Oh hey, that was serendipitous. After spending most of yesterday afternoon writing an excellent science article (oh, you are going to like this science article) I found myself at something of a loss for what to put in Wednesday’s slot. Usually I go on a nostalgia-filled ramble through my gaming past, but while I have several candidate ideas for things to write about they need a little bit of time to ferment while I clear the mists of blarney from my head. I was a bit stuck, so I did what I usually do in this situation: I said “Screw it” and went off to play a game instead. I went off to play Civilization V.
Why on earth am I playing Civ V after denouncing it in such vehement terms? I’ve not touched it in over a year. Steam says I have fifty hours invested in it so I obviously didn’t hate it that much when I started, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing Baby’s First Civilization – especially since the AI blatantly didn’t know how to play its own game. The great innovations of Civ V, hexes and non-stacking military units, was completely wasted on an AI which would spend turn after turn trying to get into the optimal position to attack your city while you cut it to shreds with entrenched artillery. This was coupled with a change in the empire management mechanic which was misguided to say the least; we were back to the bad old days of penalising the player for expansion with an awkward mechanism that made little sense except this time it was unhappiness rather than corruption. After whacking the difficulty up to the penultimate setting – a setting which, in previous Civ games, would have seen the AI turning all my cities into interesting rockeries before the AD years rolled around – and coasting to yet another easy victory, I deleted the game from my hard drive in disgust.
What induced me to reinstall it was a recommendation from a friend at the weekend (you know who you are, and I’ll be “thanking” you properly later). “Download Civ V,” he said, “we’ve got uncapped internet here and they’ve made lots of improvements!” Since Firaxis do keep working on a game even if it’s broken shit on release there was a slim possibility he might have been right, and so I acquiesced. Civ V is once again squatting in my Steam directory like a malevolent toad all done up in art-deco colours.
To be fair to Firaxis and my friend, there are some improvements present. Well, less improvements, more like a complete gutting and remodelling. Social policies have been entirely revamped, giving the earlier Tradition and Liberty trees some sort of point and toning down the overpowered Piety and Rationalism trees. I have to say the various trees as a whole are actually fairly well balanced now. There’s not so much of an insane focus on specialists either; the early science/money buildings now give flat rate bonuses in addition to specialist slots, so you don’t have to go down that route if you don’t want. The pace of the early game has been increased dramatically; building a worker no longer takes twenty-five turns in your first city and the increased science accumulation rate means that you’ll actually have researched the relevant techs to improve nearby resources once he’s out there. The unhappiness penalty for founding cities is still present and still bollocks, but it’s somewhat less obnoxious than it was before. All in all, the empire management side of things now runs fairly smoothly. Where Civ V still falls down is the two Is: UI and AI.
UI first. Since time immemorial Civ games have been controlled with the numpad keys, with each key corresponding to one of the eight directions. The presence of hexes in Civ V makes this impractical, but the first thing I tried to do when I loaded up the game was move my Warrior unit by pressing G. G. For Go. Usually this would bring up a track indicating the Warrior’s expected path to my cursor. Here it did nothing. It was at this point that I realised, to my horror, that the game expected me to move everything with the right mouse button. This is dumb for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it’s now very, very difficult to figure out exactly what path a unit will take to its destination. Since most units now move between two to four hexes a turn, it’s next to impossible to gauge how long it will take. And with the new combat mechanics it’s really, really goddamn annoying when you try to withdraw a wounded unit from combat only to watch them run happily towards an enemy unit brandishing a whole forest of pointy sticks. There’s also an odd UI bug (a bug? In Civ V? Never!) where it’ll show you as having selected one unit, but will in fact be showing you the predicted combat outcome of another, completely different unit. Then you attack, your unit dies, and you scream at Firaxis for being utterly unable to accomplish basic development goals like coding a functional UI.
