George Michael famously sang that we all needed faith, but few things needed it more than vanilla Civilization V. When Firaxis ushered in their fifth, and vastly streamlined, empire builder to the globe a hefty chunk of the series' most hard-boiled players opted to keep their complicated, deity-smeared stacks of doom and steer well clear of Civilization V's chunky hex appeal.
More fool them, perhaps; Civilization V's social policies were a vast step up from IV's Civics, and I maintain that killing off army stacks is one of the best things the series has ever done. Still, for many players there was just something missing, and the loss of religion and espionage were singled out as prime targets for why the old ways were superior. That, and the AI.
It took me a long time to notice the peculiar AI in Civilization V, but over the course of months it was clear that your computer foes just weren't quite sharp enough. The games were too predictable, often descending into an all-out war within a few hundred years of play. It just didn't feel, well, human enough.
Gods & Kings' strongest claim is that it fixes up the AI, and that should really be its headline feature – though Civilization V: Smarter AI Algorithms just doesn't have the same jazzy ring to it. Time will have to tell if these changes are enough, these are the kind of verdicts that the community will decide over the coming aeons, but from the campaigns that I've been playing the AI is definitely less predictable and the tweaks to combat make games less likely to descend into all-out warfare before the Renaissance period, provided you're not spawning next to gung-ho sods like Genghis Khan or Ramesses II.
Still, classic quirks promptly emerge. Enemy civilizations are still pretty woeful with managing their money, though if you look at the current state of the world economy this might just be art imitating life. The poor computer also don't seem to know the value of a good iron deposit until you come up and nick it from them. While such basic errors in judgement can be pretty foolish I would still say that, overall, the computational processes that decide things are a bit sharper than before.
In the actual games, religion and espionage add a little extra flavour and a few more hoops to jump through with each turn.
Espionage, on the other hand, is never handled in the game - only via a menu. The system kicks off when somebody in your game hits the Renaissance era, and you're allowed to send a clutch of spies around the globe to ferret out the dirt on what your rivals are up to - who they don't like, who they're plotting against, what their next move is going to be and so on. Previously this information was left to guesswork, and you'd usually only twig that something was up when you saw military units clump up around your border, but the espionage menu can help keep you a few moves ahead.
Elsewhere you can use espionage to meddle with city states, rigging elections and winning influence the naughty way. The mechanic basically makes you inherently distrustful of everybody, especially when you see they've nicked one of your technologies. Seeing as you're almost always doing the same you can't really blame them, though you can scold them through the diplomacy menu before wheeling in the tanks. You can also keep spies stationed in your own cities to act as counter-intelligence, but there's a simple elegance in a system where you don't have nearly enough spies to keep all your cities protected - something, occasionally, has got to give.
Religion is a bit fussier and will therefore require more work. It's generated from a new currency, Faith, and once you've accumulated enough you can forge your own Pantheon. Here you'll mix-and-match your own religion from a list of perk tiers, adding noticeable bonuses to your game, and start spreading it around the map to other civilizations. There's not enough room for everyone to have their own religion, so you'll want to lock yours in place pronto.
Accumulated faith can be spent on buildings and units, mostly revolving around spreading your own religion or halting the uptake of another, but so much of it depends on the perks you've chosen as beliefs. If you fancy a go at Cathedrals, for instance, you can burn off excess faith into making your citizens happier.
Converting cities to your religion makes it easier for you to conquer them if and when you choose to take military action, and while the bonuses from the system become ultimately less useful as the game progresses into its later stages (scathing commentary about society, there) it certainly helps you get through the middle ages. It also gives you another currency to look after, and another thing to work into your mental checklist before you slam the End Turn button.
Rounding out the package are various fixes and additions that add a bit more bite to your games. Late-game play has been made a bit more engaging thanks to some new units, and the pace of combat has been slowed slightly to promote other styles of play. There's also nine new civilizations to pick from (I'm quite partial to Boudicca and Atilla) and three new scenarios, one of which revolves around the fall of Rome - enough to get the blood of most strategy fans pumping, I'd wager.
One thing worth mentioning is that I still don't think the game quite functions competently enough in multiplayer, and while that's not normally how I choose to play the game I'm sure it's bad news for many. Combat animations now play in multiplayer though, which is nice, but espionage doesn't work at all and the netcode still seems a bit flaky.
Civilization V: Gods & Kings doesn't tear down and rebuild Civilization V, but instead acts as a gentle overhaul that rounds out and deepens many of the game's core systems. Gods & Kings won't be enough to silence the non-believers, but this expansion will certainly rekindle the attention of those faithful to Civilization V's streamlined focus.
Version Tested: PC