Version tested: PC
When I first got my hands on Sid Meier's Civilization V, my life became a fight. I don't mean I was struggling to guide my civilisation to global renown, languidly picking my way up the research tree, sending little men to die in little wars. It wasn't that kind of fight. I mean I was fighting not to click the icon that led to the game that led without fail or mercy to me entering a kind of strategy fugue, which I'd emerge from, hungry and dehydrated, between three and seven hours later. To say this game is addictive is like saying that dry toast is edible. Of course it is, but that's not the whole picture.
If you haven't played a Civilization game before, they have the grandest of all strategy concepts. You're given control of an entire race of people circa 4000 BC, and from a humble beginning caving in the heads of local barbarians you engineer your nation's success over whole millennia, eventually reaching a day-after-tomorrow technological level with Nanotech and (new with Civ V) Giant Death Robots.
One of the more curious parts of Civ is the different ways you can win it. The Domination victory has been simplified with Civ V to "simply" holding the capitals of all the other civilisations. Then there's the Science victory, whereby you assemble the various parts of a spaceship and launch it; the Diplomatic victory, where your peaceful ass is voted to be head of the United Nations; and the Cultural victory, which in Civ V means using culture points to complete five social policy branches and then the 'Utopia Project'.
Maybe this is all sounding unpleasantly dry and complicated, but it's not in the slightest. The turn-to-turn action in Civ V is built out of nothing but intriguing little questions. This is its genius. "What's this city going to build?" the game asks. "Good, good. Now, where's this ship going to move? Oh, wow, you researched Banking! Holy crap! Now, what would you like to research next?"
And then it's 7pm and you're eating fistfuls of dry cereal straight out of the box because the prospect of leaving the game to cook something as complicated as cheese on toast is an impossible idea. Mouth full of bran flakes, you order Beijing to begin the 40-year construction of the Notre Dame.
Which is something else that gives the game colour. Civ forgoes abstraction for letting you re-assemble human history in the wrong order. The Americans can build the Pyramids and the English can build the Pentagon, and every race is led by a disturbingly immortal imagining of one of their most famous leaders. If you spend a game neighbours with France, you're going to be putting up with Napoleon for several thousand years. Probably best just to start a new game. Or crush him immediately under a swarm of primitive spearmen. "What are you going to research?" SPEARMEN. "What's this city going to build?" SPEARMEN. "Where are these units going?" TOWARDS THAT BASTARD.
Civilization V's primary goal was to streamline this concept even further, something it's done a wonderful job with. If you've never played a Civ game before, this is the place to start. The interface, the information the game provides you with, the array of excellent sound effects as you clunk and swoosh your way through various decisions - it's all pretty much perfect. Likewise, a lot of attention's been lavished on the visuals of the world, the idling deer, the animations of your workers and so forth. This and the swap from the series' traditional square grid to a hex-based map, has created a place that's pleasant to explore and develop.
Likewise, the few changes that developer Firaxis has made to the game itself are all smart changes made by smart men. The swapping out of religion and the old government system for a kind of cultural tech tree strengthens the game's sense of upward momentum.
The simple removal of units being able to stack up in a single tile, and the addition of ranged units that can fire across a tile (archers, ships, artillery) ends up having absolutely massive consequences. Assaulting a city (which now get a ranged attack of their own) in Civ V often requires at least 30 seconds of chin-stroking as you consider where to place your troops. More importantly, deft positioning of your army now allows you to overcome a substantially larger force. It's a fun addition to a game where combat was often a case of a fat stack steamrollering everything else.
Then there are the new city-states, which are a cross between an AI nation and a static map resource. They're individual cities that won't expand, somehow manage to boast some of the most advanced units in the game, and that can be befriended through money, gifts, or doing missions for them, whereupon they'll give you a bonus of anything from military units to culture points for as long as you keep bribing them.
The great thing about city-states is how much flavour they add to the map. Despite who they help being a transparently mathematical thing, they're also oddly human, and the feeling of some aggressive despot declaring war on you only for your three city-states to start slinging armies his way is heartwarming.
But all of these new features have one thing in common. They're all small enough changes to have very little impact on the way Civilization plays, meaning this game has all the same pitfalls as previous Civ titles. For most of the time nothing is happening, and you're clicking your way through turns in an addicted trance. Then every so often a terrible attacking force will come out of nowhere, you'll have no means of reacting to it since units often take at least 10 turns to build, and in the worst cases you're left with no choice but to restart an earlier save.
Far more common than these crippling blitzkriegs are the wars that make no sense and that you knock back with ease, because the AI in Civ V is still curiously terrible. At its absolute smartest (what the game calls its 'normal' difficulty setting, before the AI starts receiving stat bonuses) the AI still makes inexplicable demands from you. It will refuse your demands, even if you've got an apocalyptic horde parked outside its borders. It will go to war with you, dash a dozen armies against your defences, then offer you everything it's got for a peace settlement. These aren't opponents that make for fond memories. Civ V is occasionally capable of clashes between equally-matched nations, but they're unforgivably rare. If you want respectable competition, you need to head online.
This is the reason I spent that week actively wrestling with my burning desire to click on the Civ V icon, despite it being such an astoundingly slick, engaging game. For all the hours it eats up, outside of its multiplayer it gives disappointingly little back, and it will continue to give very little back until Firaxis bites the bullet and admits that there are aspects of Civilization which deserve not just to be improved, but fixed.
8 / 10
Civilization V is released for PC on 24th September.