I played Civilization IV once. I thought I’d give it a bash to see what all the fuss was about. I ended up sat there in my underwear, utterly infatuated, from breakfast until 7pm in the evening when I finally conceded it was about time for some lunch.
Just one more turn, as the self-assured Civilization V trailer reminds us – as if we need reminding. Civilization is the heroin of the video game world, to the degree that it could probably give even World of Warcraft pause for thought. With its heady combination of depth, accessibility and turn-based world domination, the series has had us engrossed since the early 90s, when Macs weren’t cool and sending your mates messages in MS-DOS was the nearest thing we had to social networking.
Just a few hours into the game it’s apparent that this is the most refined Civilization yet and smacks of its mobile offshoot Revolution (which is no coincidence, with both sharing the same interface designer). That’s not to say it’s watered down or underdeveloped; more that it’s a leaner experience with a focus on refinement over wholesale reform, easily resulting in the most accessible incarnation of the series yet to grace the PC platform.
The formula is as compulsive and hypnotic as ever, with your civilization’s capital city acting as the economic and military hub from which you are free to rule as you see fit. Workers busily turn tiles, the otherwise seamless segments that make up the fabric of land and sea, into roads, farms and mines, better exploiting any natural resources held within. Scouting parties dot around beyond the frontier, far outside your circle of influence, making first contact with city states and competing civilizations alike, paving the way for diplomacy. And all of this is punctuated with the turn-by-turn ticking of scientific research, nudging you ever-forward in the pursuit of scholarly goals, and the production of buildings, providing both function and form to your cities in equal measure.
And with four ways to win, free to rule you are. Perhaps a diplomatic victory takes your fancy, garnering trust through institutionalised pacifism, savvy trade and political posturing, in the hope of commanding a majority vote at the United Nations. If that all sounds like too much hard work you can always do like Genghis Khan and shoot for a domination victory, shoving all your resources into rapid expansion and military might.
While it would be nice to say the computer could handle all of these play styles with equal aplomb, it’s sadly not the case. The AI can be colossally dumb at times, quickly succumbing to the inherent complexity of the game and often coming across as transparent, awkward and occasionally absurd. Even on the hardest difficulty settings it’s not uncommon to see a civ sit in their capital city for more than a hundred turns, refusing to expand, with nary a single military unit for defence.
It’s not that they can’t put up a fight, and the whole game feels considerably tighter in the mid to late game, with the exploitation of city states becoming less valuable of an exercise (they donate a sizable amount of gold when you first encounter them) and other civs starting to hit their stride. It can however get tiresome and you could find yourself not finding the end-game mop up compelling enough to keep playing.
And it all comes back to being able to find the right amount of challenge. New players may wobble uncomfortably between the difficulty settings, potentially becoming bored long before they find their sweet spot. Advanced players will quite literally be making their own fun: purposefully starting in weak positions, turning city states off for no early game boost, or even automatically declaring war on all civs they encounter. This is, of course, one of the game’s strengths, and reminds you why there are no ‘levels’ or campaigns in Civilization V: every game can be as different as you like. Natural resources, rivers, civs, city states, difficulty level, ocean-heavy maps for naval warfare or to break up the pace of the early game, continental battles with high ground – so many spiralling variables that play out over the course of 6, 8 or even 12 hour games.
There’s plenty of new touches too, such as the city screen, the main way of interacting with your cities, where you can tweak citizens’ work focus, add new production projects to the queue, view your number of buildings and assign specialists, as well as buy new tiles or units. Undoubtedly the most significant change though, is the removal of the long-standing square grid of the world map in favour of a hexagonal grid, a feature inspired by the 1994 game Panzer General, according to lead designer Jon Shafer. In addition, each hexagonal tile can accommodate only one military unit at a time, forcing armies to spread out, using the geography to their advantage and also opening up room for tactics like flanking. This completely changes the way in which battles are played out and not only makes them more strategic, but also moves away from simply reaching that critical mass of units, piling them all into a single tile, and stomping your way around the map.
Civilization V looks better than ever, particularly at higher graphics settings, with details oozing from map tiles, cities and units. It does however seem to chug to a disproportionate degree, even on modern gaming rigs, with the engine struggling to keep up regardless of map size. There is hope, then, that this could be patched out in time, as it is a touch distracting, particularly when clicking Next Turn to shift the game forward.
And so its a game that inherits many of its flaws, none of which when taken in isolation do anything to mar the experience. The game’s biggest success is retaining almost all of the depth of previous games and presenting it to players in such a streamlined and effective manner. It’s deceptively simple at a glance, but play on – and you will – and you’ll soon be sucked in to its turn-by-turn charms, carefully balancing the needs of your people with the overwhelming urge to go and bash the civ next-door. And then, glaring unblinkingly at the screen, you realise it’s 7pm.
It’s probably about time for some lunch.
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