Sid Meier's Civilization V Hands-On - Exploration, Wonders, Culture, and Conquest

We get our greedy, land-grabbing hands on an early version of the next Civilization game, and we'll be right with you as soon as we just take one more turn.

The classic Civilization turn-based strategy series has been the pride and joy of Hunt Valley, Maryland-based Firaxis studio for years and is also apparently the pride and joy of the state of Maryland since that state's governor recently declared that the game's upcoming release date of September 21 will officially be "Civilization V day." The frighteningly habit-forming series has challenged armchair dictators for years to play as one of world history's greatest leaders (such as George Washington of America or Catherine II of Russia) and "build an empire to stand the test of time."

This wording sounds really dignified and impressive, but it really boils down to exploring a randomly generated land map, seizing resources, meeting new nations (and either allying with them or crushing them), and researching new technologies that will make your nation more powerful. And that really boils down to spending hour after hour in front of your computer, taking turn after turn to develop your nation's science, economy, military, culture, or borders until the morning sun starts peeking in through your window. We've finally gotten our filthy mitts on the fifth edition of Civ, and we have much to report, though to be honest, we'd rather be taking another turn.

Civ V looks strikingly different from previous games in the series for a number of reasons. While the most obvious (and initially, the most shocking) difference is the way that the game divides up the world map into wargame-style hexes rather than squares, the game's overall visual design is also really striking. While the previous game, Civ IV, was pretty to look at, there were times when it almost looked like it would burst at the seams by displaying so many informational notes and events onscreen at once. In contrast, Civ V looks like a very, very streamlined game that compresses important information and alerts down to a single line of updates in the lower-right corner of the screen and handily prompts you to take action whenever you have an idle unit, completed city production, or completed research advancement to which to attend. Also, the game's clean art deco look--a tip of the hat to 2K Games' BioShock--encompasses all its interfaces and menus and seems to work beautifully with the game's equally clean 3D maps and units, which are far more detailed and colorful than those of Civ IV and are much more visually distinct from each other.

Everybody wants to rule the world. Civ V has 18 world leaders, and each one arguably has the right stuff.

Aside from its cosmetic makeover, Civ V has a whole lot more new stuff to offer under the hood, such as combat, research, diplomacy, exploration, and expansion. For instance, while the basic first steps to building an empire are similar to previous games--root your settler in a good spot (ideally near precious resources and/or a life-sustaining river), build your first city, and send that first warrior or scout unit out to explore--even the early game has been changed in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways.

As we found, scouting early and often is still crucially important to find ruins (Civ V's version of the goodie hut--a small cache that grants a random bonus of a free unit, technology, or money to whomever grabs it first), although the version we played had a more realistic, but occasionally inconvenient feature when setting units to automatically explore. Auto-exploring units will occasionally bumble right into the borders of an unmet city-state, immediately committing an act of trespassing that puts your at a diplomatic disadvantage with that city-state. Still, recon is now more important than ever, thanks to two brand new map features. For starters, Civ V introduces new natural wonders, such as the Old Faithful geyser or Lake Titicaca, which grant a permanent happiness bonus to the civilization that first discovers them (and also tend to produce more money and production resources than the average land tile).

And more importantly, there are the much talked-about city-states out there, which also take up a certain amount of real estate on the finite-sized map and offer a small gold bonus to the nation that discovers them first. Better still, the nation that forms an alliance by bribing with gold (or eventually takes bounties to clear out nearby barbarian hordes or to annihilate a rival city-state) can benefit from being on good terms with city-states by being granted trade resources, free units, and eventually, votes in the UN for the game's diplomatic victory condition. Oh, and take our word for it--you can also attack city-states, as well as plunder or annex them, which seems like easy money at first because unaffiliated city-states consist of only a single city and whatever defenses that one city has mustered.

Exploring is more important than ever. You may run across a natural wonder, like the Barringer Crater, for instance.

