Civilization V Review

By Eric Eckstein - Posted Sep 17, 2010

Civilization 5 is a fantastic turn-based strategy game that retains the same addictive gameplay the first Civilization brought to PC gaming almost 20 years ago. Accessible, beautiful, and full of new concepts, Civ 5 is a solid sequel that should appeal to both new and old players alike.

The Pros
  • Beautiful presentation and simplified interface
  • New game elements offer more replay variety
  • Tried and true addictive gameplay intact
The Cons
  • Diplomatic model is anemic
  • AI is fairly average

Civilization 5 Review:

Civilization 5 may have evolved, but the founding principles of the series are still very much apparent. Turn by turn, players will continue to build cities, research advanced technology, lead armies and ultimately emerge (hopefully!) as the dominant culture on the planet. Victory conditions are roughly the same as the first game, allowing players to blast into space for a scientific victory or fall back on old reliable command and conquering to stake their claim. There’s also the ability to play multiplayer. But hold onto your monocles: times they are a-changin'.



Extreme Makeover: Sid Meier Edition

The most impressive change to the series can be seen instantly upon starting Civilization V. Gone are the chunky squares, which have been replaced by hexes. The hexes allow for gorgeous pieces of rendered art: rivers to flow into oceans or dense forests to fade into industrialized zones seamlessly.

With a scroll of the mouse wheel, one can zoom out to bear witness over his kingdom or snap up close to watch workers constructing a mine on a hill to increase its gold output. This new world is one dying to be explored, with ancient ruins and natural wonders that can yield a bonus to those willing to risk the wilds of the undiscovered territory. Civ 5 is one beautiful strategy game, but it's more than just a pretty face.

Whether or not you have played a Civilization game before, you will be able to play Civ V thanks to a complete overhaul of its user interface. Important commands are always a click away, pop-up icons notify leaders of key developments, and the advisors are ready to assist with almost any information needed to plan a society's future. The interface improvements also make playing “one more turn” much easier, so more time can be spent on the 4Xs (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) instead of slugging through menus. If you have the patience for turn-based strategy games, Civilization 5 is perfection.

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Combat Evolved... Sort Of

Less perfect is the reimagined combat model, which trades up to single military units occupying each hex versus stacks of doom, where players would place all their forces on one square and move that army around decimating everything in their path. In many ways, the combat refinement helps the flow of the game, making each unit more precious and capable while letting tactics carry the day instead of brute strength. Archers and siege weapons can fire at range while remaining protected by front-line troops who gain bonuses for flanking or proximity.

In practice, the change can make moving large numbers of units feel more like playing an elaborate slide puzzle than executing a tactical offensive. However, leading a small force to an enemy city or fending off an impetuous AI scorned, is more natural than any stack-based system ever offered.

While tactics may rule each battle, strategy is key to winning the war. Added to the arsenal are two new concepts for the Civilization series: City-States and Social Policies. City-States are autonomous cities that can be allied with for military units or bonuses of food for city growth. They'll cry for help or make demands, and can even lead Civs to war over them.

As there are more City-States than Civs in the game, they are valuable pawns if on your side. Sometimes, their requests are unrealistic, such as destroying a rival City-State on the other side of the map or building a road to them through enemy territory, but mostly they are a welcome addition towards a non-combat victory. Having non-Civs to interact with also will give a bit more depth to the game, especially because the diplomatic game so flawed.

Beyond researching technologies, would-be leaders can employ Social Policies to tailor empire building to their needs. Think of social policies as another technology tree, although their benefits affect the civilization on a whole rather than making a particular unit or building type available. In the course of play, picking policies is a defining moment and, as some paths are mutually exclusive, it’s another way to yield unique in-game experiences for future play sessions.

For instance, by adopting Honor-based policies, armies are made stronger, while a Patronage path can make the allegiance of City-States more beneficial. None seem particularly powerful enough to make one path a go-to for every player. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to tell which policies rival leaders have adopted in order to keep up with the joneses or counter their strategy. Also, shared ideologies have no bearing on relations.



Diplomatic Immunity...Has Just Been Revoked!

Diplomacy has never been a strong suit of the series, but Civilization 5 takes a step backward from the transparency and variety in Civilization IV. Players will be hard-pressed to know how AI civilizations truly feel about them, until the scoreboard declares them as hostile or their leader calls for war.

In Civ 5, first contact only has three real options: requesting a Pact of Cooperation, asking them not to settle near you, or walking away. Each time I tried to request a Pact, they always answered with the equivalent of “No thanks.” Pacts seem to yield no real benefit as the AI makes decisions purely on the size of your army's muscles. Diplomacy in-game is like meeting someone at a party and saying right-off-the-bat “Let's be BFFs!” or “Hit on my girlfriend and I'll punch you in the face.”  Civilization has always been a war game, but the other elements could have been made that much more interesting with a more sophisticated and less dumbed down diplomatic model.

The lack of diplomacy is most likely a byproduct of the AI's continued inability to truly understand the nuances of the game. That's not to say the AI is bad in Civ 5; in many ways, the AI is quite competent enough to figure out the big picture, though it will occasionally trot out its siege units to the front-line or go to war because one lonely spearman marches along a shared border. As Civilization V is primarily a single player game, the AI has to be strong, and while the higher difficulty levels don't make the AI any smarter, the default AI level shouldn't be too shabby for the average player.



You Have Entered The Future Era

While this doesn’t affect the review, I'd be remiss not to talk a bit about Mods in Civilization 5. With prior games, it was a complicated affair to find and install user generated content, but always well worth the struggle. The community created amazing content for the game, including new units or buildings, revamped tech trees, outer space and fantasy settings, you name it. Now, installing them is accessible from within the game. At the time of publication, only test mods were available, but considering the creativity of Civ's fanbase, one expects that to grow significantly over the next few months. If Kael ever creates a Civilization V Fall from Heaven mod, prepare to lose another month of your life.

All Roads Lead To...

Civilization 5
is a fantastic turn-based strategy game, retaining the same addictive gameplay the first Civilization brought to PC gaming almost 20 years ago. In many ways, Civ V is the best representation of the series and certainly the most accessible for new and old players alike. Not all of the changes work or enhance the game, but most are a large improvement towards an even more playable entertainment experience. Between Starcraft 2 and Civilization 5, PC gaming is far from dead, folks!

Civilization 5 was tested on an Intel Core i7-875k processor with both a NVIDIA GTX 460 video card and GTX 260 under Windows 7.