October 14, 2013

Pretty and Dumb

I made the sensible pledge to myself to refrain from acquiring Civ V till I had finished and turned in my book, for obvious reasons. But to commemorate finishing the book, and as a reward to myself, I got the game last week.

It's pretty, gorgeous actually. The display code really does take Civ to a new level. And there are a lot of cool, and potentially great, new substantive features as well. But after the initial euphoria settled down a bit, I have to say that, as an actual game, it is distinctly disappointing and nowhere near as good in that regard as its predecessor.

I've been playing Civilization since the very beginning, and just so you know the context, I'd rank the different versions this way, from the top: IV, III, I, II, with IV and II distant outliers from the middle two, if that makes sense. II added cosmetic stuff like videos of the leaders, but despite a lot of seemingly new features and systems of play, it was actually less complex and less interesting to play than I, while IV is probably the best strategy-simulation game ever conceived and executed (that I know of.) I hate to say it, but V has points in common with the development dynamic, at least, of II: cosmetic improvements and substantive innovations that seem quite good in theory, but in practice have rendered the game simpler, easier, and ultimately less engaging.

There are things I like: the policy "tree"; the ranged combat system; even the non-stackable military units which adds a challenge to battle logistics. Some are nice but still sort of half-baked, like the system of faith points. The new techs, units, and Wonders are exciting, in theory, as well.

But once you learn the ropes, it turns out all to be a bit less than anticipated. The various units on the upgrade path, within their categories, are mainly differentiated by increased hit points rather than specific capabilities that you can "feel" in combat. (In Civ IV, you really feel it when you get armor; in V, it's just like cavalry with an attack and movement bonus.) There are lots of new resources on the map, but only strategic and luxury items can be traded (no food) so trade is simplified as well. Diplomacy looks good but gives you fewer options. The Wonders are slick but you don't "feel" their effects to any great degree, and it's a lot less exciting to build them. In Civ IV, the well-timed birth of a Great Person could literally be a game changer. Now they are much less consequential, less useful, less interesting. And like a lot of the other stuff I'm complaining about, even the innovations on the tech tree, always the well-thought-out backbone of every Civ release, seem a bit arbitrary. (Why is ecology a pre-requisite for mass communications? I can think of no earthly reason.) Culture and city growth also feel a bit arbitrary as well. I'm sure they're worked out behind the scenes in a very impressive way but you don't feel the effects upon them of your own actions. Land management strategy was key in previous versions of Civ. For Civ V I will reveal to you now the only available strategy: build a lot of farms. They will help your cities grow in some general, vague, largely indiscernible way.

I felt strangely disengaged from my own cities, probably because the improvements didn't seem to have obvious actual effects on them. Ultimately, game play is much simplified and despite the fancier look and initially impressive array of new elements, the whole thing feels -- and I hate to say it -- dumbed down. Also easy. Winning at Prince level in Civ IV was quite difficult and I had to play hundreds of games before I could do it reliably. By contrast, after a few dry runs to familiarize myself with the combat system, my first full game of Civ V was ridiculously easy to win at that level. (Though the end game was just as plodding and tedious as winning games have tended to be in previous versions.)

Now it's possible, probable even I'm sure, that there are great subtleties I'm missing that would render game play a lot better, more engaging, and more challenging. I should also note that I'm playing the Gods and Kings version and that there's one more expansion that I haven't tried yet and that may make a difference. But based on my first foray into V, I'm pretty sure I'm going back to IV, and hoping for better from VI (and from whatever book I happen to be working on when that one comes out.)

ADDED: as it turns out, the Brave New World expansion makes a huge difference and it is a much more substantial game. There are several game concepts that were only rudimentarily implemented in the previous releases that now make much more sense, and I think it's pretty clear that this was a deliberate marketing plan. (Not such a smart one, perhaps, as it made the previous version so crappy that I almost gave up without paying the extra $29.99 and I doubt I'm the only one) So yes, Civ V BNW is a much more engaging, interesting game. However, midway through my second game of Civ V, it is still strikingly easy. The AI is clearly dumber. Now that's kind of fun, don't get me wrong: whereas a game of Civ IV BTS could be an intense, nail-biting, harrowing experience, Civ V is a kick-back cakewalk. Fun though.

Posted by Dr. Frank at October 14, 2013 03:39 PM