Civilization 5 review: A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

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Civilization 5 review: A funny thing happened on the way to the forum
Civilzation 5 is the love child of a clandestine tryst between Civilization 4 and Civilization Revolution. It is a game that shares genetic markers of both the PC and console iterations of the franchise, luckily receiving the best elements of both -- with a couple good mutations. Civ 5 has the grand, epic feel we expect from the series on PC, but so much of it has been streamlined for the better that Revolution's influence is undeniable.

I'm going to try something different in this review. Civilization has been around for almost two decades and the most divisive moment in the franchise's history was the creation of the console-based Civilization Revolution. With that in mind, I'm going to divide this review into three parts, with sections for [1] Civilization PC veterans; [2] those who enjoyed Civilization Revolution; and [3] "the uninitiated." Read all three perspectives and find out if this latest Civ unites the tribes.
For Civilization PC Veterans

Okay, empresses and kings, let's get some housekeeping out of the way first: The review copy of Civ 5 I played crashed (very inconveniently) from time to time on each of the three different computers I used. Don't panic, I'm sure this will get resolved. However, first thing to do once you get the game -- who are we kidding here, you know you vets are buying it! -- is switch the auto-save function from every 10 turns to every three (or less). Trust. Housekeeping issue #2: Take those "recommended" PC specs seriously.

This is the most streamlined Civilization to date, but please don't let the Revolution talk scare you. Yes, the console Civ's influence is all over this game: the interface, the lack of money/science sliders and the transparency of statistics. But it actually serves the franchise -- which was getting into convoluted "empire simulation" territory -- and yanks it back to being a strategy game.

Strategy oozes out of every hexy corner. If this is the love child of the aforementioned Civs, it was raised by a nanny who loved European board games. Alright, so it's not as fun for those who prayed at the "stack of doom" altar, but for those who had to rely on culture/economy/science tactics to win because the whole battle system was obtuse, this is the game that'll turn that around -- it may even make you into a warmonger.

Civilization 5 is a game that needed to happen.

Only one unit is allowed now per square -- sorry, hex. This not only makes you keep your soldiers to the front while your ranged units bombard from the second line, but it also gives you a better idea of what your enemy is up to (instead of everything hiding in a stack). Imagine if chess allowed "stacks of doom." It wouldn't be chess, it would be a game about slamming two stacks together with some bizarre math to decide the outcome -- with respect, that's what the old Civilizations were like. Now you have a really good idea of what's going on and the math is upfront about whether your unit is going to win or lose a battle. It's all crystal clear and it is the key element of Civ 5 I hope the series keeps for the rest of its days.

Another major change is the introduction of city states. These one-city civs have a focus on military, culture or food. Become friends and it'll give you a bonus in whatever its focus is. Become allies and you'll receive a luxury resource to keep your populace happy. Becoming friends and allies with these factions is dependent on completing tasks. The requests are very direct, such as destroying a barbarian camp, defending it from an enemy civilization or wiping out a competing city state. The city states add a whole new dimension to the game without really getting in the way of or derailing the big picture.

Initially, veterans of the series will find the pacing feels much, much quicker. Don't worry, a "normal" game still takes eight to twelve hours, but a lot of the annoying technology and unit prerequisites to move the game forward are gone. For example, the optics tech will allow all units to move over shore tiles with "embark." Later on, astronomy allows all units to move over ocean tiles. You'll need to protect these defenseless units with naval vessels or face the consequences, but creating cargo ships and all that boring stuff is gone.

With diplomacy and strategic moving taking center stage, Civilization veterans will find themselves spending more time on the main screen than micromanaging in menus. A lot of the minutia that turned previous entries of the series into empire simulators is gone, as Civilization 5 puts strategy and quick, decisive action back into the franchise.

