This review was originally published 10/17/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). In anticipation of the soon-to-be-released Brave New World expansion pack, the review has been republished here for archival purposes.
I want to put my review into perspective before I begin. I’m not a day-one Civilization player. I didn’t start playing the franchise until Civilization III (after it had already been out for several years and both expansions had been released). Civilization IV, however, is probably my favorite video game ever -- or at least, my favorite PC game. The only games that I’ve probably logged more hours with than Civ IV are the Sims 2 (plus all the expansions) and the cumulative sum of all the Madden games I’ve played since 2000.
My hopes for Civilization V were sky-high from the moment the first details of gameplay were revealed about a year ago. This was despite my misgivings about the vendor and edition-exclusive gameplay content -- gameplay content should NEVER be exclusive to a vendor or edition of a game; anybody who buys a game should have the right to play any content that is released for the game (even if they have to pay extra for it) regardless of where they got it or when they bought! But now is not the place to discuss industry politics -- I’ll save that rant for another day.
Back on-topic: Civilization V promised a lot: competitive, tactical combat with a totally new rule-set; intelligent, interactive AI leaders; a simpler, streamlined interface; and simpler, more streamlined gameplay without sacrificing any of the series’ trademark depth. I’ve been spending almost every free moment playing this game for the two weeks since release. Does it measure up?
Well, unfortunately, that answer is a bit more complicated than a simple "yes" or "no." Even if you haven’t already seen my final score, I want you to rest assured that Civilization V is a good game. Long-time fans of the series, general strategy fans, and complete newcomers to the genre should find plenty to like with this game. But that first group -- the long-time fans -- will probably also find a lot of things to not like. Despite their promises to the contrary, lead designer John Schafer and the group at Firaxis have sadly sacrificed some of the franchise’s depth and level of detail in an attempt to try to make the game appeal more to a casual audience. But some of the improvement and changes that have been made are shear genius, and will make it very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to go back to playing any of the previous Civilization games. This new Civilization is still immensely fun, and it still retains that "just one more turn" addictive nature.
New gameplay features
The most immediately noticeable change in this game comes in the form of the new unit-movement and combat system. The old square grid that made up the map has been replaced with a hexagonal grid that makes navigation a bit more intuitive and helps to make the terrain look more believable. To compliment the new hex grid, the ability to stack units on top of each other within the same tile has been removed. Now, at most one military unit and one civilian unit may occupy any single tile at any given time (with the late-game exception of airplanes -- 3 of which can be stationed in a city or on a carrier). This has been done to try to bring a more tactical feel to the game’s combat and warfare. Instead of just parking all your units in your cities and then having to assemble large, Risk-like stacks of armies to invade another’s cities, you now have to maintain a smaller force and worry about how to move and position them to attack the enemy.
The introduction of genuine ranged combat adds a tactical element to the game.
If only the AI knew how to use ranged units...
All units now start with a base movement speed of two tiles or more, which means that environmental obstacles (such as hills, forests, and rivers) that slow down movement actually affect EVERY unit instead of just a handful. Ranged units such as Archers and Artillery now actually fire at a range (usually 2 or 3 tiles), but are very weak to direct attack, so must be defended by a front-line of melee infantry. Units can also receive combat modifiers based on the terrain as well as flanking and reinforcement bonuses from nearby units. All units also now have zone of control, which prevents enemy units from walking past an adjacent tile. Units also gain experience and can be promoted as in Civ IV.
Additionally, the need for garrisoning defensive units in cities is somewhat alleviated since cities can now defend themselves through ranged combat, and they have hit points that must be destroyed just like units do (so a siege of a city will now take several turns). Finally, combat is not always a fight to the death. All units have hit points, and can survive any single combat (even if it is the "loser"), which means that you can now attack the enemy to soften them up, without having to be irritated with building and then sacrificing disposable units.
