Look upon my works, ye mighty — Felix and Hazizi review Civilization V (PC)

Civilization V

Just good friends: two heads are better than one

Some games are more important than others.  Some games you spend so much time playing you don’t actually write about them.

Civilization (Civ) is perhaps the most important game of all, and anyone who has been sucked into its gaping maw, only to be spat out days, weeks or months later, blinking against the light and struggling to relearn the basics of social interaction and etiquette can attest, this is a game that you can lose yourself in like no other.

The latest instalment in the series, Civilization V (Civ V), has recently been released.  To mark the historical significance of this occasion, and because Civ V is too damn big for one mere mortal to review, Felix invited Hazizi to the Cave Of Assessment to give Civ V its reckoning.   With the assistance of a laptop powered by iridescent fungi, Felix and Hazizi played Civ V over a weekend and shared their thoughts.  This is not a diary of that specific game, but a discussion of the general features of Civ V which for no apparent reason uses Michael Jackson song titles for subheadings.  The bonus for all you aggregators out there is that two reviewers means double dose of digital assessment at the end.

H: So this is the Cave – I love what you’ve done with the place!  The new fold out couch looks great.

F: Yeah, well I know how much you dig Civ and I don’t get many visitors up here.  Have a seat so we can get down to the Assessing.  Weevil?

H: Eurgh, it’s bitter and crunchy, like sandy snot.  As I was trying to tell you on the climb up, I’m a big Civ IV fan.  I came to the Civ series late, having never really got into Civs I – III.  But I certainly made up for lost time with Civ IV.  I love the turn based aspect – there’s no rushing or stress like in RTS.

F: Well, back in the day I played Civ 2 enough to lose a girlfriend but in the last couple of years I’ve been all about Civilization Revolution (Civ Rev) on the PS3.  It takes a lot to get me from the PS3 to the PC, but Civ V has managed it.

H: So, where do we start with this Assessment?

F: Maybe where all Civilization games start, at the beginning of history.

No friend of mine: fookin Steam!

H: Actually, I want to get into some prehistory first and discuss some issues with the game before you even get to play.  Firstly, I’ve managed to avoid installing Steam on my PC for all these years, but now I have no choice – you don’t install, you don’t play.  To add insult to injury, I bought this game on the Thursday before the official release date only to find it was locked until 10am the next morning.  Now a warning about this was probably tucked away on some obscure discussion thread on the official game website, but it caught me off guard and annoyed me.

F: I agree — it’s like buying a CD (remember that, gramps?) and being told you need a particular brand of CD player to play it on.  Hey industry: stop using convenience as an excuse to litter my PC with unwanted, resource-chugging apps!  It’s almost like you people think that a customer doesn’t own a game, that we merely lease the right to play it.

H: There are a couple of other pre-game hair pullers, like having to choose DirectX Settings every time (it seems to work better on DirectX 9 for me).

Then you have to sit through the first ten seconds or so of the (admittedly cool) intro every time never quite knowing exactly when you can start the game, unless you can find the setting to change this (Go to usersettings.ini in the game folder and set SkipIntroVideo = 1).  It’s just a bit clunky.

These are minor annoyances, but frustrating nonetheless.

Wanna be startin’ somethin’: early game, basic concepts and building cities

F: Like all Civ games before it, Civ V draws you in by starting small and adding complexity as you go.  You start out with just a couple of dudes plonked on a map made up of hexagonal tiles, surrounded by the fog of undiscovered terrain.  Your first decision in-game will be relatively straightforward: what direction do I move in?

The hexagonal tiles in Civ V are new for the previously-square Civ series.  Square tiles favoured the diagonal move, which felt like getting 1.5 moves for the price of one. Hexes give the map smoother edges and re-assert an emphasis on the effect of terrain on movement – you will be particularly grateful for a clearing that allows quick passage through a jungle, or you might think twice before climbing that hill.  There are various rewards for exploration which, along with the general joy of “cloud-busting”, provides incentive to look around.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t played a PC game for a while, but I was gobsmacked by how beautiful Civ V is.  As you zoom in on the landscape, animated details reveal themselves – foxes chasing each other or cattle lowing on a plain.  The user interface is done in an elegant art deco style and manages to put oodles of information at your fingertips while avoiding screen clutter.

