"Streamlining" is a scary word in video games. It is often synonymous with "dumbing down," "tearing out the heart," and many other unpleasant things. "Core changes" is also a scary word, often synonymous with "missing the point" and "fixing what wasn't broken." For better or worse, few developers accept the phrase "good enough," eternally motivated to improve their creations. Most fans will try the changes on the off-chance that this Sonic The Hedgehog will finally capture the classic essence or that this Rock Band will finally raise the bar for the genre.
Fortunately, after the awesome enhancements in Civilization IV, Sid Meier has changed core assumptions and streamlined major elements of the series for Civilization V — and every single one of them works amazingly, pulling off the miracle of bringing the game to new audiences without alienating older ones.
The opening cut scene, optional in nature, is so epic that it deserves a description. In its simplicity of depicting a tribal elder passing leadership to a younger man, it captures a sense of emotion and grandeur that is rare in the video game industry. You'll be reminded of this moment as you attain several of the many Wonders of the game, and that brings a surprisingly powerful sense of emotion to achievements.
The basics of Civilization remain the same — create cities, upgrade cities, build armies, and conquer the world through culture, diplomacy, space or war. It's the same 4X strategy core, and it requires the same series of balancing acts as every previous entry in the series.
The core changes become obvious from the first moves of civilization placement. The grid is now hexagonal, eliminating the diagonal movement rules in favor of a simple, cleaner design. Only one military unit may be on a tile at a time, as unit stacking has been eliminated. This makes warfare much more advanced, encouraging and enforcing more advanced tactics and bringing defense to the forefront. Later in the game, fields of war more closely resemble actual fields of war, with flanking, lines, and a constant sense that every move counts.
Government has also changed. You no longer have religions and government types, as this has been streamlined and expanded into 10 policy trees. You spend earned Culture to adopt policy pieces, and some only unlock with specific tech options. The result initially looks much simpler, but it's actually much deeper since certain trees do not mesh with one another. For example, you cannot take Rationalism while taking Theocracy. Your choices matter, and there is not necessarily a clear "best option," especially if you pursue a different victory path.
The roving tribes (or ruins, depending on game entry) have been expanded massively and split into three elements. Ruins always have positive results, so it's highly worthwhile to seek them out. Barbarians, however, remain a hazard. Barbarian camps, which work like little cities of destruction, spawn during play, and they must be dealt with as a more active threat during the early game.
Perhaps the largest change, though, in the field of non-competing characters is the introduction of city-states: single-city civilizations that do not pursue victory but otherwise produce armies, trade, and other effects. Diplomacy with them is reduced to a single influence gauge and your ability to influence it — primarily through bribery, but also by not treading on their territory and helping them deal with barbarian camps. Allying with city-states can help you advance your science and build up trade. You can also declare a city-state as protected, so anyone who invades it is making an act of war against you. On the other hand, you could always conquer the city-state, build a courthouse to mute the unhappiness caused by occupation, and have a larger empire.
This laundry list of core changes is also seen in the array of military units, which develop outward more rapidly and in more combinations. Wisely choosing your units and how they advance further develops the complexity of war. Fortunately, you can get a preview of the likely result of your actions, so you can see exactly how bad an idea is before committing your resources. Combined with the finer grain of policies and large-as-always tech tree, Civilization V gives you more decisions to make — but the process of making them is much smoother.
The multiplayer has also undergone a change. While the play-by-e-mail style pit boss multiplayer was great for long-term games, the turn-based schedule made the game's greatest play a little too slow for many players' tastes, even with a time limit. Civilization V solves this by partially eliminating turns. While the turn remains as an internal construct, giving a player priority in moves, everyone takes his turn for a specific year/month at the same time, handling unit movement and management tasks in sync. The results come at a clear cost — the game's state during your turn is no longer stable — but speeding up play when everyone's on the computer at the same time is well worth it.
There are minor quibbles with the graphics. While the introduction of DirectX 11 improves things in some areas and details, the core design looks and feels too similar to Civilization IV. Fortunately, the soundscape has improved a bit, particularly through strong musical arrangements that meld and mesh with each other.
The Firaxis team has proven that change is good when it's done right. Sid Meier's Civilization V takes core game assumptions that have persisted for as long as two decades and replaces them wholesale — almost invariably for the better. The results pull off the miracle of being both more accessible and deeper than before. Firaxis remains the undisputed king of the thinker's game among commercial developers, and Civilization V neatly fits as another jewel in its crown.
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