Civilization V game – early impressions

Welcome to the future of Civilization (or at least the game of that name).

I don’t have unlimited time for gaming, but some days ago I bought the latest incarnation of Sid Meier’s Civilization. The original was possibly the most engrossing game I have ever known, so that I still thought it was evening when the morning sun rose.  This is not quite that bad / good, or perhaps I am just more resistant now.  But my first impression is that I like it better than the two previous versions.

The first thing you notice is that the game now requires online validation. It uses the online gaming service Steam, run by a company called Valve (who also make some popular games on their own). If you don’t have Internet access, you can’t play this game.  If Valve goes bust or is bought up by competitors, or if their servers are hit by a meteor or whatever, you can’t play this game ever again.  If you are temporarily without Internet connection, or if the Steam server is temporarily without Internet connection, or if there is a line break anywhere between the two, you can’t play the game until this is fixed. So, a big thumb down for this. It is not like the game actually needs this feature for any reason:  Multiplayer is entirely voluntary and a clearly separated part of the game.

It is obviously some kind of copy protection. People are scared of piracy, and rightly so. But the irony is that due to this copy protection, you are better off with a cracked copy (unless it is infected with virus or other malware). Legitimate customers are the ones who have to suffer this indignity, pirates don’t. Well, unless they want to play multiplayer, in which case they may find themselves in hot water as their IP address will be registered.

Now on to the actual game. It is advertised as having a major upgrade of graphics, but I don’t agree. It is no more decorative than Civ4 was, and more cluttered. The information is reasonably easy to find, but there is a lot of detail that is basically more noise than signal. The game designers have taken this into account and provided a strategic mode you can toggle to, but that goes to the other extreme again, looking terribly cartoonish.

One striking change is the shift from rectangles to hexagons as the basic unit of land (or sea). I approve of this, but it does not look better. It looks worse, in my opinion. I may simply need to get used to it, but it is months since last I looked at a Civilization game and it still looks just unnatural to me. It does make more sense in military confrontations and unit movement though, and also in land cultivation.

Another major difference from all the earlier games is that cities now have hit points and an inherent bombard ability regardless of whether there are military units in them. So you can establish a city and not immediately fortify it. Even a small city with no upgrades can fend off the random wandering barbarian army or two without a scratch, which is nice.  But it goes further than that.

During my second game, I played at an easy difficulty level. At first I made mostly workers to improve the land, but then I started plonking down cities. I fortified a warrior in the first and an archer in the second, then made two without defenders.  While working on my fifth settler, I had two of the strongest powers in the world declare war on me.  Russia had about half of the world’s military at the time, so that was rather disconcerting. Luckily the highest tech was chariot archers, but still seeing a tsunami of enemy units rolling toward your undefended city…

Amazingly though, the bombard ability managed to take out several attackers without them ever getting right next to the city. The enemy archers were the worst problem, but I managed to finish a chariot archer just in time when the city defenses were eradicated.  The other part of the Russian army that had marched toward my capital city were shot to pieces without doing any damage at all.  So that was pretty impressive.  I assume the same would have happened if I had attacked them, so this is a major change in the game balance during the ancient and medieval era.  I assume this will change with artillery, rocketry and air bombing. Still, it gives a major incentive to expand rapidly instead of building up the military first.

The role of religions, which showed up in Civ4, is utterly removed. You can still build temples, but they only give culture points. Specialized religious buildings for different religions are removed, and I did not even see the cathedrals that have been with the game from the start (I think, I know they were in Civ2 at least). The number of religious themed Wonders of the World is also reduced, and there is no longer particularly many from the Christian sphere compared to other cultures. It seems safe to guess that Firaxis got burned on that feature last time.

Culture no longer expands your border rapidly. You will get nearby land or sea tiles as your population grows. There seem to be more tiles than population, but not by much, unless you spend gold to buy them. This may be a good idea if there are valuable resources just out of reach, like luxuries or iron or horses for your military.

On the other hand, culture now accumulates to let you buy social policies. These come in a number of groups, some of which are mutually exclusive, but many are not. The groups are themed, so that one group is particularly useful for large empires, another for small, another for seafaring and mercantile nations and so on. You can win a cultural victory by getting many enough of these, but even on the ridiculously easy Tutorial level I was nowhere near that before the game was closing in on the year 2050, where scoring ends.

The Civ games used to benefit greatly from micromanagement. It was a bit of a wrist nightmare, to tell the truth. This may be one of the reasons why I have played it so little over the last years. In this version, micromanagement is downplayed. You can still do some of it, but it does not make the huge difference it used to.  Unless you are pretty good, you should probably leave most of the mundane tasks to the computer intelligence and concentrate on the strategic stuff.

The military is changed in more ways than the hexagon tiles and the strong cities. Support of armies is simplified, and you can no longer stack two military units in the same tile. They are also more expensive to make. The net result is that you make many fewer military units, and feel more protective of the ones you have. Experience makes more difference than ever before, so if you have an old spearman you will definitely want to upgrade rather than disband and make something new.

Having only one unit per tile means warfare is far more intuitive. No more mousing over tiles to see how many units are stacked there. Just look out across the field and you can judge the forces pretty quickly.  Battles also don’t end with annihilation unless one of the sides is extremely much stronger. Even if you lose, you can normally withdraw to heal, unless you are surrounded. And there is now a preview before you attack, which tells you the expected outcome of the battle. The actual battle may be a little different, for instance I got predicted “minor victory” but ended up with a stalemate, but the range of randomness is cut down. No more spearmen sinking destroyers by sheer luck.

That’s all I can remember off my sleepy head.