animation and graphics are simplified and sped up. In this type of game you don't *really* need amazing graphics after admiring them for a little while.

  • Re:tl;1mt (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Patch86 ( 1465427 ) on Friday September 24, 2010 @04:21PM (#33691540)

    That thread has depressed me. Half of the replies are "lul, right on" or "england sux", and the other half set about correcting all the damned punchlines.

    OP was excellent though.

C makes it easy for you to shoot yourself in the foot. C++ makes that harder, but when you do, it blows away your whole leg. -- Bjarne Stroustrup