(Firaxis, 2K Games)
GAMER The release of a new Civilization game always results in time-management Armageddon. Notorious for its addictive, epic gameplay, the long-running franchise has been the bane of term papers, careers, and marriages over the course of its nearly 20 years in existence.
Visionary franchise creator Sid Meier is now head of his own game studio, Firaxis, and he’s waging a multifront war on productivity. Civilization Revolution, the series’ streamlined console cousin, is out on the iPhone and iPad, and Meier himself is hard at work on Civilization Network, fusing the game onto Facebook and finally realizing his lifelong dream of preventing people from getting anything done, ever.
With the release of Network (the strategy-gaming equivalent of a crack lollipop) still far off, Meier’s team at Firaxis has unveiled Civilization V, a big-budget tent-pole sequel. Eagerly anticipated by the legions of history nerds, armchair generals, and would-be despots who loved the game’s previous installments, Civ V provides a snappy, Art Deco graphics overhaul and a wide array of gameplay redesigns.
Chief among these changes is the introduction of hexagonal tiles in place of square ones. Previous Civilization iterations divided their sprawling maps chessboard style, in rectilinear grids, slicing vast deserts and broad oceans into intelligible collections of tiny squares. This time around, the geometry has been switched; moving diagonally is no longer slightly faster (thanks, but no thanks, Pythagoras). Cities, ever the building blocks of the gameplay, can now collect resources from any tile within three hexes.
The hex system doesn’t really shine until two civilizations go to war, when the game’s other key innovation comes into play: only one unit can occupy any given tile. Proper unit positioning, maneuver, and tactics are now the keys to victory — gone are the days of stacking up 20 Swordsmen and ramming them straight down your enemy’s throat. Combine this change with the fact that cities can now defend themselves without the need for a garrisoning unit — and the fact that ranged units such as archers and catapults can fire and hit a target two tiles away (over the heads of screening infantry, if need be) — and you’re left with a combat system rife with new challenges, dangers, and enjoyment.
It takes guts to effect fundamental changes to a popular franchise, but Meier and his team at Firaxis were abetted by new blood. Civilization V‘s lead designer, Jon Shafer, started out as high school-age fan of 2001’s Civilization III. At first he coded modifications to the game in his bedroom, but Shafer soon found himself crafting customized maps and complicated scenarios. He secured a position as a beta tester for III‘s first expansion, then another as a tester for 2005’s Civilization IV. By the end of 2005, he had talked his way into a programming internship at Firaxis. Thanks to his proven initiative, love for the series, and dual-threat mastery of both design and programming, Shafer was eventually handed the keys to one of gaming’s most venerable cars.
Though the cosmetic changes are eye-catching, it’s still the same game under the hood. Most key components have been streamlined, with the exception of the still-wonky A.I. diplomacy. Other longstanding fender-dents have, at long last, been hammered out. If there are complaints, they’ll center around what was omitted — IV’s masterful handling of religion will certainly be missed.
Civilization will enter its third decade in 2011. For most games, this would be a huge milestone. For a game that takes the entirety of recorded history as its subject matter, it’s just another year. For me, it’s time to get back to my war against the Persians.