I also liked that each different type of civilization gets its own incidental music during a game.  Germans get orchestral strings, Iroquois get tribal drums and chanting.  I want to play once as each civilization just to hear their tunes.

H: It is nice, but the bloke who reads out the technology descriptions ain’t no Nimoy.

F: That is objectively true.  Anyway, your second decision in the game will likely be: where do I build my first city?  Cities are central to the Civ ethos — they are your production hubs and they also start the bucket filling process.

H: Buckets?

F: Yeah man.  I may as well get into it now, it’s part of the “one more turn” addictiveness of Civ.

Civ games set out a number of different buckets in front of the player.  Each turn, the bucket fills up a little more and when it is full you empty it out and unlock a reward.  For example, when the science bucket is full, a new technology is unlocked, which in turn can unlock a new type of building, military unit or resource on the map.  Of course, then you have to build the thing you have unlocked, which sets out another bucket to fill and before you know it you have buckets everywhere.  There are things you can build to improve the rate at which various buckets get filled and you have to make choices to prioritise which buckets you want to fill faster … and I think I can leave the metaphor there before I make some crappy gag about Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.

Civ V has adapted a feature from Civ Rev in that it puts culture into a bucket as well. When the culture bucket is full you can buy a social policy.  These policies provide handy boons and set an overall theme to your empire’s priorities.  Some policies make it easier to settle many cities, whereas others provide bonuses for having fewer cities.  Some speed up scientific research, others speed up your money-making and so on.  It’s a great device to get you to consider where your civ is going long term and the choices between different policies are genuinely chin-scratchy.

H: It also takes the amorphous culture system from Civ IV and turns it into something more measurable.  But reducing it to an accounting exercise does take some of the romance out of the process of cultural development.

It also removes the possibility to ‘culture-flip’ opposition cities, which was one of the greatest joys in Civ IV.  I used to love the idea of having a civilization that is so cool that nearby cities say ‘Fuck it, I’m joining them’.

Religion is gone too, or has at least been reduced to some vague references and the existence of non religion-specific temples (which, coincidentally, are used to help fill your culture bucket).  Gone is the establishment of religions that are spread across trade routes or by missionaries to distant lands.  Religion was really well modelled and sensitively handled in Civ IV, and added an interesting layer to diplomacy as well as giving you a valuable sighter on other civilizations’ distant cities – it’s a shame they abandoned it here.

Once you’ve built a city, finding nearby resources and building improvements to access them is, as always, your first priority.  You might notice a few of your old favourites missing: copper, pigs, corn, rice and stone.  This changes the early game dynamics.  The old ‘copper scramble’ will no longer be a feature of the early game.  It also reduces the possibility of finding win-win trading possibilities with other civilizations.

Workers are still as important as ever for improving the land around your cities and securing access to resources.  Micro-managing is recommended because automating them can have some unintended consequences, especially now that they can embark across the seas.  It’s funny when you’re in battle and see one of your workers cruising past, or when one decides to go via the cape and discovers a new city state in the process.  You can imagine the Governor of the newly discovered city saying ‘Really?  Is THIS who you send to meet me?  A bunch of blokes in skirts holding picks and shovels?’

For what it’s worth, villages have been replaced with ancient ruins (for no apparent reason), and barbarians are still a useful diversion as fighting them provides experience for your troops.

City self-defence is a sensible and welcome addition which helps speed up the early game (because you no longer have to build ‘one to defend, one to explore’).

F: Whew, it’s only 200BC and I already have to chuck another log on the fire.

In order to avoid turning our fireside chat into a FAQ explaining all of the concepts at work in Civ V, I will simply note that the various in-game advisors and the Civilopedia do a great job at explaining the general concepts of the game for a beginner, although advanced players may find that the Civilopedia doesn’t provide as much minutiae on various mechanics as they would like.

