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Sid Meier's Civilization V review: Sid Meier's Civilization V

Excellent tactical battles and a slick interface make the latest Civilization another wonderful addition to a classic franchise.

Kevin VanOrd
12 min read

Editor's note: the Mac version of Civilization V is due out on 23 November.


Sid Meier's Civilization V

The Good

Hours of addictive turn-based glee Fantastic new tactical-combat system Excellent interface makes it easy to keep track of every aspect of the game Great automation features allow you to focus on the big picture Lovely visuals and classical soundtrack.

The Bad

Inconsistent, overly aggressive AI Scattered annoyances, particularly in multiplayer.

The Bottom Line

Excellent tactical battles and a slick interface make the latest Civilization another wonderful addition to a classic franchise.

Strategy fanatics have lost hundreds of hours of their lives to Sid Meier's beguiling creations over the years, and they should prepare to lose hundreds more. Civilization V is yet another glistening example of turn-based bliss that will keep you up long past your bedtime. It exercises its power over your mind using many of the tricks the series has long been known for: varied ways of accomplishing your goal of world domination, the thrill of expanding a paltry city into a bustling empire and the suspense of venturing into unknown territory. The latest Civilization game takes those basics and layers onto them new features that make moment-to-moment gameplay feel more dynamic than in the past. Most noticeably, the square grids of previous Civilization games have been jettisoned in favor of hexagons that nicely accommodate the other most consequential transformations: military units can no longer be stacked, and ranged units can fire from multiple tiles away. The tactical combat that rises from these modifications is a lot of fun and makes warfare a lot more exciting than in Civ games of yore. AI quirks and a few other minor issues become apparent the more you play, but these are wholly forgivable foibles in an attractive and sophisticated game that constantly begs you to remain at your keyboard for just one more turn.

First, here is a quick primer for newcomers. Civilization V, like previous games in the series, is about leading a nation through the eras of history, starting with a single city and expanding across the map. At the outset of any given game, you select a leader (in this case, one of 18, or 19 if you purchased the special edition from Steam), each of whom possesses a particular benefit that disposes his or her civilisation to a particular style of play. Americans get a range of sight bonus; the Siamese get diplomatic bonuses with miniature nations new to the series called city-states; the English get naval perks; and so forth. From here, you collect resources; make deals with other civilizations; manage your economy; and go to war and attack the cities of your enemies when the time is right. There are four main ways to win a typically lengthy game of Civilization V. You could dominate through military means and defeat every civilisation's capital city. You could be the first to gun through the technology tree and build the parts necessary for a spaceship that whisks you away to Alpha Centauri. You could ally with nations and city-states across the globe and win a diplomatic victory via a vote at the United Nations. Or you might become the cultural envy of the world by developing a large number of government policies and researching a mysterious undertaking known as the Utopia Project. There is also a fifth victory condition: possess the highest score when the turn limit has been reached.

What would strategy games be without the Roman Empire? (Credit: 2K Games)

Whether Civ is new to you or not, it's easy to appreciate the newest game's user-friendly interface, which makes figuring out what to do next a breeze, meaning more of your time is spent strategising and less of it is spent fumbling around. The organised nested menus are intuitive and easy to get used to, and Civ V does a good job of only displaying vital information on the screen while making other information easily available with just a few clicks. A single action button leads you through every aspect of your turn. If a unit is waiting for orders, the button says so, and clicking it takes you to the unit in question. If it's time to research a new technology, you click the button and it opens the research menu. There are a few aspects of the interface that could have been cleaned up. Switching between a city's production menu and the production queue is needlessly clunky, and the diplomatic overview doesn't label the tiny icons indicating what luxury resources other civilisations are producing. But most of the time, you always have the information you need when you need it, and neophytes should never feel in the dark.

A few of Civilization IV's features have been eliminated — most notably, religion and espionage — though many players aren't likely to miss them. However, longtime aspects of the series have returned. Your advisors are there if you need a bit of direction, though unit automation and little icons representing each advisor's suggestion in the production menus mean you won't often need to pay them a visit. The exhaustive Civilopedia is only a click away and offers a wealth of information on every aspect of every feature. You still build wonders like the Egyptian pyramids, the hanging gardens and the Great Wall, which generate the culture resource and provide other tangible benefits, without coming with the turn-by-turn maintenance cost of standard structures. The culture you gain is spent on social policies, which have replaced the governments of Civilization IV. Each time you reach the cultural resource benchmark, you select from the policy list, which is split into multiple policy types, each of which has its own sub-tree. The benefits you reap are cumulative, and while there are certain balancing restrictions in place, you still get a lot of freedom in how you want to progress. The mid- and late-game flexibility make it an excellent addition to the franchise. The first change you'll notice, however, has even more impact on Civilization V: the map is divided into hexagons rather than squares.

