Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sid Meier's Civilization V

After many years of trying, I believe it is safe to say that I am just not put together properly for strategy games.  It's not that I'm a poor strategist.  Or maybe it is.  Really, I don't know what it is.  All I know is that without cheat codes, I might never have seen the end of just about any campaign mode I've come across.  Strategy games that I participate in have a way of ending in tears, as my carefully polished Tier One swordsmen are trampled under the wings of rampaging zombie-dragons.  This scenario assumes, of course, that my opponent is sadistic enough to upgrade that far: my childlike defenses can usually be undone by much less.

Yet I continue to play them; worse, I continue to love them.  There are few things that are more satisfying to me than assembling a well-run base: building your impenetrable wall of turrets, researching all the shiniest technologies, and marching your orderly squadrons out to face their destinies at the appointed time.  And there are few things more horribly frustrating than having the whole thing turned upside down when your opponent sneaks a unit in, wrecks your whole resource-gathering apparatus, and comes charging in on wings of fiery death before you have time to pump out more than a few defenders.

So it's really very easy to understand why I got turned on to Civilization IV a while back.  Unlike the strategy games I was used to, it was turn-based, so I could afford to turn my head away every once in a while.  It also featured a semi-quasi-almost realistic simulation of world history, brimming with historical people, historical monuments, and a wealth of edifying historical quotes delivered by Leonard Nimoy.  Most importantly, it could be set to a difficulty level low enough for me to play the way I wanted to: I could avoid fighting wars as long as I wanted and focus on the simple sandbox joys of building, building, building. 

And now history has granted me Civilization V, a reinvention of the series with all the beautiful elements that made me love its predecessor.  Nimoy's out, but Morgan Sheppard is in, dispensing an even greater array poetry, scripture, and classic prose in a suitably wizened baritone.  The World Wonders are more varied, with suitably epic newcomers like the Brandenburg Gate and the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing.  There are even features that seem expressly designed to tickle my nerd bones: every Civilization's leader actually speaks aloud in his or her native language.  So much do I love this game's presentation, I'd be sorely tempted to give it perfect marks on that basis alone.

I also find the gameplay to be a more relaxing, enjoyable experience than in Civ IV.  I developed some bad habits in that game, such as restarting whenever I failed to claim a holy city or major monument, and tedious behaviors like that have a way of killing some of the fun.  Civ V no longer has holy cities, and the process of building monuments is more user-friendly; besides, their sheer number is solace enough when someone beats you to constructing a few. It's nice to concentrate on some of the more creative aspects of civilization building, rather than engage in neurotic races to try and found Hinduism in New York City, a thousand years ahead of schedule.

The graphics are quite beautiful; almost too beautiful, actually.  I suspect it operates in the upper regions of my graphics card's ability to cope, and I get some pretty heavy slowdown on large maps, especially late in the game.  But there's lots of pretty animations, and the transition from various elevations and perspectives is smooth.  As long as I can keep the laptop from exploding, a little chugging hardly dims what is otherwise a lovely view.

Much as I love this new Civ, I feel like I don't really understand it yet.  The basics all seem to be there, and I've picked up on some of the more obvious changes and integrated them into my playing style.  But my sloppy performances at easy difficulty levels leads me to believe there are subtler changes that I have not mastered.  I'd be lying if I said I'd "mastered" Civ IV, but this really is a beast of a different color, and my bewilderment seems to hint at a really profound alteration of the principles at stake.  Then again, I am quite easily bewildered, so it may be just a trick of all the shiny new buttons.  But I'm willing to give Civilization the benefit of the doubt.

If there's one complaint I have to make, it must be in relation to the game's diplomacy system.  I had it all worked out to my satisfaction in Civ IV, but in Civ V it seems as though half of the time my actions have nothing to do with the AI players' responses.  When you can go three hundred years without snubbing or even looking askance at someone and still wind up on their shit list, it sort of invalidates the whole concept of diplomacy.  Is that really the message we want to be sending to the children?

The Civilization series is perhaps the paragon of the "timesink" as a gameplay model: a methodically played game can last the better part of a day (or night), and the hours have a way of slipping quietly past as you routinely tell yourself "just one more turn..." until, finally, you find yourself bleary eyed at three in the morning.  There may be something a little surreptitious about this model of game design (outsiders call it "addiction," but isn't that a loaded word?), but its magnetism is undeniable.  More than just a strategy game, it's like an intelligently managed, interactive ant farm: you know exactly what the little guys are going to do next, and you want to take them there right away.  If it takes a few hours of my life away, I consider them well paid for.

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