For Civ Revolution Players

Ready to take on the big, bad PC version of Civ, eh? Well, good, cause there's a lot in Civilzation 5 you're already familiar with. The one thing that may come as a shock is not so much the size of the game, but the time commitment. Three- to four-hour match times are out on standard settings, you're in for eight hours or more now. The options on map and game type are very customizable when starting a game, so you'll be able to get whatever experience you want. If you'd like something more like Revolution, there's always the option of starting on a "tiny" map and switching the game speed to "quick."

Don't worry about micromanagement and menus. Your civilization's science, happiness, finances and culture are clearly displayed in the top left corner. Hovering over any one will generate a tool tip that explains the math behind each. If you want to get deeper, you can get check with your advisers or examine the super detailed spreadsheets on the (conveniently named) "additional information" button.

The game's user interface was designed by the same person who did Revolution, and it shows. The most important buttons for your units are always clearly displayed on the left side and if anything needs your attention, there's a running list on the right side. It's all very clean and easy to follow.

Plus, you'll find that Civ 5 molds really well to the way you like to play. An example: When a city is taken over you'll have the option to raze the city, install a puppet leader or annex the city. Annexing will make the populace in the city very unhappy, and you'll have to make a courthouse to shut them up. The benefit of annexing is that you can control what the city builds. Installing a puppet gives you all the benefits of the city without being able to control it. It sounds weird, but it works out really well when you're steamrolling an opponent -- it's also a brilliant way the game avoids micromanagement when you're clearly on a warpath. It's a clever and passive aggressive solution to making war fun and not scaring new (and even experienced) players away from a long war campaign.

Revolution was a fantastic game that boiled down the most important elements of the franchise. Civ 5 takes many, many of those core concepts and presents them in a fuller package. This isn't Civ Rev 2, but if you wanted something grander and more elegant from a Civ experience, Civilization 5 is ready to serve.

For The Uninitiated

Civilization 5 is the most intuitive version of the epic strategy series yet. As you create a civilization to stand the test of time, your advisers will hold your hand and make sure everything is going smoothly. The hexagon-based board is easy to understand and you can click the overlay on and off at any time. If you really want the cleanest version of the game (absolutely no bells or whistles), turn on the "strategic view." In this mode the game becomes a flat 2D interface revealing everything on the map quite plainly (almost like a board game) -- this becomes super helpful when a random city isn't connected to the trade network or when wanting to get a clear overview of a war campaign.

Like every Civilization game you'll start with a city. Unlike previous iterations of the series, the city is actually a battle unit now, with hit points and the ability to defend itself from anyone that gets within two hex tiles of it. This means that your first city can focus on building structures, wonders or settlers; instead of immediately needing to protect itself. To take over a city, ranged units will have to bombard the city to drop its hit points, and then troops can be sent in to take over.

War works really well in Civ 5, but don't take this to mean that it's all about fighting. With a proper defense of your borders, you can play the entire game through cultural expansion (which you can speed up by purchasing tiles), scientific exploration and collaborating with city states or other civs. The diplomacy screen in Civ hasn't changed much over the years and the reason is because it just makes sense. Almost everything in the game has tool tips that pop up when you hover over something, giving veterans what they need, but also making the whole experience seem rather effortless to someone new. You may stumble a little through your first game, but second time around you'll know exactly what to do and will want to try different things.

There is very little that's intimidating about this game. Rules are stated plainly, information is provided cleanly, and the only issue you may run into is finding out you're a statistic -- another one of the millions who started playing the game and suddenly it's 3AM.

In Conclusion ...

Whether you're a veteran of the whole series, a convert from Revolution or someone totally new to the franchise, understand this: Civilization 5 is a game that needed to happen. For a game so very, very large, it delivers everything in an easy to understand package no matter what route you take to playing it. The core Civilization experience is still there, but it's like an efficiency expert came in and streamlined everything that had gotten clunky with the series. It's a "friendly" strategy game. Can one even call a strategy game friendly? Well, I just did.

This review is based on 40+ hours with a review copy provided by 2K Games. The main PC used in this review has an Intel Core i5 655K 3.2 GHz processor, 4GB of RAM and NVIDIA GeForce GTS 450 1GB graphics card.
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