Every unit is now far more valuable! This all works wonderfully well, and makes preparing and fighting wars much more fun than in past games. Fighting wars now requires planning and a proper variety in your army composition. The best part is that all the maps in the game do a great job of creating interesting terrain for your units to fight on, including bottlenecks, mountain passes, seas, plenty of hills and forests for defense, and so on. So even a player with a weaker military will often have plenty of opportunity to defend himself -- even from a far superior force -- if he can position his units and fortifications to maximize the benefits of the terrain.
The problem though, is that the developers didn’t do a very good job of programming the combat AI. So we have this wonderful new system for combat, but the AI seemingly didn’t get the memo explaining how it all works.
Combat is fun and works great when played person against person, but the AI seems mostly completely incompetent at properly managing its armies. They routinely sit their units within range of your ranged units or cities until they die; they leave their Archers and Catapults right out in the open to be crushed by your melee and mounted units; they don’t bother to defend their workers or settlers; they throw their units away in futile maneuvers rather than bringing enough backup or ranged attackers; they hurl themselves at your entrenched ground armies instead of just embarking on the sea and going around (once you research Optics, all ground units can automatically turn into a defenseless sea-vessel, so there’s no need to build dedicated transport ships); and if they do embark on the seas, they’ll do so without bothering to bring any naval back-up, even if you have several naval units sitting on the seas waiting to pick them off one-by-one.
Our simple city-state friends
Another minor, but still frustrating, problem with the new one-unit-per-tile (1upt) system is that you can’t move one of your civilian units on the same tile as another player’s military unit. This can be a problem in several ways. One example was when I had a city-state (see below) on the other side of a mountain range on a 5-tile-wide peninsula with only 1 passable land tile between the city-state and my empire. They asked me to build a road. OK, simple. Except they camped a unit on the mountain pass tile for the whole game, and I have no way of asking the city state to move it to allow me to build a road. So my worker could NEVER occupy that tile in order to build the road. It was VERY frustrating. It also would have been very nice to have included an "Escort" command for military units, so that a military unit could be told to automatically follow a civilian unit (since units can’t be moved in stacks).
City states are small, independent, 1-city nations that cannot win the game. Their primary purpose is to act as speed bumps against expansion and to "complicate" diplomacy.
The next biggest improvement is the addition of the new, non-player entities known as "City-States." These single-city civilizations act as catalysts for many other elements of the game. Upon meeting them, they will offer you gifts of gold. They may also ask you to do things for them to gain their favor, such as conquering a rival city-state, killing some barbarians that are threatening them, exploring the map, acquire a resource, birthing a Great Person, building a road to them (as mentioned above), or sometimes defending them from attack by another Civilization. It’s kind of weird having these little cities asking you (the potential emperor of the world) to go on sometimes trivial quests to gain their favor (shouldn’t they be begging for YOUR favor?), but it’s a mostly fun mechanic, and it’s easy enough to fulfill many of these tasks because they will be things that will benefit your empire anyway.
If you want to befriend city-states, but don’t want to (or can’t) fulfill their wishes, you can always just buy their friendship with gold. But it’s expensive! If you do befriend them, they will give you rewards based on the type of city-state they are: maritime gives you extra food (increasing the growth rate of your cities or allowing you to divert some of your own population to working non-food tiles or becoming specialists), cultural gives you extra culture that you can use to acquire new social policies (more on that later), and militaristic will occasionally grant you units (sometimes a powerful up-to-date unit, other times it might just be a Scout). Eventually you can even become allies with them, which will cause them to assist you in wars and will increase the benefits they give you (although most city-states aren’t terribly useful in wars since their units rarely ever do anything more than camp near their city and defend).
This feature is satisfying, but it’s a bit under-developed. Buying them with gold or doing the one or two tasks they ask are the only ways to gain favor with them. Connecting them to your trade network, defending them from invasion, giving them gifts of units, and so forth have little or no effect on your relationship with them (unless they had specifically asked you to do it), so there are no passive ways to build or maintain your friendships with them.
