Review: Civilization V
Civilization (the original) was one of my first PC games. Even at that young age (somewhere around ten years old), I knew that there was something special about it. While I had begged my dad to get me a Nintendo because I played Mike Tyson's Punchout at a friend's house and I was still very into those dusty cartridges, I knew that Civ offered something that could never be matched on the TV. You could say that Civ guaranteed that I would never truly become a console gamer. Consoles could be entertaining, but they would never be able to match the experience that games like Civ could provide.
So there you go, I'm biased from the start. I was probably always going to like Civ V. Even the big dud of the series (Civ III) was still quite entertaining in its day, only losing luster in retrospect. The question, then, is how much would I like Civ V? In a word: exceedingly. While a little rough around the edges, this iteration in the series moves the franchise forward in almost every way. In other words, almost every change from Civ IV is either an outright improvement or at the very least, a lateral change that serves to add variety to five-year-old gameplay.
The most obvious and advertised changes apply to war and combat. In shifting from a square grid to a hex grid and in progressing from "stacks of doom" (tons of units in a single square) to one unit per tile (1UPT, in the cool kids' lingo), Civilization's combat is now, finally, interesting. Combat in previous Civs was always adequate and one never got the feeling of it being a chore, but it was also never something to look forward to. Terrain didn't matter because all you had to do was pick a hill or forest square next to a city and unleash your stack's barrage. That tiresome gameplay is a thing of the past, with units littering the world, archers atop hills raining down arrows, swordsmen digging into fortifications across a river and catapults firing flaming balls of death from behind the front line. It's like going from checkers to holographic 3D chess.
The glory of Rome!
Another big update comes in the form of social policies. Civ IV had an interesting system of combining government, legal system, economics, etc. to form the social contract that best worked for your society at any given point. While perhaps more realistic, with each civic having positives and negatives, it was always a feature that probably sounded more fun on paper than in practice. Often I would simply pick the civics with bonuses and penalties I could tolerate and leave them locked in the rest of the game. Civ V scraps that approach entirely and introduces social policies. Much like the technology aspect of the game, once you accumulate enough culture, you get to unlock and upgrade different social branches, such as Liberty, Piety, Rationalism, etc. Unlike the pro/con list of civics, SPs are always helpful and cumulative. Now the only question you have to ask yourself is, "Which cool new bonus do I want for my nation?". This does present some realism errors (there is no credible argument that could convince me that Communism would ever lead to an increase in a society's production), but I'm more than willing to sacrifice realism for the sake of fun. Now instead of having to eat my vegetables before getting dessert, I'm like a kid in a candy store, trying to decide between a Hershey's chocolate bar and Sweet Tarts.
As with any sequel, the graphics got a nice overhaul. While the terrain looks gorgeous (rivers aside) and the units are now much smoother and better animated, there isn't a huge difference between the look of Civ IV and Civ V. Hexes go a long way, however, in making the terrain look more organic and less blocky. The other neat thing is that there are now themes to each continent in the world, with some landmasses looking more like Asia, for instance, and others more like Africa. The differences are subtle, but when you spend the first 100 turns on a continent that looks distinctly European, it's very noticeable when you finally discover the Americas.
Yet another huge game-changer comes in the form of city states. These small one-city nations aren't trying to win the game but they do provide very tasty bonuses if you get on their good side. These third party states do a great deal to add context to the story of your world, often being the impetus for wars and geopolitical tension. Leaders will often contact you to simply say things like, "I see that you are best buds with Copenhagen now. They were our friends before you even knew them, so you better watch your back!" Instead of arbitrary religions deciding diplomatic posturing (Civ IV), now there's a more personal, interactive reason to give Montezuma the stink-eye. Another brilliant invention by Firaxis.
Shaved Santa is pissed!
The AI, on the other hand, is a tricky topic to tackle. Sometimes Napoleon will declare war on you, only to be pummeled mercilessly back into the stone age because he was an idiot to attack with only a few units. Other times, Caesar will wipe out every other AI on his continent by the medieval era. While both are fine scenarios every once in a while, for variety's sake, it seems as though the AI is always on either one extreme or the other, either staggeringly stupid or Rommel-level brilliant. One thing is clear: the AI needs some major tweaking.
Speaking of AI, one aspect that got a wonderful facelift is the diplomacy interactions. No longer are you staring at other leaders through some sort of dimensional window. Now you enter their throne room and bask in their gloriousness. Some are better than others: Darius looks downright puny and pathetic while Suleiman towers above you like a god. But overall, the immersion level shoots through the roof whenever you are interacting with these heads of state. The icing on the cake is that they even speak their native tongue, including dead languages like ancient Greek and Latin. While they may not make the best choices while you are talking to them, you can't say they aren't doing so in style.
Most of the reason I dig this game is the little things that go a long way. The new embarking system, whereby (once you have the requisite technology) units simply build their own transports when you march them off into water tiles, is so wonderful that I nearly cried in thanksgiving. Building and using transports in all previous Civs had to be reason number one why I hated naval invasions. This isn't a huge, complex shift in mechanics, but it goes such a long way towards encouraging new gameplay. The water is no longer a natural barrier and that's a wonderful thing. Another small, but strongly felt, change is how happiness is handled. No longer does the player have to micromanage each city's contentment. Now it's a global trait, which means that it's both easier to manage, and easier to fix when things get dicey. The removal of city health also goes a long way towards streamlining the experience, giving you a nation you can be proud of, rather than a country full of smelly, unhappy metropolises.
Advisors are back but far less juvenile than Civ II.
There are the occasional bugs and rough edges in Civ V. Terrain will sometimes glitch in odd ways, some animations (like paradropping troops) are flat out missing, and there's even the occasional crash to desktop. While a perfectly polished game launch is always the goal of any AAA title, it's just an unreasonable expectation in this day in age. Many are furious (or claim to be furious, in a "Danish Cartoon" sort of way) at the slightly flawed launch of Civ V, but Firaxis has never been a company to just leave people hanging. Civ IV got its last patch less than a year ago (4 years after launch) so I'm too not worried that the devs will get Civ V in perfect shape in short order.
I would forgive you if, in taking my bias into account, you deemed my review "tainted" and therefore unreliable. Indeed, those that wanted Civ 4.5 are so rabidly biased the other direction, that nothing anyone says will make an impact. I came into this game wanting to like it but fully prepared to be disappointed. Fortunately for me, even the rough state of the game did nothing to hamper my enjoyment and I will never be able to look at Civ IV again. There's no turning back now.