Civ 5 is a bona fide Sid Meier's Civilization game, worthy of the series' title and heritage. It is also the farthest removed, most different game from its predecessors yet. It is most different not because of any particular rule change or graphical enhancement, but because of the way it feels to play it, in its natural, turn-by-turn flow. Civilization 5 is as intricate and deep as any earlier game in the series, but the interface and pacing make it easy to cruise across the surface, and miss a lot of that depth.
Compared to its predecessors, Civilization 5 is more about making abstract choices than it is about manipulating interrelated machinations. Many of the game's most interesting choices are in the new Social Policies system. By earning these advancements, and the civilization-wide bonuses they bestow, players develop their empires in a manner akin to a fantasy role-player leveling up a character. Policies are acquired with culture points, which act as XP in the analogy. The player eventually chooses from the same spectrum of enhancements found in earlier Civilization games, but in Civ 5, it feels these bonuses are imparted from the top down, instead of cultivated from the bottom up.
A few influential alterations to in-game logistics also contribute to this effect; to make playing Civ 5 feel more simple, even if no less strategically sophisticated. Units move in six directions instead of eight, and they cannot share a tile. This makes army mobilization more cumbersome, but also easier to see and assess at any given point. The new "embark" ability affects unit movement at least as radically as the hex-tile maps, by eliminating the need for plan-ahead ship-building to send settlers or soldiers overseas. Again, the player is freed from long-term coordination to focus on in-the-moment management.
In its presentation, as well, Civilization 5 strays from predecessors not in its basic concepts or underlying complexity, but in how it handles along the way. The clean, art deco interface is geared toward managerial execution at an empire-wide level. The overall aesthetic is pleasant, with easy-to-read menus and smooth animations on a contemporary computer. The sound is better than adequate, although Civ 4 fans may miss the restrained brilliance of Jeff Briggs' themed compositions, if not the avuncular authority of Leonard Nimoy's new-tech recitations.
True to its title, Sid Meier's Civilization 5 provides fans and newcomers alike with all the expected detail, control, and complexity of context they'll need to steer their own epic retellings of human history. Yet in any epic, it is the journey, not the destination, that defines the experience. In each new session of play, Civ 5 travels down the series' familiar roads of scientific progress, military conquest, cultural dominance, and the pursuit of happiness, but it does so in a luxury sedan with built-in GPS, rather than following road signs in a sturdy old pick-up.
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