Sid Meier's Civilization V Reader Review
The rallying cries of your battle-hardened legions pierce the air as they glare clinically into the eyes of their resolute adversaries. On one side, a reluctant gathering of peace-loving conscripts desperately striving to defend the honour of their people and creed; on the other, a merciless juggernaut looking to seize yet another addition to its ever-expanding imperial might. Two forces will enter. One will prevail; the other will perish beneath its conqueror’s vengeful boots.
It may read like the set-up for a run-of-the-mill war game, but this is very much the onus that Firaxis Games appears to have placed on the latest iteration of its famed Civilization series. Priding itself on its ability to provide a compelling recipe of freedom, depth and raw addictiveness, Sid Meier’s most well-known franchise has thrived for almost two decades, thanks in no small part to a succession of subtle gameplay tweaks and expansions and one of the most dedicated fanbases in all of gaming. But with the series having raged on for so long, costing so many innocent players their time, productivity and real-world aspirations, was another incarnation of the turn-based behemoth a necessary business move?
Thankfully, Civilization V responds with a “yes”, although it’s a “yes” that requires some serious qualification.
Upon loading the game for the first time, veterans of the Civilization formula will be struck with the immediate impression that things have changed, at least on a cosmetic level. The all-important game map, on which the bulk of the action takes place, now sports a number of welcome visual upgrades, with the water effects, landscape and shrubbery easily surpassing the comparatively amateurish, sketch book-esque environments of its predecessors. While it wouldn’t be fair to say that the game ever manifests itself as an aesthetic rival to many of its modern-day counterparts, such as the Total War and Starcraft franchises, Civ V’s graphics do exactly what they need to in painting a warm, welcoming picture without detracting from the essence of what the game itself is meant to represent: strategy and openness.
Developed too is the user interface. Menus are now easier than ever to navigate, whilst a plethora of hints and tips are available at the simple touch of a button to the uninitiated. Screens displaying the player’s diplomatic, economic, social and political progress and needs are now laid out in a coherent, easily understandable manner, all whilst maintaining a suitable level of detail to drive home the game’s underlying complexity. Add to that the simplified on-screen descriptions linked to the attributes of your units, buildings and resources and you’ve got a seamless package that beckons you through the door with open arms, ready for your relentless gaming marathon that will inevitably work its way into the early hours of the next morning.
Accessibility, then, is the aim of the game in Civ V and, by and large, Firaxis has done a wonderful job in making its latest title open for new players to dip their toes into the water. Though never as initially overwhelming as the likes of Total War, past Civilization games have often been guilty of being a little too daunting for newcomers, thrusting them into the experience without ever fully explaining the intricate mechanics that made them so special and unique. But not this time. No, sir; Firaxis has seemingly set its stall behind the idea that first impressions count for everything in this day and age of instant gratification gaming and, on the presentation front, now would probably be a better time than ever to venture into Civilization’s universe of turn-based glee for the first time.
But the changes aren’t only relevant to the first-timers. Traditionally a franchise based around the fundamental principle of “evolution, not revolution”, the Civilization series has, until now, stuck by its tried-and-true layout of tiled squares on the game map, on which multiples units could be strategically placed on single tiles in order to overwhelm one’s opponents through sheer numerical superiority. Civilization V, however, makes the boldest step in the series’ history in this regard, doing away with the square tiles in favour of hexagonal alternatives, allowing for only one unit to be positioned on each. This may seem to be a superficial question of shapes and sizes, but the results are telling. Now, strategic warfare has become a whole new ball game, with players now forced to think much more carefully about each move in their attempts to continue their quest for world conquest or to simply keep their own territory sufficiently secure in the face of outside threats. Do you seek to surround the enemy city, knowing full well that a horde of archers are lying in wait, eagerly anticipating the opportunity to pick off your forces at range? Do you stake a claim to the vital high ground, despite having to get through two separate legions of fortifying troops to get there? These are the million pound questions that can mark the difference between success and failure, and such is the new-found intricacy of the combat system that Civilization’s skirmishes have taken on a new lease of life. Perhaps Solid Snake’s assertions that “war, war has changed” were accurate after all.
With that said, though, flexing one’s military muscles has never made up the entirety of Civilization’s wares, and the same rings true for Civ V. As in its direct ancestor, the award-winning Civilization IV, it’s also possible to secure victory in several other ways, each lending themselves to their own radically unique experiences. For the peace-loving visionaries out there, a cultural victory may be attained through the successful pursuit of the all-new social policies, which may be selected at will by the player and which also bring a variety of additional perks, ranging from military bonuses to improved building efficiency. A scientific victory goes to the first civilization to build a fully-functional spaceship and assemble it within the confines of its capital city, whereas a diplomatic victory is on offer for the civilization that manages to consolidate unanimous support from its peers in the United Nations. It’s all fairly familiar to seasoned Civ fanatics, yet the strategies that must be employed in order to fulfil any of these conditions within the turn limit are different enough to put a new spin on an old set of ideas.