Then there’s the biggie, the AI. The good news is that it grasps the rudimentary concepts of combat now. The bad news is that it’s reverted to the psychotic cheater archetype of Civs 1 and 2. Oh, Firaxis have tried to make diplomacy more transparent with a readout of the different factors affecting your relationship with a given AI, but – hilariously – this is worth exactly nothing because the AI will think absolutely nothing of stabbing you in the back at the earliest possible opportunity. One of Civ IV’s greatest achievements was that it made it possible for the first time to pursue a coherent diplomatic strategy which would let you make and keep AI friends. Here, that isn’t possible. Here you always have to keep an eye on them. Here, the diplomatic agreements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
An example. In my most recent game, as Harun al-Rashid, I’d just finished a war with Napoleon that ended in a white peace. A few turns went by. Napoleon’s status changed to “Friendly”, we signed a deal for an exchange of luxury goods, and Napoleon even proposed a long-term Research Agreement. Things were looking up. Then Napoleon came by with a proposition: he wanted me to join in a war against Suleiman up north. I said sure, since while the French armies were beating on Suleiman they weren’t beating on me and also mutual military struggle brings nations closer together, right? Anyhoo, I set up the bulk of my forces on Suleiman’s border (his empire consists of three cities, mine consists of five cities and five puppets) and wait for the war date to roll around. When it does Napoleon and I both declare, and I’m surprised by how many units Suleiman has lurking in his territory underneath the fog of war. I’m doubly surprised by the way he seems to be able to easily dispatch tanks with riflemen. But nonetheless I’m gradually grinding forward and after a few turns I manage to get artillery within range of Istanbul.
It’s at this point that I get a message from Napoleon. I’m paraphrasing here, but it basically goes “Ha ha, I never liked you anyway. You were a fool to trust me. Prepare for war!” And then a huge French army comes surging towards the (garrisoned) forts on my border.
Fine. Fine. I took Napoleon once, I can take him again. I’ve just researched Bombers. I can just bomb the shit out of him before he gets to me while my main army finishes up with Suleiman. Then two things happen.
1) Napoleon’s Cannon and Musketeers start to shoot down my bombers. What. The. Fuck.
2) Suleiman starts to massively, massively abuse the option to have a levelling up unit immediately heal to full health.
I don’t even know what’s going on with the first one. I know German Luftwaffe pilots got really annoyed when they were flying over the Eastern Front in WW2 because entire Soviet rifle regiments used to lie on their backs and take potshots at the enemy fighters as they passed overhead, but I somehow doubt that’s what’s happening here. Researching Flight first has always been Kind Of A Big Deal in Civ games since it provides you with a long range bombardment capability. After all, when Artillery bombards an enemy unit it doesn’t take return fire. Why should a bomber? Civ V doesn’t think airplanes are that big a deal, though. Civ V thinks they’re just rather weak combat units. And by taking that point of view, Civ V has reintroduced the age-old problem of spearmen versus tanks.
The second one is the one that did for me, though. Both Suleiman and Napoleon were at it. I’d make spoiling attacks with my tanks, I’d bomb them with artillery and aeroplanes, I’d finish a turn looking at an enemy battle line made of half-dead units, and then at the start of my next turn they’d all be healed to full again. It’s a little hard to fight under these conditions, you know? It’s like turning every single AI into the Japanese, only worse. I was still killing their units by the dozen – the AI still hasn’t grasped that it’s a bad idea to embark land units onto an ocean patrolled by a pair of predatory destroyers – but somehow it wasn’t enough. They just kept coming; the AI was obviously getting massive production bonuses or cheating them into existence or something because I checked Suleiman’s treasury and he had no money left, yet a unit appeared outside Istanbul every two turns like clockwork. The final kick in the teeth was when I finally tried to make peace with Suleiman so that I could turn everything towards facing the French threat, only to have the game tell me:
“You cannot make peace with this civilization because of an agreement with another player.”
To which my response was a muttered expletive and a ragequit. The AI doesn’t have to keep to the agreements it signs, so why should I?
This, now, is Civ V’s big problem. It’s similar to the one Shogun 2 had when it was first released; the computer players aren’t players in the true sense of the word. Unlike Shogun 2 the AI is trying to win, but the unfair methods it uses to do so make things seriously unfun. The diplomacy aspect of Civ V honestly might as well not exist for all the use it is; the game has actually regressed from the peak of Civ IV all the way back to the ground level of Civ I, only because it’s plummeting in the opposite direction this time it hasn’t stopped and is now tunnelling down to the Earth’s core. In the next game they should just drop the pretence and throw you in a pit with eight barbarian civilizations; that way the player won’t waste any time trying to make nice with them. The empire management improvements mean Civ V is a bit better than it used to be, but the schizophrenic AI ensures that it remains a fundamentally broken game.
Oh, and whoever bound the “Load quicksave” button to the same key Steam uses to take screenshots needs to be taken out back and shot.