Alright, so it’s been a good long while since I’ve played a Civ game in any real capacity (Civilization 2, to be precise), and as a result Civilization V was barely on my radar when it was first announced. But over the past few weeks the hands-on previews have been rolling in, and I’ve gone from vague disinterest to anticipatory froth in ten seconds flat.
Why all the hype all of a sudden, you ask? Well, for starters, let’s talk combat. While past civilization games made combat interesting by taking you through a guided history of war, forcing you to research new military technologies to avoid being outclassed by rival nations, the battle system itself has always been the series’s Achilles’ heel. The pro tech for a domination victory could always be reduced to this simple flowchart: 1. Build better / more units than your enemy. 2. Lump them all onto one tile to create a Stack Of Doom™. 3. Steamroll. Though there are challenges to building up superior armies, there’s little to no finesse to the actual showdowns. It’s frustrating to lose to and boring to win with, and with war being a central part of the game (and history), it’s a big problem.
Enter Civilization V. The developers at Firaxis have finally decided to give the combat system its much needed overhaul, and reactions have been overwhelmingly positive (when you get compared to Panzer General and Advance Wars, you know you’re doing something right). Units are now limited to one per tile, and there’s a rock-paper-scissors element with infantry, ranged forces, and artillery. The new hex grid, coupled with an increase in moves per turn for units, also leads to more strategic movement and increased mobility, so in battles you’ll be able to flank and outmaneuver your enemies or jostle for important terrain advantage. Hearing people talk about offensive fronts, chokepoints, and naval bombardment makes me very happy. No longer is combat the equivalent of ramming toy cars together, it would seem.
Supporting this revamped system are new and interesting reasons to go to war, even if you aren’t necessarily going for a domination victory. City-States are shaping up to be a beloved new feature: NPC entities that never expand past a single city or try to win the game themselves, but have their own smaller goals that they petition the larger civilizations for help with. They might ask you to defend them against barbarians, or to attack a rival city-state, for instance. Aiding them rewards you with various bonuses, as does razing them to the ground, but confronting a city-state might thrust you into an unwitting conflict with their allied civilization(s). Helping Edinburgh fight their enemies in Helsinki only to run up against their allies in Egypt is wonderfully flavorful and a more interesting chain of events than previous games have allowed. Furthermore, the addition of “strategic resources” which are necessary to build certain top of the line units, but are limited in number, provide yet another impetus to pound the drums of war (or strike up negotiations, if you’re some kind of reasonable leader). And invading another country to get access to its oil or uranium just seems right…historically, anyway.
Finally, the superficial element. The game simply looks gorgeous, which is admittedly a consideration of some importance when you consider how many hours an average game of Civ takes. From the Art Deco icons to the colorfully detailed terrain, it’s an incredible leap forward from its predecessor. What little music (and voice acting, I might add) I’ve heard is also top notch, the strings and bombast of orchestra recordings suitably epic for a journey through the ages.
I haven’t really talked about the myriad other elements of the game (culture, technology, economics, social policies, buildings, modding, etc.), which have also received a number of changes, but there’s nothing quite as drastic or revelatory there. These are the things previous Civilization games are known and loved for, and for the most part they look to be healthy and intact. It’s the fact that Civilization V seems to finally combine these series hallmarks with some engaging combat that has me uncontrollably hopeful for the title. But don’t take my word for it: check out some first-hand accounts and info on the game. And keep an eye out for an official live gameplay preview next monday. I know I’ll be watching. September 21st might just be the day our own civilization shuts down; just one more turn…