Whenever a game with as much hype and legacy as Civilization V comes along, it generates a tremendous amount of discussion and debate. Even before the game's release, as snippets and details are discovered, would-be fans are either extolling the virtues of the Greatest Game Ever or decrying the Greatest Travesty of the Gaming World. Some will exclaim that Civilization V is not a Civilization title at all, while others will say it's merely a gussied-up, carbon-copy version of a previous installment. The truth, of course, is always somewhere in between. For me, Civilization V is a very good game, with many elements distilled from previous titles, mixed with a healthy dose of fresh ideas. It's not simply a re-make of an earlier version, and that's not at all what I wanted. It does make some rather major changes to the Civilization brand, and for the most part I found those changes to be solid ones. Through it all, however, Civilization V keeps the same "Civ" feel that draws me in and sucks away countless hours of time.
So what's new this time around? First up are the civilizations themselves. Each civilization boasts two unique units and/or buildings, along with a special ability that sets them apart from the rest of the world. CivV has moved away from the mix-and-match Civ traits we saw in earlier games, meaning the special abilities in CivV truly set a civilization apart. For instance, the Iroquois nation gains the ability to use forests contained within friendly territory as roads, while the Aztecs gain valuable culture points with each enemy defeated. With only one leader available per civilization, these ageless shepherds of the empires are now just a visual extension of the civilization itself, conferring no additional bonuses or abilities.
After choosing their civilization and setting up the parameters of their game world, players are transported to a beautiful, hex-based world map. I won't wander into the minefield argument here about hex-vs.-square, other than to say that I like the new layout. Being a card-carrying boardgame geek, I feel completely at home with the move to a more...table-topish feel for the game. Civilization V also boasts an alternate view which makes the map simple, clean, and very "old school" in presentation. I prefer to play on the more detailed map, but it's nice to have the option for the other.
As always, Civilization V is a game of cities. Once a city is planted, it begins "working" the ring of hexes surrounding it. For each level of population in a city, a citizen can be assigned to gather resources from a single hex. Terrain type and special resources dictate how much food, production, and money can be accrued, and each of these are vital to empire expansion. Food determines how quickly a city will grow, production how quickly the city can construct buildings and train units, and money takes care of just about everything else. Through certain buildings, cities also generate Culture to help them expand. In addition to adding to the civilization's global Culture pool, city-specific culture points allow cities to "buy" additional hexes into their area of influence and control. Should this expansion not be quick enough, players also have the option of spending money to purchase additional hex control.
Speaking of Culture, this value is treated a bit differently in Civ V. Culture points, useful in expanding city influence, also take players down a social technology tree filled with Social Policies. These policies are a set of ten mini-trees, each of which can focus the civilization into a particular style of play. Some are better for war-mongering empires, while others will give a large boost to technology or additional culture. Each step in each tree confers a new bonus, and researching heavily down the Social Policy path is a new victory condition. If players completely research five of the social policies, they gain the ability to research the Utopia Project, culminating in a game-win.
Of course, players still have the tried-and-true technology path toward a space-race victory. The tech tree is the heart of progress in Civilization V, as always. A bit smaller than in previous Civ titles (at least for now), CivV's tech tree nonetheless offers plenty of difficult choices on the path to victory. Other than offering the player the most powerful units, Wonders, and buildings, the technology path also allows players the ability to construct the Alpha Centauri starship and send it on its way for victory.Of course, a player's civilization doesn't exist by itself in the world. In addition to other civilizations, Civilization V introduces City-States. These minor civilizations cannot achieve victory by themselves, but they can offer some impressive rewards to those civilizations that win their favor. This can be accomplished by gifting money, completing requests for aid or exploration, or even eliminating rival City-States. Each City-State maintains a favor rating for the civilization, and at its highest level a City-State will create an alliance, gifting the civilization with resources and units. Of course, more aggressive players can simply wipe out those pesky upstarts and take the cities for their own.
Those aggressive civilizations will need some armies to accomplish their goals, however. Here is where some of the biggest changes have occurred in the Civilization franchise. Players are now much more limited in the number of units they can field at any given time. Not only do units take much longer to train, many of the more powerful units now require much-limited Strategic Resources in order to build. No longer does a single iron deposit or oil field allow players unlimited building of swordsmen and tanks--each Strategic Resource point now only gives a few of these vital resources. Players wanting to field a vast array of units must control multiple Strategic Resource locations, a feat with is difficult at best.
In addition to their limited numbers, units are also limited in where they can be located. Only one military unit can reside in a single hex, cities included. I am quite happy to see this, as my least-favorite aspect of previous Civilization titles were the "Stacks of Death" that wandered the countryside. Now players must think much more tactically in their movement and deployment. Again, Civilization V feels much more like a boardgame to me than previous titles, and I can feel myself moving the pieces around the board to their greatest effect.
Given the limited amount of units available, each is now much more resilient than before. With a large pool of hit points, units can take several rounds of combat before falling. Ranged units also get quite a facelift--all ranged units can now attack up to several hexes away. Now, attacking an enemy city is much more rewarding than before, with my armies displayed across the fields of battle, each positioned carefully for best combat efficiency.
The cities are much more durable this time around, as well. Cities now have a defense rating, depending on size, population, and buildings, and they can hold their own in combat even without a garrisoned unit. Cities can also bombard enemy units, weakening forces before they even reach the walls. Even with these defenses, however, a city cannot withstand a siege for terribly long, and so friendly forces will need to be stationed nearby for quick defense.
For those planning a conquest route, that victory path has also been updated. Now players merely have to ensure that no other civilization is in control of its originally-founded city (while maintaining control of their own). This is not as easy as it sounds, of course, but it makes for a quicker victory type than hunting down each and every last unit on the map.Expansion of empires is now kept in check with by the Happiness resource. Happiness, now a global value, decreases each time a new city is founded or a city gains population, with additional cities having a greater penalty than population. Access to Luxury Resources and certain buildings will mitigate these happiness penalties somewhat, but controlling each city on the map is now quite a difficult endeavor. In addition, each new city also imparts a penalty on Culture and Great Person generation, meaning a player vying for those victories is often better off keeping things small and efficient.
Civilization V looks, sounds, and plays wonderfully. Everything is slick, polished, and very user-friendly. The map is very impressive, while each unit is easily identifiable. The user interface allows players to quickly locate any information, unit, or city easily and without fuss. I even liked the new Leader animations, with each speaking in their native tongues (with subtitles, of course). Being a veteran of the series, I was able to quickly jump in and get going, even with all the changes made this time around. Plentiful tooltips and a detailed Civlopedia allowed me to wrap my mind around most of the concepts within my first hour of play.
As for the difficulty levels and the abilities of the AI, they all seemed to hold their own. Admittedly, I have only been spending my time in the lower settings, so I have not yet braved the more punishing levels. And while multiplayer is available for those with the time and inkling to brave a human opponent in the next state, as of now I found no hotseat option to battle an opponent in the next chair.
Civilization V is, once again, going to consume countless hours of my life in turn-based bliss. With the "boardgame" feel and the slick, polished features, I know I'm in for many sleep-deprived mornings. Fans of the series, or turn-based 4X games in general, will have a blast with this for a long time to come. And while it might be a little daunting to newcomers, Civilization V is also a great place for those who might want to wet their feet in the 4X pool.