Take a quick look at Metacritic and you’d have to assume that Civilization 5 isn’t just a pretty good game – it’s a really good game. It’s got a 90 aggregate score after all, which on the MC scale is crazy good. It’s the same score as Cataclysm. Starcraft II is the only “current” game on the list that goes any higher, with a 93. So why did both Bill and I make it our most overrated game of the year over at Gameshark?
Because, in reality, it’s just not very good. More after the jump…
It’s unfortunate, because I really respect what the Civ 5 team, led by John Shafer, tried to do with this game. They dared to try new ways to play Civ, which is pretty ballsy when you consider that Civilization IV, including its patches and expansions, is arguably one of the best games ever made. So, for Civ 5 to make such daring changes as going with one military unit per tile, hex-based tiles, a global happiness system, no tech trading between civs, no city health, no city corruption, etc. was not, in any way, playing it safe. As much as I’m all for that, what’s that old saying about good intentions?
As shipped, Civ 5′s diplomatic and tactical AI are flat out busted. It has severe balancing issues with regards to empire happiness, food, and production. My contention these past months has been that every Civ has needed some time to get its systems in sync post-launch, which is absolutely true. So as September rolled to a close I set it aside with the intention of coming back after a patch or two, something that happened last December. The list of changes and fixes looks beyond impressive. Surely, even if this patch didn’t fix everything, it would make a huge difference, right?
Yeah, not so much. And it’s not that the patch just doesn’t work. It makes a series of much-needed changes, from reducing food provided by City-state allies to taking out maintenance costs for defensive structures, to making the diplomatic AI a bit more transparent. So it was with a high degree of excitement that I leaped back into the game. Hours later I set it aside. A day later I came back, for a couple hours, and then exited – bored. The game looks like Civ. Despite its changes, it plays like Civ. In some ways it has more in common with earlier iterations of the series than Civ 4 does. So why on earth am I not up playing it three hours past my bedtime? Why does it not scream at me, “One more frigg’n turn!” It can’t be just that the promised AI fixes didn’t really live up to the hype.
There’s no shortage of theories on this from those of us who have leaped from the Civ 5 bandwagon. Here’s mine: There’s just not enough to do. If you’re just jumping into the whole Civ experience this might seem preposterous, because every Civ game is a complex beast. Bear with me. If you can forgive the AI’s management faults, which isn’t that hard for your average player to do, Civ 5 is a game that I think you can get a good 20 to 30 hours into without really growing all that bored. You can spend upwards of ten hours on a game, and I think it takes a good three or four games to really get a passable handle on how everything works. That’s nothing in Civ time. You’re just getting warmed up. By the time you reach game four or five and you understand which tile resources are valuable, you understand how to manage global happiness, and you’re used to the AI’s incompetent attempts to wage war, you’re going to find yourself spending more and more time dismissing city-state notifications and clicking Next Turn while waiting for something genuinely important to happen. Diablo aside, clicking a button over and over again – not that interesting.
Like I said, every Civ game is complex. You have game systems on top of game systems baked at 400 degrees with other game systems and then sprinkled with game systems. For the game to work, all those systems not only all have to work individually, they have to work in conjunction with each other. That’s a tall order. Civ 4 managed it, and not just with the Warlords and Beyond the Sword expansions. It needed tweaking post-release, that’s true, but even out of the box it was an elegant system that successfully blended building an economy, researching technologies, waging war, managing citizens, and developing land. Civ 5 looks at all that stuff and tries to make it all a bit more manageable.
A lot of people interpret streamlining as code for “dumbing down” when the truth is you can simplify a game mechanic without dumbing down the game. Civ 5, I think, really tried to do this. In some ways it succeeds, like the way it brings small events to your attention in the main window. You don’t miss much when managing your empire in Civ 5, which I really like. Conversely, they also tossed out a lot of other stuff that made Civ 4 more interesting to play. Managing a city’s overall health? Gone. City-based happiness is replaced with a global happiness level in which you need only keep your final number from falling into the negative. Now, when London is unhappy, you can build a Colosseum anywhere in your empire to make up for it. Odds are you won’t even know it’s London that’s unhappy because you’re just looking at the bottom line anyway. There are fewer resources to harvest and a couple of the ones that remain (cows and wheat come to mind) are so weak as to be pointless. Gone is the notion of city corruption based on its distance from the capitol. With city corruption right out, the game encourages you to be more diligent in deciding how to build up your cities by associating maintenance costs with each structural improvement. Why spend time and the money needed to maintain a seaport if your coastal city doesn’t have access to fish, whales, or pearls? That’s not a bad system, but there’s an unfortunate side effect in that, with no real cost associated with actually building a city, the concept of Infinite City Sprawl (ICS), which Civ 4′s system helped to eliminate, is back in play in a big way. Culture victory aside, where more cities makes it tougher to achieve, it is to your benefit to expand as much and as quickly as possible. Just manage your happiness, don’t build unnecessary buildings, and you’re pretty much good to go. The only thing you have to obsess over is growth, which means bribing maritime City States –another new system that gets less interesting the more you interact with it– for extra food.
There’s an interesting dynamic at play with all of this because this simplification makes the early game incredibly boring once you know what you’re doing. The AI is bad enough that it’s not hard to keep them off your back, so you’re really just focused on whatever grows your population – food. Throw in a happy building willy nilly and that’s basically the game. Click the Next Turn button. That’s a gross oversimplification, to be sure, but it’s a fair one relative to Civ 4. The catch is the late game. Civ 4′s late game bogs way down. Micromanaging an empire is not nearly as much fun as micromanaging three or four cities. There’s two metric tons of units running around where Civ 5′s armies are much more limited. In this respect, Civ 5 is capable of putting one over on Civ 4 if Firaxis ever gets the AI to play its way out of a paper sack.
Still, what you can say about Civ 4 that can’t be said for Civ 5 is that it’s never boring. Ultimately, I think it would have been more interesting for Civ 5 to keep a bit more of Civ 4′s gameplay concepts, which work very well, and instead focus on making the late game more manageable. For example, what if you could use the technology tree to simplify core game mechanics as in-game time marches on? In the early game I’m keeping people happy on a city by city basis with structures like colosseums. In the late game, I’m pacifying my entire populace with broadcast television and the Internet. Early on health is managed with aqueducts and such. Later on the smart power grid keeps the lights on and takes more of managing individual cities off my hands. These, of course, are just a couple of ideas from a guy sniping on the sidelines. The point is, however you do it, Civ 5 would have better served players by simplifying the experience without simplifying the game. Complexity, when implemented properly, is not a vice and Civ 5 needed to be smarter about making the game easier to play without taking away what made it actually work.