As an avid player of Civilization IV, and the husband of perhaps the world’s MOST avid Civilization IV player (seriously: at least 25 hours a week for the last five years), one of my most anticipated games at PAX East was Civilization V. The direct sequel to one of the greatest turn-based strategy games ever, Civ IV, and follow-up to one of the most accessible turn-based strategy games ever, Civilization Revolution, was announced late last month. Ever since, Firaxis Games, the game’s developer, has promised an experience that will usher in “a new era that will forever change the franchise responsible for sleep deprivation and reduced productivity for nearly two decades.” At the 2K booth at PAX East, we got a sneak preview of many of Civilization V’s new features, particularly those pertaining to its military aspect, and came away with nothing but positive impressions.
The first big change players will notice is the newly laid out maps, which are split into hexagons, as opposed to Civ IV’s square tiles. The hex system allows for much more realistic maps, with coastlines that appear more natural than before, and eliminates clunky altitude transitions between neighboring tiles. Firaxis’ representative explained that this shift, along with the newly implemented limit of one unit per tile, will help shift the game’s focus from overwhelming opponents with superior numbers to strategic use of the environment and efficiency of military units; especially the new ranged attack units, which can hold off powerful ground forces from a distance, but suffer when up close.
No longer will “Stacks of Doom” dominate play, and even the practice of garrisoning multiple defensive units within cities is no longer viable. Instead, cities will have health bars, and defend themselves with superior technology and sheer city size. Increasing the culture and wealth of cities will still play a major role in developing your cities, and will expand the borders of your territories, though this time around, they’ll grow one tile at a time instead of in concentric circles, but there will also be at least one new way to extend your kingdom’s reach. Individual tiles that border your territories can be purchased outright, though the risk of angering neighboring empires may make players think twice about overusing this strategy.
Even more important is the addition of City-States; independent mini-empires that act as bargaining chips for players. Empires can form pacts with these City-States, creating vassal states; conquer them and absorb them into their larger kingdom; or liberate them from the rule of other empires. City-States have unique “flavors,” which determine the rewards a player will get for liberating or allying with them, but taking City-States that are too close to neighboring empires could create tension, if not outright hostility, with the former rulers, and that’s exactly why they’re there. Firaxis promised more details later about the importance of these City-States, but even from this combat-centric pre-alpha demo, it’s clear to see that they’ll play a major role in how the game world is shaped.
Sid Meier, the legendary designer of the Civilization series, and, according to Firaxis’ representatives, an actual programmer for Civilization Revolution, learned a lot from his experience with Civilization Revolution, and has applied those lessons here. For example, the user interface has been streamlined, with each unit possessing a primary function menu, which is on-screen when that unit is selected, and a secondary menu for less frequently used functions, which only appears when toggled on. To increase user control, research and technology advancements don’t automatically occur. Instead they pile up in a queue once they’re available, and can be activated at the user’s discretion. Another major influence to the game’s design is the modding community, which has taken previous Civilization games and turned them into simulators of specific wars, futuristic kingdom builders, and medieval fantasy strategy games. A robust set of modding tools will be included with the game, including a world builder that will be accessible to users of any skill level, and an online marketplace where mods can be uploaded and downloaded.
In our brief time with Civ V, we saw plenty of other new additions to the Civ formula, such as new resource and research trading options and improved enemy AI that mimics the behavior of the real-world rulers, but with the game in such an early stage, it’s too early to predict how these will contribute to the game experience. From what we’ve seen so far, however, Firaxis and Sid Meier seem to be on the right track, and are looking to improve drastically on the already excellent Civilization IV with a focus on strategy, diplomacy, and presentation. With five months until the game’s expected release date, they’ll have plenty of time to do just that. I just hope that once September does come around, I get to see my wife for at least a few hours a week in between marathon sessions of wiping out anyone whose flag is a different color than hers.
Sid Meier’s Civilization V is due out in September of 2010 for PCs.