Building empires takes patience, ruthlessness--maybe even some modern armor--and apparently loads of CPU power. Civilization V builds on the iconic brand and brings numerous advancements to the game: a complete graphics overhaul, DirectX 11 support, multithreading support, and considerably more on the actual game side of the equation. However, all of the new bells and whistles take their toll. Should those turns take a little too long or the game hitch too much, we've honed our upgrades down to the essentials to give you the most performance for the least amount of money spent.
Civilization V makes for a very odd testing scenario. There are no corridors to run down, and shooting the enemy doesn't result in anything more than two little characters poking at each other on a map. As a result, we had to break our testing down into two parts. To beat down the CPU, we actually timed how long it took for the game to complete the AI's turn. This was an amazingly taxing calculation on the CPU that was easily measurable in the tens of seconds and highly repeatable. Video card testing consisted of moving across the same map at the most zoomed-out setting, which dropped frame rates by more than half and proved to be quite consistent. Both tests were performed on a late-game scenario that had numerous computer AIs vying for superiority on a large map. Smaller maps with fewer AI opponents didn't stress the system nearly as much.
Turn-based games like Civilization V have one true bottleneck. The moment you click the end-turn button, you get to sit back and watch the computer do its thing. Early on in the game, you'll be back to ordering around your minions in a few short seconds, but later on, once you've advanced to the 1900s, those seconds might turn into a full minute. Being able to calculate whether or not Ghandi will team up with the British to attack you does indeed take more than a few CPU cycles.
From our testing, we determined that the Core i3 or Phenom II X4 class CPUs seem to be the sweet spot. Throwing more horsepower at the problem helps matters considerably. Our Core i7 980x overclocked to 4.2GHz tore away from the pack, but the same could likely be done with a highly overclocked Core i3. The game is heavily multithreaded, but we found that dual and quad core CPUs are more than enough.
• Get a CPU with at least two or four executable threads.
• Brute speed matters a lot.
We recommend either the $125 Core i3 540 or the $140 AMD Phenom II X4 955; both offer a great blend of speed and affordability. You could also drop down to the $90 Phenom II X2 555 to save a little more money.
Intel DX58S0, Intel DP55KG, Asus CrossHair 4 Forumla, 4 and 6GB OCZ DDR3, 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows 7 64-bit. Graphics Drivers: Forceware 258.96.
Civilization V doesn't need much of a video card to run, and feeding it a massive GPU won't help to get rid of the texture caching issues that plague the game. No matter the GPU, you will see textures get drawn in as you zoom in and out around the map. Even with high-end GPUs like the GeForce GTX 480 and Radeon HD 5870, you'll see blurry textures swapped out on a constant basis.
Overall frame rates will increase handily with more powerful cards--but it's not worth the money if you already have passable performance. Dropping the visual quality settings is a better bet because even at its ugliest, Civilization V doesn't look all that bad.
Should you just want a card that can run the game, pick pretty much anything from the GeForce 4xx and Radeon HD 5xxx series--even the bottom of the bin cards. They'll run the game quite well. If anything, think of another game you're looking forward to and upgrade for that instead because you shouldn't have to upgrade your GPU unless you're playing on something from the GeForce 7 series and its equivalents.
• Get nothing if at all possible.
• Upgrade to a $120 solution like the GeForce GTS 450 or Radeon HD 5770 only if necessary.
To save money, hit sites like Craigslist to pick up older cards or grab an $85 Radeon HD 5670.
Intel i7-980x, Intel DX58S0, 6GB OCZ DDR3, 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows 7 64-bit. Graphics Drivers: Catalyst 10.9, Forceware 258.96.
Extra memory helps considerably to reduce load times and also cuts down on CPU turns once you jump up to 4GB of system RAM.
• Get 4GB of RAM.
The game and your system will thank you for it.
Intel i7-980x, Intel DX58S0, 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows 7 64-bit. GeForce GTX 460 Graphics Drivers: Forceware 258.96.
The game gets get better looking if you crank up the settings, but with all the texture swaps and hitching, it might not be worth the effort.
Strategic mode (you can access it by pressing F10 or pushing the onscreen button next to the minimap) helps considerably with performance. Keep in mind that it's also like playing on a stripped-down version of Google Maps.
We did discover one interesting tidbit though: Enabling the strategic map before you end your turn shaves off more than 20 percent of the time to complete a turn--that's pretty much a free upgrade!
High End System - Core i7-980x, Intel DX58S0, 6GB OCZ DDR3 RAM, Windows 7 64-bit, Seagate 750GB 7200.11, GeForce GTX 480. Graphics Driver: Forceware 258.96.
Low End System - Core 2 Duo E6320, EVGA 680i, 2GB DDR2, Windows 7 64-bit, Seagate 750GB 7200.11, GeForce 7900 GT. Graphics Driver: Forceware 258.96
The Big Picture
Do not underestimate the power of the strategic map to increase performance. The performance gains could be enough for you to avoid an upgrade altogether.
If you have to upgrade, we've got a few options available to use for small system builds that will handily run Civilization V. Even the low end of the spectrum, with an astonishingly small outlay, gives fantastic performance.
• Intel Core i3 540 - $125 / Phenom II X4 955 - $140 / Phenom II X2 555 - $90
• Socket 1156 Motherboard - $90 / Socket AM3 Motherboard - $45
• Radeon HD 5770 - $140 / GeForce GTS 450 - $130 / Radeon HD 5670 - $85
• 4GB DDR3 RAM - $75
• 500GB Hard Drive - $50
• Case + Power Supply - $70
Total System Cost - $415 to $550