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Sid Meier's Civilization V Review

5
  • PC

Firaxis offers a hardcore turn-based strategy experience that nearly anyone can approach, without sacrificing any of its wildly addictive appeal.


 Say hello to Civ V, and goodbye to all of your spare time.
 Say hello to Civ V, and goodbye to all of your spare time.

According to Steam, I've played Sid Meier's Civilization V for 24 hours. One Earth day! For most games today, 24 hours represents the entirety of the single-player experience, all the post-release DLC, and maybe a few hours checking out multiplayer. And that's on a good Earth day. For Civ V, 24 hours is barely scratching the surface of what this intelligently designed turn-based strategy game has to offer. In 24 hours time I've seen enough of Civ V that I'm familiar with its rhythms and generally understand the interlocking push-and-pull of its military, diplomatic, commerce, science, and cultural systems, but I suspect it would require hundreds of hours of play to master, if such a feat is even possible. Not that it'll stop me from trying.

This frightening depth, and hypnotic pacing have both long been hallmarks of the Civilization series. There are a few significant new features in Civ V, such as the introduction of autonomous city-states, but the fundamentals of how this game plays out should be completely familiar to existing Civ fans. The level of familiarity might even be disappointing to some, if the particular brand of empire-building that Civilization is known for weren't still so thoroughly engaging. What really sets Civ V apart from its predecessors, and what makes it borderline irresponsible on the part of developer Firaxis, is how key tweaks to the interface and the underlying systems have all but obliterated the game's learning curve, making it approachable by just about anyone, regardless of past experience with strategy games of any stripe. I say this is irresponsible because established Civ players already know what what sort of diabolical time-suck they're getting into here. But new players perhaps cannot fathom how effortlessly this game will steal away huge tracts of time, regardless of the time of day or your previous obligations, be they eating, sleeping, or going to work or school. The folks at Firaxis aren't just game designers. They're chemists.

The Civilization series has maintained its position as one of the pillars of the PC strategy world pretty consistently since it first debuted way, way back in 1991, but there's still a good chance that this could be your first exposure to Civ, so here's the short version: Civ V is a turn-based empire-building strategy game that cherry-picks historical leaders and their associated civilizations, as well as significant city namesakes, landmarks, and so on, and then throws them all into a wildly anachronistic mix together. Time marches forward one turn at a time, slowly but surely taking you from a simple post-tribal society into the gleaming near-future, and you'll have opportunities to build cities, amass armies, research new technologies, start and end wars, establish trade agreements, adopt social policies, and exploit the natural resources of your land in a bid to make your civilization the dominant one. 

 A landmass like this is just untapped potential.
 A landmass like this is just untapped potential.
There's no structured campaign to speak of, but a single game of Civ V can very easily take a dozen hours to play through, and there's a randomness to the geography and the behavior of the competing, AI-controlled civilizations, as well as a number of different ways you can win, that makes each game a unique little snowflake of world domination. I'll spare you the specific mechanical details of how this all works, because if you've played a Civ game before, you already know what's up, and if you haven't, it'll just make the whole enterprise seem like a really unappealing combination of dull and intimidating, which I assure you, it is neither. 

Civ V is peppered with salient quotes from famous historical figures, though none seem as applicable to the game itself as this little chestnut from Henry Ford: “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” He, of course, was talking about the power of the assembly line, but this is just as true of the turn-based nature of Civ. There is an incredible number of moving parts to consider as you expand your empire, and if you tried to think about all of them at once, the probability of a loved one finding you in a dark room rocking in the fetal position would be high. Taken one turn at a time, though, Civ V is incredibly engrossing, with each turn presenting some small decision that will, eventually, cumulatively, end up deciding the fate of your whole empire. That each turn feels meaningful, but not overwhelming, is part of what makes Civ V great. When combined with the slow-burning perpetual carrot-on-a-stick structure, it's what makes the game hard to quit, even when it's three in the morning and you have to get up at six.

But all that's applicable to any Civ game, really. Firaxis mastered this formula years ago, but what's special about Civ V specifically is that it makes slipping into those dangerous rhythms that much easier for new players. This is in part due to a completely redesigned interface, which is clean and intuitive, a big change from the jumbled kitchen-sink approach of Civ IV, and something that was clearly inspired by Firaxis' time on Civilization Revolution for consoles. Impressively, these changes don't hobble the depth of Civ V, and if you want to go nuts micromanaging workers and tweaking the resource output of your individual cities, it's just a few simple clicks away. 

This “less is more” approach to the interface allows the playfully abstracted visuals to shine through a bit better, too. The leaders don't have quite the same caricatured look they sported in Civ IV and Civ Rev, but everything just looks cleaner and smoother. The change to hexes from squares, in addition to purportedly impacting the underlying strategy in ways I'm unable to divine, helps mask the underlying grid and makes the world feel more natural. If you've got a high-end PC, it'll take advantage of the latest DirectX 11 bells and whistles in some subtle ways, though it scales down to older machines pretty well too. There are some nice, low-key, civilization-specific musical themes that play throughout, eschewing the hokey world-music motif past Civ games have clung to, and these soothing tones help the time fly by.


 Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
 Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
If you're a new player, there are some tutorials you can run through before getting into your first game of Civ V, but most players should be able to jump feet first into a game and intuit their way through the early turns, thanks to some well-integrated tips and a team of generally unintrusive AI advisors. The advisors can help provide some direction, something I found particularly useful when I was staring down a long list of detailed research or production options, trying to decide what the next priority for my civilization should be. Civ V strikes a nice balance with the advisors, as they'll help point you in the right direction, but they won't play the game for you.

For as rich and satisfying as the single-player experience in Civ V is, it's a little bit of a letdown how spartan the multiplayer options are. You can play online or over a LAN, and you can tweak things like win conditions, map size, turn limit, and so on, but there are no integrated play-by-email or single-machine hot-seat options, and though you can shift-tab to invite your Steam friends to play, it seems poorly integrated. I also experienced a fair amount of lag playing online, which seems particularly odd for a turn-based game.  

Between StarCraft II and Civilization V, it's been an interesting and exciting year for PC strategy games. Not to take away from either, but Civ V is, essentially, the anti-StarCraft, or at least as far as it can get while still occupying the same realm of strategy games. Either way, I cannot recommend Civ V enough to fans both old and new, or even people who hadn't considered playing a turn-based strategy game before. Which, I suppose, makes me the irresponsible one.