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Civilization V Review [Game Overview]
Oct 29th, 2010 by Dan

This piece was conceived of as yet another Mesa Brothers Experiment (TM) through which we might examine the differing views and approaches we have/take on the same subject. See his take here.

Is it just me getting old and grumpy or does everything seem to be getting dumbed down lately? Apple is trying to tell the world they can’t handle the software on their own devices, subtlety is all but gone in television and movies, and the most popular books in America are coming out of the Young Adult genre. There’s a whole political movement proudly proclaiming anti-intellectualism and pro-ignorance while the other side does its best to maintain power by stooping to the same lows because all of a sudden smart became the new evil in this country.

The most common target audience for a video game sequels nowadays seems to be people who don’t already play your video games because they find them to be too complicated. Wii, Kinect, and Move are all initiatives launched to dumb down video games and capture audiences not within core demographics. PC gaming is “dying” in the face of the simplified console market.

So, too, has Firaxis done its best to appeal to the non-PC, mainstream audience. Before there was a Civ V there was Civilization Revolutions, a highly simplified, quasi-arcade Civilization game. Before the announcement of Civ V there was the Facebook game Civilization Network, the as-of-this-writing unreleased game intended to tap into the obscenely large casual/social network games market. With Civ V they hoped to appease those who are already enslaved to the brand while simultaneously revamping its mechanics to lure in new consumers. What we’re left with is this feeling of innovation for the sake of market share, but not any real progress.

Take the grid system. Every previous Civilization game has taken place on a square grid. Each of these tiles has eight entry points. One for each side and one for each point. Now we have hexes, which allow only six entry points to a tile, a clear attempt to lure Settlers of Catan (and other board game) players into the series. Why? Simple: the hexes discretely remove complexity while appearing to increase it and simultaneously attract more customers. You see, a six-sided object is noticeably more complex than a four-sided object. It’s got two more sides, for Christ’s sake! That’s 150% more sides!

Worse still are the fates of the victory conditions. Some streamlining actually improves the game. Mopping up every teeny city that Gandhi has managed to hide throughout the planet was a pain in the ass before, so requiring players to only capture Delhi for a Domination victory is an admirable change, but to go ahead and completely neuter the Diplomatic victory condition makes me wonder why they even left it in the game. To summarize, in the past the United Nations was a multi-faceted wonder. When constructed it allowed the player and world AIs to make decisions that shaped the world rules. These decisions ranged from rendering slavery illegal to banning the production of nuclear weapons, both huge decisions and policies that can shape global politics and play styles. Additionally, each Civilization has representation proportional to the world population under his/her control.

Civilization V oversimplifies this system. All Civilizations and city-states (another new feature that miraculously feels both oversimplified and interesting (perhaps because it’s a missed opportunity?)) have precisely one vote for the UN Secretary General. Every surviving civilization will naturally vote for his or herself with this one vote, because not doing so is tantamount to forfeiting. The only way to win the diplomatic victory is to liberate a conquered civilization or city-state from another player (thus rendering them REQUIRED to vote for you) or to become allied with surviving city-states, hoping that there are enough surviving states to vote you in as leader.

Worse still, the AI is a jumbled mess. I find myself either frustrated with how stupid it is on the difficulty level that confers an even playing field to both player and AI (not to mention how stupid it is when I’m buffed and the AI is handicapped ) or frustrated with how ineptly played AI civilizations are when difficulty is turned up. You see, AI doesn’t really ramp up in difficulty, it just gets more bonuses. This is par for the course for Civilization, but I feel like the team at Firaxis has been deeply damaged by the departure of famed AI-programmer Soren Johnson. I lost many games of Civ IV on an even playing field with the AI. It’s inconceivable for me to lose to the same level in V.

It doesn’t seem that bad, in principle, but when playing it I can’t help but feel like I’m moving backwards in terms of interesting game mechanics. I find myself torn between the fact that I truly love the game and can’t stop playing once I start and that niggling feeling in the back of my head that this could have been so much more.

Which brings me back to my original point. I don’t think I’m the player that Firaxis is designing for. They know they’ve got me, so why bother doing what I think is best for the series? If they can impress me by throwing me a bone here and there with tiny flourishes like the fact that each civilization speaks in their native language when contacted, why bother trying to actually improve upon systems that seem complicated to the outside player?

I still love this game. It is addictive in ways that I don’t quite understand, considering how frustrated with it I get sometimes. The conceit of the series has been, is, and always will be both irresistible and addictive to me, regardless of how it continues to morph to entice and entertain the many people who are not me.

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