Oh, Sid Meier.
It really feels like you have something against relationships. One of my favourite games of all time, Sid Meiers' Gettysburg, nearly killed a whole mess of friendships and relationships as I addictively refought the titular battle over and over. It was like historical crack to my addictive nerdy personality.
And then, of course, there's the purest drug of all... the mighty Civilization. Five iterations down (not including spin-offs, expansions, console releases or the mighty effort that was Alpha Centauri), and we're still finding new ways to ignore the people around us in favour of watching a tiny digital civilisation go from tool-using primitives to the stars.
There are some pretty giant changes afoot for fans of previous iterations of the game, both in terms of gameplay and the way game info is presented to you. It could be argued that there's a certain level of dumbing down going on, but to our seasoned eye it feels more like a elegant streamlining to information management.
As each turn progresses, the game now handily flags everything that you need to know, but off to the side of the UI, and using a cute bubble-style alert system. There are shiny curves and colours everywhere in the new Civ; at first, we just weren't sure about this, but we've got to say it makes a real difference to long term play. It's been entirely possible in past versions of the game to get UI fatigue, which often leads to missing important cues and units.
In V, the alerts keep you on top of everything you need to get in with the task of actually playing. Just researched a technology and need to pick another? Easy. That trade agreement with Egypt just expired? Now you know. Been beaten to the Wonder you're one turn away from completing?
Well, at least you know. But you'll still be cranky as hell.
The UI does a good job of keeping everything hidden away behind pop-out windows and screens, too, allowing you a clear view of the campaign map at any time. The vital info's all there, however, usually just a click or two away.
The changes do feel like the game's holding your hand, but that's only true in the early game - once a big, max-size game gets into full swing you'll be praising whatever your theology of choice is.
The way combat flows has seen an even bigger shift, thanks to two seemingly simple changes - traditional map squares have given way to hexes, and units can no longer stack up in a given hex.
Think about both of those for a moment... yeah, gnarly, huh? Previous end-games would often become quite tedious, as various stacks-of-doom jumped around the map generally defeating everything in its path. Now, you must carefully orchestrate each move so that your units are always supporting one another - with a hex map, it's harder to get surrounded, but the possibility of six units now being able to gang up on your one if you let it happen doesn't bear thinking about.
At the same time, cities have become much tougher nuts to crack, able to attack at range, and usually requiring at least three or four units attacking them before they fall. Pick the right location for a city - nestled in mountains, or on the end of a peninsula - and you'll have a nigh impregnable fortress to anchor your empire on.
The combat changes really do change the game, and now at any stage any fight you get in - from a minor border skirmish to a full on centuries-long war of conquest - is a tense affair requiring serious planning and forethought. The loss of a single unit can easily unbalance an entire attack, so you'll also want to make sure that you have reserves handy, too.
In a lot of ways, this is really the most challenging version of the game ever released.
It's a more difficult change to immediately quantify, but the AI behind the game's diplomatic engine has also had an overhaul. Keep on a nation's good side is now more important than ever - leaders have a much longer memory in Civ V, so good relations tend to build over time, while those you backstab will tend to be far less patient.
Or maybe that's just our really crummy luck trying to roll up the Egyptians...
But there's not only that to worry about - the final new bit of icing on the tasty, tasty cake that is Civ V is the inclusion of City-states. These single-city, non-expansionist entities seem like a minor addition, but they're a serious pain and/or boon, depending on how you handle them. You could of course eat up every one you find, but then that will flavour every consequent interaction - and trust us, having every City state in the game declare war on you kind of sucks. Or you can make friends, and end up with an often very useful ally, who'll gift you with units and military support.
And they'll be an issue for every other player, too. Not only is the combat deeper, but the diplomatic angle is a lot more satisfying as well.
Of course, there are some minor complaints - the game, wonderfully, comes in both DX10 and DX11 modes, for instance, but as good as DX11 looks, it also has the odd glitch. Nothing huge or game-breaking, but rather the odd hex that flickers between textures every now and then. The other minor issue is that the game's end-game can come about rather sooner than you might think, thanks to awkward placing of other Civs and city-states; you can find yourself cornered rather fast, and then forever behind the curve.
But that won't stop you from starting up another game, and these issues are supremely minor. Civilization V is yet another crowning achievement for the series, a complete re-tooling and tuning of the entire game that delivers an experience at once fresh, and yet compellingly similar. What's more, it's going to be the easiest version yet for non-fans to approach. So what are you waiting for? Those Egyptians won't conquer themselves!
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