I broke up my preview into two parts: spending about half an hour building up Caesar and company from the "Dawn of Man" scenario and the rest of the time playing as a highly advanced version of the same empire. Where to begin? Oh, right: It's Civilization. It plays like Civilization.
That's a glowing compliment for most games, but I found myself questioning whether Civ 5 was deserving of the bold new number: How's it so different from Civ 4? "There's always ideas you can bring back to that deep strategy setting on the PC, and I really don't think it's marketing speak to say, 'There's always something new that you want to try,'" Firaxis marketing associate Pete Murray offered. "There's always something you can take to that fundamental formula and change it, and say, 'Okay, what can we do that's new and exciting with combat? What can we do that's new and exciting with culture? Diplomacy?'"
While I generally agree that there's always room for improvement and innovation when iterating, my short time with Civilization 5 left me with the initial impression that this game hasn't changed that much. If anything, the biggest change from Civ 4 is in the combat dimension. Instead of stacking units on a single tile, Civ 5 forces units into their own tiles and positions and, in this way, affects traditional unit formation and strategy. Archer units go in the back, cavalry in front of them, etc. -- and while multiple units can be selected, this option only applies to units of the same type. You can't, for example, select archers, ground troops and horse-mounted units all at once (or even just ground troops and horse-mounted units together, for that matter). I got the sense that, as your unit numbers grow, micromanagement could become a major issue.Thankfully, cities can now defend themselves, without having units stationed inside, by firing directly on attackers. As you might imagine, though, this defense can only hold off so many insurgents.
"But Ben," you say, "Civilization isn't all about combat!" I know, I know, and there are several other changes that stood out to me. For one, the entire game -- from world map to world leaders -- is a heck of a lot prettier. Resolution and detail seem to both have been dramatically improved, with waves crashing against the shore and world leaders getting fully acted roles.
The folks at Firaxis have also added city-states to the mix, which are essentially NPCs representing small civilizations that act much like the larger cultures you encounter the game. They're more or less one-off cities that you can trade with, partner with or just take over. I could certainly see these tiny additions making a large-scale impact on a growing civilization, but they did little more than get in my way during my time-constrained demo.
What I did find liberating was the new hex-based game map, which makes unit movement feel far more fluid than Civ's traditional eight-sided tile design. I found myself playing without grid lines for most of my preview and able to approach unit movement more organically as a result of this tweak.
Still, the new hexagonal design and the other changes and additions to Civilization 5 are hardly game-changing. I'd say that's all right, considering that Civ fans (myself included) would likely be put off by a totally different experience, though it's something you should consider for yourself before you rush to the store on September 21.