This ‘Civilization’ Is Safe to Live In

The bestselling “Civilization” strategy computer game franchise reaches its ultimate form in Sid Meier’s “Civilization V.” For the uninitiated, the popular franchise is a simulation game in which you choose a civilization, leader and map type, and then build your own country from the ground up.

You establish cities to produce units such as workers, which can work to improve tiles (terrain), soldiers for fighting and structures that grant various benefits from commerce to culture to cleanliness to just plain happiness. As with the previous games, you beat the game by one of five victory conditions: time, research, diplomacy, culture or conquest.

Although the previous installment competed capably with modern games, it was beginning to show its age after five years of progress in the industry, and a new iteration was necessary to meet today’s standards. The new graphics engine is top notch and makes for a serene gaming experience even in the more frustrating moments.

Even aside from the technical quality, the game’s visuals really show off the time periods, with elegant portraits and icons gracing the already beauteous presentation. An integral part of this makeover is the decision to use clouds to mark uncharted territory instead of suffocating the map with vapid darkness.

Edges now appear more organic thanks to the conversion from square to hexagonal tiles, causing the entire world to be more natural, revealing new tactical options. However, these tiles – like in the last game – still frustrate the visuals with their way of awkwardly shaping objects in the world.

One particularly irritating aspect of the previous installments was the ability to “stack” multiple units on a single tile, making you count the dots underneath their common banner just to assess how many units there are, including enemy units, still not being able to see any of them other than the one that happens to be on top. This is no longer the case in “Civilization V.”

Now tiles can only hold one unit, ensuring that all of them are visible and accessible. This change will also make players have to think on their feet rather than relying on one unstoppable force to bully their neighbors.

Players will also be relieved to know that all units can now cross water themselves without an additional naval unit. This forgiving loophole makes water a much more workable obstacle, but beware – opposing fleets could easily sink your helpless units if you don’t re-inforce them.

The new “social policies” take the place of civics from Civilization IV, and are unlockable with “culture points” that you accumulate through time via certain structures. They also don’t require direct inquiries, such as marking certain places the game recommends for settling as well as technologies it thinks you should research.

The heavily upgraded diplomacy feature deserves an award in itself. These interactions now take up the entire screen and leaders actually speak to you in their native tongues. How cool is that!

City-states now feature offering gifts in return for cordial relations. Stationing your troops along their borders will anger them, while gold offerings will make them friendlier. Barbarian encampments populate the map as well, but their roles are limited to annoying you and as subjects of quasi “quests” issued by city-states every so often. Natural wonders are to be found as well, granting bonuses to those who discover them.

The game is essentially a PC version of “Civilization Revolution,” the first console iteration of the franchise, and like the console version, the controls are terribly awkward. The buttons on the right-hand side of the screen open all of the menus to the left, making you constantly move your cursor to opposite sides of the screen. It may not seem like much, but the irritation stacks up pretty quickly and significantly downgrades the whole experience. Games are supposed to be enjoyable, so it’s a mystery why Firaxis would so carelessly design their interface in this fashion.

Another bothersome flaw is the lack of the familiar list on discovered civilizations. Now you have to open up the diplomacy menu just to see all the information that used to be available right there on the screen in “Civilization IV.”

Perhaps the greatest inconvenience is the unforgiveable exclusion of the pop-up information panel on resources. In “Civilization IV,” the game would conveniently give you all the information about a given resource whenever you moved your cursor over it.

In “Civilization V,” you have to first bring up a menu, check a box to show the resource icons and then place your cursor over them. Afterwards, unless you want them to stay up, you have to uncheck the box to make the icons disappear. In fact, in order to cut down on the clusters in the user interface, the game’s buttons are almost all buried in menus. This may clean up the presentation, but it comes at the costly expense of convenience and therefore fun.

Another issue is the painful load times between turns. Anyone with a computer costing less than 4,000 dollars is going to have to wait at least 5 seconds.

Finally, all customization options have been chucked. No longer can you choose your own name for your leader and civilization, and there is only one leader for each. This means that all you nerds out there wanting to lead the Sith Empire to glory as Emperor Palpatine are out of luck. In addition, religion is gone too, which is a pretty serious omission given its historical significance.

All in all, “Civilization V” is a mixed bag. It is almost equally disappointing as it is impressive. Firaxis could have done better, but it’s still a treat to the eyes and can easily draw you in for hours at a time. And besides, the sure-to-be upcoming expansion packs could resolve some of the issues anyway.

Rating: 4 out of 5