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Recently 2K invited us to New York City to preview Civ V, gave us a brief presentation on the game and then ushered us into a small room stuffed with computers, suffocating in the summer heat. Everyone seemed surprised – except the New Yorkers.

New Yorkers live their lives getting used to their city’s quirks, and they love it for the quirks. They know that no matter how much high-tech infrastructure you heap on top of the old pile of concrete and steel, the town will never be completely livable. It refuses to shed heat in the same way it refuses to stay quiet. New York City is a city of many wonders, but it will never let you forget that, underneath the glittering neon lights, the LED streetlamps, the full-motion billboards and the fiber-optic broadband internet, it is a city built to accomplish many various and wonderful things, none of which is to make you comfortable.

If you put 12 computers in a room with windows, in New York, in June, then it’s gonna get hot. New Yorkers know this. They accept it. If you don’t like it, then you can go back to Jersey (or wherever). Especially if you’ve been invited to an exclusive hands-on preview of one of the most eagerly-anticipated videogames of the year. A game that’s been five years in the making. A game that will surely cause multiple sudden illnesses the world over upon its release, as salivating fans cash in sick days in order to spend as much time as humanly possible playing it.

So when you’re invited to New York City, in the summer, to sit in a sweltering room and play this game – before anyone else in the world – you don’t complain about the heat. You complain about being given only 45 minutes.

Forty-five minutes is a blink of an eye in Civilization Time. It’s barely enough time to escape the Stone Age. What can you do in 45 minutes? What can you say about it? Turns out, quite a lot.

To start with, allow me to lay to rest any concerns that Civ V may be simply “more Civ”. Civ V is a dramatic evolution of the franchise in almost every respect. The Firaxis team knows that every Civ player has their favorite Civ. People still play Civilization and Civilization II. Hell, my favorite Civ is still Civilization III. Firaxis understands this. That’s why they have, in fact, set out to reinvent the wheel.

If, after you’ve played Civ V, you still prefer Civ II, or Civ IV, or any of the dozens of expansions or mods or your own, personal boardgame version, then you can go play that. Firaxis knows this and they embrace it. If, however, you’re looking for something different and yet still the same, then Civ V is your huckleberry.

First of all, they ruined combat, or they made it better, depending on your point of view. If you’re like me in that you always thought it was a bit strange that, in the land of Civ, ten troops of spearmen could defeat a single troop of tanks, then again, you’re going to enjoy this new Civ.

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In Civ V, combat plays out a lot more like traditional strategy war games. The map is now divided into hexagonal tiles, instead of the usual square ones, for starters. This will completely screw you up if you’ve never played a strategy war game, but if you have, it will feel like a breath of fresh air. Units are also now forbidden from stacking. Which means that if a tile is occupied by a troop of spearmen, you can’t put another troop of spearmen there as well (and now those spearmen will finally get reamed by tanks, as it should be).

In theory this sounds like a small change, but in practice it’s monumental. Units suddenly matter. You’ll spend more time leveling them up. You’ll bond with them. Battles are now more tactical, meaning you’ll take more care where you place your armies and how they traverse the terrain. Instead of piling units on the board and hoping for the best, it’s going to take a little more planning to win a war.

During my brief demo, I didn’t really get a feel for this. See the above complaint regarding 45 minutes. Combat in the early stages of Civ has always been about developing the sword (or the spear, or the gun, etc.) faster than your neighbor and then using that technology against them. Civ V is no different in this respect. So, generally, if you have the best-equipped army and more units than the next guy, you’ll win.

Just in case, the combat system will tell you before you attack what your odds of success may be. If you’ll win the battle, but incur heavy losses, your adviser will warn you against the move, but you can ignore him. What’s most useful here is that all of the little modifiers that contribute to who wins or loses, things like terrain, fortifications, unit health, are laid out for you to browse before attacking. Wargamers used to doing all of this math in their heads may feel like this is cheating, but in a game like Civ, where combat is only one of the irons in your fire, it’s a godsend.

There’s another change in Civ V: Cities can only be fortified with one military unit. Beyond that, they’re on their own. Cities do have natural defenses, which, as an attacker, you’ll have to wear down. These can be bolstered with city improvements and such, but the days of stocking your city with scores of axe men to fend off mechanized infantry are long gone. If you want to keep your cities safe, you’ll have to work for it. Which means fielding armies.

There’s more to Civ than combat, though, which is why it’s good to note that Firaxis also updated the diplomacy and culture game elements. Much of what you’re used to from Civ IV makes a return, although religion has been redacted. You’ll also be able to spend your civilization’s culture points to unlock specific advancements. I didn’t get a lot of time to play with this, but certain advancements are exclusive of others, so you’ll need to be selective about which bonuses to unlock. Even better, if you get bored with the cultural progress of your civilization, you can use gold to purchase tiles without having to wait for your cultural influence to expand on its own. This is a nice benefit for playing expansionist, but culturally irrelevant civilizations (i.e. you can still win if you want to rule with an iron fist).

