I’ve been playing the Civilization games religiously since the very first iteration of the franchise, and with each new release things change typically for the better. Why do I enjoy the franchise so much? You can do what you want and build a monstrosity of an empire any way you want. What puts Civilization separate from many other real-time or turn-based strategy titles is that freedom. That freedom of choice and innovative design changes absolutely does not change with Civilization V. In fact, I think this iteration is probably one of the largest jumps in terms of mechanics and design overall that the franchise has ever seen.
If you’re reading this, you probably know how the typical game in Civilization plays out, so I won’t bore you with the minutiae. Needless to say, setting up a game goes much the same way as it has in previous titles – you choose your leader, which determines your civilization, and you set up a bunch of factors about the map you want to play on, such as size, type of land masses, how many opposing civilizations you want to pit yourself against, and the difficulty. Once you set all those things up and start an actual game, the very first thing you’ll notice is the visual improvements.
The square tiles are now hexagon in shape, however this isn’t immediately noticeable. Why? Because the various terrain features all blend so nicely together, unless you actually click on a tile you don’t see the actual shape of it. Instead of having jarring, obvious breaks between tiles to separate grassland from desert, for example, in Civilization V this takes a more gradual approach. Deserts and grassland mesh together where one ends and the other begins. Water now shares tiles with land, forest expands into the grassland, hills spill over into jungle. The combination of everything is gorgeous.
The visual upgrades don’t stop there. As your cities mature, you see various buildings take shape inside and on surrounding tiles. If you build a harbor or a lighthouse, they may appear a bit away from the city proper along the coast. Once your city gets larger, it spills outside its originating tile and into surrounding areas. If you have had improvements built in the surrounding tiles, such as farms, mines or trading posts, they merge with the city to make it look even more sprawling.
Speaking of improvements – because the tiles tend to blend together, this was carried over into the improvements, as well. These tile changes look more organic and visually pleasing than they had before, conforming with the shape and color of the land they’re built on. Building a farm on grassland yields a different visual effect than building it in the desert. Likewise, building a trading post in a jungle brings about a different visual than building it in an open field.
All this works together to make a rather visually stunning game. And, I haven’t even gone into the improved leader screens, battle animations and ambiance surrounding everything you do. That would, indeed, make this review more of a novel than anything else. Suffice it to say, all these improvements on a visual level make for a more pleasurable experience all around.
But, let’s change focus for a bit and look at some of the major improvements on a more mechanical level. Some things that stand out to me here are the civics “talent trees” (for lack of a better term), improved diplomacy options, city states and, of course, the fact that now under normal circumstances you can only have one unit per tile.
I’m an RPG aficionado, and as such, I am drawn to anything that allows me to either customize the way things are done or to things that let me gain experience. In Civilization V, culture works kind of like experience points for the various civic policy trees. You need a certain amount of culture – as well as able to meet various other requirements – to “unlock” a tree. After that, you can dip down into that tree as much or as little as you want to obtain the policies that you find attractive. Granted, each tree is only five or six policies in total, but mixing and matching might be your thing, trying a little bit from many different trees. Myself, I would tend to go all the way down one before I started another. It’s all up to personal preference.
Military units also build experience, much like in the previous iteration. They can also be upgraded and named at various points. Why would you want to name your military units? I don’t know, possibly to create more of a bond with them so you fight smarter and stop blinding entering battles you might not be able to win? Speaking of military units, there is no more unit stacking – you can only have one unit per tile this time around. Unfortunately, I’m still unsure how I feel about this. I’m pretty organizational when it comes to keeping things in line as far as my civilization goes, I liked knowing what units I had available all the time, and where they were. With only one unit per tile, things seemed to get out of hand. I would build so many units, use them for something, then not need them. I’d then park them somewhere near one of my cities and almost forget they existed.
This leads to lack of upgrading and pretty much forgetting about them until they wake up by a nearby enemy, at which case I realize I haven’t upgraded them or kept them in a more appropriate spot, and then it’s possibly too late. Plus, it leads to a lot of congestion on the map itself, especially when you have several units all trying to maneuver together. Ranged units are easier to keep in line, since they don’t have to move around quite as much in a heavy combat situation. Unlike previous games, units like archers don’t need to be on the tile next to an opposing force before attacking. This allows them to attack – from range – boats, cities and other units. It would have been better had you been allowed to at least move units “through” another one of your units to get to a tile on the other side, but you can’t even do this. (Note: You can move workers, settlers and great generals on top of other combat units, but that is the extent of it.)