Unfortunately it’s civilization, not utopia
Other civilizations are a bit more complicated though, but also sadly lacking in options. Having the leaders be full-bodied, interactive characters that speak in their own languages was supposed to be a huge new feature in this game, but it ends up being a completely squandered opportunity. First of all, the AI leaders aren’t "interactive," they behave the same way that the old figure heads did except now they talk and move about in a full screen environment instead of just nodding and smiling through a small window. You can’t really "talk" to them, and in fact, the game doesn’t even bother to give you a precise translation of what they are saying, just the same messages and prompts based on the diplomatic action you are trying to take.
Leaders do not behave like real people, and you can always count on your friends to stab you in the back by the end of the game.
There’s only a handful of diplomatic options (none of them terribly useful). I don’t mind that we can’t trade maps or techs anymore, but the research agreements that replace tech trading are prohibitively expensive and you can’t even chose what tech you end up getting. It’s really frustrating to spend all that money and all that time to end up getting a cheap out-of-date tech that you’d been ignoring anyway. One VERY nice new feature in the diplomacy though, is that when another civilization asks you to go to war with them against a third party, you now have the option to ask for 10 turns to prepare (the AI’s can ask for the same 10 turns as well). This is the kind of thing that makes you sit back and ask "why did it take 5 iterations of the franchise before they figured out to do that?"
The old relationship points are gone, too, so now trying to figure out how much an AI likes you can be a bit of a guessing game. You can usually tell if they like you or hate you, but it’s impossible to tell to what degree. Their moods towards you can also sometimes inexplicably swing one way or the other (usually negatively), and the old problem of your millennia-long ally suddenly declaring war on you still happens in almost every game. Also, AIs will get mad at you for very strange reasons. Being friends with their allies apparently causes them to get mad at you. They’ve never heard of sharing, it seems. Fortunately, however, since the AIs can’t stack units, it’s much easier to see if they are amassing an invasion army.
Where the game really suffers (from a depth perspective) is in its Empire Management. The designers of the game tried to make the game more of a "strategy game" rather than an "empire management simulation." As such, many elements of empire management are simplified, and some of them are genuinely dumbed down. Social Policies replace the old government and Civics systems of previous games. The new system is additive. Instead of having to switch from one government type to another, you just stack bonuses on top of one another. And while it’s nice to be able to add a benefit without having to give one up (and the benefits they provide are all very nice!), one of the key components of strategy is having to do a Cost-Benefit Analysis. In the case of Social Policies, it’s nothing but benefits. The only cost associated with adopting a new policy is the time it takes to accumulate the culture and the indirect penalty of some policies that cause your cities to grow too fast, making your empire unhappy. I do like that this new social policies system makes culture feel more important, and it has a special victory condition based entirely around filling up the Social Policy tree, but the fact that your government type has absolutely no influence on other aspects of the game (like diplomacy) makes it feel a bit gimmicky.
The tech tree has been expanded in some areas, and dramatically reduced in others. The scaling of research income directly with population is a huge unbalancing factor in favor of Civs with more cities (and therefore higher populations).
Another simplified element of Empire Management is that happiness and maintenance costs are no longer on a per-city basis, but rather empire-wide. But culture is still calculated on both a city-level (for city expansion) AND empire-wide (for adopting social policies). So why couldn’t maintenance and happiness have been a per-city thing as well?
Trade routes and resource management is another element of the game that I feel is not implemented as well as it should be. Roads now cost maintenance to prevent players and AIs from covering every tile in a network of roads, something the franchise desperately needed! But they aren’t particularly valuable. You can build roads to connect your cities with trade routes, but that’s it! Connecting foreign cities to your trade routes does absolutely nothing! City States can sometimes ask you to build roads to connect them to your capital for a one-time relationship boost, but it provides NO apparent passive bonuses to either your relationship with them OR your trade income once the road is built. So you might as well destroy them after you get the relationship boost so you don’t have to spend maintenance on them anymore.
