Civilization V: Critique

A couple years ago, a good deal on Steam for Sid Meier’s Civilization IV and its two expansions sparked up what has become a three-year love affair with the series. I’ve loved strategy games since the first Age of Empires when my idea of strategy was spawning the units you needed codes for and building walls in such a way that I exploit the computer’s terrible pathfinding, but Civilization really gave me a much more in-depth strategy game than anything I had ever played. Number and type of military units was only one tiny facet of the strategies available. I had a game where I could conquer the world with superior economy or an artistic language that made everyone else on the planet seethe with jealousy. Heck, I could win by simply saying “To hell with Earth. My people are off to Alpha Centauri”. In short, I loved Civ IV because it gave me options out the wazoo. Needless to say, I was very excited when Civ V was announced, and especially when it was announced that they were completely re-tooling the combat system to allow for greater strategy than “Build a giant stack of units and pray that the other guy doesn’t have more units in his city than you have attacking it.” They were fixing the worst part of my previous Civ experience, and, I naively assumed, improving everything else. At the end of this semester, I finally got a chance to play the game I had been salivating over all summer, when schoolwork calmed down and my new desktop was ready to play the game without lagging or exploding, which my four-year-old MacBook is incapable of. I was disappointed, probably rightly so. Civ V had launched with far less depth than what I had been accustomed to in the second expansion to Civ IV after the game had been extant for two years. Before I go too much further, a couple caveats on my Civ V experience. I only had about a week to really play the game between the end of the semester and flying home for Christmas. I completed one game at Normal Difficulty, and reached varying stages of completion before giving up on other, games that I did not foresee completing successfully. I have only played against bots so far, except for a game with one other human player that has, so far, not progressed very far. I have played the game very little since the recent patch that apparently significantly changed AI behavior and certain Social Policy effects. When I find the time, I will try to log more playtime after the patch and update this critique accordingly. The only previous Civilization that I have played is Civilization IV, logging most of my time with the Beyond the Sword expansion pack released in 2007.

Combat: For starters, the new combat system works excellently. There are certain elements about it that I dislike, but it is, in every way I can think of, a massive improvement over the Infinite Stacks of Units that Civ IV (and, presumably, the previous Civs) utilized. There were a lot of problems with the old system, most aggravating for me, the fact that stacks could get so large that the list of their contents would progress off the screen, making it impossible to judge just how large an army was about to attack you. In contrast, Civ V’s Hex Grid, each tile of which only allows one unit to stand on (with certain exceptions) makes combat much more interesting. It also has the benefit of moving combat out of your cities and into actual “battlefields”. Military formations and tactical maneuvers are actually important and enable a smaller force with better brains behind it to actually overcome a larger, more advanced foe. Ranged attacks are another addition to the combat that I appreciated. They help significantly with making your tactical options more complex, but, more importantly for me, they make Naval Combat far more interesting than it ever was in Civ IV. Under the old system equally-matched ships felt too evenly matched, and attacking an equally matched ship was a good way to get your own ship killed; often the best tactic was to have more boats in the sea and to hope your enemies attacked you. Now that all naval units have ranged attacks and are forced to spread out instead of stacking, ship combat becomes several turns of shooting, focusing your fire, and retreating when necessary. Ranged units are also a good, low-risk way to soften up an enemy that may otherwise defeat or be a dangerously close call if you attacked them without ranged support. Most of my complaints about the military end of the game are minor. Aside from the Arabian Camel Archers replacing Knights with ranged Hit-and-Run cavalry, I have yet to encounter a Unique Unit that does much more than have slightly improved stats and bonuses over the units they replace. I am also bothered by the upgrade paths that many units take. I dislike that Mounted Units cannot be upgraded past Cavalry; in Civ IV, they could upgrade into Gunships. In Civ V, any Mounted Units you have leftover once you get into the Modern Era might as well just be deleted or thrown into the meat grinder with any other units you can’t afford to upgrade (I noticed when double-checking that Archery Units upgrade into gunpowder units, that allegedly Cavalry can upgrade to Tanks, but I never saw that option in my game, so either I wasn’t looking hard enough or it’s a recent addition). I’m also bothered by the fact that archery units upgrade into gunpowder units the same as melee units. It’s very frustrating that, in the Industrial and Modern Eras, the only ranged land units are siege units that need to set-up before firing, meaning they can almost never move and fire in the same turn. A weaker, but quicker alternative to the slow Artillery option would have been nice, like a Sniper or something (This upgrade path is also frustrating because there are promotions specific to ranged combat that do not carry over when the unit becomes a melee unit, so an archer with several bonuses to ranged attacks against enemies on plains will not be able to utilize those bonuses when it becomes a gunpoweder [i.e. melee] unit). It also irks me that I have to upgrade my units one step at a time. In Civ IV, you could simply pay to upgrade an extremely outdated unit to a modern one, and it was simply more expensive based on how outdated the unit was. In Civ V, if I somehow had a Warrior left over from the beginning of the game, I would have to upgrade him, one turn at a time, to a Swordsman, Longswordsman, Musketman, Rifleman, Infantry, and Mechanized Infantry. Not only is this obnoxiously time-consuming if an enemy army is marching towards your little border town that never needed any more protection than a militia with clubs, but it’s a bit illogical that a modern nation would waste their time upgrading a unit with shipment after shipment of outdated weaponry instead of just sending them the same equipment that the rest of the army is using. I also feel like air combat is not as refined as it was in Civ IV. They removed the option to send your aircraft on recon missions to increase Line of Sight. This is especially unfortunate since ranged units cannot fire into Fog of War, meaning that I need to move a land unit to see my target before I can shoot it. Fighters may be ordered to “Sweep for Interceptors” to try and distract any enemy anti-aircraft or something like that, but I haven’t figured out any use for that, since even after sweeping for Interceptors and “encountering no resistance”, my bombers managed to get utterly destroyed by anti-aircraft guns. It’s also a minor annoyance that bombers do not get the “Fortify until Healed” option. They heal a little every turn, but I do not have any option to simply not give them orders until they are back to full health. I can put them to sleep and hope I remember them when they’re healed, or I can skip their turn every turn until they are healed. This is a curious omission, since Fighters are allowed to Fortify until Healed, but Bombers are not.

