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Civilization V: Gods and Kings can’t fix what is fundamentally flawed (review)

Civilization 5: Gods and Kings

Falling out with a game series is a difficult process, especially so when you’ve already stuck through the good and the bad of past entries. But Maryland developer Firaxis’ newest expansion for the PC strategy game Civilization V, subtitled Gods and Kings, is proving to test my resolve to hold off on that final goodbye.

Looking back now on the time I’ve spent with the original release, I suspect I was going through the usual stages of grief. Denial: “No, Rob. It’s really not that bad. Look at the graphics! The pretty unit animations!” Anger: “Seriously, computer A.I.? You’re going to place that weak, ranged archer next to my powerful swordsman? You’re not even trying!” Bargaining: “OK. I’ll just play on Immortal, the second highest difficulty. I never do that, but this should finally make for a good match.” Depression: “End turn…end turn…end turn….” Acceptance: “It’s not what it looks like, Civ V. I swear, Civ IV and I are just friends.”

I wanted Gods and Kings to make up for the fundamental issues with Civ V. I wanted to believe that the A.I. would know how to play the hex-based, tactical wargame portion. I wanted to believe that Firaxis could fix the inherent flaws in using a global happiness measure as a meaningful limit to empire growth.

But I’m left sitting with a night full of disappointment despite a few highlight moments here or there.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

Civ V is finally a builder’s game
Many times when I approach a new Civ adventure, I just want to plunk down in some corner of the world and erect impressive structures of culture and significance that last the ages. Warring with rival nations can be a stressful affair that I’d prefer to avoid if possible. And if you choose an archipelago map type (because the A.I. still doesn’t seem to quite understand the importance of naval power), you’ll be left alone enough to build to your heart’s content.

Here’s where Firaxis actually fixed something important. The unusually long construction times in the initial release of Civ V meant that most of the buildings were useless. Taking 25 or 30 turns to place a Granary in a city for the extra food just wasn’t worth the effort when you’d do much better with a Colosseum for the happiness boost or a University for the additional beakers to push up your research rate for discovering new technology.

Firaxis has adjusted the pace of production (measured in hammers) of your empire so that it scales with tech progress appropriately, which was a major issue with the original Civ V release. Previously, you could accumulate beakers at such a pace that you’d advance well past new discoveries before you ever had a chance to build what you’d researched. Now, my large cities finally feel like the industrious metropolises I always imagined them to be.

Civilization 5: Gods and Kings

Espionage makes diplomacy better
Civ V brings back Civ III-styled surveillance, which eschews fiddling with actual spy units and lets you get on with your secret missions from a dedicated menu screen. There, you can plant undercover agents within enemy cities, and they will gather intelligence about your rivals.

The spy’s primary function is to steal technology from other nations, but he also might discover nasty plots brewing within the halls of government of your neighbors. In one game, agent Col Ceathar revealed that an Iroquois attack party was en route to the borders of Carthage, led by my pal Dido. Clicking the pop-up notification took me directly to a diplomacy screen with Dido, where I had the opportunity to warn her of the pending assault. In other instance, the friendly Austrians warned me that Wu Zetian, leader of the Chinese, had her eyes on my lands. The way that espionage is woven into diplomacy makes for some exciting turns of events when you least expect.

The new religion mechanic plays into this as well. In another game, I decided to use my many, idle great prophets to spread Tengriism, the native belief system for my Celtic empire. After converting several cities in Japan, leader Oda Nobunaga asked for my audience to give me an ultimatum: Stop spreading Tengriism or face the consequences. Although we were prior allies, Japan and I were now on the brink of full-scale war.

Diplomacy is also less opaque than in the original Civ V. In another spat with Oda Nobunaga, he notified me that he had bullied a city-state that I had pledged to protect. I could make the incident a problem between us or let it go. The most interesting thing about this exchange was the fact that a pop-up detailing the exact effects — a hit to diplomatic relations or a loss of influence over the city-state — appeared when I moused over my options.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Civ V is still fundamentally flawed
At the core of the Civilization series is the management of a careful balance between expanding your empire and researching new technologies, maintaining a standing army, and improving diplomatic relations with other nations. Civ V, unlike the previous games that use corruption (Civs II and III) or treat founding new cities as a monetary investment (Civ IV), employs a global happiness mechanic to prevent you from building too much too quickly.

No matter how hard Firaxis tries to fix it, though, global happiness just isn’t an adequate limit on expansion. In Gods and Kings, obtaining happiness (a resource measured in number of smiley faces) is just way too easy — even with the developer’s attempts to lessen the effect of happiness-generating buildings and social policies that shape your customized government.

The new mercantile city-states only exasperate the problem. These minor players in Civ V are single-city nations that you can influence with your actions (by completing “quests” they ask of you or through outright bribery). Once you have enough sway over a city-state, it becomes your ally and grants you bonuses specific to the type of state that it is. Mercantile city-states provide unique luxury resources, which give your empire happiness, and straight-up just hand over even more happiness. Ally with one or two of these and you’ll not have any limit on expansion.

Series creator Sid Meier’s maxim that good game design is a series of interesting decisions falls apart when only one strategy becomes overly dominant. In Gods and Kings, that approach is still founding as many cities as possible as fast as possible (known as ICS, or infinite city sprawl).

Civilization 5: Gods and Kings

The A.I. still can’t play the tactical game
The most readily apparent change that Civ V brought to the series was revamping combat to be more like a proper wargame — lead designer Jon Shafer even cited 1994’s Panzer General as inspiration. This meant dropping the traditional square grid layout with a hex-based system, enforcing a one-unit-per-hex rule in place of the traditional ability to “stack” units in the same space, and utilizing ranged attacks (where a soldier can attack from two or more hexes away) much more than in the series’ past.

While I initially looked forward to this new warfare model, in practice, it’s not much fun when your opponents have no idea what they’re doing. In a battle for the city-state of Lhasa, I positioned two cannons, a Gatling gun (a new unit in Gods and Kings), a squad of musketmen, and a great general to lead the charge around the metropolis.

But Lhasa, defended by its own cannon and the city’s innate defensive capabilities, never attacked these soldiers. Instead, I moved lancers and horsemen back and forth over a specific hex because Lhasa would first attack whatever I put in that space. It was only a matter of time before I whittled down Lhasa’s defenses to zero and walked in essentially without a fight.

One of two things happened on here, both of which are unacceptable: Either the A.I. was targeting an enemy that couldn’t possibly attack (all my other units stood in the way) or was going after the one enemy least effective against cities (since the original release, Firaxis has added a negative attack modifier to this class of unit when attacking cities). And this is only one example of many. If Civ V is supposed to make combat more engaging, I shouldn’t be able to short circuit the A.I. so easily.

CONCLUSION

Gods and Kings feels like Civ V is taking a step forward in some respects. The new espionage system is a worthy addition, and it smartly enhances the sorely lacking diplomacy of the original release. But Gods and Kings also feels as if a lead boot firmly plants the other leg on the ground, leaving it unable to move.

Global happiness just doesn’t work, and I don’t know if fixing this is even possible, considering that so many other gameplay systems depend on the mechanic. The A.I. still doesn’t provide an adequate challenge in combat, nor does it appear to even understand the rules. This is doubly problematic because this warfare model holds such primacy in this newest entry in the series.

In the end, Civ V and I just need to part ways. And I’m not sorry to say that it’s you, Civ V, not me.

Score: 65/100

Civilization V: Gods and Kings releases on June 19, 2012 for PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a Steam download code for the purpose of this review.