Furthermore, you no longer need to build roads to connect to your resources. Simply building the improvement to collect the resource and it automatically connects them to your capital and gives access to that resource to every one of your cities (regardless of whether a city is connected to your capital). It would have been nice if the resource went to the nearest city, and you had to connect that city in order for other cities to access the resource. But no. So now there is no penalty for building a city across the map just to claim a resource. They attempted to make resources seem more valuable by adding a cap to the number of units or buildings that any given source of a resource can support, but the maps typically provide so many resources that, when combined with the limited number of units that you can build or support anyway, you rarely if ever run out, let alone have to fight, with another Civ for a new source of resource.
The spy who left me
There are a few other areas where gameplay mechanics haven’t been simplified, but rather removed completely. Espionage, religion, and tech trading have all been removed completely. While religion hasn’t really left any gaping holes in gameplay, the other two mechanics I’ve listed do cause problems. And this isn’t just a matter of "It was in Civ IV, so I want it in Civ V." The lack of these mechanics actually HURT the game. You can’t trade maps, so the only way to explore owned territory is to send a unit to scout the map. In order to do that, you NEED to have Open Borders. If you don’t have Open Borders (maybe because the other Civ is your ENEMY), you CANNOT scout their territory or cities! Not even with airplanes (which no longer have the Recon ability)! Hrm, sure would have been a nice place to have some sort of espionage or spying system....
Furthermore, since you can’t trade techs, there is actually NO WAY to see another Civ’s progress through the tech tree. You can get a general idea of how advanced other players are by notifications that they have advanced to an era or by notifications that a wonder has been completed. But other than that, you’ll have no idea what techs a potential rival has, and, by extension, no way of knowing what kind of units they can throw at you or what kind of defenses their cities might have (at least, not until you meet them in the field). Once again, sure would have been a nice use for a Spy!
No, the Pyramids are not supposed to float in the ocean....
Speaking of things that are missing, despite the game’s fantastic visuals, there are still a LOT of visual effects and details from Civ IV that are missing in this new game. In Civ IV, it was very easy to get a lot of information about cities and your empire just by looking at the main game screen. For example, you could tell exactly which tiles were being worked at any given time because each tile improvement had a distinct graphic or animation for when it was worked versus unworked. Even unimproved tiles would show a little hut on the map to indicate that it is being worked. In Civ V, that is gone. In Civ IV, every building that was built in a city would show up in the city’s graphic on the main map, making it instantly apparent what buildings were built in a city (even in another Civ’s cities). In Civ V, only some buildings appear on the map (walls, coliseums, and wonders, among some others) -- once again, makes a spy or espionage mechanic seem like a good thing to have. Considering the major design philosophy of this game was to minimize and simplify the interface, you’d think providing as much information on the main screen as possible through visual cues in the game world would have been a priority. Apparently not.
The tooltips also are not nearly as useful as they once were. They don’t show any descriptions of the abilities or stat modifiers of units, and don’t show any advanced details about cities. This means that instead of being able to rollover an object to see everything you could possibly know about it (like you could in Civ IV), you now have to actually click on said object to open up a menu, screen, or widget.
The old drawing mode from Civ IV is also gone. It wasn’t a very heavily utilized feature, and a lot of people probably didn’t even know it was there in Civ IV, but it was something that I used all the time, and I immediately missed in Civ V. And considering the shift to more tactical combat, I would have thought that would be something they would include. The gorgeous wonder videos have also been replaced with basic, unimpressive paintings. They probably did this to reduce the demand on hardware, but they could have just made it an option. Aside from the loss of the fantastic "Baba Yetu" main theme (and that gorgeous rising/setting sun main menu animation), the music in the game is quite good and much more varied. Each Civilization has its own unique combination of peace and war music, and all of them sound great.