It looks like a lot to keep track of, but the terrific interface makes all of this easy to manage. (Credit: 2K Games)

The move to hexagons sets the stage for Civilization V's tactical combat. In the past, you could stack units into one army of doom (or a few armies) that rolled across the map. Now, with the exception of special units (the great general, for example) and workers, units cannot occupy the same space. As a result, you must be extremely conscious of each unit's weaknesses and strengths; a unit's position in regards to both its enemies and other friendly units; and whether or not any terrain bonuses apply. There is a rock-paper-scissors relationship among units that further deepens as units level up and you progress through the eras. When units level up, you choose one of several upgrades for them, such as an attack bonus when attacking from flat terrain. As they level up further, the possibilities expand, which means healing bonuses for the unit, as well as neighbouring units, or greater degrees of the same enhancements. Helpfully, you can also choose to fully heal the unit when it levels at the expense of choosing another bonus, which is a mighty handy ability that can save a veteran unit from the jaws of defeat. This excellent new system layers tactical combat onto the strategic map, making battles much tenser — and much less abstract. It also encourages you to keep your veteran units alive. And while it costs you a bit of gold, you can also upgrade units into more powerful iterations (a trebuchet into a cannon, for example) when your research path allows it.

That sounds complex, but it's extremely simple to keep track of battles in Civilization V. When you hover over your intended victim, you get a quick preview of the likely outcome of battle, though a preview won't tell you of other potential consequences. You might win the battle but move into range of a city's defenses or next to a squad of riflemen prepared to defeat you. In fact, similar points could be made about most of Civilization V: it's complex enough to support all of your schemes, but it's easy to interact with it. Veterans who are into micromanagement and like to plan at a snail's pace can manage every worker's actions, select an automated focus for each city's citizens (gold, culture, and so forth), and control each scout's moves hex by hex. But if you'd rather concentrate on the broader aspects of your strategy, you can leave a lot of these actions to the AI, which does a mostly creditable job of doing the right things at the right time.

Nevertheless, you do need to keep an eye on automated processes. Minor civilisations called city-states are one of Civilization V's newer additions. While you need an open-border agreement to pass freely through the territories of other civilisations, you may pass through a neutral city-state's borders without such a treaty, though city-states that aren't friendly to you will take offense at trespassing. Units set to automatically explore will think nothing of passing through neutral territory. The damage to the relationship is small, but it's still an annoyance to get a notification that you've irritated a city-state because your scouts weren't conscious of the borders. A toggle to allow or disallow exploring units to pass through city-state borders would have been a helpful addition.

Napoleon has the crazy eye. (Credit: 2K Games)

City-states may be partners to that particular pathfinding inconvenience, but they are overall a positive addition to the franchise, if not a dramatic one. You can interact with them, but only in limited ways. By offering them gold or units, you gain favour with them, becoming friends and perhaps allies with them. When friendly, you can move through city-states without consequence; when allies, they will join you in war, where they don't have a lot of impact but can still ease some pressure. Money isn't the only way to increase your standing with city-states. They will make various requests of you — build a road to them from your capital, defeat some barbarians or take up arms against an enemy city-state, among others. Doing their bidding earns you favour, but it can have other outcomes as well. Genoa may want you to defeat Venice on its behalf, but should another civilisation be protecting Venice, you might draw unintended ire. And if you get particularly aggressive, city-states may band together to try to defeat you.

Another purpose city-states serve is that they get a vote in the United Nations, making them helpful in winning a diplomatic victory if you work especially hard (and spend huge amounts of coin) to cultivate lasting relationships. If you are seeking this method to victory, you might be tempted early in the game to bring a city-state into your fold, but it's a temptation you should avoid. Your relationships with city-states crumble if you don't maintain them, and gold is too precious early in the game to waste your first 250 coins on a friendship that will dissolve within a few turns. In fact, diplomacy can occasionally feel a bit haphazard because of infrequent but noticeable AI oddities. You might request open borders in one turn and be flatly refused — only to have the same civilisation propose the same agreement in the next. A weak nation might attack you and refuse your attempts to call for peace, only to sue for peace and gift you with a nice sum of gold and luxury resources a few turns later. As a rule, competing civilisations seem to favour war over harmony, which makes diplomacy feel a bit hollow. Furthermore, the descriptions of other leaders' moods seen in Civ III and Civ IV have been dropped, so you're not always sure of your standing with another civilisation.

