This preview of Civilization V is incomplete. It takes more than nine Earth hours, you see, for the great Arabian empire — land of Mecca, Rio De Janeiro and Beijing — to assume dominance of the globe.
It takes more than 400 turns of Civilization V to finish one playthrough set on a "small" world, time passing at a "standard" pace with the game set to "chieftain" (not very hard) difficulty.
Forgive the Kotaku previewer, will you? Life, sleep, work got in the way, despite the best efforts of the people at Firaxis who made this pleasure trap of a game. Thankfully, nine hours allowed for plenty of time to learn about the game.
Civilization V will seem very familiar. It's the same game as its predecessors insofar as you will play cultivator and ruler of a single civilization across several virtual millennia. At the start of the game, you can see only a small patch of terrain and direct just one cluster of settlers and one troupe of warriors. With the settlers you can start your first city. Around them the world is cloaked in darkness.
Where you place your capital is the first decision of Civilization's cascade of choices. Each piece of terrain on the map is associated with specific resources and imbued with certain potential, some land prime for farming, other for mining. Each city can be charged with producing special structures (barracks for troops, granaries for food production, stadiums for population happiness, and more) and special units (warriors of ever-advancing armament, settlers to found new cities, workers to build roads and so on). Cities do this work at rates tied to their citizens' productivity, a measure affected by how happy and well-fed they are.
Gameplay occurs in turns. You move your people-units across the game's map a set number of moves at a time; your cities toil to create what you have ordered over a set number of turns; you execute your orders and then wait for the other empires of the game to make their moves before you are in control again. The goal, accomplished a few different ways, is for your empire to be the best in the world.
As described, the Civ games can seem boring — even if you add details that your expanding empire, as it encounters other societies, can open diplomatic relations with or wage war against those other peoples. Sounds like history class. Worse: sounds like civics class. And economics. Dry stuff.
But Civilization games are the ultimate games of delegation. They are about being the boss — the ideas guy or girl — and making a computer do all the boring stuff. Let the computer connect the trade routes. Let the computer track diplomatic deals. Let the computer take command of all the worker units and have them upgrade the farms, build the lumber mills. I, the player — the ideas man! — am busy deciding whether to invade Brazil, whether we should build the Statue of Liberty and whether we should invent refrigeration so we can drill, baby, drill.
Civilization games can not only seem boring but they can look boring. At a glance, Civ V may look like the game you recall playing in 2005, Civ IV.
There has been a visual upgrade, though. Civ IV:
The new one looks better, best when it is in commotion on your screen. It drops Civ IV's zoom-out visual trick. No more pulling the camera back until you can see the curvature of the world in Civ V. But the terrain in V looks more lovely, the animations of whales in the bay and workers on the railroad each a small animated treat. Nature and urban sprawl look more naturally linked, and less tangled in the spaghetti of roads which development Firaxis promised to minimize and, with the new game, has. (You pay upkeep on roads now, so your workers or you won't pave more than is needed.)
It's not the graphics of the game's world that are the most improved, however. It is the the new game's interface. As noted, this is a game of delegation and that act is made easier than ever with clear icons and menus easing a player's ability to read and manipulate a city's production line, the civilization's tech tree or a unit's next available moves.
The biggest change in Civ V is that the Civilization world is no longer sliced into squares. It is composed of hexagons. That change alone would alter the series in minor ways, but it has been combined with a new expansion system for cities and new rules for combat. Altogether, they are an improvement that makes the game feel more organic, more tied to the idiosyncrasies of geography and a shade more realistic.
In Civ IV, you settled a city and it expanded in a bigger and bigger symmetrical blossom of squares. In Civ V, a city reaches for new land like a resource-hungry amoeba. As its population grows, it reaches for the hex with the potential for a lumber mill as opposed to the hex with the potential to be dry desert. A player can manipulate the city's growth on their own by purchasing new hexes and manually expanding the borders, but I found that the artificial intelligence running the game did a good job spreading each of my empire's Arabian cities in a sensible and interesting shape.
A grid of hexes enables a common combat configuration in Civ V: encirclement. Because standard military units can no longer share one spot on the grid with each other, and because attacking another culture's cities is still one of the most fun ways to progress in the game, the Civ V player will find themselves ordering their soldiers and tanks to the rings of hexes at all sides of a city and laying siege. Cities can fight back, bombarding a unit within range and upgrading its abilities to defend itself with great potency.
With the hexes comes another change in combat, the granting of hit points to each fighting unit. A battle between your tanks and enemy cannons is not a zero-sum conflict. Instead, in the mode of Advance Wars — the great Nintendo strategy game that feels as if it has been syringe-injected into the Civ series with this new game — units will chip away at each other, flexing their strategic advantages based on terrain and weapons. Success in combat grants experience points boosts which allow units to be upgraded and even, in friendly territory, transformed into new types of units. [UPDATE: To elaborate on how the combat system has changed, let me add that because units now have hit points, a unit can lose a battle but still make it to the next turn to fight again, try to heal, move and so on.]
