Civilization V: Gods & Kings review

By Thierry Nguyen, Jul 10, 2012 1:15pm PDT

What makes Civilization so appealing is the ability to create whatever absolutely-bizarre version of history I want--whether it's the infamous battle of the Roman Phalanx defeating the British tank in Civilization II to having Montezuma drop nukes on France in Civilization IV. For the newest installment/expansion, Civilization V: Gods & Kings, my first session had Austria laying siege to New York with musketeers in 1532--after swiping the elusive secret of metallurgy from the Americans. New York was already getting swept up by my new religion, Scooteronomy, which granted an additional combat bonus to my musketeers as they tore through this alternate reality New York that my game has created.

As a sort of tradition with Civilization titles since Civ II, Gods & Kings adds an array of new civilizations, units, Wonders, and technologies, while introducing a couple of significant features to the core gameplay of its parent game. After Civ V radically changed some traditional concepts--hexes instead of squares, no more stacking units, and A.I.-controlled City-States--Gods & Kings now reintroduces new Civ V-ified versions of two previously removed features: Religion and Espionage.

Religion is by far the most substantive and creative of the two. In addition to adding a new core resource for you to accumulate and keep track of, it also offers the most gameplay options and customization compared to other systems within Civ V. Rather than chart your way through a Social Policy or Technology Tree, you form a Religion by mixing five core Beliefs together. These Beliefs confer benefits such as production boosts or combat bonuses, Rather than chart your way through a predetermined Social Policy tree, Religion lets you mix and match from an array of tenets and bonuses. Developing Religion feels akin to making a specific character build in an MMO, and having Faith as an extra resource for things such as units and the like makes Religion stand out for me. Though, it's a bit odd that Great Prophets remain nameless in contrast to other Great Persons utilizing notable personages like Henry Ford and Erwin Rommel; and it's also a shame that after building and spreading Religion, it becomes less effective as Gods & Kings' second feature starts up: Espionage.

Espionage allows you to have Spies attempt to steal technology; gain influence over a City-State; and take out rival Spies. Espionage's effects remain subtle compared to more overt acts such as actual battle or perks like Diplomatic Marriage, and the overall mechanic has a more linear pace (while you can try to spread and improve Religion at your own speed, Spies are added at the start of a new Era). Also, Espionage is now handled via a menu (which, if I remember correctly, was how Civilization III handled it), rather than as a unit as I'm familiar with in Civilization IV: Beyond The Sword. The low-key nature and the timing--a few turns of subtly influencing a City-State or the time it takes to pull off a technology theft--make Espionage more of an, "oh right, I should check that" option compared to how involved I get in forming my Religion. I also just miss moving a little trench coat-wearing fellow around the map.

Besides those major changes, the rest are lots of little nips and tucks. Boats now have both melee and ranged units, and can be promoted to be coastal raiders to gain a damage and money bonus when harassing cities on the shore. For you fellow liberal arts majors out there, Drama & Poetry is now a recognized technological achievement. New Civilizations run the gamut from the expected Netherlands to the surprising Carthage (don't underestimate their innate bonus of getting a free Harbor in each coastal city). Yet along with these changes remain some goofs--the AI still has issues with using its units correctly (like throwing a bunch of ironclads and wooden ships towards my nuclear submarines), and it still looks silly when denouncing me to the other civilizations in the world during a session with just two nations.

In another comparison to the superlative Civ IV: BTS, while that one had a great many mods and scenarios bundled in, Gods & Kings feels a bit paltry with three; It's likely a side effect of the mod community not really taking off yet. While Civ IV: BTS included the superlative Fall from Heaven II, the equivalent stand-out scenario for Gods & Kings is steampunk Empires of the Smoky Skies scenario -- complete with an art refresh and new victory conditions. Pumping out airships and taking on Luddites (the scenario's version of Barbarians) makes for an amusing distraction from the traditional game.

I personally never really got into multiplayer Civ myself--history writing feels like something I just want to do solo. World conquering against other people usually has me loading up something in real-time--a StarCraft or some such. My dabbling in multiplayer didn't result in the catastrophic experience outlined here, but it did confirm that multiplayer still feels like an afterthought in this game rather than a full-fledged feature. My main issue from my multiplayer time was how slow and unwieldy the late game got; a large map with just two humans and some AI players starts to seriously chug to the point of unresponsiveness after hitting the 19th century. So even though there is a multiplayer option, Civ V still works best as a single-player game.

Overall, Civilization V still occupies the odd space between, "slimmed down fast boardgame for console" Civilization Revolution and, "here's a complex simulation of alternate history" Civ IV: BTS. While Gods & Kings enhances Civ V into a better game, it's not a significant change in either direction. As such, it won't be changing anyone's opinion -- positive or negative -- about Civ V as a whole. I still hold Civ IV: BTS as "The Civ" game for me, but right now, Gods & Kings is the latest and newest "addictive 'one more turn then I'm done really' way" to create the background for my next weird Civ story: "How Carthage Conquered The World by 2052."


This Civilization V: Gods & Kings review was based on a digital PC version of the game provided by the publisher.

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