Civilization is one of those games that is responsible for large periods of your life going missing, being replaced only by vivid memories of epic battles as you managed to displace some other expansionist state on your way to world domination. There’s a significant chunk of my high school days that I simply do not remember because of this game.
As such, the announcement of each new iteration of Civilization is met with two different, but connected, feelings – an almost extreme, uncontrollable joy of what will surely be another excellent gaming experience, and an unholy dread at the potential amount of your future that will no doubt be consumed by it.
Firaxis were on hand at GDC 2010 in San Francisco to provide a first look at the game, and AusGamers were more than happy to be there. While we only got a brief look at the game (no actual hands-on, unfortunately), it was enough to form some initial opinions about how it looks and plays. Firaxis marketroid Pete Murray took us through a fifteen minute presentation showcasing the game and touching on its core features.
The biggest and most obvious change is the new hex-based tile system. Pete explained that one of the main reasons for doing this was to take advantage of the improved gameplay mechanics that hexes offer - more dimensions for movement, for example. It also removes some of the ambiguity of the game board – the previous system might have shown what looked like an unpassable path through mountains, but in reality it was just a trick of the graphics and it was, actually, passable – something you might find out to your detriment when someone attacked through there. The hex tile system apparently greatly improves the relationship between the visual look of the tiles and the actual properties of those tiles.
Some other changes have come along with the hex system – you can only have one unit per tile, meaning the “stacks of units” issue is completely gone. It is hoped that this will encourage a more tactical approach to combat, with players focusing on better deployment and positioning.
Civ5 also offers all-new ranged combat. We saw archers in action, firing over a tile to their target (again, adding to the tactical nature of the combat). They are very weak when it comes to typical combat to balance out their usefulness, but it’s clear that this will add an interesting new dimension to the gameplay.
City defence has also changed – cities will now defend themselves without units needing to be garrisoned in them. This was demonstrated and it looked similar to an archer attack – you see arrows fly out in a nice parabolic arc to fall down and slaughter the opposing force. Cities now have hit points, which presumably can be augmented as your technology progresses, so you can easily see how your defence is tracking.
One thing Civilization has always been renowned for is the ability to mod it. This, fortunately, is a key tenet at Firaxis, which was expounded on by Sid Meier himself at the GDC keynote – modding is good for your game. While this is obvious to gamers, modding has somewhat fallen out of favour in recent times as the commercial benefits of DLC are realised – so it was great to hear that Civ5 will have excellent support for modding as well, including a central managed repository for all mods.
Visually the game is looking pretty impressive. Firaxis are striving to ensure playability even on modest PC hardware configurations, but it’s also a goal to make it scale nicely so people with high spec machines are going to get a nice graphical experience. The graphics might not stand out as unbelievably stellar, but this has never been a major driving force behind the Civ series. The tile sets look really nice; we heard that there are tilesets for Europe, Africa and American terrain planned, which provides some hints as to what you can expect to see.
That pretty much wrapped up the demo that we saw. While it was pretty high level, it provided glimpses into the plunging depths of gameplay that is the trademark of Civilization. The new changes look like they offer a fresh, new take on some of the key gameplay mechanics so there will be enough there to entice most people to upgrade, while at the same time keeping a lot of the same basic core that makes Civ such an awesome game to play - a fact which Pete Murray hammered in at the end of the presentation with a Firaxis saying: "It's never a Civilization game if Ghandi doesn't threaten you with nukes."