However, knocking out a bunch of these municipalities eventually marks you as a city-state destroying despot and puts you out of favor with the world's remaining city-states. It also triggers war with any rival nation that has granted its protection to that city-state, so unless you want to rumble with Chancellor Bismarck, you'll want to steer clear of the city-states under the protection of Germany, for instance.

Civ V has 18 different nations (America, Arabia, Aztec, China, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iroquois, Japan, Ottoman, Persia, Rome, Russia, Siam, and Songhai). Each nation has two unique replacements to its standard technology progression; a nation has either two unique units that replace two standard units in the game (such as the Japanese samurai, which replaces the iron-age swordsman unit) or one unique unit and one unique city improvement that replaces a standard building (such as the Russian Krepost, which replaces a standard barracks).

Every leader needs to protect the homestead, and Civ V will let you use cities to bombard nearby enemies.

And of course, each nation has a glorious historical ruler (Washington, Harun al-Rashid, Montezuma, Empress Wu Zetian, Ramesses II, Queen Elizabeth, Napoleon Bonaparte, Bismarck, Alexander, Mahatma Gandhi, Hiawatha, Nobunaga, Suleiman, Darius I, Augustus Caesar, Catherine II, Ramkhamhaeng, and Askia), and each ruler has one carefully designed, highly specialized trait. In many cases, the ruler's trait sets him or her up beautifully for a very specific type of strategy. For instance, China's Wu Zetian tends to more frequently spawn more powerful great generals (a military version of the great person specialist type that will occasionally spawn within your domain and grant powerful bonuses), a clear-cut military advantage.

Civ V's larger gameplay seems to be built around letting players zero in on a certain strategic approach and fine-tune it by not only choosing the right leader to start off with a distinct advantage in one discipline or another, but also by researching the appropriate technologies and building the appropriate city improvements (as you'd expect), along with choosing an appropriate social policy. Social policies are a brand new concept in Civ V that essentially act as a second technology tree, powered not by research points, but by the amount of culture points your cities generate. As a matter of fact, the victory conditions for the culture victory have changed to require players to fully unlock each improvement in at least five different policies. There are 10 different social policy trees in all: tradition (which focuses on developing your capital city); liberty (best for fast expansion); honor (a set of military improvements); piety (which increases empire happiness and culture output); patronage (which improves relations with city-states); order (which reduces corruption, a handy ability for larger empires with many cities); autocracy (which makes maintaining a large army cheaper and more manageable); freedom (which benefits smaller nations, particularly those focused on culture); rationalism (which affects generations of technology research points); and commerce (which provides naval and trade bonuses).

While each policy has a handful of improvements that unlock in succession and provide powerful bonuses when purchased with successive payments of culture points, you can adopt only one social policy at one time, and some are mutually exclusive. If you hadn't already guessed, social policies greatly increase the importance of culture in Civ V and net-net, more closely tie in game concepts that were mostly unrelated in previous games. For instance, Napoleon's leader trait generates bonus culture points in each of all his cities until he discovers steam power. While this powerful trait most obviously lends itself to a race for a cultural victory, the increased generation of culture potentially also makes powerful social policies of all stripes more quickly available to him. This makes it so that he can either race for a cultural victory by grinding out as many culture points as possible and buying up policies left and right or choose to spend his policy points on specific paths that will set him up for scientific victory (winning the space race), diplomatic victory (being voted the head of the UN), point victory (by having the highest score by the year 2050), or even a domination victory (by destroying all the capital cities of other nations). In keeping with the more crowded overland maps of Civ V (which are now filled with city-states and natural wonders), the expansion victory condition (which let you win by controlling 75 percent of the map) of previous games has been scrapped.

Civ V will let you go medieval on your rivals in any number of ways.

