Delayed Reactions: Civilization V
+ Graphically amazing
+ Combat better than ever
+ New features allow for interesting strategies
+ Come on, it’s a new Civilization game
- Feels dumbed-down in places
- AI not very bright
- Mysterious removal of important features
Ah, Civilization. When I look back, I see that you’ve left a trail of misery across my entire life so far. I was in middle school when I first played Civ I, and since then it’s been nothing but missing homework assignments, forgotten meals, and Sunday nights where I realize, “Holy crap, I’ve been playing Civ for three days straight!“
One day, perhaps, there will be a perfect Civ game that delivers my deathblow. Civ V is an excellent game, but it’s not there yet. In some ways — like combat — it’s stronger than the series has ever been, but a few crucial missteps cause it to fall short of the high-water marks left by Civs II and IV.
Full disclosure: I’ve played a lot of Civ IV over the last five years, and I think it’s one of the best games ever made. That doesn’t bode well for a sequel promising to “streamline” Civ IV, but I’ll do my best to stay objective.
If you’re a newcomer to the series, you need to do two things. First, read Mr. Barrickman’s Game Attic review of the first Civilization, which will give you all the basics of the series — cities, food and production, Wonders of the World, etc. — as well as most of the problems that have plagued the games (it’s amazing how little has fundamentally changed since 1991).
Second, you owe it to yourself to play Civ V for at least a few hours. The Civilization games are basically a genre unto themselves, and they provide an experience that can’t be replicated elsewhere. Don’t even start with Civ IV or an earlier game; the latest entry is the most newcomer-friendly by far.
Clearly, being more accessible was a major part of the design. In virtually every aspect of the game, you can see an effort to simplify and streamline. For the most part, this is a real improvement. Previous Civs expected you to keep track of dozens of individual numbers — health and happiness for every individual city, offensive and defensive statistics for every unit, rates of corruption and waste, etc. Some players loved all the stats, but sometimes it did become a bit much.
Civ V, on the other hand, tries whenever possible to give you a single, large-font, brightly-colored number to look at. That sounds condescending, but with a game of this complexity it’s nice to have a couple of big, important numbers to focus your attention. There’s still depth to the system when you go digging for it, but when you’re learning the game you no longer need to dig.
This is, again, mostly a good thing. My concern, however, is that Firaxis has gone too far in this direction. The most obvious example is the diplomacy system — or, rather, the lack of a diplomacy system. Admittedly, Civ IV could become daunting when it presented a dozen reasons why Montezuma wants you dead; it was information overload. But Civ V has the opposite problem: it gives you no way to know how a rival civilization feels about you. The game is obviously keeping track of it somewhere, and you can get vague hints from the way the leaders talk to you, but it chooses not to tell you. It’s also tough to tell how technically advanced the other civs are, though again there are vague hints. I’m sure these decisions were made deliberately; in real life, you can’t tell exactly how somebody feels about you, either. But the Civilization games were never about vagueness. At their core, they’re about vast systems of interlocking numbers. To introduce a big squishy blob in the middle of those systems strikes me as unwise, like a platforming section in a first-person shooter.
The second oversimplification is the government system, which has been dramatically reduced. In the past, you slowly unlocked a set of possible governments (or, in IV, individual policy positions), which had their own strengths and weaknesses. Changing your government was a medium-term, strategic decision that allowed you to adapt to different situations throughout the game. In Civ V, that’s completely gone. It’s been replaced by a set of skill trees, which offer you permanent bonuses. Permanent, meaning that a decision you made in 1,500 BC is still going to affect you in the modern era. Or, meaning that if you become a fascist government in the year 1800, you’re going to remain fascist forever. That’s downright silly. I understand that you’re shaping the overall “character” of your civilization here, rather than making shorter-term decisions, but I’m also disappointed that a major strategic element of the previous games has been lost.
One thing the game does right is the combat system. Some of the changes are huge — the switch from square tiles to hexes, the lack of unit stacking, and the introduction of ranged attackers — but they seem natural, as if Civ was meant to be this way all along. Suddenly the position of your units matters tremendously: melee units on the front lines behind the river, ranged attackers on a hill in the rear, reserve units following until they can fill gaps in the line. There are flanking bonuses. You get that terrific buzz that comes from tabletop wargaming, where any tactical decision can change the course of the war. A city, even without defenders, has become a powerful sort of mini-boss. You surround it and wear down its defenses over half a dozen turns, and finally you get a sense of what a siege is all about.
Even better, you no longer need to build transport ships: your units can travel across the water for free. So you’ll understand what an invasion feels like, too.
I swear, I felt like Napoleon on the Civ V battlefields — this is what Civ has always wanted to give me, and it’s finally succeeded.
The only problem with the combat system is that the AI doesn’t seem to understand it very well. Yes, it’s more complicated. But I caught the computer making basic errors, like putting long-range units on the front line. Diplomatically, the AI civs are willing to make ridiculous concessions during a war. At one point I took two Siamese cities, and the AI offered me eight more free cities in exchange for ten turns of peace — after which I simply finished them off.
The entire game, in fact, seems easier than usual. Playing at my accustomed difficulty level (Prince), which always gave me a challenge in Civ IV, I suddenly found myself with triple the score of my nearest competitor. Has the entire game been shifted two difficulty levels down? Was it impossible to program an AI that could keep up?
Graphically and stylistically, at least, the game is amazing. Finally we have a Civilization game with a strong visual identity: bold and colorful, with huge art-deco (almost Soviet propaganda-style) portraits of all the units. Of particular note are the battles, which, if you zoom in and pay attention, have that chaotic battlefield feel of Gladiator or Braveheart. The diplomacy screens are stunning, full-screen affairs that look like film-grade CGI. What’s more, the civilization leaders are fully voiced in ther native languages, up to and including classical Nahuatl.
It’s all cool, but… at times it smacks of too much money being thrown at the game. Sometimes it seems like everything is fully-voiced — those long introductions for each civilization, the stupid advisors (“I have some information you might find useful!”), and that silly, half-unskippable opening movie. The indie gamer in me wonders whether this stuff is really necessary.
One final addition are the city-states, the small “miniature civilizations” that aren’t trying to win the game. Like the new combat, they feel intuitive and natural, as if they should’ve been there all along. Most importantly, they give you a brand-new array of interesting choices. You can make them an enormous part of your strategy — giving them gifts or doing random favors in order to get resources and military aid — or you can completely ignore them. Or conquer them, naturally, though they’re pretty tough. And in contrast to your relations with major civilizations, your diplomacy with them is perfectly transparent and obvious. You give them some cash, and they like you more. There’s even a handy bar graph to make it crystal-clear.
Civ V is a great game, an amazing game, and it gave me that crazy addicted fever that I know so well. It’s definitely worthy of your attention. And yet, my feelings are mixed. Civ V is great, but, again, Civ IV was one of the best games of all time. But Civ IV, keep in mind, also has five years of patches, updates, and expansions under its belt. Civ V will be patched and expanded, too — I’m sure the diplomacy will be upgraded, and the AI will be improved, and innumerable other improvements will be made.
Will it ever become the Perfect Civ Game that destroys our social lives and professional careers forever? No. It’ll still mess up your weekend, though.