Civ V also deserves credit for making conquered cities actually useful. In Civ IV, it was prohibitively difficult to get conquered cities to do anything other than riot for the entire game afterwards. The Culture of their Motherland winds up completely surrounding them, inciting riots to the point where building anything to try and spread your Culture around the city tended to take two or three times as long as it should have. Though it may not be as believable, it’s certainly less tedious that, in Civ V, captured cities riot for a couple turns and then become reasonably productive. It’s also convenient that you can just leave a captured city as a puppet, relinquishing your ability to control what it does, but also making sure that you don’t have to bother with it until it has made itself reasonably productive. My only other problem with combat is the combination of how excited bots are to involve themselves in combat, and yet how remarkably bad they are at it. For some reason, every bot I have seen in Civ V with a reasonable amount of power acts as a bloodthirsty tyrant. I have witnessed Gandhi conquering all of Asia in a manner that would be more befitting of Gengis Khan. I have watched several bots simultaneously descending on a weaker opponent until the poor, outnumbered, bastard is nothing but a footnote and the language of origin for the names of several cities on the map. Yet, eager as the bots are to wage war, they do not seem capable of performing very well at it. They do not seem to know how to use Great Generals to gain bonus experience for their armies or to build Citadels for massive defensive bonuses. I have yet to see a bot with a significant navy, even in Island or Small Continent maps.

Diplomacy An integral part of Civilization is how you interact beyond simply waging war. The two games in the series that I have played feature a number of different non-agressive interactions between great powers. In Civ V, however, these interactions have been simplified to the point where many of them do not seem to matter. The most basic method of interaction is trade. In Civ V, you may trade resources and gold, as well as make agreements such as opening your borders or forming alliances in future wars. You also have the option to give away cities. For some reason that I have never understood, the Civilization series only allows cities to be given freely, never sold in exchange for resources or gold. That was the decision in Civ IV, and it didn’t make sense then. It’s how it is in Civ V, and I still do not understand why this is. In Civ V, they also removed Civ IV’s technology-trading option in place of research agreements, which give each player a random technology after 30 turns in exchange for them each spending a large quantity of gold. I am still undecided on whether I think the removal of Tech-Trading is a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, I tended to abuse the ability to buy and sell technology in Civ IV, but on the other hand, it was a convenient way to gauge how advanced an opponent was. One thing that I can safely say the game is poorer for is the removal of Map Trading. It was never valuable for me to explore lands that had been settled by people I had no intention of interacting with, so for most of my games, at most, I saw the majority of the world’s coastline and only a tiny fraction of its actual land, until the late 20th century when I researched Satellites and finally saw the whole world. In Civ IV, I tended to know what a lot of the world looked like by the 15th or 16th century, right around the time people were starting to map significant portions of the real world. Civ V also introduced two different “pacts” you can make with other nations. You and another player can make a “Pact of Secrecy” against another player, which, according to the in-game description, does something to try and subvert them. You may also form a “Pact of Cooperation”, which, likewise, does…. something to apparently benefit you and the player you are cooperating with. Neither mechanic is very well explained, and, in the case of Pacts of Secrecy, serve to replace probably my favorite part of Civ IV: Espionage. In Civ IV, you could send spies into enemy territory and, if you had the required “Espionage Points” attempt to sabotage them in a variety of ways, such as blowing up buildings, poisoning their water supplies, or even inciting riots. Spies made the game very complex and interesting, and seeing them replaced with a mechanic as poorly explained as “Pacts” hurts a little bit. It also strikes me as problematic (and this was a problem in Civ IV, as well) that the only options when an AI player asks you to go to war with one of their enemies is to either go to war or not go to war. I appreciate that Civ V added the “Give me 10 turns to prepare” option, but I do not feel like that goes far enough in terms of allowing me to handle the situation like I would if I was really in charge and someone asked for my support attacking an enemy I did not like, but whom attacking would not be economical on my part. I would have loved to have the option of telling my would-be ally something along the lines of “I cannot personally join you in this war, but let me give you resources to help you get an advantage over our mutual enemy,” or “I do not wish to participate personally, but I will place several units under your command to help with the war effort.” It bothers me that I need to be either so fully committed to a war, or not committed at all in the eyes of the bots. On the subject of bots, they have a tendency to ask for valuable resources while offering nothing in return. In Civ IV, when they did this, you had a button you could click labeled “Let’s Negotiate”, which would allow you to make a counter proposal, something for something instead of something for nothing. This option was removed in Civ V, so that I have to tell the entitled, trigger-happy bots outright “No, I won’t give you free resources”, and risk a diplomatic backlash instead of just making a fair trade to begin with. I am also disappointed to see the UN dumbed down. In Civ IV, being voted director of the UN enabled you to propose a variety of UN resolutions for all players to vote on. The UN had the power to stop wars, or ban the construction of nuclear weapons (which was always fun to get passed if you were ever certain that no one else could even build them, much less rival your stockpile). In Civ V, all the UN does is vote for someone to win a Diplomatic Victory, essentially making that player democratically elected ruler of the world. The UN offers none of the other interesting opportunities it provided in Civ IV.

