It’s a brave new world (but not for the Civilization franchise)!
Civ has always interested me because it’s such an anomaly. I can’t think of any other series of games that is utterly disinterested in trying to do what everyone else is . It’s refreshing in some ways, and maddeningly frustrating in others. Civ V,and it’s recent expansion pack, Brave New World, continue the franchise’s weird Galapagos-esque evolution. Although Civ V seems to be the best Civ yet, it also carries a legacy of problems along with it that aren’t addressed and haven’t been for over a decade. That being said, a review of Civ V could easily double as a review of Civ 4 or Civ 3. Strong points are consistently challenging and nuanced gameplay.
Civ V generally looks pretty good. It also definitely doesn’t look great. I would say the world map looks essentially the same as in Civilization 4, but unit animations have been cleaned up. This is especially noticeable in combat. The actual city centers feature all the buildings constructed, and on the borders wonders and other improvements. Unfortunately, the rest of the map looks bare. Without towns, or suburbs, the maps frequently look like the Midwest. Maybe there needs to be a mall or subdivision improvement available in the modern era to fill in some of that farmland.
Some other fit and finish isn’t there. Loading the game initially seems to take forever, and the load screen features a static picture, whereas in most games a slideshoe of several stock photos would be rotated in and out. Fonts and menus are themed in an Art Deco type font that just seems out of place. This isn’t BioShock and the styling choice doesn’t make any sense in the context. Menus and option screens are often filled with an incoherent layout. In some instances, such as conducting World Congress votes or founding a religion I was confused as to what I needed to do to select an option. Menu location itself is somewhat haphazard.
The music isn’t bad, but is consistently underwhelming. The one exception here is the title screen which gives some gravity to the game. Because the pace of a Civ match is so plodding, it would really be a good idea for Firaxis to invest in some composition to increase the tempo.
The interaction with other civilization leaders has always been fun, and it still is in Civ 5, where the animated cultural avatars speak their native language and act with passion. It functions largely the same as in Civ III or Civ IV.
What’s missing in Civ V is a lack of true innovation; the game suffers from exactly the same limitations as all of its prior installments.
Most critically, in order to make this game better, the turn-based system needs to be discarded in favor of something more responsive. It’s made the franchise unwieldy and just isn’t defensible anymore. Even under the fastest game settings, a single match takes 4 or 5 hours to complete. It simply doesn’t work as something accessible to most players. Turns move quickly at the start of the game due to the fact that most of the players don’t have much that can be done. But the amount of decisions and actions that need to be made later in the game quickly becomes overwhelming. Wars take a huge time investment because each unit needs to be moved one by one, and both sides need to move their units during their own specific turns. This is also coupled with the fact that the computer will frequently gang up on you if you’re military is seen as weak. The amount of time it takes to play spirals out of control, even on the accelerated settings.
The turns don’t even make sense. It takes 50 years for a worker to walk 10 miles east of a city? Another 50 years to build a farm? A good fix might be to make the maps twice as big and let the worker move twice. When at war, the middling pace of the game, and moving each soldier one tile at a time to advance in a line is excruciating.
I have never been into hardcore multiplayer games, but from experience, most matches take 20-40 minutes to play. It’s such a massive deviation from the norm here, and it’s the same with Civ III and IV. Civ 5 is too time consuming as a single player game, nevermind multiplayer. I’m apparently not alone in being intimidated by an extended match online. Note how the Steam post also mentions that there are not really any significant numbers of public matches at any given time. If online is the future, not achieving a baseline critical mass means failure.
Other features of Civ V seem arbitrary. The costs of connecting cities with roads is prohibitively expensive now. That seems counter intuitive. The game also for some reason doesn’t feature any type of upgrade for paving or constructing highways, which makes modern era cities look out of place when connected to each other with dirt roads. The tech tree itself seems more nonsensical than ever.
The “happiness” metric is also problematic. Happiness is necessary to generate a “golden age,” and also any sort of growth in major cities. That seems fair, but what isn’t is the inability of the player to really do much to change this function. Conceptually, the happiness measurement makes sense. Cities which have been conquered and are being ruled by a foreign occupier would naturally be generating unhappiness. That’s fine, although maybe after having Carthage Novo as part of my empire for 1500 some of those people protesting the occupation would have died. My problem with the system is that occupying cities isn’t the source of most of the unhappiness that’s typically generated. Most of the happiness in most civilizations seems to come from either large populations in cities, or unhappiness from the NUMBER of cities. I can understand the first part, I am at a complete lost for the second. High population means congestion, higher costs, traffic. Ok, I get that those could be negative factors. But I’ve never once thought to myself, “you know, this sure would be a much better country if we had less cities.” There isn’t much that can be done to increase happiness either, as computer opponents are reluctant to trade luxury resources in almost any circumstance, and buildings that generate happiness never seem to generate enough.
Bright spots include the cultural and religious features. Both of these are greatly modified from the based game in expansions (in the case of religion, it wasn’t in the base Civ V from what I understand). The importance of these stats really is what separates Civ from an average empire building or RTS war game. Given the time commitment it takes to even execute and plan for a war in Civ V make playing for other types of victories especially appealing.
Brave New World
I was only able to play Civ V, bundled with the first expansion, Gods and Kings, for about two weeks before I upgraded to Brave New World. Brave New World introduces some new major concepts like a World Congress and trade routes. These innovations expand and refine other aspects in the game, but primarily Brave New World feels like a patch. I would say a pretty good patch though. In particular, the expansion puts an emphasis is on economic development, which previously didn’t seem that significant. The result is that it is much easier to accumulate enough gold to actually spend it on things. It also adds flexibility to centralizing production or opening up trade with foreign civilizations or city states. The trade route system implemented is relatively easy to understand and can add a good deal of options to expanding influence, either through trade or the spread of religion.
What Civ V has going for it is that it is strangely addictive, and has a punishing learning curve. Even though you have plenty of time to make decisions, it doesn’t make Civ any easier. I just wish I could get more out of the incredible amount of play time being invested.
I remember before Fallout 3 was released reading a lot of press about how Bethesda didn’t see any way to do a turn-based game, but still wanted to preserve the strategic aspects of the original series. Some stinging comments from readers were dropped below those columns. Die hard Fallout fans were pissed. And, Fallout 3 is sort of a weird mix of strategy and skill that is pretty unusual for an FPS. But it doesn’t feel like work to play Fallout 3. It would not work if you had to wait 20 minutes during a firefight for a bunch of super mutants to all take their turns.
Granted, I understand the hesitancy to move to real time. The risk is that Civilization, which is a game about expanding one culture globally through careful management with other societies would turn into Warcraft. I can get why that is a bad thing. But going RTS is the only thing that will make Civ manageable.