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The technology system appears to be largely intact as well. There are some changes and it is (at first glance) a bit easier to pick a long-term goal and then work towards it, but by-and-large this will be a very familiar experience to experienced Civ players. I decided early on that I needed to find out what “dynamite” would give me. Looking over my shoulder, Firaxis’ Pete Murray laughed and said, “Everybody picks dynamite. All of the players in all of the demos pick dynamite.”

Goddamn right. Give me only 45 minutes and you get what you pay for. What the hell use do I have for banking or construction? You can’t take it with you, but you can sure use the time to blow the other guy to shit and beyond.

Since, with my “start from scratch” civilization, I’d set out to conquer the known world, I didn’t bother too much with getting to know my neighbors, but it was nice to note that the diplomacy system felt a bit more robust. If I’d discovered any significant technological advancements, or had improved my civilization beyond the most basic stages, I probably could have developed strong and mutually-beneficial relations with all of my competing Civs. As it was, though, my interactions with the extremely well-detailed and enhanced A.I. world leaders was limited to “Wanna fight? Let’s go!”, which is a bit like using a handgun as a hammer. It will get the job done, but you’re missing the point.

The new city states would have helped me play a diplomatic angle as well – if I’d cared. City states are effectively barbarian outposts with advanced culture. They’ll never grow up to be a Civ, but they can help or hinder you, depending on how nice you are to them. And they can field armies.

Since I had neither the time nor inclination to be good to anyone during my brief stint, I decided to simply steamroll them all. The bad news here is that cities get a chance to bombard approaching enemy units. Attacking a city state head-on, with a single unit, therefore, led to humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat. The good news is that once I was able to draw their defenses into favorable terrain, I kicked their ass.

Perhaps sensing that the 45 minute time limit was causing some bruised feelings, Firaxis was kind enough to create a scenario for us that takes place later in the game, so that we could experience the thrill of large-scale, multi-unit combat without having to inhabit the 2K offices for a week. The time period was circa the U.S. Revolution.

My time was almost up when I loaded this scenario, so I only had a few minutes to orient myself, marshal my forces and launch an attack – and it wouldn’t be easy. I had musket men, some cavalry and a few cannon. I was attacking a couple of large cities, and their fielded armies of roughly the same units I had.

My enemy had pretty successfully ringed his cities with infantry, denying me the high ground near his cities. I’d have to fight him off to get my cannon in range to begin wearing down his cities’ defenses. Unfortunately he was dug in, and I was attacking at a disadvantage.

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I decided to launch a feint attack at his center, flank his left with my cannon and attempt a flanking maneuver to his right to come up under his cities, where there didn’t appear to be any defenders. I thought it was a brilliant plan at the time. I soon discovered I was wrong.

My feint attack failed. My forces were decimated then destroyed as enemy reinforcements came from – I don’t know where – to bolster their line. To be honest, this was at the end of my demo (see: 45 minutes) so I was hurrying and not paying a lot of attention to details like, for example, counting the enemy’s forces.

After my failed frontal assault, the enemy destroyed my cannon and divided my forces. Things quickly went catastrophic from there. There southern plain I had assumed to be defenseless was actually teeming with enemy infantry, reinforcing the value of good intelligence. Since this was a one-shot demo, I didn’t see the value in surviving to fight another day so I decided to see what happened to Civ cavalry when outnumbered and charging a fortified infantry position. I knew what should happen, but this is Civ, right? This is the franchise that brought us the concept that a sufficient number of bi-planes can fend off stealth bombers. Surely I could make something happen with a little daring and a lot of horse.

At this point I’d been playing for 44 minutes, 30 seconds. My PR rep was approaching to kick me off the computer. I was sweating, not just from the stifling New York City heat, but from the anticipation of an all-or-nothing gamble. I may have only had less than an hour with the game, but I’d already been sucked in. I was committed to my plan and I was enjoying myself more than an objective journalist in a heavily-structured hands-on demo is supposed to.

In spite of the heat, the frustration and the confusion, I’d fallen in love with Civilization all over again, in less than the amount of time it takes to cook a chicken.

Even though I knew I couldn’t, shouldn’t win this desperate battle against overwhelming odds with inadequate forces – and that it wouldn’t matter even if I did – I wanted to win. I needed to win. If nothing else, I wanted something to show for my brief time with Civ V, so that I wouldn’t have to leave with the regret of not having “one more turn” to try again.

So I told my military adviser to shut up and aimed my cavalry at the enemy line, and charged. Then I died. My head sank to the keyboard and I was asked to leave the room.

The sweet comfort of a properly air conditioned room has never felt so bitter.

Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist.

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