Rock beats paper; elephants beat cannons. (Credit: 2K Games)

That isn't to say, however, that diplomacy isn't viable. Focusing on nonmilitary means can still inspire a well-deserved victory. Pushing through eras to win a scientific victory is particularly enjoyable; this is in part due to the well-balanced technology tree, which prevents you from gunning forward willy-nilly from one era to the next. Focusing on technology also has entertainment value, unlocking the game's most powerful future-era unit — the giant death robot. (Nukes are fun; robots are even more fun.) But even if you want cultural or diplomatic victory, you can't ignore the science resource. Structures you need or at the very least should have for other types of victories — the U.N. or the Sydney Opera House, for example — require planning and smart use of the tech tree. But this is the tightly balanced way of the Civilization series: Every action, unit, technology and structure is tied to everything else. And it's this balancing act, as well as the tweaks and on-the-fly adjustments you need to make, that keeps players so captivated.

You will also be captivated by Civilization V's great looks and serene soundtrack. You may or may not miss Civilization IV's glossy global view, but it's hard not to be drawn in by the newer game's sunny visuals. The great leaders of the world are particularly noteworthy. Montezuma announces his arrival from behind a bright flame while wearing an elaborate green headdress. Wu Zetian's porcelain skin, silky garments and icy glare are just as memorable. Each leader speaks in his or her native language, which is a wonderful touch. Elsewhere, waves lapping against the shores and exaggerated battle animations give flair to the strategic map; even the fluffy clouds indicating unexplored areas have a certain amount of class to them. The soundtrack is equally classy, made up of a wonderful array of understated orchestral tunes. Musical repetition is all too common in slow-paced strategy games. While tunes certainly repeat in Civilization V, the gorgeous and diverse classical mix here, featuring such composers as Dvorak, Mahler and Grieg, as well as original music utilising familiar themes, is unlikely to wear out its welcome.

In fact, Civilization V is not likely to wear out its welcome in general. Random maps, numerous civilisations and many other options keep the game fresh time after time. If predictable behaviour patterns start to bother you (the aggressiveness of the Aztecs, for example), then you can randomise civilisation attitudes. If you tire of the early game, then you can start in a later era. Remove barbarians from the map or set a maximum number of turns, if you prefer. And as in Civilization IV, you can adjust the game speed to accommodate marathon sessions or quicker matches. (Though any given game is measured in hours, not minutes.) User-created mods are also likely to be a big part of Civilization V's future, and it's easy to download mods in the game menus. There are already a few available, including a great one that allows you to play on an array of real-world maps.

Social policies are a new, and great, addition to the Civ franchise. (Credit: 2K Games)

Multiplayer games are also a possibility for the most patient players. You can set a turn timer to limit how long players get to consider their next move, but even so the pace is at the whim of those involved, so matches can get bogged down in the early hours. Luckily, most of the customisation options available to you in single-player games are available in multiplayer games as well, so you can keep things moving with the right options activated. Gone are hotseat and email play options, with online and local network play as the only ways to play with others. By nature, Civilization V is a game you enjoy most with friends instead of random strangers, though the simple interface makes it easy to find and join available internet games. Should you want to limit your game to friends, you must invite them through the Steam overlay. (It's too bad there is no button built into the in-game interface for friend invitations, as it would have been a nice user-friendly touch.) Nonetheless, games tend to move smoothly without any notable lag, though we did run into glitches while playing online. At several points, the action button refused to progress to an end turn prompt, forcing us to open a random menu for the match to continue. At other times, switching from the production menu to the production queue caused certain buttons to become unresponsive. (The random-menu fix was effective here as well.)

But those are tiny irritations in a fun and complex game bursting with joy and constant rewards. Sid Meier's Civilization V sucks hour after hour of your day away, giving rise to plans of global conquest and thoughtful tactics. Of course, you could say the same of Civ games of the past, but what makes Civilization V a praiseworthy successor is how it changes up key elements of the franchise. The game's core values — expansion, exploitation, exploration, extermination — are as strong as ever. But the newer tactical combat and addition of city-states give strategy veterans new ways of tackling their goals, while a friendly interface and expansive Civilopedia help newcomers get up to speed relatively quickly. There are a few aspects of Civilization V that could have used a bit more attention, but even as is, this is yet another classic edition to a series that consistently rewards and renovates. If you have even the remotest interest in worldwide domination, you owe it to yourself to get lost in one of the most rewarding turn-based games in years.

Via GameSpot.