The new city states are particularly significant in shaping the game’s new tactical dimension, especially when it comes to militarism and diplomacy. Put basically, city states function (prepare to have your mind blown) as pseudo-civilizations comprised of only one city, which may defend themselves from attack, undergo cultural endeavours and explore the local terrain, but will never expand beyond their single-city statuses. On the surface, they may appear to be relatively meaningless additions to the proverbial equation, but the fact of the matter is that they, too, can be pivotal in determining who comes out on top by the end-game hootenanny in 2050 AD. Without doubt, one can largely ignore them and still come up trumps at the lower difficulty settings, but remaining on good terms with city states can, and often does, pay dividends. In the short term, allying oneself with a city state, an eventuality that may come about through publically declaring one’s support for the state, offering financial donations or stemming a local Barbarian threat, may yield valuable resources and minerals that can fuel one’s own production back at home. In the grand scheme of things, however, solidifying their backing is absolutely imperative if one wishes to achieve a diplomatic victory, and it also doesn’t hurt the war-mongering scallywags to have an extra strategic power on their side or, indeed, to simply take them for themselves by force. Offering so much to think about and ponder, city states can be veritable wild cards in the long, winding road to glory, and their addition to the fray generates yet another level of depth to the ride that is Civilization.
So, all’s well and good, then? The main components seem to be in place and the premise seems sound enough, so can we go home now and immerse ourselves in some wonderful, wholesome Civilization goodness?
Steady on. It’s not quite all it’s cracked up to be. Not yet, anyway.
The first puncture of the joyride comes courtesy of an AI system that is a little too aggressive. Even after a series of gameplay patches, the majority of other civilizations are still overly pugnacious and all too eager to throw their primitive cavalry units at your state-of-the-art intergalactic shoryuken death ray launchers (trust me; it has to happen at some point) with little thought of how and when they will emerge from the episode. The very next turn, they’re issuing you an ultimatum, unreservedly guaranteeing that your failure to hand over all of your money, resources and Blankety Blank chequebook and pen will culminate in your instant condemnation to the footnotes of the annals of history, rendering you and your people mere statistics in the brutal march of war. No sooner has their marginal overconfidence been lightly extinguished that they’re begging for peace, only to re-emerge ten turns later with a similarly pitiful motley crew of thugs ripe for the picking.
Which brings us to another thing: diplomacy. Even on the surprisingly infrequent occasions when you’re not wallpapering your palace with the entrails of your foes, saving face on the world stage is significantly more frustrating than it ought to be. You might, let’s say, want to boost your civilization’s political clout by opening trade negotiations with your friends and neighbours across the globe – a fine idea, say I. One problem, though: you’re going to get robbed. Hard. Not only are trade proposals that seem as mutually beneficial as they come almost always dismissed by your opponents, but you’re also likely to wade through a constant stream of their own frankly pitiful offers at the beginning of many of your turns, after which you’re given a stern finger-wagging for your refusal to bend down and accept the dominance of your superiors.
So, the AI behaviour remains somewhat wide of the mark, then, but perhaps it wouldn’t be such a niggling issue if it didn’t erode the wide spectrum of strategic opportunities that comprise Civilization’s enduring charm and appeal. Mercilessly aggressive opponents would be great if Civ V had been pitched to consumers as an out-and-out war game, and it’s this focus on the clashing of steel and bone that works so well in the Total War series. But Civilization is, and always has been, so much more than a mere battle simulator. To so many of its loyal contingent of die-hard fans, it’s an experience like no other, each individual game being a fresh, new adventure in its own right. Once you’ve spent several hours bringing the rest of the world to its knees, there’s always been a curious sense of comfort in the knowledge that, next time round, you can dedicate your efforts and resources towards the cultivation of the next scientific superpower or the ultimate cultural hotspot, safe in the knowledge that you’re likely to be free and safe to do so. And, sadly, this comfort begins to fizzle away when your efforts to lead a new world order by the way of the open palm are derailed by the umpteenth swarm of yobs using your trading post for target practice. In the end, it’s all a matter of disrupted balance, and its impact in this respect is marked.
Technical qualms aside, players of old may justifiably take issue with the fact that several of the series’ popular gameplay facets have been completely omitted in the latest Civ title. Religion, for example, a prime cultural mechanic from Civilization IV, performs a disappearing act, as do the corporations and tactical espionage features that were previously added as part of Civ IV’s highly successful expansion packs. Admittedly, the jury is still out on whether or not the decision to take out such generally well-received elements from Civ V’s five-year-old predecessor was a bold, well-considered idea or a case of “one step forward, two steps back”, but it’s still quite hard to imagine that their inclusion would have done any significant harm to the overall gaming experience.
Perhaps one could say that Civilization V is a masterpiece waiting to break out of its shell – a Renaissance artist in a Barbarian warlord’s clothing. It’s got so much to offer newbies and old hands alike and boasts a lifespan that makes of mockery of almost all of its rivals, yet it doesn’t quite come across as the finished article. And that’s exactly what Firaxis has kept, and must continue to keep, in mind as it continues to churn out patch after patch, update after update, in an attempt to address the concerns put forward by its fan community. After all, Civilization IV was supported by its developers over four years after its launch, and that game ended up being heralded as one of the most iconic strategy games in history. The acid test, therefore, could lie in how Civ V shapes up in around a year’s time, when a more substantial number of alterations and improvements have been thrown out. Without doubt, that seems a long time to wait and, yes, getting things right in the first place would have been preferable, but Civ V is just too promising to give up on just yet. Rome wasn’t built in a day and, apparently, neither is the prototypical turn-based strategy game.