Civilization V Retrospective Review

“The blessings of the gods be upon you, Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome and all her holdings.”

Abandoning our patriotic desire to choose the Americans, we listen to the introduction – as read by the gruff yet captivating W. Morgan Sheppard – to the great Roman Empire. We know from our experience with the Civilization franchise and our own personal gaming predilections that we won’t be interested in warring our way to the top, so the Roman Empire’s bonus to production will help us to build vast and impressive cities more quickly than the competition.

Approximately 8 hours later, we’ve successfully taken over an entire continent, annihilating everyone in our way through brutal battles and decisive sieges. Sitting back and flexing our mouse hand our fingers stiff from a prolonged session of clicking, we reflect on how our interactions with the other civilizations shaped what was originally intended to be a peaceful culture. Where did it all go wrong?

That’s one of the brilliant aspects of Civilization V and the franchise as a whole; as players, we start out with certain intentions and aspirations to achieve victory, but then we’re denounced by another civilization we thought were our allies, another civilization starts attacking a city-state we have pledged to protect, and a third civilization begs our assistance to trade our precious luxury resources. How do we split our time and prioritize? Do we try to appease all parties and spread ourselves thin, watching our own civilization crumble from the inside out? Or do we adopt a policy of non-interference, and watch as the world sorts out its own problems only to have it turn its frustrations on us later in the game? Or do we just declare all-out war on everyone?

As a franchise, Civilization asks us to think with a global perspective in a world where micromanagement and nanotechnology are the marching orders of progress. Very few games out there require us to think holistically, rather than a singularly controlled unit moving through the vastness of space and time. Until Civilization: Beyond Earth arrives in the third quarter of 2014, Civilization V sits at the top of the franchise by being both familiar to old players and intuitive to newcomers, and also brings a few new twists to the old formula to keep the task of world domination fresh.

civilization_5_02Civilization V, like its predecessors, is a turn-based 4x (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate, in case you were wondering) strategy game where players begin in the year 4000 B.C. with a settler unit, allowing the foundation of a capital city, and a warrior unit for exploration, aggression, or defense. It has no single player “campaign,” as it were, no predetermined set of objectives to complete in order to achieve victory. Instead, Civilization V is vastly open ended, allowing players to explore a procedurally generated world wherein we can make a series of decisions that will ultimately shape our civilization’s destiny and their rise, or fall, on the world stage. There are five different ways to win Civilization V: Domination, Scientific, Cultural, Diplomatic, and Time. These options allow players to choose different civilizations and adopt a particular method in order to achieve victory, and the number combinations to do so is simply mind-boggling.

Unlike previous iterations, the Domination victory conditions have been simplified: players need only to take over every original capital city, rather than needing to own every city on the map. A Scientific victory is won by being the first to research the Apollo Program, then build a space ship to Alpha Centauri. The Cultural victory has been adjusted as well, requiring you to simply complete five policy trees and then construct the Utopia Project. A Diplomatic victory is tricky, but doable, as players must win a vote in the United Nations, which depends largely on the size of your civilization and whether or not you have previously allied with nations or city-states. Lastly, the Time victory conditions occur in the year 2050 A.D. and the civilization with the highest score (determined by the amount of gold possessed, resources owned, and number of military units controlled) wins.

As always, you start each game with a single settler and a scout, and once you’ve founded your Capital city, you’re able to begin researching technology, creating new units and adding new buildings to your city in order to increase your options. As research is completed, more and more options will be available to choose from on the tech tree, guiding your civilization down a certain path. As turns continue, gold, culture, and science are accumulated depending on the makeup of your city and whether your citizens are working gold or research producing tiles. As the game progresses and the number of your controlled cities increases, a single turn can take many minutes as you choose what to research, what to build, and where to build it. While to a casual observer the game may move at a snail’s pace, you’ll not only need to be engaged in the here-and-now decision-making process, but thinking centuries ahead and trying to determine how your choices will affect your future options and give you an advantage over your opponents.

With 18 starting civilizations, each with their own unique unit and bonus trait, there’s plenty of potential to find a leader that suits your chosen playstyle. For example, the Americans gain a 50% discount when purchasing land tiles and all military units gain +1 to sight, tailoring them toward a military-style victory; meanwhile the Egyptians gain a 20% bonus to the production of Wonders, which gives them the advantage toward a cultural or scientific victory. These detailed levels of control are only accentuated further when managing the city screen. While the default settings don’t do too bad a job if left to themselves, the game is best played with the training wheels off. Only then can you truly begin to appreciate the staggering amount of depth that the series is famous for. The huge amount of intertwining systems means that there’s plenty of room for experimentation, allowing you to go from an overarching, policy driven style of gameplay down to the micromanaged nuances of how to delegate tasks to citizens – whether to work crops to yield additional food production to grow population, or send someone to work in the opera house to increases the amount of culture gained per turn. It’s that kind of fine detail meshed with having to consider the global implications of those decisions that makes Civilization V one of the most immersive and addictive strategy games produced to date.

