The Civilization series has been hailed as many different things by many different people. A board-game writ large. An all-encompassing empire building masterpiece. A shit turn based combat game. Well finally with Civ V you can scratch that last one off the list. The combat has finally caught up with the ambition of the rest of the pieces in the Civilization puzzle. Hexes and single unit per tile rules have made a striking change in how the game plays, without allowing military action to overpower everything else about the Civilization series that has earned its place as one of the PC’s all-time greats.
And earn its place it has. For a PC gamer from a young age, I can think of no other series which has consistently batted away rivals for a space on my hard-drive. For me, Civilization has been a constant, igniting an interest in world history that remains to this day. Although I could debate the usefulness of having a large array of dull historical facts at my disposal (thanks Civilopedia!), let’s instead say that for a game to have a profound effect on a persons interests even outside gaming is a remarkable achievement. The Civ games you see, are educational without being preachy and in your face. You can take it simply as a game, a finely tuned balancing act of the multiple strands of human achievement, from culture, to science, military and the economic. Or you can take it as an engrossing experience that weaves a unique historical narrative every time you play it. Now I’ve just gone and done the exact opposite from what I was attempting to do with this review, I made Civ sound boring and worthy. Civilization is first and foremost an engrossing and enjoyable game, it’s horrifically addictive and makes unreasonable demands of your time that you’ll be only too happy to provide it with. But beyond that, beyond the ‘really good game’ part is something more. And for me that’s what makes Civ a truly special series and Civ V a truly special game.
That something more is the narrative, weaving history and a very personal fiction together to create a unique story each time you play. As a veteran of the series I could probably bore you for hours, explaining how in Civilization IV my preference was the Mongol nation, with whom I’d bully and conquer my way across the world. I could detail my glorious French nation in Civ V, cultured and benevolent in their interaction with the city states, propelling me to glory despite having started out on a small island.
The story of my sad little Indian nation is my favourite Civ V tale though. Having decided to have no more than 3 cities and be a pacifist, all was going well until neighbouring USA and England decided to form a ‘special relationship’ with one another. The basis of that relationship was my utter annihilation unfortunately and any plans for pacifism were soon shown to be rather naïve. Fortunately they underestimated me and the nearby Iroquois proved a useful ally in the ensuing war, my magnificent Trebuchets proved to be the undoing of both nations and I razed each of their cities with a baleful sigh, all the while wishing we could have been friends instead. In fact both the English and Americans turned on each other at the last, presumably in a pathetic attempt to win my favour. I turned my back on them in disgust, leaving the Iroquois to finish them off, while I turned my eye towards the domestic and continued down my path towards a cultured and refined society.
The years following the war were prosperous for India, my happiness and culture reached new heights and a long Golden Age propelled me towards a cultural utopia. The friendly Iroquois meanwhile were expanding across our continent growing into a large thriving nation building over the ruins of the backstabbing English and treacherous Yankee scum. I was once more guilty of being horribly naïve and it was not long before the once noble Hiawatha’s hordes were spotted on my borders. They overran me completely. Though the battle of Mumbai left many Iroquois corpses at the foot of my small, proud nation, my refined and docile peoples made for poor soldiers. Delhi, my capital was the last to fall, the rivers surrounding the bustling and happy city ran red with blood as unit after unit of Iroquois warriors bombarded her walls. Delhi’s walls shattered and my once proud nation fell by the wayside, destined to be little more than a footnote in the history of the world. Fuck you Hiawatha, next time I’m going Aztec!
Civilization V isn’t the perfect entry in the Civilization series, the AI has issues with its use of units (though a recent patch has certainly made it better at combining arms and using naval units) and the general AI focus on war and war-making can be tedious. Fair enough if you share a border with Ghengis Khan, but there’s something slightly wrong about having Gandhi as the head of a despotic state hell-bent on world domination. Multiplayer still isn’t fully implemented and veterans may find their options fairly limited (play by email for instance, is not yet possible). Worse, the lag and simultaneous turns mean that combat between two human players loses a lot of the tactical intricacy. Instead of concerning yourself with unit placement, flanking and terrain advantage you’ll be chasing shadows as units flit about randomly, with both players desperately trying to gain the upper hand.
The introduction of City States changes the pacing of the game, giving more personality to the world map and experimentation reveals they can be utilised in a number of different ways. At a basic level allying with them can bring you bonuses to food or culture, with the militaristic States gifting you free military units. But the clever tactician can use City States in other subtle ways; from having them protect your borders, supplying them with units for proxy wars against other civilizations or maybe you’ll just see them as easy targets for annexation. Once again this feature is slightly undone by the AI. Your AI opposition doesn’t seem to be able to grasp the importance of City States and the tactical or material value they can provide to a civilization. This makes it fairly easy to get all of the City States onside as long as you have a decent economy, which is an easy road to a diplomatic victory.
Civilization V, flaws aside is another fantastic entry into the series. It combines a clean, easy to use UI with crisp graphics and tactical depth. The stories that unfold in each and every game are unique to the player and it will root you to your PC for many many hours. It’s a patch or two away from being the master-piece it could, and perhaps should have been, but it still stands tall and proud alongside the very best gaming experiences you could hope to find.