Civilization V Impressions - First Look

2K Games and Firaxis finally show Civilization V at GDC 2010. Get the details here.

For years, the Civilization series has challenged players to assume the role of one of history's greatest leaders, such as Napoleon Bonaparte or Genghis Khan, and try to conquer the world through force of arms, scientific research, or overwhelming cultural superiority. And for years, the series has been synonymous with things like turn-based strategy, insidiously addictive gameplay, and the compulsion to explore every last square on the map. Except that with Civ V, you won't be exploring squares. You'll be exploring hexes. Yes, as you've probably heard, the new version of Civilization will make some noticeable changes to the series, including changing how maps will be divided not into four-sided squares, but into six-sided hexes, and how archers and other ranged units will actually be able to fire on their enemies from more than one hex away (previously, all units did battle by getting adjacent to their targets). These are big changes, but from what we've seen, they not only seem plausible enough to work, but also seem like they'll open up lots of new strategic possibilities. (Which means, you know, more of those sleepless nights.)

We saw Civ V in a hands-off demonstration at the 2010 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, in the early settlement game, as well as in a later, more-established session against more-developed nations. Civ V's interface is being designed by Firaxis staffer Russell Vaccaro, who also contributed to Firaxis' previous console Civ game, Civilization Revolution. Like that game, Civ V will have a highly streamlined interface that keeps a lot of the information off the main map view in favor of showing the game's detailed 3D world. From a technical perspective, Civ V's overland maps look better than they ever have and feature realistic-looking forests, mountain ranges, and flowing water in the form of inland rivers and sparkling oceans.

Ah, Chancellor Bismarck. How good of you to join us.

While you're gazing from sea to shining sea, you won't have to stare at piles and piles of numbers and icons--instead, while you'll still be able to access menus like your city's build menu, the scientific technology tree, and your diplomacy standings with other nations, they'll all be nested in menus that can be quickly and easily closed up. To make sure you don't forget what you were going to do next, the game will instead offer an enhanced notification system that will alert you to pretty much all happenings in the game, from completed scientific research to finished construction in your cities to discovering ruins (which appear to be the new game's version of goodie huts), and clicking on the notification will always open up the relevant menu and let you do whatever you need. In addition, Civilization III's advisors return in Civ V and will, as usual, offer you helpful tips on the next move you might want to make.

The demonstration we watched showed an early starting game for Greece with a troop of settlers (which act as the single settlers unit from previous games) and a troop of warriors (which act as a single warrior unit from previous games). The settlers immediately started a new city, while the warriors headed out into the wilderness to find a neighboring city-state, one of Civ V's new features. City-states are basically neutral cities of varying specializations (such as a militaristic city-state) that can be conquered if you prefer, though you can leave them neutral and form treaties with them, or take missions from them. Forming a strong relationship with a neutral city-state can be very beneficial--becoming buddies with the militaristic city-state in our demonstration meant that the neutral burg would send us free warriors every few turns--but it can also upset nearby civilizations who would prefer to have that city-state's services for themselves.

Ranged units will attack from a distance. Maps will be hex-based. This will be a different Civ.

Expansion will still be crucial to your success in Civ V, and the amount of "culture" your nation produces will still be the determining factor in how often your cities expand, but this time around, cities will not automatically expand outward in giant concentric circles. Instead, your holdings will expand one hex at a time and will tend to automatically grow toward specific nearby areas that your current civilization needs--for instance, if you've been developing your agricultural base, your nation will automatically tend to expand toward that nearby wheat-growing plain. While you can still use the old trick of annexing nearby resources by just sending out a settler to build an adjoining city nearby, there will apparently be game-specific disadvantages to having two cities too close to each other. Instead, Civ V will offer you a new alternative to send settlers to a desired area and plunk down a huge sum of gold to simply annex that zone and its resources.

After observing the early ages, we skipped ahead to a more-developed version of Greece that lay near holdings from Germany and the good old U. S. of A. Our first encounter with Germany came in the form of greeting a German settler, which brought us an audience with Chancellor Bismarck in his private chambers. Meeting with world leaders will look and sound different in Civ V, since the game will switch to a full-screen view of that leader in his or her current environment (whether that be in a home office or out at war, for instance), which shows more or less a full-body view of the leader as he or she paces about the room, smiling (or frowning), gesticulating, and speaking his or her native language.

