Having finally invested in a laptop that has a better graphics card than the Etch-A-Sketch-esque specs of my previous rig, I figured it was time to look into revisiting some PC-specific franchises. So, while the masses lined up to gawk at boobs from the 50′s in Mafia II at the 2K Games area, I instead joined a small group in the back for a guided hands-off demo of the latest iteration of the Sid Meier juggernaut, Civilization 5.
While the Civ franchise has continually refined its gameplay mechanics, many of the staples of combat and exploration have remained static. After seeing the changes to combat, gameworld, and user interface, it looks like the Firaxis team has moved the venerated turn-based strategy game another rung up the tech tree. I came out of the demo excited to be a PC gamer again.
The first change that strikes you when looking at Civ 5 is the move from a square tile based map to a hex-grid structure. Outside of the obvious tactical considerations that come with strategizing along 6 sides instead of 4, the hex structure gives all the geography a much more organic look and feel to it. The aesthetics of this game were impressive to see for an unfinished build; the game is slated to release in the fall, and there’s already an impressive amount of polish present.
The user interface is very clean for such a complex title, by which I mean that a large amount of information and commands are organized very well. Icons and elements don’t crowd the screen, and notifications will queue on the side of the screen (in icon form), in lieu of eating up screen space with text and then disappearing. It really gives a streamlined feel that looks like it will allow you to focus more on strategy and less on execution and information management.
The most interesting and exciting changes, however, came in the realm of combat. Players can no longer stack units. This is a huge change from previous Civ titles, and looks to shift the strategy dramatically. With only one unit per tile, strength of individual units, formations of units on multiple tiles, and terrain become the new focus of combat, rather than creating an empire that can just outproduce units and then spam attack.
They showed how a small group of units could hold off a much larger force if strategy and terrain were in their favor; a staged miniature Battle of Thermopylae in a mountain pass illustrated this strategic shift nicely.
City defense is impacted greatly by this shift. You can no longer garrison forces in your cities, so repelling invaders before they reach your cities will be paramount. Cities will have upgrades and structures that deal damage to attacking forces, but without actual units as a buffer you will still see your cities fall in a New York minute.
Ranged combat is a another massive shift that has me excited. Ranged units now fire over other units to soften them up for your ground troops. However, they possess little defensive power of their own, so a ground force will wipe the floor with them. Where a lone archer unit could often defend a position, troops must now work in tandem to be successful. Proper formations will be paramount to protecting these valuable ranged units and getting the most out of them.
With all these shifts, there appears to be a much larger emphasis on strategic planning and much less of a focus on sheer production. Building wisely and positioning troops to take advantage of their strengths and the terrain will be the skills that drive success in this new Civ. So far, it seems that some wide and meaningful changes have been made to the game to entice fans to revisit the series while maintaining the Civ feel.
The very fact that the game will force me to abandon my time honored strategy of turtling up with defensive units in 3 cities and winning via technology, economy, or culture is exciting. An exact release date has not yet been set, but the target is for Fall 2010. I can’t wait to stretch my brain all over again.