Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

10 Good Things About Civilization V

It is time once again for one of my pseudo-reviews, this time of Civilization V. As usual you will not get a grade or a final verdict or anything like that from me, instead I will list ten good things about the game today and 10 bad things about it on Wednesday. Make your own judgment from that depending on how you value my individual points – you will surely find some to be more important than others.

Hexes

The Russian army spread around the hexes of conquered Marseilles in preparation for an attack on Mexico overseas.

I Might as well start with one of the two most important changes to the series. Civilization has always been a bit of an oddball strategy game through the use of squares instead of hexes for its grid. Civilization V changes all that by introducing hexes. Hexes mean that unit movement is finally the same in all directions and of course that the good old “fat cross” of city influence spheres is finally history. I can’t believe that it took them this long to make the move over to the vastly superior system. But good for them that they finally did!

Combat

With the switch to hexes came another important change to the game’s fundamentals – only one combat (and one non-combat) unit can be on a hex at a time. This makes combat quite different to previous games of Civilization which were all about building a huge stack of units and moving them around the map. Suddenly you can’t simply protect your cavalry from counterattacks by adding a few Pikemen to the stack that would deal with defense if needed. Now you need to actually place your defensive infantry in such a way that they block enemy units from getting to your weaker attacking units. Cavalry can use their superior movement to dart around defensive lines, take out a unit and run away again into relative safety. Ranged and artillery units can sit behind the front lines and use their range to rain down death and destruction on the opposing forces. If you move them to the front they are usually shredded to bits within seconds.

This makes combat so much more interesting, it’s hard to describe. Once I had beaches-of-Normandy type situation in which I meant to land my infantry and artillery on enemy shores, but the enemy had his own artillery set up so well that my guys simply got nuked into oblivion while trying to get into position. His units were technologically weaker and I had a large army – if I had just been able to land them all on one spot, Civilization IV style, I would have easily been able to roll over his defenses. This way though I suffered heavy defeat and had to come back with navy to shell his defenses before being able to land troops and to establishing a beach head.

Strategic Resources

Strategic resources aren’t new to the series. You needed access to horses to make cavalry units and only uranium allowed for real nuclear warfare. Previously though it was fine to have a single source of such a resources connected to your trade network and you’d be able to build as many units and/or buildings that required it as you wanted. In Civilization V the amount of resources you have actually matters quite much. Building a cavalry unit uses up a unit of horse until that cavalry dies, and building factories reduces your supply of coal.

In previous games, resources would become uninteresting once you had one of each important one – now you might still be inclined to fight wars to get your hands on another oil well. Just like in real life.

Embarking

Ze Germans have angered the might of Siam for the last time. My armada is preparing for landing on the unprotected shore.

There are no transport ships in Civilization V, none. Instead, once you have discovered the appropriate technology, all your units will be able to embark onto technologically appropriate boats whenever you want them to. These vessels cannot fight, meaning you might have to escort them with combat vessels if your opponents have a navy as well. I have yet to see AI opponents really building up a decent navy, but in theory you could get into situations in which your superior English navy is all that stands between you and a French invasion. Aside from the tactical possibilities, embarking also makes gameplay so much more convenient. Previously getting to an island or another continent was quite a hassle of building transport ships in a naval city (that might have better things to do really) and then using them to ferry our units across. This is just so much better.

Global Happiness

Cities still produce their own happiness (and unhappiness) but the results are tallied globally. Meaning that building a coliseum in your capital can help subdue the population in a city you just conquered. This global happiness counter is also what controls the size of your empire, a function that was previously held by upkeep costs in Civilization IV. Having lots of cities creates unhappiness, as does having large cities. Conquered cities produce extra large amounts of unhappiness until you build a courthouse in them. I had multiple situations in which I had the forces to take out opposing civilizations, but just didn’t have enough support back home to actually do so. Once I even almost lost the game through overextending and accepting my opponents generous terms for peace in which he offered me three cities as a bribe. Getting those three cities dropped my empire’s happiness by so much that it pretty much stopped all citizens from working.

A very interesting concept, and much better to play with than juggling happiness in each and every city of your empire.

