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Diving deeper into Sid Meier's Civilization V

3:00 PM on 08.12.2010 // Sean Carey

True hardcore devotees of the Civilization franchise are like long-time heroin addicts. They’ve got a need for a specific kind of fix, and they will do whatever it takes to get it. They also accept no substitutes; when Civilization Revolution released two years ago, the faithful treated it with the disdain that a heroin junkie does a methadone clinic. I never understood that reaction. It’s a bit like the guy who asks you for money for food outside of the convenience store, then turns his nose up when you bring him out a freshly baked muffin instead of cash.

That being said, I’ve played every Civ title with the exception of Civ III, and I too found myself jonesing more than a little bit for a full-fledged return to form for the series. Ben PerLee recently got a hands-on demo of Civ V, and I agree with the lion’s share of his impressions. However, after spending the better part of a week main-lining a preview build of the game myself, I can say that the changes to the game do dramatically alter the experience. Hit the jump for another whiff of that sweet new Civ smell.

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I personally enjoyed the change of pace that Civ Rev brought with it, while fully recognizing that it lacked the same depth and strategy of its PC lineage. It’s also one of the best games out there for the iPhone. But let me put your “dumbed-down” fears to rest. All the tech-tree planning, space racing, unit building, treaty signing, and city micromanaging that you’ve come to know and geek over is back in full effect in Civ V. 

While Civ IV lovers should be right at home with this return to PC form, some big changes make this game a slightly different beast - the first and most noticeable of these is the move to the hex grid. For starters, the hex grid is a major contributor to how truly sharp the game looks. With a square grid, natural features like coastlines and mountain ranges can only be placed in straight lines that turn at awkward-looking right angles. The switch to hexagonal plotting is worth it alone for the organic and attractive look it lends the geography. It’s true what they say -- real men love curves.

If you’re going for a cultural, diplomatic, or technological victory, you may not experience the strategic implications of the hex grid right away. Those who are going for a domination victory or find themselves staring down the barrel of an aggressive AI civilization, however, will discover that combat is subtly but substantively changed.

When movement is reduced to six directions from eight, the ability to flank a unit is greatly reduced. In one round where I played as the Iroquois, the American AI naturally tried to get all Manifest Destiny on me and wipe me out. I was aiming for a cultural victory, so my military was tiny at the time, but using the new grid to my advantage proved to be my savior. I placed my lone ranged unit behind my two ground units, which I used as blockers in an area of the map where there was only one hex of free space on either side of the formation.

Despite the fact that I was grossly out-manned, my placement allowed me to shell their expansionist pants off with my strong ranged unit while the Americans either threw cannon fodder uselessly at my front or got whittled down trying to work their way around the sides. Eventually, the AI got wise and sent naval units to drop troops behind my formation, but by then it was too late. I had bought myself just enough time to build a force to repel them with.

The other change that makes such tactical encounters possible is that Firaxis has removed the ability to stack units. This small adjustment makes for a very different combat experience. Gone are the days of the infamous stack of doom, when you could just generate a ridiculous number of units and roll them all towards a city at once. This tweak feels just right, as it increases the difficulty of capturing cities, who can now act in their own defense without units by bombarding incoming troops. It takes coordination and planning to successfully lay siege to a city in Civ V, which only increases the sense of satisfaction you get when you finally pull it off.

As a defender, your strategy must change as well. One of my favorite tactics in previous Civ titles was the ivory tower strategy. This is like the stack of doom, but with defensive units. Once you have a massive defense force built in a city, you just shut down military production and focus on cultural or technological or economic output while invaders line up to get shot down at the gates. The removal of stacked units kept me from cheaply turtling up, and forced me to be proactive about defending my territory. 

This is one of the big reasons I’m excited about what I’ve experienced in this game so far; it has forced me to abandon strategies that I’ve been able to blindly employ throughout the entire series to date. I didn’t get to use the preview build for any multiplayer, but it doesn’t take a lot of wild extrapolation to see that competitive Civ players are going to have to look at combat differently. With fewer total units on the grid, the value of buildings, civics, and technologies which buff your troops becomes much more important, and experienced units are a precious commodity. Civ V appears to cater much more to the chess players than the Zerg rushers.

Pursuing cultural advancement is more rewarding in Civ V than in IV, as generating culture allows you to adopt social policies such as Freedom, Tradition, Order, etc. As you open and explore each of these civics, you’ll gain different permanent benefits for your civilization. Having tangible benefits gives you more incentive to develop culturally; it basically turns social progress into a tech tree, and allows you to more fully customize your strengths to meet the victory conditions you’re pursuing.

The act of playing Civ V is more streamlined and efficient than ever before, based on the the time I’ve spent with the game. The user interface designer from Civilization Revolution was made the lead UI designer for Civ V, and his work really shows. My favorite part of the new controls are the way it makes handling necessary tasks quick and easy, without removing the complexity; my average game time clocked in at around 5 hours.

When an event takes place, such as a tech unlocking, a unit advancing, or even a barbarian camp spawning, an icon is generated on the right side of the screen. These icons act as a to-do list for the turn, but are easily ignored or dismissed. Clicking on the task icon will automatically take you to the unit, city, or menu relevant to the messaging. When in past games you would get a notification from the game and then have to hunt down the right thing on the map, now the icon zips you straight there, saving you lots of time that you can use to play more delicious Civ, or even save your social/romantic lives.

I’m of course reserving judgement until the final product is released, as strategy games like this often undergo last minute developer tweaks for balancing. However, if this preview build remains indicative of the Civ V that ships in late September, don’t be surprised if turn-based addicts are falling off the wagon in droves to hook up with a fresh new batch of the good stuff. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some car stereos to burgle.

 


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Sean Carey,
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