As you've presumably heard, Civ V's battle system has been overhauled, due in no small part to designer Jon Shafer's in-depth research into historical battles and sentimental fondness for classic tactical games like Panzer General. In Civ V, while military and civilian units can occupy the same hex (you can still have a spearman escort your settlers in lockstep as they set up a new city), non-flying military units can't. This means that the old days of the killer stack--a grouped bunch of units on a single square--are over and that engagements are much more tactical and require smarter use of space and terrain. If nothing else, sacking small cities hidden in impassable mountain ranges or on narrow peninsulas is harder simply because there are fewer spaces for you to place additional forces. This means you need to be more mindful of how additional factors, such as terrain defensive bonuses, and whether the defenders are fortified (military units can still dig in to a single spot to receive defensive bonuses) come into play.

Fortunately, Civ V now has a handy pre-battle assessment system that lets you, as an attacker, mouse over a potential defender to see how a battle would stack up. If the comparison between your forces and the defenders suggests a decisive victory on your part, you may want to go full speed ahead. But, if you're looking at a potential stalemate or worse, you may instead want to hang back until you can bring in some support units.

Another day, another golden age. The enhanced production and civic happiness of the golden age is still something that all rulers really, really want.

In addition, invasions have become at least slightly tougher to pull off because cities now have automated defenses (regardless of whether they're garrisoned with stationed units inside). If any hostile units are in range of a city, that city has the option to open fire on the enemy, and the city's tech level, size, and garrison will affect how much firepower the city has to use. Mounting late-game invasions of heavily fortified cities will require a large, organized, powerful army that can sustain taking fire from whatever arrows, catapults, or cannon are installed at the target.

While we've already covered a great deal of what Civ V has to offer and how those features work in practice now that we've played the game, we'll also share some notes on one of our earliest play sessions with Ramesses II--the Egyptian pharaoh whose leader trait gives him +20 percent production speed on world wonders. Yes, world wonders are back in the form of standard world wonders (there can be only one world wonder in play at any time, so the first nation that builds it reaps the powerful benefits) and Civ IV's national wonders (which can be built up to two times within your empire). Ramesses' bonus gives him a sizeable advantage when it comes to building wonders, which ostensibly provide a powerful culture bonus (pretty much all wonders generate some bonus culture), but in some cases, they also provide powerful military, economic, scientific, and population-related bonuses.

If you're wondering whether it's possible and viable to rush to build as many wonders as possible in Civ V…it is possible. (Just don't expect to win too many wars.) As you might expect, our initial development was peaceful and focused on creating a worker to build up civic improvements. These included using roads to route to strategic resources like cows (which provide a food bonus that grows your population, as usual) and stone (which increases your nearest city's production once a quarry is installed, as usual) and then building as many farms as possible to speed up the population growth of our home city, so that as many workers as possible were available to build wonders. Yes, we kept our eyes on the prize, and by prize, we mean glittering monuments like The Pyramids (which, this time around, grant a very useful 50 percent production bonus), The Oracle (which, this time around, gives you a free social policy), and Chichen Itza (which, this time around, extends the length of a golden age by 50 percent).

Yes, golden ages are back and still triggered either by popular happiness or with the help of a great person (this time around, you need only one great person to get the party started), and they still provide the powerful production bonuses that wonder-obsessed nut jobs crave. We deviated from our single-minded focus on winning by way of culture through world wonders just long enough to accept an allied city-state's bounty to eliminate a rival city-state. And we found that our centuries of doing nothing but building monuments had left us too weak to capture the target with only our ragtag company of low-level cavalry and the odd catapult or two we'd built for kicks (while the rest of our cities continued to build wonder after wonder). Fortunately, after being humiliated for several turns, we quietly accepted a graciously offered truce by the tiny but tenacious burg and were grateful that no one would ever know what foppish dandies we were at heart, unless they were to, for instance, read this preview.

Natural wonders are just one of Civ V's new features. You'll be able to explore all of them this September.

Now that we've finally played Civilization V for ourselves, we won't lie: We came away with what you could call a positive impression. By all appearances, Civ V will be every bit as addictive as you'd expect from a game in this popular series, with a user-friendly, streamlined interface and a social policy system that lets you chisel out a more focused victory strategy that's closer to your personal preferences.

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