City States

City states are new miniature Civilizations (usually restricted to one city, duh) that do not actually compete for victory and have a greatly reduced pool of possible interactions. You can gain their favour by completing quests for them (help us against attackers, build a road to us, kill that barbarian encampment over there, that kind of stuff) or simply gifting them money and/or units. If they like you well enough they will start returning the favour by providing you with various resources as well as food, culture, science, or even military units. If you get them to ally with you they will even send their (considerable) armies into war with you – provided that they don’t have to cross through your sovereign territory to do so.

Getting on the good sides of the city states has been instrumental to my victories so far, especially when they were placed in a location that allowed them to attack my adversaries directly. The poor Americans really didn’t know what was coming for them when they declared war on me and suddenly had armies entering their territory from four sides at once.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept is still in its infancy but it is quite a good one. Usually good relations in strategy games only last until one partner sees a chance to overthrow the other without too many losses or until all other competition is eliminated. City states offer the possibility of real cooperation without fear of betrayal. Well, you can betray them but they can’t really betray you as long as you stay high enough in their favour.

Money

Bucharest's area of influence slowly acquired the surrounding terrain, but apparently farmland was more interesting than forests to the citizens.

In the old Civilization games, money was pretty much just wasted research points. Barring extraordinary circumstances, you’d want to keep your money as low as possible in order to keep your research high. In the new game, both have been uncoupled from each other (and from culture) and money has actually gotten quite a few new uses. You can still use it to buy units and buildings, but you also need it to keep city states happy, to fund research pacts, to buy new tiles for your citizens to work on, and even to keep your network of roads alive. For the first time in the series, money has become an actually useful resource instead of simply being negative research.

Sprawling Cities

In previous iterations of Civilization, all cities were restricted to using tiles in the “fat cross” around them. Later versions included cultural influence that would limit said cross early on, but that would simply outgrow it very quickly. In Civ V, the fat cross has been replaced by a triple ring of hexes around the city and cultural influence spreads tile-by-tile. This means that you can actually see your city slowly growing towards interesting resources in the neighbourhood instead of simply being a symmetrical blob in the landscape. Alas you can no longer build town improvements on tiles around the city which makes them actually look a little bit less like huge city sprawls in the later stages of the game. Still, the concept is far more interesting even if the graphics don’t quite get it across.

Policy System

When I played Civilization I way back when, leaders could choose types of government for their countries which would have some impact on how the game played out. Up to Civilization IV this was expanded into civics in five areas such as labor or religion. The fifth part of the series now replaces the whole shebang with a system of policies – miniature “talent trees” if you will that you can spend culture points in to improve certain aspects of your game. I tend to invest heavily in the area of patronage, for example, which both improves my relations to city states and increases the rewards I get from them.

Unlike the sudden changes in the previous games, this system allows you to slowly evolve your empire into the direction that you like. The impact of these choices isn’t huge but quite noticeable and one has to take great care when spending those precious culture points. Not only are some areas mutually exclusive, but their impact also varies depending on the state of the game. Tradition is very strong at the start, helping your capital city to grow much more powerful, but does little to nothing in the later stages of the game.

Polish

The game simply feels so slick and polished that I have a hard time believing I am looking at a turn-based strategy game. Important events are announced through little burps at the side of your screen that you can even already check while the computer players are still moving. An “intelligent” button in the lower-right area of the screen leads you through all important actions you can take that turn without restricting you to them and turns into the “next turn” button once the game thinks you are done. Almost never do you simply get dropped into a menu or a city screen because of some event heaving to decide things without really knowing where you are. There are still a couple of these intrusive dialogs around, but they are far and in between. (The most annoying one being the one in which you have to decide whether to annex, puppet, or raze a city. When acquiring multiple cities at once you’d better have remembered the names of those cities because you won’t have a chance to check them out again before deciding their fate. When Washington handed me three cities as the price for peace, I knew that one of them was in an awful position. I thought I remembered the name but didn’t – ending up razing a very good city and capturing one with tundra all around it.)

Overall, things just work and the spreadsheet-feel of earlier iterations of the franchise is almost gone. Not quite Blizzard-level polish, but it’s getting close – and that’s quite the compliment.

There you have it – ten good things about Civilization V. Tune in for the opposite on Wednesday (or Friday if some spectacular piece of news eats my Wednesday post).