I, like many others, have been playing Civilization games for well over a decade. Over this time I've developed several habits and ticks that have become ingrained in my play style. I habitually name my first city 'WillisCool', the second city 'WillisVeryCool' and (should any metropolis be founded near a particularly disputed border) the third: 'F***theRomans'. Or indeed any other civilisation I wish to textually bait. Civilization V, however, horror of horrors, does not let you rename cities.
This caused great pain and anger during my first turns within Firaxis' latest. It was such a break with tradition that my first city had been forcibly called Paris that I physically shook with emotion. Oddly enough, this was a pattern that would continue on a larger scale throughout repeated sorties in Civ V's hexagonal worlds. The game's core concept seems to be to shake you out of accustomed patterns of play, erasing your accustomed Civ-building 'racing line' and insisting that you come at everything from a slightly different angle.
Civilization V isn't simply piling in a barrage of new features and calling it a sequel. In fact, it's actively removing recent additions to the canon. Religion is out on its arse, while many of the features added in Civ IV expansions are similarly erased. This iteration is all about looking deeply at the features that form the bedrock of Civ, yet are so often skimmed over by players or simply left to sustain themselves in rarely frequented menu screens. It's about repackaging the more bewildering things into something palatable, and ensuring that the player is tooled-up and informed enough to deal with them.
As a Civ player I've always been lovingly bewildered and somewhat out of my depth: forever proud of building the Sistine Chapel, yet somehow blind to the starving millions. At some point, Firaxis must have put a Civ player like me in a blank-walled room and asked him politely what he didn't really understand but pretended to anyway in social circles and on internet forums.
He'd have said things like: the way individual tiles work, which style of government he should choose and the use and abuse of luxuries and resources. If he's anything like me, then he'd also reveal a slight unease when it came to naval manoeuvres - and given time, in that small white room in Maryland, he'd break down and through incessant tears admit that he's totally rubbish at combat, and especially crap at keeping track of his myriad of upgraded units.
Civ V soothes these worries. Not by evaporating them, but by explaining them better and giving you clear reasons to engage with them, pulling their roles into sharper focus through active use.
To explain, let's highlight something that in a previous Civ game I'd have had completely automated. Say you notice a particularly fruitful-looking resource spot where you can mine iron. First off, you'll need it within your borders - and to absorb it you can now speed the growth of your Empire by purchasing new tiles through your city screen rather than simply waiting for culture and population growth to do the job. This not only encourages a reinforced appreciation of the fruitfulness and roles of Civ's different (and newly hexagonal) tiles but will also lead you to order a worker to go and busy themselves so you can mine yourself some ore.
Automation is tucked away to some degree within the UI and it's clear that Firaxis wants you to become intimate with the individual advantages and disadvantages of your randomly assigned land-mass through the worker, previously the lowliest of your units. This is further underlined by the game's more stringent approach to resources. The amount of mounted units you can create, for example, directly correlates to the limited number of horses your nation contains - meaning that their acquisition is a necessity, yet if you have a surfeit of the equine beauties then it can suddenly be an even bigger bartering chip (or prompt for an early war) with your neighbours than before.
Similarly, when one of your cities screams for a certain luxury, say ivory, then your eyes will be anxiously scanning the desert or tundra your people laughably call home, before inevitably eyeing up the Romans next door with their green fields and plentiful elephants.
What is increasingly looking like Civ V's triumph, then, is rendering its less glamorous constituent parts interesting, fun and comprehensible. Another example is the constant worry of the research and institution of a blanket society variant (Feudalism! Nationalism! Communism!). This has been given extra texture, depth and control through a social policy screen that lets you sit in multiple camps (where applicable) as well as unlock various new civil branches within each structure of rule.
As for warfare, with a new emphasis on ranged combat, the introduction of hexagonal movement and the fact that no two military units can now stand on the same tile, there's a real feeling of military tactics that enters proceedings. Combat is suddenly like a board game, with the protection of your game pieces just as vital as the damage they deal. Cities now have firepower of their own and can only keep one military unit with their walls, which means that general combat has gently been edged away from constant urban bombardment and out into the open hills and dales of your lands.
As for an Iron Age warrior being buried beneath a pile of units and waking up in the manner of California Man, worriedly blinking in the light of nuclear explosions and aeroplanes buzzing overhead... The idiots among us can't let that happen now, either.
In fact, this move away from tiled-up unit-spam, the overall reduced numbers of military units and (more importantly) the way that the game underlines the way units develop through XP-gathering and consequent upgrades, makes you an awful lot more aware of just what kinds of firepower your Civ is brandishing.
And as for the old complexities of piling your little chaps into boats and setting them off across a few tiles of water for a jolly boy's holiday beating up Roman scum, at a certain point of maritime tech, discovery units develop the ability to travel short distances in self-created boats. The days of countless turns in which you were nothing but a glorified ferry operator seem to have been partly erased.
More on Sid Meier's Civilization V
If there's something within Civ V that I'm yet to be convinced by then it's City States: independent, one-city power blocks that are there to be allied with or trampled underfoot. On one hand, they provide an excellent way of expanding early on without the need to build Settlers (an alternative being to establish them as puppet regimes) but to an extent they also seem to get in the way of the traditional argy-bargy with the civilisations that are your direct competitors.
It's more fun to start research pacts, secrecy pacts and "why don't you give me the contents of your Treasury" pacts with the big boys than piddly old Warsaw. Although, as is the way with Civilization, if you don't want Warsaw and his chums in your game then they be turned off before the game begins.
Ultimately - with a UI that's frankly astounding, its polite hand-holding tutorials and event reminders somehow never becoming intrusive - there's little doubt that Civ V is onto something of a winner. The framework of classic Civ has been deconstructed, and its dustiest and most misunderstood parts have been ushered into the foreground, reappearing with a gleam, like the shiny C3PO when he throws his arms in the air at the end of Star Wars.
Established hacks will miss the religion, espionage and suchlike, and those features, surely, will be waiting in the wings as expansion packs. As for being able to name your city after how cool you are (or how cool you intend to be), I'm hoping this is an issue that can be dealt with before the September release, or at the very least in a post-release patch. WillisCool shall be triumphant once more. It has been written.
Sid Meier's Civilization V is due out for PC in September.