The ability to draw lines and place labels on the map would have come in very handy with Civ V's emphasis on tactical combat.
With every improvement comes a problem
Despite the lack of visual details mentioned above, and the ridiculously stupid city Build Queue that requires multiple button presses and toggles to simply add an item or change the order of construction (what was wrong with a simple drag-and-drop?), the game’s interface is exceptionally well-designed. This is one of the areas that is going to make it very hard to go back to the previous games.
Instead of the game stopping at the beginning of a turn to prompt you to select an item to build in a city or to select a new research project, the game provides you with a series of notifications on the right side of the screen. These range from notifications that a city needs a new construction project, the next research project needs to be selected, city states have asked for something, you discovered ancient ruins or a natural wonder, an enemy is in your borders, a unit has been promoted, and so forth. You can click on any of these notifications at any time during your turn to deal with it. And the game will replace the "Next Turn" button with the prompt to handle the major notifications (like selecting the next build project in a city or your next research project), so that you don’t accidentally end your turn without taking care of it.
This new notification system is a complete game-changer, and it will make it very hard to go back to playing Civ IV!
But even this dramatic improvement is not perfect and is just missing things you’d expect. For example, the game only notifies you when an enemy unit enters your territory. It does NOT notify you when an enemy unit is spotted. I have been frustrated many times because the game didn’t tell me a barbarian was approaching and it captured one of my workers or a settler. And since you can’t scroll the camera using the mini-map, it’s a bit harder to get a quick overview of what’s going on around your territory if you need to. It also would have been nice to include an "Automatic Moves" notification, allowing you to force all your automatic and queued moves to happen and then make adjustments accordingly, rather than having to wait until the end of your turn for those moves to happen. But the benefits of the new notification system far outweigh its flaws, and I have to give Firaxis credit for implementing this change that improves the player experience by an order of magnitude (especially in multiplayer).
Speaking of multiplayer. It’s crap! The game contains some major multiplayer issues that make it almost unplayable. Animations are disabled in multiplayer with no option to enable them. Even with the animations disabled, the game seemed unusually slow and laggy. We also had problems with the game frequently going back to the load screen while processing turns. Also, I was very irritated with the fact that the game apparently does not allow a player to do anything after the "Next Turn" button has been pressed, even while still waiting for other players to finish their turns. So if you want to move around some units or manage the citizens of your cities while waiting for another player to finish the turn, the game won’t show any of these changes until the start of the next round, so you have no idea if your commands were completed or not until the next turn begins. It’s something that desperately needs to be patched. The game also doesn’t notify you of some events in multiplayer, like meeting new Civs. I also couldn’t figure out how to save a multiplayer game.
One thing that multiplayer does do very well is the new user-to-user diplomacy system. Instead of being taken out of the game for diplomatic or trade negotiations when another player contacts you, the game instead allows the players to send proposals back and forth, which each player can view and either accept, reject, or modify at their leisure. It works very nicely!
If you’re still reading, I hope that you haven’t gotten the impression that this game is horrible. It is not. Despite all its flaws, I still cannot tear myself away once I start playing. The bad news is that the game isn’t everything we fans wanted it to be. The good news, however, is that it’s still immensely fun and addictive, and most problems are patchable, and the lack of depth in some areas could be made up for with future updates, DLC, and expansions. Also, remember that Civ IV was missing some features at release, and that its AI was also VERY buggy. So there is hope still that Firaxis and 2K will provide this game with the post-release maintenance that it both needs and deserves. I am absolutely convinced that an espionage system of some sort will be added in with a future expansion, and hopefully it will come with some enhancements and added depth in the trade and economic mechanics of the game to fill the few major holes that the game has. If so, we could still be looking at a version of Civilization that is just as complete and deep as its predecessors, and every bit as good!
[EDIT] Reviews for the expansions are posted: Civilization V: Gods & Kings and Civilization V: Brave New World.