One departure for Civilization V that dramatically changes the strategic game-play of battles is the change from square tiles to hexagonal tiles across the global map. Additionally, previous Civilization games allowed the stacking of multiple units on a single tile, which would create vast armies with the ability to overpower an adjacent unit, even a vastly superior one, through sheer weight of numbers. Civ V does away with that; now, without the ability to form large armies, tactical warfare has evolved in a way that requires players to strategically place their warrior on the front lines, their archers behind, and send their cavalry around to flank the enemy. The change to hexagonal tiles (hexes) and the removal of army formations forces players to examine warfare as a chess game with a semblance of true-to-life tactics, making each decision more important towards your ultimate victory goal (whatever that may be).

The game’s AI has some nice little nuances that contribute to replayability, the most notable being their predilections towards choosing Option A over Option B, determined by a sliding scale at the start of every game. For example, the Greeks boast a trait that has the effect of halving the degradation rate of City-state influence, while doubling its recovery rate – which may lead Alexander the Great to ally himself more strongly with city-states rather than trying to declare all out war on them. In another game against Alexander, he might choose to be a little less inclined to ally himself with city-states and make different choices for his civilization as he battles against you. This aspect doesn’t always mean that a civilization will act as it did according to known history; we can’t count the number of times our peaceful first meeting with Gandhi rapidly devolved into his denouncement of our Civilization and a declaration of war. In another game, we were lifelong friends with the Aztecs, who never once captured any of our units or denounced us. It’s difficult not to stare at the screen in utter bemusement as Gandhi screams about how much he detests your people and then promptly declares war on you. We’re pretty sure that the real-life Ghandi wasn’t a ruthless warmonger, but in Civilization, he’s hilariously bloodthirsty – with a passion for lebensraum that even a certain German dictator would consider excessive.

Additionally, the AI can behave a bit like a petulant five-year-old who hasn’t been getting their own way. We favor a more pacifist playstyle, preferring to win through any means other than warfare. We generally avoid ticking people off, we’re friendly, we always allow open borders between nations, and we help out city-states when requested (except for obliterating other city-states at their request). What invariably ends up happening though is that a civilization with which we have had good relations with will suddenly denounce our leadership and our people, claiming, “Now the world will know the truth about you!” and look down their snooty noses at us as though we’d forgotten to shower that morning. Well, we’re not exactly secretive, and we’re pretty darn certain we did shower, so the AI’s behaviour tends to baffle us just a bit. The game then predictably follows a pattern that sees us having war declared on us, despite efforts to maintain open border relationships, offer goods and gold in trade, and basically try to get back on their good side.

None of this is new, of course – the series’ AI has always been notably erratic and unpredictable, with the computer making decisions that make no logical sense; and the series has always tended to favour open conflict over peaceful negotiation, at least in the late-game; but they’re aspects that continue to annoy. Annoying too is the persistence of handling higher difficulty settings by giving the AI an unfair advantage, rather than have it make more tactically-aware decisions. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s a shame that, in the process of making sweeping changes to some of the game’s core systems and mechanics in the latest installment – changes drastic enough to require a completely new AI system – Firaxis seemingly forgot to address what was long been perhaps its weakest aspect over the years.

Multiplayer, then, is where the game’s long-term appeal lies, and thankfully it’s as brilliant as ever. If you want to get the most from the diplomatic options that the game offers, you really do need to be playing against another human being and not the flaky AI. Playing against another person brings a new-found appreciation for the true depth of thought that has gone into all the changes to culture, social policy and diplomacy – though religion and espionage are conspicuous by their absence (they were later re-introduced in the Gods & Kings expansion, which we’ll be looking at in more depth at a later date). Sadly the play-by-email functionality that was present in previous outings is no longer featured, though there is 3rd-party software available that enables the feature, as well as several new ones.