Domestic Another area where I feel Civ V has improved on Civ IV is in the domestic game. Managing my empire feels very streamlined over Civ IV. One of the most important changes in the domestic game is that Happiness and Culture are much more up-front about their importance. In Civ IV, it was never exactly clear what was so great about having a really happy empire or a very cultured one. There was, of course, the opportunity to win a cultural victory, and great culture along your borders is always important, but for the most part, happiness and culture did not seem to have a significant effect on the game other than occasionally slowing down construction in unhappy cities. Now, it is very important to grow your culture as quickly as possible because it will enable you to enact social policies which will have a wide variety of effects on the way your nation grows. Certain policies affect your country’s efficacy at waging war, or the growth of your cities, or your production, or your science and culture. This mechanic allows for a very customized approach to how you govern your people, and is a significant improvement over Civ IV’s “Civics”, which gave you a much smaller variety of much broader effects. Happiness is key to triggering Golden Ages, which temporarily improve pretty much everything about your empire. During a Golden Age, your country builds faster and grows quicker. In Civ IV, Golden Ages were only triggered by the consumption of one or more Great People, or by constructing the Taj Mahal. In Civ V, building up to a certain amount of happiness triggers a Golden Age. You can also enter a Golden Age via the old methods, but those “artificial” Golden Ages are much shorter than ones inspired by years and years of Happiness. As, what I assume is an unfortunate side-effect of Happiness being such an important commodity, it often becomes prohibitively difficult to come by, and the penalties for unhappiness are crushing. An unhappy nation cannot settle new cities, growth is slowed in all their cities, and military units are much less effective in an Unhappy civilization. Later in the game, it becomes almost impossible to find new sources of Happiness. It gets frustrating when you have already built every building that provides Happiness, but your people are still complaining, which forces you to find the one bot who has the one luxury resource you do not have and pay whatever ridiculous fee their asking so you can get it and get your people to just quit complaining and get back to work. One possible way that the frustration related to Happiness could be mitigated would be if things like Golden Ages or We Love the King Days had happiness bonuses. It struck me as odd that both of these temporary conditions that, theoretically, involve a very happy populace, can happen without improving the happiness of the empire. I have had at least a couple cities enter We Love the King Day when my empire was still at -1 Happiness. That did not seem right, and if these situations could stave off my nation’s eventual decline into bitter resentment at their government, I would be that much more willing to go out and find the luxury resources that the ingrates are clamoring for because having every other luxury resource in the game just isn’t good enough for them. I have mentioned Great People before, which may have confused any readers not familiar with Civilization (moreso, probably, than the things I bring up and immediately explain). Great People are very specialized units who show up in your nation every so often and have extremely powerful abilities. They come in the form of Great Scientists, who can get Free Technology; Great Engineers, who can instantly complete productions in your cities; Great Generals, who confer bonuses on your military; Great Artists, who provide Culture benefits; and Great Merchants, who exist to earn money for the empire.

I’ll explain what I do and don’t like about Great People in Civ V later. This review is To Be Continued because I feel like I was lucky to recover this after it just crashed, so I’m publishing now just to be sure.

Edit: I’ve been severely crunching on Thesis all semester, and my little bit of free time has been utilized exploring more of Fallout 3. These two factors have contributed to me playing very little Civ V to enable completion of this review.

However, I will point out that I was incorrect earlier. Upon further examination, many Civ V unique units have abilities beyond simply stat changes. For example, Roman Legions can build Roads and Forts, and, as mentioned earlier, several civilizations replace mounted melee units with mounted ranged units with similar damage outputs. This is actually a significant improvement over Civ IV, in which the difference between a unique unit and a regular unit often simply came down to damage inflicted or resources required.

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