They don’t care about us: mid-game, empire management and city states

F: In managing your cities and military units you will also encounter another feature common to the Civ series – the PC games anyway: every reward has a backhanded penalty, every solution creates a further problem.

For example, a city needs to grow access more tiles around it and utilise their resources, but as a city grows, its citizens become more unhappy, which makes them less productive.  There are buildings you can build that increase happiness, but these cost a certain amount of gold per turn to maintain, which depletes your gold stocks, so you need to make more gold, which means growing your city to access more tiles around it and ay ay ay!

This is more fun than it sounds.

The concept of unhappiness is central to the balance.  It was a concept I had to adjust to after the utopian economic rationalist world of Civ Rev where everyone is all happy, all the time and they keep churning stuff out for you no matter what.  In Civ V your people are always looking for a new excuse to bitch and moan.  Population growing?  We’re unhappy.  Founding a new city? We’re unhappy.  Invading another city? We’re unhappy.  Kicking the the arse of those murderous Aztecs, who then hand us all their beautiful cities for nothing? We’re unhappy.  I think the unhappiness mechanic was invented by this guy:

Still, this stops Civ V being a jumped up game of Risk and forces you to use the other elements of the game, like trade and diplomacy, and to pay attention to the demands of the city states.  City states are a new feature – mini-civilizations that don’t expand beyond one city but provide handy bonuses like food or resources if they like you.  There are various ways to keep them on side and every now and again they make a request for something, be it a resource, conquering another city state or building a wonder.  These are effectively optional side missions and they add to the mix of competing demands on your attention.

Self-sufficiency is difficult to achieve and for a long while your civilization’s happiness will be dependent on other civilizations or city states.  It is telling that when Simon and Garfunkel sang “I am a rock/I am an island“, they weren’t singing about playing Civ V.

H: Some buildings are still really valuable.  You’re going to want to get your libraries online early, and a barracks will give your units the edge in early battles.  There’s also a transparent system for allocating the people of your cities to different buildings, which increases their effectiveness.

On the other hand some buildings are now far less valuable.  Because you won’t build too many units in Civ V, buildings which speed unit production can probably be left alone.  The need for a war machine economy is lessened by the new combat rules and hefty maintenance costs.

Wonders, too, are less powerful, or at least more balanced.  There will no longer be the mad scramble towards a mega-wonder like the Pyramids or the Great Library in Civ IV.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still build them, but it’s not as much of an all-or-nothing gambit strategy as it used to be.

For example, Notre Dame and the Hanging Gardens are a couple of nice happiness boosters.  Or you could fortify with the Great Wall, which looks really cool and gives a defensive movement bonus.  You could even team it up with the Himeji Castle for a defensive combat combo.  Handy, but not game breakers.

Beat it: end-game, combat, victory conditions and game balance

H: Sooner or later you’re probably going to want to fight somebody.  Even if you don’t, someone is probably going to pick a fight with you.  Combat is now a very interesting part of the game.  Ranged units are damaging but weak, and must be protected by your melee units.  There is more fighting in open terrain, and the bonuses or penalties provided by terrain types loom larger in the outcome of a skirmish.

Unit upgrades can give very specific but powerful bonuses like healing nearby units.  The addition of great generals and targeted bonuses from social policies reward keeping your armies together, and give you bonuses in battle that can give you the edge.

Ultimately it will be technology that gives you a decisive military advantage.  As Jim Malone once said, if he pulls a knife, you pull a gun.

This is all great, but unfortunately the AI isn’t strong enough to put up a strong, organised opposition.  If they win it’s usually by force of numbers.  You’ll see them make obvious blunders here and there which tend to take some of the gloss off your military victories.

F: Civ V provides a number of different victory conditions: military conquest; being the first to research enough technology to build a spaceship; a cultural victory where you adopt a set number of social policies; a diplomatic victory where all the other civilizations and city states vote on who should win, like the final tribal council in Survivor.  There is also a default victory where the civilization that’s doing the best by 2050 wins, which isn’t as impressive.

