We’ve spent a fair amount of time this year bringing you the latest involving 2K Games’ Sid Meier’s Civilization V, but the time for hope, speculation and dreams of dominance has reached reality phase, and we’ve been slogging it out in this latest iteration of the famed series for quite a while to offer up an in-depth, honest look at what is arguably the year’s most complex and engaging PC strategy game.
So let’s look initially at the game’s changed mechanics, and how these go towards altering your overall experience.
There are actually a few major changes that will fundamentally alter your game based on how you would normally play a game of Civilization. If, for example, you're a military type of player; someone who grows the might of their chosen civilisation with plans for world domination in the bullying department, you might find the new hexagonal tile movement system very alien. There’s no more stacking of units either, so you can’t just park a tile stacked with 10 different units at another civilisation’s gate and bombard them till they fall anymore, and now with city defences attacking cities in general is just that much harder.
This also means movement across the map is equally different, and it’s a lot easier to trespass now, too.
On the other hand, if you’re more of a cultural player - the type of person who attempts to maintain peace throughout your campaign and emerge victorious through enlightenment, the game’s new Policies system might also seem a bit odd at first. Gone are representations of specific religions, now it’s all a ubiquitous unnamed religion (not sure what the thinking here was, but I, for one, like it), and policy trees are grown through the a cultural currency system (you basically ‘earn’ culture in the same way you earn gold in Civ V. You can adopt new policies when you have enough culture to spend, and each new policy gives your civilisation perks, with small trees offered within each policy. It can be pretty daunting the first time you play, especially because of how new it all is, but ultimately it makes for a far more engaging play experience with a more streamlined, yet deeper micro-management system.
Exploration has also changed in that you can now set your units to “Embark”. This means they basically become boats (so you don’t need to build a Settler first and have them wait for you to build a Trireme to move them over water). This is dependent on your technology level, but it can make settling other continents and setting up deeper trade routes with other civilisations much easier. There are more dangers lurking in Civ V though, with the Barbarians now essentially their own nomadic civilisation spread throughout the land; they have various encampments basically located on almost every chunk of land, and several units running around scaring the pants off you, other civilisations and City States (more on these guys in a second). Conquering barbarians nets you small rewards in gold and the like, but ultimately they’re only in the game to get combat off the ground from the outset.
While you can tackle a large number of other civilisations in your game, there are also new NPC-esque City States. These are basically smaller, autonomous civilisations you can have limited interaction with in terms of gaining their favour or wiping them out. They’re place within the game is to offer more strategic options in both cultural or military victories as lending aid, and handing over gifts to a City State can see them coming to your aid in a fight against another civilisation, or in voting for you at the United Nations for a peaceful victory. They also offer different Resources to exploit, though not being favoured can see them calling for their neighbours to come and help them rid you out of their borders, which can, of course, lead to full-scale war.
While the depth of the City States is difficult to gauge in even the 30-odd hours I’ve put into Civ V, they will take some time to get used to. I felt that my first few play throughs saw them as more of a distraction than anything else - a deeper level of interaction with them wouldn’t have gone astray, or at least an option to mould them in different ways within or around your own civilisation would have been nice, so I’m hoping we see them evolve somewhat during the game’s post-release life, or maybe in expansions down the track.
Another major area that has changed is in customisation, as in, there’s very little. In the past you could actually name each of your cities and forge your own customised civilisation with an amalgam of perks, abilities and bonuses from various other civilisations. Now, however, you’re locked into choosing a pre-existing civ but it’s not at all a bad thing. Each one comes with a specific set of bonuses based around their real-world cultural impact so, Japan for example, can make Samurai units who will attack as if they’re at full health regardless of their HP. While Siam can generate powerful Elephant units to trample cities. There are varying degrees of bonuses based on your civilisation of choice making for a heady amount of replayability within the game’s complex make-up.
Management and growth of your civilisation is, again, based around exploration, settling cities and generating income and culture through the cultivation of the map’s resources. You can generate different types of maps, including an Earth-like one along with maps with continents, peninsulas; large and small. The Random button is also available if you just want to test your growth mettle against what the game can generate, but in these areas, everything is still very much the same as it’s always been.
Your cities will grow based on how you manage the land around you, as well as trade and what city improvements you build. Every time your city grows, your resources are consumed that little bit more, however, this can be balanced by keeping your citizens happy with whatever it is they’re demanding. So if you have a city that is devouring your food resources and on the verge of starving, but they require Pearl resources, you need to contact a City State or rival civilisation that has Pearls as their resource and work out a trade agreement with them. Once you’ve done that, your citizens will be happy and will work harder; generating more food so no one starves. And that’s just one example of the sort of city management you’ll be engaged in.
Running off a new engine, Civilizatrion V looks pretty damn neat. It’s a bit of a system cruncher though once its going through copious civilisation turns and calculations. So the bigger your game gets, the more you’re going to see your machine suffer. My rig is quad core monster, running a GeForce 8800 and at turn 274 (current game), with 12 civilisations it’s beginning to take longer and longer for each turn to generate results. It’s not a game-breaker, and almost a testament to how much they’ve managed to get out of the new tech, just expect a fair bit of slow-down, pop-up and the like if you’re on a similar system or lower.
Also, in single-player, it must be said that despite the game having four different ways in which to emerge victorious (Science, Cultural, Military or Score), the game’s AI, even on some of the lowest difficulty settings are very, very aggressive. Once your borders start to clash and your growing alongside supposed ‘allies’, it doesn’t take much for them to turn on you and declare war. Moreover, some of them are so aggressive they won’t settle for any peace negotiations, which means you need to divert your attention to defending your civilisation which can be annoying if you’ve been carefully managing your civ to win the game in a peaceful manner.
Again, this isn’t a game-breaker as it does add another level of required strategy, but being turned down time and again on the peace negotiation front can get frustrating later in the game when you have so much to manage.
Through it all though, I haven’t had a single bad experience yet. The levels of management are very deep, but not so daunting thanks to the more streamlined nature of things. Your advisers are far more helpful and navigating your way around the various options the game has like spending money buying tiles to expand your borders, gifting units to City States or undermining other civilisations in secret pacts with partners and allies is actually pretty intuitive. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself locked into the game for lengthy play sessions (my longest session was an eight-hour marathon), it’s really that addictive.
There’s very little to fault here, and the main changes to the game are definitely for the better. Veterans of the series will re-discover the game’s magic while re-learning how to play and newcomers will find the deep gameplay tools and mechanics surprisingly inviting and easy to engage meaning Civilization V is actually a game of inclusion, not exclusion - easily the best Civilization yet.