Taking the Fifth

Sid Meier's Civilization V
Reviewed On
Available For
Mac, PC

Civilization 5 Takes Series In a New Direction

Once I’d heard they were making a Civilization 5, I was so hyped to play it. Then it came out, and I was so torn. I so wanted to like it unconditionally, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This is the reason this review took so long to write. I thought maybe if I kept playing it, I would somehow see what I had been missing and hop right on the way-overcrowded Civ 5 bandwagon that everyone else seems to have been agile enough to pile on to. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Maybe I should start with what I like about the game, because there are many things to like.

The map is now hexagonal, which is a break from the grid of squares that had been there in every version since the beginning. This not only makes movement and map layout more natural-seeming, it also makes combat more tactical and dependent upon unit positions. The fact that the game only allows one military unit per space also adds to this. One of the major complaints I had about the previous version was that most conflicts ultimately degenerated to one impossibly huge stack of units on each side (like 50+ cavalry). This made battles less tactical and more of a contest of production. In Civ 5, you have to form up your units to make fronts and position them to use their strengths against neighboring enemy units’ weaknesses.

Also, cities have their own native defensive strengths, which could be augmented by a single unit, but wouldn’t necessarily mean the city’s automatic capture if no unit was there to defend it.

While simplification in this one case was a good thing, Firaxis seems to have done the same thing in nearly every aspect of the game. For example, the job of deciding where land improvements go got a whole lot simpler. In Civ 4 you could make a watermill or workshop, and with them you could tweak the land spaces to do exactly what you wanted, but there was always a trade-off: more of one kind of resource (food, production or money) but less of another. Now all of the basic improvements provide more of one resource with no commensurate depletion of another. Land improvements have become more of a no-brainer situation.

One good aspect about the terrain improvement simplification is the reduced need for roads everywhere. It is assumed that if you put the appropriate improvement on a special resource, you have also made cart tracks enough to get that resource into the nearby city. Roads are now only needed to connect cities together, and to make troop movements quicker. So no longer do you have to put a road or railroad into every single space on the map, making it look like some cartoon freeway system.

Also, the way culture works is made somewhat less complicated in one aspect, but they also added a new twist. Buildings generate culture for their city same as always. But when a certain total culture is amassed, instead of spreading out in all directions, the city gains control of one hex in addition to the ring of six it started with. You have no choice as to which hex you will get, but it will show you the most likely candidates in your city display screen. If you don’t like those choices, you can always spend money to buy hexes. Once a city has control of a hex, that is it – short of intervention by a Great Leader, that hex will always belong to that city. There is no more of the back-and-forth as neighboring cities gain and lose culture relative to each other. This of course removes an entire method of city conquest, which is not a great idea.

However, the game also tallies your civilization’s total culture, and when it reaches a certain total, you get to write a policy for your little empire. Policies work somewhat like civics did in Civ 4, only there are more to choose from. They are grouped together in ten groups, and they are tiered such that in order to get a certain policy you may need to have other policies already in place. In fact, you need to spend a policy choice select a group before you can select any policy within it. Once you’ve selected a policy, you have its benefits for the rest of the game – future policies will not cancel it out. The totals needed to write policy are progressively larger, and they increase even more the more cities you build. This is the one major change of the game that Firaxis got oh so right.

Civ 5 doesn’t keep track of the happiness of an individual city anymore. Instead, the happiness of the entire empire is kept as one total. The most common things that cause unhappiness are the amount of population and the number of cities. Happiness can be acquired by access to luxury resources (at 5 happiness per), some buildings, and other things that certain policies might allow, such as cities connected to the capital. This is another aspect that can be considered a simplification, but not overmuch, since it can be just as challenging keeping that single number above zero as it was to manage the happiness of each city like in prior versions.

Another attempt to make the game less simple did not go nearly as well. In addition to the other civilizations out there in the world trying to kill you, there are other entities called city-states that are not trying to win. They have one city, and they will never build another. Relations with these city-states are different than with the other powers. You can give them money or units or perform special tasks to increase your status with them. With enough points you can become friendly or allied with them, at which point they give you any resources they have access to as well as food, culture or military units.

Unfortunately, while they were intended to break up the diplomatic landscape, they tend to make it far too easy to win the game. If you have enough cash flowing in (the easiest of the three basic resources), you can ally with a couple maritime (food-giving) city-states and you won’t have to build as many farms – your workers can make mines for production or trading posts for more cash instead. If enough of these types of city-states are close to you at the beginning of the game, you should have no problem winning handily, especially since the other major powers seem to have less interest in allying with these little gravy trains than they should. This was especially true before the last big patch, when the maritimers would give you even more food per city, but it is somewhat true even now.

The game’s simplification is apparent right at the beginning, even when you are setting up a game. You have 19 civilizations to choose from. Sure, original Civ 4 (before its two expansions) had 18 nations, but 8 of those had a choice between two leaders, providing another combination of special units and abilities, making an effective 26 unique choices. Now, Firaxis did make an effort to give these 19 nations very unique powers, many of which have not been seen before. However, to come up with that many individual powers, they ended up with some that were more useful, while others were only useful in certain situations. For example, England’s power affecting the movement and combat strengths of her ships is awesome in an archipelago world, but would totally suck in Pangaea.

If they simplified the diplomacy with other civilizations, it’s not apparent. In fact, they have made it more mysterious. Sure, you can trade gold, resources, cities, and open borders like you always could, and in addition you can make a "research agreement" in which you and the other power each spends a lump sum of cash and in 30 turns you each get a free technology. But you have no way to find out what effect those things have on your relationship with them. They each have a seemingly arbitrarily adjective assigned to them, such as "friendly" or "cautious." But these may not be meaningful, as I have seen games where a nation was getting along fine with the player, but suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they come out with a public denouncement, saying "I must tell the others of your backstabbing ways" (or something like that). Where did that come from? And what are these Pacts of Secrecy and Cooperation that the other countries occasionally ask you for? No one has been able to figure out what, if anything, they do. I guess they wanted it to be less of a numbers game and more like real life, but really, who wants that?

The music and voice acting is top-notch, and a real treat to listen to. The other countries actually say their responses in their native language, which is actually really cool. The graphics are way impressive, with varied textures on the 3D-modelled terrain. There are little bits to look at everywhere; even when you start building a wonder a partially constructed one pops up near that city. But beware; these awe-inspiring renderings come at a pretty steep price, system requirements-wise. Fortunately they did have the foresight to allow it to run in either DirectX 9 or 10/11, which should be some relief for systems closer to the minimum requirements.

I guess have to grudgingly admit that, all in all, this is an okay game. If you have never played earlier Civilization games, or found them way to complicated, then you should even find this to be a good game. But I can’t help but feel that the changes in Civ 5 were not aimed at people like me. Now, it its defense, I am coming from a prequel that has two major expansions under its belt, but when I have compared Civ 5 to Civ 4, I have tried to use the original, unexpanded version as a basis. I even fired up a game of vanilla Civ 4 just to make sure I was remembering it correctly.

In any case, this game has earned 4 GiN Gems. I am just proud of myself for getting through this review without some pretentious "Flowers for Algernon" reference. And I didn’t even use the term "dumbed-down" once! … Dangit!

Editor’s Note: Game reviewed on a PC.

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