Civilization V Hands-on Impressions

If the Civilization series could be summed up in only four words, they would be “just one more turn.” The addictive strategy series has been sucking up the free time of PC gamers for nearly 20 years, and in 2008, 2K Games and Firaxis launched the first console installment, Civilization Revolution for the Xbox 360, PS3, and DS. Though the gameplay in Civ Rev was considered watered down when compared to the deep strategy of the PC installments, Revolution allowed an entirely new demographic of gamers to enjoy the world-conquering franchise for the first time. Now the developer is going back to its PC roots, determined to make the most detailed and addictive Civ yet with Civilization V.

Though 2K Games wasn’t doing hands-on demonstrations of Civilization V at E3 this year, they did allow the press to play the game for the first time in New York City. For the first time, people outside of 2K and Firaxis were able to experience just how far the series had come since its last PC installment.

At its core, the concept of Civilization V has not changed. Players are tasked with taking control of a prehistoric civilization and leading it through modern times, eventually controlling the world through war, technology, or one of another handful of ways to complete the game. There are 18 civilizations to take control of and interact with, such as George Washington’s America or Alexander’s Greece. Between the number of countries available to take control of and the different paths the game could take, there are dozens of basic ways to complete the game.

Beyond the basic gameplay, though, the strategies that can be used to conquer the planet are extremely in-depth, more than in any previous Civilization title. Building up cities is still a huge part of the gameplay, and players can buy a tile with the gold they have earned to expand their cities. Civilization V also introduces the concept of city-states, which do not expand, but can be conquered or befriended. How the player approaches them will depend on the current gameplay strategy, but either way, discovering new city-states can be very beneficial. Players can adapt new social policies, such as liberty or piety, in their attempts to expand and keep their citizens happy, which is economically beneficial. An incredibly deep technology tree displays the paths to take in every era to achieve specific technology and military goals by the endgame.

As avid Civ players noticed from the first screenshots released, Civilization V has replaced square tiles with hexagonal ones. While this change may seem negligible at first, it actually makes the strategic gameplay run much more smoothly. There’s no question about which tiles are adjacent, and makes the path for units to take perfectly clear. No longer will players be able to stack multiple combat units on the same tile before a battle; now they must be spread out, but ranged units can fire across more than one tile. These seemingly small changes should eliminate some of the frustrations of the previous Civ titles.

Of course, one of the most striking things about Civilization V is how far the graphics have advanced in the past five years. From early screenshots, the game appeared to look great, but in person it’s even more gorgeous. It wouldn’t have been hard to convince the journalists in the room that the game was due out in July, instead of late September; it ran smoothly and without issues, and the terrains, oceans, cities, units, and political leaders were presented beautifully. It’s a huge step forward for the series in terms of presentation, and longtime fans are sure to be pleased. Firaxis has also taken steps to make the game more accessible to newcomers, using some of the lessons learned with Civilization Revolution and applying them to Civ V. The “Civlopedia”, an in-game help system, assists gamers whenever necessary, and even offers political advisers to guide players. These advisors are a great help, especially in the early hours of the game, and the Civlopedia should keep Civ V from ever being too overwhelming.

The Civilization series has always done well, and it would have been easy for the developers at Firaxis to make only minor changes to the formula and still release Civilization V to good sales and, presumably, solid reviews. Instead, the developers took some major steps forward, determined to make a stellar title that lives up to the franchise’s name. With so many diverse paths to victory, the replay value is huge, and it’s not hard to imagine gamers will still be playing Civ V for years after its September 21 release date.