We’ve mentioned city-states a few times now and they are yet another new feature specific to Civilization V. Essentially, they act as NPCs like the rest of the civilizations, except they are not competing to win the game under victory conditions. They don’t gather resources or develop their cities, though they may expand their territory over time and they produce military units. They simply exist in the world, but do not possess any great leader (such as yourself) to throw them in the ring for the coveted World Leader position. The player has the option to befriend city-states, which will occasionally produce a gift unit or send you resources, take them over through military conquest (which does not endear you to the rest of the world, you war-monger, you), or ignore them. Occasionally, a city-state will request assistance in the form of destroying another city-state or establishing a trade route to a particular city, which the player can either choose to help with or ignore. In addition, the player can publicly declare that a certain city-state is under their protection, which may deter other more aggressive civilizations from gathering an army at the border. All in all, city-states add an interesting dynamic giving Civilization V a bit more “real world”  feel to it, as the smaller city-states watch the big boys battle it out, and the big boys strategically influence the city-states to win their advantages.

Perhaps the second greatest achievement that Civilization V masters (beyond the sheer overarching complexity of guiding an entire nation from the dawn of time to the modern era and beyond) is the graphics. The color palette has an extraordinary range to it, with typical bright hues and rich tones, but also the more subtle half-tones and earthy gradients that make the real world so darn lovely looking. The detail in the game-play is reflected in the subtle but wonderful animations. Zoom in close and you can see your workers till the soil, see your city evolve through the centuries, and watch as military units wage war on a micro-scale. You can also take a breather, scroll out and take in the utter vastness of your empire from the silence of the clouds. The musical accompaniment, while subtle, is just as grand, with each civilization having its own stylized background track to take you through the ages.

civilization_5_01For players like ourselves, who want to get everything in a single playthrough and like to get absolutely all the achievements designed for the game, Civilization V is a lesson in humility. This is not a game in which you can level grind for six hours while the boss waits patiently on his mountain top to be slaughtered by an over-leveled, well-equipped adventurer. No. Every time another civilization builds a world wonder before you do, effectively removing the option for any one else to build it in that game, it is a frustrating lesson that you didn’t make the right choices back in the early centuries of gameplay. We’re also the type of players who don’t like losing units, and every time a military unit dies, we have to resist the mighty urge to start from scratch and learn to take our losses with gritted teeth. While that sounds like a criticism, it’s demonstrative of just how invested you’ll become in your empire.

Make no mistake, Civilization V retains all the insanely addictive appeal of its predecessors. You’ll load the game up promising that you’ll only spend an hour playing before dinner, only to find yourself staring at the screen in the dark at 3am and slurping down your tenth cup of coffee while promising yourself you’ll just have “one more turn.”

While playing as the great and mighty Rome, we became tired of the continued denouncement of our people and took four city-states and three other civilizations to task as we marched my forces into every single city and annexed them. When we had finally conquered the continent, we were confident we could sail the seas and destroy the two remaining civilizations along with whatever paltry city-states remained. However, as we made landfall on this brave new world, immediate war was declared upon us from every single living being outside of our empire, and we had no choice but to watch helplessly as our tanks were effortlessly gunned down by tactical helicopters. Still, it’s times like these that can throw up some of the most memorable moments in Civilization. It’s nigh-endless web of interlocking systems is famously addictive, and while it could so easily feel daunting to newcomers, Firaxis did a very good job of streamlining just enough of the complexity and overhauling many of the menus to make it as easy as possible to delve into. Meanwhile, the excellent in-game encyclopedia is a wonderfully useful tool for those times when you’re stuck between making two decisions without really feeling as though you understand their ramifications and effects.

Civilization V excels with its franchise core concepts, masterful execution, and quality graphics. While at times it may be too detailed that it becomes overwhelming, it is very easy to get so deeply involved in the inner workings of your nation that real world hours fly as quickly as in-game centuries. Since its original release back in the tail-end of 2010, we’ve spent hundreds of hours carefully and lovingly nurturing our little empires in Civilization V, and we’re certain that we’ll continue to spend hundreds more. In fact, the only thing likely to stop us dipping in for a new game every now and then would be the release of a new numbered game in the series. We’re sure that Civilization: Beyond Earth will be a brilliant game in its own right, but it’s also a very different animal.

Strategy games come and go; franchises rise and fall, only to become lost in the annals of history, a footnote in the evolution of the genre. Civilization is a game for the ages.

Now, if you’ll excuse us, Ghandi has a legion of tanks lurking just outside our borders… the bastard.

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Jenna Fraser
A New England born, Boston native, Jenna says "wicked" with reckless abandon. She loves video games almost as much as she loves words and to say that she has an obsession with Queen would be the biggest understatement of all time.
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