Recently, Joel and I were invited to a closed-door, hands-off demo session for the latest and perhaps greatest iteration of the Civilization franchise. I was excited, because I’ve been playing Civilization since the very first one and, really, it is about as close as I get to being engrossed in some sort strategy game on the PC.
They ushered us into this small screening room and we prepared to check out what they had in store for us later this year when the game is set to release. Needless to say, everyone was really excited to see what the game had in store – except Joel, who was glued to his phone the whole time trying to set up other meetings for the day. Don’t worry, I yelled at him afterward.
Civilization V, in many ways, is the culmination of all these years of learning from the development of the franchise. Of course, they said that about Civilization IV, too, however they did learn a lot from that masterpiece in the last five years, as well. Civilization V represents one of the largest changes in the design philosophy the franchise has seen and it was immediately noticeable in the few screens that had been released to the press prior to this, as well as when they started up the demo in that little room.
Let’s discuss some of the major changes, and I’ll give my thoughts on each one as we go down the list.
New landscapes: The change from square tiles to hexes is a major design decision. What the developers have said was that making this change was done, in part, to make the map and the landscape feel more organic. Square tiles were kind of jarring and didn’t quite make things “flow” together as well as they could have. By changing to hexes, there is more opportunity to showcase fluidity in unit movement, in tile growth and in just the general landscape overall.
To that end, the engineering team behind the game has created an entirely new engine to service Civilization V. As you might imagine, that is a huge undertaking, but just in the screens that have been released so far, and from what I’ve seen at media events, this effort is definitely going to pay off in a huge way. It looks really gorgeous when you see the game in motion, which is something screenshots alone can’t really convey.
Scaling: The developers have stated that they want as wide a range of users to be able to play this game as possible, so the game will be more scalable than any Firaxis game has in the past. It will support new technologies like multi-threading and such, but will also run on DirectX 9, because they realize a lot of their players will be playing on either less than optimal machines or laptops as they travel.
I salute Firaxis for this just like I salute Blizzard for making some of the most scalable PC games on the market. I’m glad some developers realize that not everyone has or can afford high-end gaming machines, so making a game look good when it is scaled down from the pinnacle of its potential visual appeal is a nice touch and gets them brownie points in my book.
User Interface: One of the things the team at Firaxis learned while making the console iteration of the franchise – Civilization Revolution – is that it wasn’t strictly necessary to have everything in the UI accessible at all times. In fact, it cluttered the screen more than was really needed. Even though this might not be as big a problem on PCs as it is on consoles, which typically output at a smaller resolution, it was still something they decided to clean up and improve when it came time to designing the UI for Civilization V.
Initially you have some basic actions available, but not everything. Some actions are hidden and are brought up only when needed, to make things – especially the field of view – more accessible.
Also, in the past, the way events occurred interrupted game play and required you to make a decision, such as which technology you wanted to learn next. In Civilization V, events such as what to learn or build next are optional and kept in a list on the side of the screen so you can approach them at your convenience, instead of being distracted by them during the course of a multi-player game, for example. This adds up to more freedom and also works toward the previous idea of making the UI less cluttered and more accessible.
Modding: The tools for the modding community in Civilization V far eclipse anything they’ve included in previous versions. They have a stand-alone application that will be included that makes things incredibly easy to create your own maps, your own rules and, basically, your own sandbox world to play in. You no longer have to actually be in the game using the in-game interface to design maps. There are even tools to auto-localize maps. Granted, it may be a rough localization, but it is still there and a possibly useful tool nonetheless.
They are also allowing anyone playing the game to download, play and rank any mod that is available in their system. They’ve built better community features into the game so the average player can take advantage of some of these mods. In previous iterations, only the really hardcore dealt with mods because, to some degree, they were difficult to set up and the ways to obtain them were rather obscure, unless you were part of a modding community. Now they’re bringing that community into the game itself, so even players without any mod knowledge whatsoever can make use of them to expand their enjoyment of the game.
Leaders: The national leaders in Civilization V have been improved to become larger than life. Instead of a little window, their appearance fills up the whole screen. They even speak their own language! If you run into the French, they’ll be speaking French, for example. I would imagine sub-titles will accompany foreign language leaders to make it accessible for those of us who are too lazy to learn the language.
The leaders also now have distinct personalities and are more than just the sum of their traits, such as in previous games. This allows the AI to be more unpredictable when dealing with player nations, but also establishes a way to sort of “get to know” the leaders better and not just focus on what traits they may hold. The development team wanted every leader to feel distinct, so you are not getting the same thing every time a new leader pops up on your screen. It became tedious and highly predictable dealing with other nations in previous games because of this.
Finally, the leader AIs are more world aware. In previous titles, they really didn’t care about anything going on outside their borders. You could be amassing a huge army to take over one of their cities, and as long as your army is just outside their borders, they turned a blind eye to you. That is no longer the case, as opponents will be aware that you have a large force close to their borders and will take actions accordingly. What action they take is likely based on their relationship with you – they could simply ask you to back off, or they may go a more direct and drastic route.
City States: These are single-city “NPCs” that never grow beyond a single city, and they kind of throw a monkey-wrench, if you will, into diplomacy in general. These city-states can ask various things of you and, if you fulfill their wishes, can built a relationship between your nation and that city. True, you can take the city for yourself, but keeping them in a good mood and on your side may have various advantages throughout the game. You can support them, help them, give them military units or gold and all sorts of things. These city-states are there to add another dimension to world affairs and overall diplomacy within the game.
Research Agreements: This is something new to foster positive relations between your nation and others. If you both have the same technology, you can both put down so much money to see an increase in science output for so many turns. There is also some strategy that goes along with this, as you (or your opponent) can attempt to swindle you out of money by agreeing to the terms, letting you put down the money, then cutting off ties with you or stopping their research. Again, it adds another dimension to international relations.
One Unit Per Tile & Ranged Units: This is a rather major change. In previous iterations, you could stack as many units as you wanted on each tile. That is no longer the case, as you can only have one unit per tile. This expands strategic options and allows for simpler battles. You’ll also be able to actually see how many units your opponent has surrounding you instead of now having that intel to use in your decisions.
Also making their way into Civilization V is ranged units. Before you could have archers and catapults, but they weren’t technically ranged units because they still needed to be on adjacent tiles to enter into combat. Now you’ll be able to use those ranged units as they are meant to be used. I know not many Civilization fans think of it this way, but with the introduction of the “one unit per tile” concept, and adding in truly ranged warfare, it reminds me a lot of a strategy RPG. Maybe I’m crazy and am the only one who sees the connection, but that is what I picture to some degree when I think about these changes.
Cities Act Differently: By this, I mean you can no longer use military units to defend cities. They each have their own health, in the form of hit points, just like individual units do. Various structures you build in your city will add to this, such as building Walls, which will add to your city’s overall defense. Once the city’s health is depleted, it can be taken over as usual, but the game will be balanced in such a way that this won’t be an easy thing to do, even if both sides know what they’re doing.
All these things together point to Civilization V shaping up to truly be the pinnacle of the franchise, an honor that I’m sure Firaxis and their publisher, 2K Games, are all too happy to accept. Seeing some live game play, even at the stage it is now, really increased my expectations for this game, and I know the team at Firaxis can deliver, as they always have in the past.
DualShockers will be attending E3 in a few short weeks and will be talking once again to 2K Games and the guys behind Civilization V to see how the game has progressed since we last got a sneak peak at the title, so you can look forward to that coverage in the future.