Civilization V Divides, but Conquers

         After six years of work by a combined development team of industry veterans and fresh talent culled from a vast modding community, Firaxis and 2k Games have served up the much-anticipated successor to Civilization IV. The fifth installment in Sid Meier’s beloved strategy franchise brings some dramatic changes to game play, and the response by the fan base has been a divided one. Though many, particularly industry members, have lauded the game for its revised features, others have been left rolling on the floor in agony over features missing from the previous iteration and the “simplified” nature of the latest. Comparisons have been drawn to Civilization Revolutions, the skinny cousin of the incredibly beefy Civilization IV. So, why all the drama?

           On the surface, Civilization V is absolutely gorgeous compared to its predecessor, especially when run in Direct X 10 & 11 (9 is still an option.) The artwork used for the map is greatly improved: buildings cluster together haphazardly in cities the way they truly do, vast forests stretch across continents to meet with great deserts and oceans. Gone is the square grid familiar from previous games, replaced with hexagrams that give a more natural look to coastlines. Gone, too, are the cartoonish leader portraits, replaced with more lifelike images that greet you not only in English but in Chinese, German, Arabic and every tongue fitting the national identity of the historical personas with whom you will vie for a place in the sun. Indeed, the entire game has a far more realistic appearance than ever before.

            One of the most dramatic changes in game play from Civ IV is quickly evident the moment you have more than one warrior to place: gone are the stacks of doom that pretty much decided strategy in days of yore. That’s right: only one military unit can occupy any given hex at a time. Many forum trolls have blasted the developers for this, but the result is a combat system greatly enriched. Suddenly, terrain means more: a city sandwiched between the sea and the ocean with only two points of access for attackers has a real advantage over a city lying in the open plain. Archers and artillery can now fire over the heads of friendly infantry, simulating more realistic combat conditions and allowing players to shield valuable siege units from frontal assault. Flanking suddenly has a purpose!

            But the infamous stacks of doom aren’t the only thing you might find missing. Religion and missionaries don’t show up anywhere, and neither do spies. Frankly, espionage in Civ IV was never a great factor in the course of a game the way it was in history, but the absence of religion at least robs the game of a good deal of flavor, if not a way to bend and sway computer players. Also gone are a number of civilizations and the option of different leaders per civilization—meaning there are fewer options for mixing and matching bonuses, a feature perhaps rightly missed. There’s something new to fight over instead of whose God packs more heat, however: city states. Independent cities dot the world map now, interacting with bigger civilizations, giving bonuses to their allies and marching to war against their enemies. Indeed, how you interact with these tiny nations will be influenced by other civilizations, which will guarantee their independence or covet their riches themselves.

            Another hotly debated change is to civics: in Civ IV new technologies brought new possibilities for civil society, letting you rule over a democracy or monarchy, to rule by the laws of God or to let your subjects worship freely, etcetera, each with certain advantages and disadvantages. In Civ V, you instead generate culture and purchase social policies that are strictly beneficial, but permanent. Instead of changing willy-nilly, players now have to craft careful decisions that will benefit them (or haunt them) for the rest of a game.

            Other note-worthy changes include citizen happiness, which is empire-wide now as opposed to specific to each city: perhaps this is less realistic, but it makes management a lot easier (also, your cities don’t become festering pools of sickness anymore.) A building maintenance provides a new twist, however: adding to your cities also adds to your per-turn gold expenses, forcing you to choose carefully where and when you build that barracks or granary. The same is true of roads and railroads, which have maintenance costs. With gold you can also purchase hexes as a means of expanding your borders; over all, players must be even more thoughtful with budgeting. Diplomacy has been buffed up, too, and even the AI will seek to exploit research agreements and secret pacts and ask you to march to war with them. Although the effectiveness of the AI in game play changes with the difficulty level, don’t expect to have many friends left if you get too greedy at even the easiest difficulties.

            I could go on, but anyone who has played Civilization before knows how deep these games go, and minute changes abound, and too many familiar things remain to mention. What fans can expect out of Civilization V is a leaner offering, but with such changes that it becomes a completely different experience from the previous. Those who were expecting “Civilization 4.5” like many of the pitchfork-and-torch bearers plaguing forums across the internet will be disappointed. Civ V is not merely a prettier, fatter version of its elder (there are modifications for Civ IV if you actually wanted bigger) but an evolved creature. Still, I urge strategy fans to give it a try (the demo is enough to help you decide); it is indeed more approachable than Civ IV but all of the things that made you fall in love with that game are still there. The soul of the game has not changed. Civilization V is by no means perfect, but the developers have already offered up not only patches but additional content: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde come for free, and anyone willing to part with a few dollars can oversee Babylonia, too.

            I will leave you with one final comment, for those who worry about the game’s imperfection and specifically for those who would gnash their teeth over how Civ V isn’t Civ IV: the latter wasn’t perfection when it came out, either, and the beefiness you find lacking in the new serving was partly the product of three separate expansion packs. So if you’re not happy now, give it time. The Civilization team has a solid reputation for constantly working on their games as time goes on, and it’s only been a matter of weeks since the game’s release. So go buy Civ V, and give it a fair play. From such a tasty first course, I’m eager to see what else the developers are cooking up behind the scenes.

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