2K Games – Sid Meier’s Civilization V review

after five years, Civilization returns with a streamlined make-over
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Back at the start of the nineties, Civilization was the first strategy game we played on our shiny new 486 DX33 PC, and it really hooked us day in, day out, for months. The basic idea of taking a civilization and advancing it from 4000 BC to modern times hasn’t changed, and much of the game will be familiar to someone who hasn’t seen any of the three follow-ons to the original Civ. You still start with one settler founding the capital city, then researching your tech trees, building warrior units, perhaps a granary to boost city growth and so forth.

We wouldn’t want that magical base formula to be messed with too much, but obviously over two decades there’s a fair bit that has changed, and Civ 5 makes its own fresh introductions. Two elements are immediately obvious, starting with the overhauled graphics, with some nicely detailed landscapes and DX11 support which adds further intricacies such as more realistic drifting clouds. The second point of immediate interest is the fact that the smartly rendered landscape is now overlaid with a hex grid instead of the old clunky square-based system.

However, don’t think that because hexes have arrived, Civilization has become a war game. Combat remains very straightforward, although because units don’t stack any more, it is more tactical and positional. Armies can line up with infantry shielding the bowmen behind, and flanking bonuses are applied when the enemy is surrounded. There’s a good bit of tactical depth here without being overbearing, and the new fighting animations are welcome too. It’s much more atmospheric to see whole regiments charge at each other and battle, with the losses visible as your men fall.

Maintaining a sufficient level of depth without becoming overbearing is pretty much the theme for this fifth episode of Sid’s world-conquering soap opera. Some of the complexities of the previous incarnation, such as religion, have been stripped out, and the computer lends a lot of help in the task of managing your empire, should you wish it. A city’s resource management can be handled automatically, and advisors are always on hand to recommend building projects, popping up regularly in a well designed tutorial system for beginners. The interface is a crafted thing of beauty, too, with informative tooltips and a very slick system of menus.

The streamlining and CPU aids don’t mean that there isn’t a large amount of choice available to the Civilization 5 leader, however. They just leave the player free to decide what to focus on in terms of overall policy direction. Do you pursue a quick city expansion and connecting up trade routes to rake gold in, or plump for a research rush to the best military units to go for some early conquest? Culture is a viable option too, with a smaller empire able to advance more quickly down this route, accumulating culture points which allow the player to unlock social policies that have some very useful bonuses.

Indeed, part of the key to a cultural victory is allying yourself with the new city states Civ 5 has introduced. These are small bit player nations who the major powers can gain influence with by completing tasks for them, such as defeating a rival city state. Equally, you can bribe them, and once allied, a cultured city state such as Vienna will pipe culture points directly into your civilization, along with any luxury trade goods they have. There are different types of states, with militaristic ones providing an ally with extra combat units, and maritime cities delivering food (fish and chips every Friday).

The diplomatic side of the equation is quite simple – throwing gold at a city state will buy their loyalty, for a time, anyway – but let’s face it, that’s true enough in reality. Diplomacy with other major powers is much more fleshed out, although we generally found it tricky to carve out a fair deal in negotiations, with the AI always tending to tilt things in its favour. We also noted that the AI gets a resource boost on higher levels, effectively engaging in some handicapping to get an advantage over you. However, this isn’t outright cheating, creating units out of thin air and suchlike, and obviously it’s important that the higher difficulties provide a substantial challenge.

There’s always the multiplayer mode if you want to really test your strategic mettle and diplomatic manoeuvring skills. Multiplayer still feels a bit rough around the edges – for example, the lobby displayed a lot of expired sessions which weren’t possible to join – but hopefully a patch or two will smooth it out. Civ 5 is actually tied up with Steam, and this gives it the handy extra option of backing up your saved games to the cloud in case your PC should implode.

Company: 2K Games

The fifth version of Sid Meier's classic formula adds some major aesthetic improvements, a more tactical combat system, a marvellously designed interface, and some excellent integrated help for the beginner. The whole game has been streamlined to make it more accessible, yet still maintaining enough depth to remain thoroughly engaging. It's true that Civ veterans may miss some of the complexities shed from the previous instalment, but for us, Civilization 5 marks an impressive step forward for the king of world domination strategy games.