Expansion will still be based on your culture but will work differently.

That's right, leaders will no longer be mute mimes who make grandiloquent genuflections in your general direction--Chancellor Bismarck will speak full-on German, while General Washington will speak perfect English. This is a new change that Civ fans have apparently been requesting for some time. In addition, while you'll still be able to negotiate trade agreements, travel agreements, and peace treaties with neighboring nations, Civ V will also let you enter into research treaties--essentially, a joint investment of a lump sum of cash that will accelerate scientific research for both nations. This can be a highly beneficial arrangement that earns you friendship points with other nations, and it can also be a serious bone of contention if you cut the treaty short midway.

In this session, after exchanging pleasantries with Bismarck, we set about making overtures to a nearby city-state along the American border. While we definitely made some friends there, General Washington of America didn't seem quite as happy and addressed us in a cordial but stern manner when we sought an audience with him. For the sake of the demo, our Firaxis hosts went ahead and declared war on the indignant dignitary, and we had our chance to observe Civ V's tactical combat in action.

Civ V, as mentioned, is making some significant changes to the way combat works. For instance, the combined armies of the previous games are a thing of the past--instead, only one "stack" (a single battalion of troops that occupies any given hex) can occupy a hex. No more combining units to make them stronger. In addition, units will take longer to produce and will eventually come to have upkeep costs associated with them--however, they will also have veterancy along the lines of what was introduced in Civ IV. That is, units that survive various skirmishes will eventually grow in power and may be able to select various bonuses to increase their usefulness and survivability. The Firaxis team, led by designer Jon Schafer, envisions more-intimate, tactical battles in Civ V (based on Schafer's fondness for the classic Panzer General)--generally speaking, you and your neighbors will have fewer military units in play than you might have had in previous games in the series, and they'll last longer and be more valuable.

The combat demonstration we watched showed a land invasion of America along two fronts, with enemy spearmen guarding General Washington's town on both sides. Our ranks consisted mainly of warriors, spearmen, and a few archers, and though our relatively weaker warriors unfortunately started on the front lines ahead of our spearmen, we were able to use Civ V's new switch move order to have the two units swap positions, and then we pit our spearmen against theirs. Those crafty Americans set themselves up behind a river, which gave their units a natural terrain bonus, but we softened up our foes with a volley of arrows from a stack of archers placed atop a nearby hill. By softening up our foes and weakening their remaining health, we effectively reduced their terrain advantage and were able to mop them up with our own spearmen, which were at full strength. Meanwhile, on the western end of the border, our troops encountered worse luck. Washington had built his empire around a one-hex-wide choke point in the mountains and blocked it off with spearmen backed up by archers. Because only one unit can occupy any one hex at any given time, there was no way to pass through the mountains without going through the enemy spearmen--cases like these will require your own archers (and other ranged units) to soften up the front lines. However, archers themselves will be extremely fragile and can be easily decimated if they're engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

You'll need to think smarter and make better use of the terrain in Civ V's battles.

And as it happens, in Civ V, units may no longer be garrisoned inside your cities, so defending your holdings will have two aspects. One--all cities will automatically defend themselves based on their current growth level and any defensive structures you may have built inside. Two--you'll want to make sure you defend your key cities with army units, possibly building fort structures nearby to enhance your defenses. This task may or may not be as impossible as it sounds since Civ V's "conquest" victory condition has been tweaked to require you to capture all enemy capital cities, as opposed to capturing every single city on the map. Again, these are big changes and are really pretty bold--but they seem like they could add real depth and exciting new direction to the series. Oh, and one last note--although Civ IV's religion system (which was met with mixed reactions) won't be making a comeback, we're assured by Firaxis that the feature wasn't simply cut without any plans for other new features to replace it. There are definitely more changes afoot for Civ V, and we can't wait to find out more. The game is scheduled for release later this year.

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