Aside from your typical ranged units, cities can also go on the offensive, bombarding units that enter their territory from a few tiles away. This adds a little extra boost to your tactical situation, as well as occasionaly scares the enemy away (especially if they’re barbarians). The game will alert you if an enemy unit is in range of one of your cities, and you can immediately head over there to attack from afar. The damage a city puts out is comparable to its size and the strength of the military unit fortified there.
One of the coolest additions to Civilization V is the introduction of city-states. These are small, single-city nations that dot the landscape. You and other civilizations can form relationships with them, protect them, fight over them, fight against them, take them over and a whole host of other things. They tend to throw a monkey wrench into diplomatic relations with other nations. Let me explain.
I was the dominant civilization on one side of the continent I was on, and the Chinese were on the other half. There were two city-states south of my civilization, one of which I was allied with and had a protection pact with. In a moment of weakness, I agreed to open borders with the Chinese, and they made their way through my civilization and to the south, where I was planning to expand. They established one city there before I locked them in. What do they proceed to do? Within a few turns, they attack and take over the city-state that I wasn’t allied with. All the city-states banned together against the Chinese. I could see their expansionist attitudes in other areas of the world, too, as they took over city-state after city-state.
I was somewhat friends with them, and didn’t particularly want to rattle their cage at this stage. But a problem could present itself if they went after the city-state I was allied with. Would I abandon them in their time of need to protect myself from the Chinese, or attempt to back them up if they were attacked by this super-power? Luckily, the Chinese never did attack, possibly because I was allied with them. But, you can understand the interesting situations dealing with city-states can put you in. I think that adds a lot of depth to the game, more so than just dealing straight up with the other major players in the world.
There are also many other little things that make this the definitive game in the franchise. For example, your units no longer absolutely need to load themselves onto a boat to travel across water, they can do it themselves. If you move your units onto a water tile, they turn into a boat to move around. Cities themselves, which I mentioned earlier, have been improved in that they now have their own health and offensive/defensive strengths and weaknesses. This was a necessity now that only one unit could fortify itself on top of a city. This improves the need for walls and other defensive structures if you’re in a volatile diplomatic situation.
The rulers also now are more opinionated, alert and actually speak their own language. If you amass troops too close to another nation’s borders, they are going to take notice. If you build a city where they don’t want you to, they may take issue with that. Using culture to take over part of another civilization’s territory also has diplomatic consequences if the other leader is having a bad day.
It seems to me your civilization’s borders spread a lot more slowly this time around, conforming more to an actual fledgling nation finding its way in the world, instead of a massively expanding macrocosm of culture that was in the previous game. There are pros and cons to this subdued mechanic, both of which become apparent if you play for any length of time.
There are also adjustments in build speed of many buildings and tile improvements, although this greatly depends upon the speed of your game, which you can set up in the advanced options.
I’m a huge fan of playing with a few civilizations on a huge map. These games take quite a while to complete. It’s even more fun playing multi-player with people I know, teaming up to take down a larger civilization, or helping to defend each other when the going gets rough. Although, still, my preferred scenario is to sit down at my PC with a good beer and several hours to kill, letting the rest of the world fade away as I plan my massive campaigns of domination. Having achievements this time around, as well, gives the player more to shoot for and some incentive to try different things. If there was one thing that this play style denied me, it was the motivation to try new strategies, different approaches, more convoluted ways of accomplishing my goals. The Steam achievements are very well done so as to point you in the right direction as far as trying out something you normally wouldn’t.
Many people who don’t play a lot of this genre, consider both Civilization and the likes of StarCraft II in the same boat, but they are certainly two different beasts. While I enjoy Blizzard’s foray into the larger strategy genre, I get the most excitement out of these large-scale turn-based strategy titles like Civilization. I’m more of a sandbox player when it comes to titles like this – give me a simple goal like becoming the best civilization in the world and I will run with it. Sure, there are menial tasks along the way that may help you reach that goal – or at least provide a temporary distraction – but I’m a huge believer in the concept of the journey being more important than the destination. If StarCraft II’s real-time, fast-paced clusterfrak of units and nerd-rage is ultimately providing entertainment to those who care about the destination, Civilization V is the laid-back, easy-going jaunt that makes you care about everything that happens along the way.
My aim isn’t to compare these two games, but they do fall in the same large genre, and often get mistaken for the same thing from those who have only a passing interest. Civilization V is ultimately my type of strategy game, and all the improvements this time around make the hold that the franchise has over me even stronger. With the exception of the one-unit-per-tile mechanic, which is something I can’t with good conscience support, everything that has been done by the team at Firaxis is an outstanding addition to this tried-and-true franchise. And, hey, I didn’t even have to wait 12 years to play it!