Review: Sid Meier's Civilization V
At a Glance
So you want to conquer the world. Do you march into London with tanks and soldiers, or buy Paris with your impressive economy? Or are you a cunning and able diplomat, able to negotiate peace while gaining land from your adversaries? Or does your superior technology cause all other civilizations to pay tribute to your scientific prowess? Sid Meier’s Civilization V lets you shape the world (and your own society) how you wish. Invest in the printing press, build a monument, or invade your neighbor—the choice is yours.
One of the most epic, deep, and complex turn-based strategy games of all time gets a visual upgrade and some major tinkering in this edition. How you develop your society—through technology, culture, and war has been reshaped in this edition, and these changes largely make for a more streamlined, less convoluted playing experience. Yet other elements from previous games have gone missing, including many units and world leaders, making Civ V seem more like a remix than a true sequel. Perhaps more damning, however, is the fact that while the game is about the evolution of society, the game’s artificial intelligent is stuck in the Neanderthal stage of development.
To start Civilization V, you must choose a world leader that represents a historical civilization. Each world leader has bonuses and special units that reflect his/her own historical contributions to the world. After several expansions to Civilization IV, the initial cast of 18 world leaders seems positively pedestrian. Still, it’s fun to play as your favorite historical figure and found historical cities, build their iconic units (like samurai, jaguars, minutemen, etc) and enjoy unique bonuses (my favorite: Nobunaga’s Boshido).
In addition to a slimmer cast of world leaders, Civilization V has some obvious revisions with its core gameplay mechanics. You can’t unit stack on a given hexagon (the game’s default tile shape that replaced the square tiles of the original games). This means that instead of having a heavily defended city with several artillery and musketeers, you have one unit and the city’s innate defenses. By “innate” I mean every city is capable of defending itself now, a useful ability that allows even the tiniest of settlements to fend off pirate attacks. That said, when you advance your technology sufficiently, a single infantry unit can usually withstand a barrage of rocks from a pre-modern city and whatever defenders are garrisoned in the city. By the time I hit the modern era, I was conquering enemy cities with only one or two infantry units.
After these cities are conquered, you can then choose to annex them to your empire (which will increase your empire’s unhappiness), install a puppet (wherein you’ll still get bonuses but have no control over the city) or raze it. I routinely would install puppets until my happiness levels were sufficiently high to take an annex (and unruly) city’s negative impact. Building a courthouse helped settle the city down and made it a productive member of my ever-growing empire.
Technology trading, a staple of previous editions of Civilization, has been replaced by joint research agreements between allied nations. By investing gold, both civilizations will get a random unknown technology after a random number of terms. Long time fans of the series have gotten used to the game mechanics being tinkered, even when they don’t want them to be— in this case, I don’t understand why the developers couldn’t have kept tech trading and allowed civilizations to jointly research as well.
Another new feature in Civilization V is the edition of City-States. City-States are small countries based in one city that aren’t in direct competition for world domination. They can be bribed, conquered, and befriended and gain the player bonuses or units. Each city-state has one of three personalities, though if you befriend them they’ll gift you useful units like warriors. Despite seemingly not part of the greater game and easily conquered, they do usually have surprising fight and technology. During one game Copenhagen started conquering French cities. I had to laugh.
Finally, the major social change is that you now will buy social policies with generated culture from buildings, cities, and great persons. I actually liked how this played better than the previous Civilization used culture. There are several social policies you can adapt that will really help a civilization as it develops, depending on your tactics. Some are mutually exclusive (while others curiously aren’t) so you’ll have to think long and hard about what your overall plan for domination is.
Civilization V’s units take longer to build than in previous games, placing more of an emphasis on battle tactics and careful planning. What this actually means is you’re more likely to choose the quickest game speed game option instead of the conventional speed. Why? Because waiting 60 turns for a Wonder to build requires a lot of patience, but for a generic building to take that long is unbearable.
On the whole, the changes to the series are likely to upset more people than they’ll please. While graphically superior, lead designer Jon Shafer seems to have created a game that is more of a remix of Civilization IV than a true sequel. We normally associate a sequel with more characters, more resources, and more gameplay elements. Instead, the formula for the Civilization series is the only element that has fundamentally changed.
Granted, it’s hard to argue that the game needed even more things to juggle in addition to keeping track of happiness, gold, luxury resources, strategic resources, your borders, your army, culture, technology, Wonders, and your foes. But it seems silly to not retain or expand upon the growing number of units, buildings, or leaders.
The formula over the years has proven to work, so why change it? Or rather, do the changes make the game better? Personally, I find the game to be smoother now, with better visuals, a more intuitive social policy system, and a better battle system.
Of course, I could also argue that the longer build times for units and elimination of stacking really reduces the number of battle options you have and actually reduces the scale of the battles. I’m also still not a big fan of the Wonder system. While it’s fantastic to see you get all of these bonuses (and a lovely cinematic) when you build something like the Notre Dame, it’s still frustrating when after spending thirty turns to build it, someone else builds it first (and thereby renders your entire efforts useless). With Civ V’s focus on long-build times and protecting your units, to devote an entire city’s build options to such a huge gamble is a bit too foolhardy for my tastes.
Finally, it’s a shame that such a sophisticated game is populated by such unintelligent AI—global domination seems inevitable, though after 20 hours, it will be by no means easy. My enemies rarely possessed the diplomatic acumen to gang up on me and negotiating them was rarely fruitful. They're handling of their military units was always laughable. Your best bet for competition will be online—if you can find someone willing to go the distance on such a long-winded game.
Macworld’s buying advice
It’s two steps forward and one step backward for this series. The graphics are better, the hexagonal tiles make sense, and the social policy system is vastly improved. But the long build times, frustrating battle mechanic (how my armored tanks can ever get defeated by archers I’ll never know), and lack of true innovation is frustrating. For such an epic, engrossing, and altogether peerless series, it’s strange that the developers keep reconfiguring the formula only to expose new flaws in the game. Personally, I think the franchise fails to be as ambitious as it once was: why not bring back the espionage ability from Beyond the Sword or give us new ways to engage other civilizations or imagine new technologies for us to research? Civilization V is a game about evolving your society to become the best. The developers need to find more inspiration from their source material.
[Editor's Note 2/22/11: Aspyr recently announced the release of seven additional download packs for the Mac. These include new civilizations (like the Mongol, Spanish, Babylonian and Inca empires), new scenarios, and new map packs. The DLC packs can be purchased on Aspyr’s GameAgent.com, or through digital download sites including Steam and MacGameStore.com.]