Yesterday it got so bad I played Civilization V while eating breakfast and dinner; I swapped lunch for a few snacks so I could spend more time defending my western coastline against the rising threat of American imperialism. Despite the fact there is still no formal diagnosis of video game addiction within professional medical circles, I'm almost convinced I have a problem.
As I write this, for instance, I can't stop thinking about whether there's a rich, fertile and resource-laden area to the East of my continent. I'm jonesing for some coal right now. Somebody help me - it's digital crack in quasi-historical turn-based form. Okay, I need to check.
No coal. Bugger. I'm probably going to have to end up declaring war on Russia fairly soon, so I need to be prepared. Before you think of me as a crass, warmongering type, do know that I'm only doing it out of self-defence: I'm trying to win by culture right now, but Catherine the Great has gone and got the hump because I ended up building too many World Wonders. I've had to spend a dozen turns building infantry units because I can see her massing up forces along my Northern border.
It's still Civilization, then, giving you leadership over a fledgling nation in 2500BC and charting your progress until you either murder all your foes, get voted as leader of the United Nations, harness so much culture you can build the Utopia Project or just build a spaceship and fly off to Alpha Centauri. Or you can just wait it out until 2050 and win via score, but that's not nearly as jazzy.
Anyway, back to the Northern front. That's a huge new feature, by the way. Civilization V has adopted a hexagonal grid instead of its former squares, and one of the main provisos of the new engine is how you can't plonk more than one unit on any given tile. It is impossible now for an enemy to hide a world-conquering war machine in a single stack of doom; you get to see the armies congregate near your border, and alongside the tactical ramifications there's a certain aesthetical pride derived from having your units spread out far and wide across your magnificent empire. Or somebody else's, for that matter - right before you burn them to the ground.
On that note, Civilization V is also absolutely gorgeous. Maybe not for a hardcore FPS player with two beefy graphics cards running in SLI and more gigs of RAM than some people have hard drive space, but in terms of the art team getting those itty bitty details it's sublime. I often zoom out and spend a few seconds taking it all in, even if it does slow my computer down to a crawl when I own the entire map.
The hexagonal shift also allows ranged units to enter the game for the first time. Proper ranged units, that is - ones that attack from multiple tiles away, instead from adjacent hexes. These paper-thin units sit behind your infantry frontlines and barrage foes, usually from about two tiles away. It also means naval units are far, far more powerful than before. Never has being the British been so much fun.
These looming military presences might imply the game suffers from a, well, looming military presence, but the diplomatic, cultural and economic elements at work are just as integral and intertwined with the game as ever before. You'll always need some military units around to ensure nobody else gets any ideas too far above their station, though that's always been the case.
Other areas of the game include changes so gentle and straightforward you'll forget they weren't ever there to begin with. The research tree has been dramatically pared back, to the point that it's fundamentally simpler to advance the game across the eras. Gold, Research and Culture are now generated independently, though each resource can be prioritised over the others. Veteran players will be able to spend more time focusing on their actual strategies, and newcomers will be able to enjoy a system that takes the focus of the game out of menus and into the main screen.
It's the little things that help. For instance, all units can now embark across the oceans - albeit with no defences - after you've researched a single technology. Religion has been chopped out to make way for simpler diplomatic relations, and the whole civic system has been overhauled into a set of 10 social policy trees (such as piety, tradition and autocracy) which are unlocked by spending accumulated culture points. Any fears of the game's elements being dumbed down are eradicated when you realise the trimmed direction gives you more time to focus on units and strategy.
I can keep going. Cities can now only garrison a single unit but can attack independently, with a combat strength that doesn't diminish with the city's health. So, now you need to use the breadth of your land, making use of the defensive bonuses gained from hills and forests, instead of keeping a massive stack of units at home. When you conquer an enemy city, you're given the option of razing it to the ground, annexing it into your nation or creating a puppet. A puppet city feeds you its resources at the cost of giving the player no control over its production, whereas an annexed city is a jolly miserable place until you build a courthouse to restore order. The idea is that you can make puppet cities when you're on the warpath, slowly folding them into your civilization in peacetime. It works a treat.
Compared to earlier games in the series, Civilization V leans even further into specialising towards specific areas. Stats like Happiness are now indicative of your entire empire rather than each city, but this makes it far easier to turn certain locations into grim, production powerhouses and army factories (I'm looking at you, Manchester). Fiddling with all the bells and whistles is mostly optional, however, as cities run efficiently when left to their own default devices. But you can manually set the focus of each city, right down to selecting which surrounding tiles get worked, and you quickly learn to have each pillar of your empire making the most of its surroundings.
You can still get lost in the details, basically, despite the simpler focus - and that's exactly how Civilization should be. It's still more than potent enough to make me forget about meals and, on one occasion, to could skip showering in exchange for another half an hour of playtime. I'm ashamed of myself.
The big, brand new feature comes in the form of city states - AI players who reside in a single city. They have propensities towards culture, food or warmongering and can be sweetened up with routine gold injections, ensuring that your generated currency has more intrinsic value than in previous titles. They can provide you with luxury resources - because who doesn't need more iron? - without the massive palaver of having to declare war on another civilization.
City states also issue you with routine directives, usually involving clearing out barbarian camps or fending off attacks, and favour anyone who helps out. An allied city state will declare war on your foes, too, which can often provide enough firepower to take the edge off any attack if you're trying not to grow your military. Diplomacy is largely the same as it's always been, so rest assured someone like Ramesses will usually end up warring with you. Buying people off is exactly what gold war made for.
But these features are just tools to facilitate a grander scheme of victory for your empire. They're piecemeal components of a wider, grander whole; one that sucks you in for 8-12 hours on normal speed settings. You can pluck them out and analyse them individually, and people will for years to come, but it's plain to see from such an early stage in the game's cycle (before DLC and expansion packs) that the combination of all these elements have certainly made this the most playable Civilization game to date.
2K now has three different factions to contend with: veterans, newbies and people crossing over from Civilization Revolution. That's three very different crowds to cater for, and it's impressive that the developers have done a fairly bang up job of handling everyone. A simple tutorial map has been provided as a delicate primer, and an exhaustive series of training pop-ups and advisor menus help segue Revolution (as well as rusty Civ IV) players into the swing of things.
Oh, advisors. I almost forgot: they're back, sort of. Your Science, Military, Economic and Foreign advisors are a mix of both pop-up tutorials and a screen of respective tutelage. They'll give you fairly basic (but pertinent) advice on what to do in order to achieve their respective desires. The cynical will condemn them for being pop-ups with faces attached, but personifying the advice ensures you'll always know exactly what each message is referring to.
Still, I'm just skirting around the edges of Civ V, giving you a few insights into the way I play and some of the things I've come across in the past couple of weeks. You'll get something different out of it. Everybody will - the random elements involved in generating a map ensures that each game will always have its own flavour, bringing various permutations of events and squabbles to the mix. I can only show you bits and pieces from my time with it, while trying to illuminate a set of catch-all differences that run through the game as a whole. But, really, it's those individual moments that make it so special, and you'll have to get those by playing it yourself. Who knows, maybe Catherine won't always be such a pain in the arse to you.
She probably will, though.