With these changes, combat and the condition of cities feel more important in Civilization V. War-mongering and the defense against it are not suddenly the only things that matter, but they have the most active gameplay and are the most fun with which to play. It's no surprise that much of the game's dense tech tree of scientific achievement yields newer and better land, sea and air weapons to build. Combat, offensive and defensive, is a bigger part of this game.
(One of the welcome options involving the hex grid is the support of a "strategic view" which flips the graphics into what looks almost like a board game full of flat simplified icons that represent terrain, units and resources in simple shapes. It turns the busy Civ V visuals into a very-easy-to-scan map when you are searching for the hex that has the whales the people of Damascus are demanding.)
Before I had played Civ V I was told that the game would contain more variables that would make each playthrough more elaborate. This would be achieved, in part, by the addition of city-states, smaller non-empires with whom a player can wage war, trade goods and form alliances. They seemed like they would be mini-empires to me, an added bunch of computer-controlled players to make a Civ V game feel more massive.
City-states seemed like a good idea, but not a transformative one.
I was wrong. City-states are my favorite addition to the franchise, at least in my first nine hours.
If Civilization is the ultimate game of delegation, it is also one of the premiere games of storytelling. The tale of an empire's rise from single settlement to global military dominance twists differently for each player. The chapters one tells are composed of paragraphs about betrayal and calamity, of research breakthroughs and, often war. The characters of these dramas have been the empires. But with city-states, our Civilization V tales now become more complex, so much more varied and interesting.
1) Around turn 150 or so, possibly at the turn from BC to AD, I decided that my Arab empire, ticked off by the complaints of the Egyptians, who objected to my settlements near their borders, would instead expand west, setting sights on the city-state of Brazil. As I amassed my troops at Brazil's eastern border, the Ottoman Empire suddenly streamed into Brazil from the west, locked themselves into a stalemate outside Rio de Janeiro's walls and then, amazingly, signed a peace treaty while I waited to attack. When my Arabs then marched in I accidentally attacked the Ottomans and was facing a two-front war. I seized Rio and pushed the Ottomans back, used a great general to build a citadel as a buffer and then later ran through the Ottomans as well. I then turned around and steamrolled the Egyptians.
2) Later in the game, in the 20th century, I became content controlling most of my world's eastern continent. I held all of it except for two small city-states, one of which, the militaristic Edinburgh, I had bought the friendship of with gold and which regularly gifted me excellent new fighting units. I left the Chinese and Russian empires almost alone on their shared continent. But one city-state there, Stockholm, suffered an attack by the Chinese and begged for help. I had one small city nearby, my only city on that continent, conquered in support of a prior alliance with the Russians. But I did not want to move my forces toward Stockholm and anger the Chinese. Instead, I secretly gifted weapons to Stockholm. That didn't help. Eventually, I had to decide: let China be the bully or fight China. I fought China. A good way to test a battleship.
The city-states stir the story. They are the nuisances, the instigators, and the plot devices. They build the drama.
The one element of Civ V about which I am uncertain is the modified system for social policy progress.
Civ V offers five victory conditions. You can wipe out rival empires. You can advance your technologies until you can build a rocket that flies to Alpha Centauri. You can build a United Nations and hope to win more votes to be the world's leader than any other empire. You can wait until the year 2050 and see which empire has, through the many avenues of the game, earned the most points. Or you can max out several of the game's social policy systems. These include small trees of progress associated with tradition, liberty, piety, rationalism, order and a few more, some of which can't be developed if the other is (you can't advance a rational, scientific path if you have chosen to pursue a path of religious piety, for example).
Each social path can be advanced as cities amass more culture points from creating great works of art and advancing knowledge. Each branch of the social paths tweaks some of the stats for the team, improving research or fighting prowess, for example. I chose a rationalism path and unlocked "free thought." It added science points for every trading post I had.
The society paths are interesting, but they are the most subtle and easily missed of the roads to victory in Civilization V. They make sense. They define how you would structure a government and rule your people. But they are easily lost behind the thunder of combat, the electricity of scientific discovery or even the drama of diplomacy. Nine hours hasn't given me enough time to embrace this system, to determine whether it is an easily ignored system to capture leftover Civ ideas or a satisfying matrix of its own. I may need another 400 turns to figure that one out.
The Civ series has a reputation for taking over people's free time. It deserves it. Civ V is no less engrossing than its predecessors, no less tempting to keep playing, distractions be damned. I've played 400 turns as the Arabs, reached the year 1980 and can still do so much more. I want to do more. And I want to start a new empire. The new Civilization is more pleasurable to look at than its predecessors, more streamlined to play, more complex in its combat and, best of all, more twisting in its telling.
This Civilization V preview may be incomplete, but I am not dissatisfied.
Look for this game on September 21 and make sure you have a computer than can run it.