End game can be a bit of a grind, because you can realise relatively early that you are the toughest/most advanced civilization in the world and it’s just a matter of going through the motions to win.  I imagine it’s how chess champions feel when they have a winning strategy that still takes 114 moves to execute.  However, you will want to push on just to see the thing through to its bloody end.  Plus, late game technologies and units like the Giant Death Robots are worth waiting for.

It also means your main opponent is often your own population.  The inverse relationship between happiness and nearly everything else means that it is difficult to keep building new cities or wage extended wars – you will often have to take a break from expansion or military conquest to shore up your population’s happiness up, or risk your civilization’s production and military effectiveness grinding to a halt.  This unhappiness is a barrier to common strategy-game rush tactics.  There’s no rushing in Civ, you have to take your sweet time.

While the game pushes you to use its different mechanics, in doing so it also causes you to discover the flaws in those mechanics earlier than otherwise.  Quite simply, diplomacy isn’t as robust as combat.  Hazizi, you’ve talked about all the improvements that make combat fun, even with a shoddy AI.

Diplomacy can often be a bewildering affair, where one minute a Civ is fawning all over you offering you trade deals, the next they’re gettin up in your face about some shit.  Civilizations offer to enter Pacts of Secrecy or Cooperation and the game doesn’t tell you exactly what that means.  It also seems that other civilizations’ attitude toward you is related to the strength of your army.  They can smell a militarily-weak pacifist a mile off and will push you around more if you don’t have many troops.  In the long term, no matter what you do, it seems that armed conflict is inevitable – which is a handy way to rationalise that pre-emptive strike against a civilization with whom you’ve had an alliance for 2000 years.  Diplomacy isn’t broken, just not as deep as it could be.

The removal of espionage is also a downer.  It would have been cool to try and remain allies with a civilization diplomatically but secretly undermine them with spies.

Given that Firaxis/2K have already said that this game will be patched, I hope that they can patch the combat and diplomacy AI.  While we’re talking wish lists, some more custom maps and scenarios would be nice too.  Civ 2 had an awesome WWII scenario that started with the Germans poised to take Paris which I would love to see done in Civ V.

Also the end screen is bloody anticlimactic – just some raw stats and a “You won!” message.  I was hoping for a little more after 20 odd hours of toil: some graphs, a timeline of milestone achievements or a cutscene or something.

There must be more to life than this: closing thoughts, then let’s get out of this stinky cave and grab a beer

H: Mate, it’s been great hanging out with you in the Cave, but I’m feeling a little claustrophobic now, and need to return to my Mansion of Metal.  But first, my score.

The improved presentation and user interface make this a worthy successor to the Civ throne, and some fundamental changes like the new stacking rules, introduction of ranged units, hex grid and improved combat rules make it a worthwhile new game.

However, you may come away with the feeling that they just didn’t QUITE nail it.   Poor AI both in combat and diplomacy and some minor little glitches and quirks here and there just drag it down a notch, and some of the new rules seem a little contrived.

First impressions may have influenced my views, and the glitches will probably be patched out, so you need to keep these minor criticisms in context.

Civ V will still be the best strategy game of the year by a mile.

Category Rating
Game mechanics: 8
Atmosphere: 9
Addictiveness: 9
Overall:

9

F: This Cave sure is funky and I’m not talking about that cluster of pebbles that looks like Bootsy!  I think it was worth taking some extra time to consider the behemoth that is Civ V.  It has its flaws, but for me they’re not enough to stop me getting sucked in once I get started.

There is no such thing as a perfect videogame, but if you want an experience that is complex, presented well, teaches you how to play as you go, that relies on your noggin more than your twitch reflexes and resonates with you after you walk away from the screen, then you can’t go past Civilization V.  For my money, as of October 2010, it’s as good as it gets.  If you own a PC, Civ V is a must-have title.

Category Rating
Game mechanics: 9
Atmosphere: 10
Addictiveness: 10
Overall:

10

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