Gods and Kings is the expansion pack to the much-maligned Civilization V, and it does something I thought impossible: it makes it into a good game.
Whether it’s a great game is still a matter of debate, but I’m still forced to eat my words on this one. I thought Civilization V’s structural flaws were too fundamental to be overcome with patches or expansions, but I severely underestimated just how far Firaxis were willing to go in changing their game. Even pre-expansion there were several aspects of the game that were almost unrecognisable compared to their release states – social policies and diplomacy, for a start – and while Gods and Kings isn’t exactly revolutionary in what it introduces to the mix it does offer several ingenious workarounds to the most common bugbears I had with Civ V.
Oddly enough it’s the headline improvement of the game – the return of religion – that probably has the least impact on how the game plays out. While the way religion is handled in Gods and Kings is well-meaning and certainly not detrimental to the gameplay, it has a definite whiff of cack-handedness to it. Religion manifests itself in the game in two ways: a set of player-selected passive bonuses which are given to you depending on how many people in a city follow your religion, and a new resource which sits along gold, science and culture: faith. The wonders and buildings in the game have been rejigged slightly to allow for this, with the Temple now giving faith instead of culture and the brand new Amphitheatre stepping in to fill the culture gap, and so on. The passive bonuses are fine; with one or two notable exceptions they’re not exactly game-changing in any way, either offering a moderate happiness/gold bonus per city following the religion or else easing the spread of the religion itself. The faith points, though, I have a philosophical objection to. It’s not that they ruin the game in any way – in fact I think the game is better for their inclusion – but rather that they don’t do anything.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. Faith points do a lot of things, depending on your religion choices, but my problem is that the things it does are already handled by other resources. If you take Holy Warriors, for example, you can rush build military units using faith instead of gold. Depending on your social policies you can use your amassed faith points to purchase great people instead of waiting for one of your cities to generate enough great people points. Faith can also be used to build a select few buildings that give bonus culture and happiness. This is all very well and good, but while it certainly gives the player more options the fact that religion exists to supplement the other resources rather than as its own distinct thing does serve as something of an indictment of the original Civ V gameplay mechanics. Religion functions as a band-aid slapped on top of a suppurating wound; it may look prettier and smell better, but there’s no getting round the fact that it is an entirely artificial solution to the problem.
Still, better an artificial solution than no solution at all. Religion may not be elegant, but I can’t deny that the game flows far better for its inclusion. The same can be said of the espionage system, which multitasks as a way to claw back a tech deficit, a source of foreign intelligence which makes the AI seem far less psychotic and the premiere method of screwing with City States. The City States themselves are far more interactive this time around, with additional Mercantile and Religious types which give happiness and faith respectively if befriended, and who will give a much wider variety of quests beyond “We want you to kill this other city state.” Where in vanilla Civ V they were a very vestigial addition that hadn’t even been close to fully fleshed out, in Gods and Kings they feel far more integral to the game experience.
The most game-changing additions, however, are the ones which didn’t grab all the headlines but which have an impact far beyond what you’d expect for such small improvements. For starters, navies work now. No, really. The addition of a line of melee ships to the game which can take cities in combat gives you a reason to build a navy beyond mere shore bombardment, and the fact that the AI actually builds navies of its own now makes overseas civilizations a far more potent threat. For the first time I found myself building more than aircraft carriers; destroyers, battleships and submarines all have their niche roles to play, and having a sizeable navy introduced me to the joy of locating a barely-protected convoy of AI troopships with a wolf pack of submarines. There’s also a line of new ship promotions like Piracy, which allows you to steal gold from a city when you attack it. In fact military empires are much more fun in general now, with choices in the Autocracy social policy tree yielding gold for each enemy unit you kill. It makes keeping that massive army around a little more palatable.
The other major addition – or insertion – comes in the form of an additional tier of post-industrial Great War units. Great War Infantry, Landships (tanks), Great War Bombers and Great War Fighters sit alongside a brand new unit type: the Gatling Gun/Machine Gun. Gatling Guns have the same strength as a Rifleman but they can make a ranged attack up to one square away, allowing them to mow said riflemen down with impunity if stationed in a city or in good defensive terrain. The Gatling Gun combines with the Great War infantry to make riflemen far less overpowered; players beelining to Rifling and then going on a rampage has been a problem ever since Civ IV, and these improvements serve to both tone down the tactic as well as giving industrial-era combat some variety beyond spamming riflemen and cannon. I can’t remember if Ironclads were part of the game before because I have honestly never seen one prior to Gods and Kings, but I’m assuming they’re new too and exist to bridge the massive gulf between Frigates and Destroyers.
(Oh yes, siege units retain their massive attack strength against cities but are much worse at attacking units now, making the AI’s late-game artillery spam far less of an issue.)
The new units make combat in the latter stages of the game far more engrossing than the mindless encounters of vanilla Civ V. As for the combat AI, it can at least take cities and land invasion forces now, although it’s still utterly terrible at modern warfare and puts far too high a priority on committing its entire army to kill a single unit, leaving itself vulnerable to counterattack. One-unit-per-tile works now, to the point where I’d certainly have trouble going back to Civ IV’s doomstacks.
Gods and Kings isn’t a perfect expansion, however, and there’s one thing – one achingly conspicuous issue – that it hasn’t even tried to fix. This is the UI. Civ V’s UI is the pushiest UI in the history of UIs. “No”, it says, “you don’t want to move that unit; you want to move this one on the other side of the map. Here, let me shift the camera all the way over there so that you can see where it is. Stop it. Stop trying to move the units you want to move. Move this unit. No, I’m sorry, I can’t let you end the turn until you’ve moved every single unit that needs moving, but only in the order that I decide. Ha, I bet you thought clicking the End Turn button would end the turn! In fact I’ve got some more units for you to move. I know how much you like doing it so I kept some back as a surprise.”
And so on. I spent more of my time fighting against the UI than I did other civs, and that goes double for unit controls. One unit per tile may give more tactical options but it also makes moving large armies sheer hell, as you have to tell every single unit to move to an individual destination hex and then babysit them as they make their way over there. I’ve lost units through sheer laziness because fine-tuning the movement to avoid likely enemy ambushes was just too fiddly, and on top of that the air unit movement system is still absolute garbage. Despite bombers and fighters being the only units in the game which actually stack you still can’t give them orders as a group, instead having to attack and rebase with every aircraft you own one at a time. There also really needs to be some happy middle ground between turning combat animations off entirely and watching a bomber very slowly coast its way over to a target, dropping a bomb, circling, dropping another bomb, circling, and then coasting back to its base. God help you if you have a large air force and you actually want to do something with it, because the game doesn’t make it easy.
This is usually the part of the review where I’d say “Still, these are small niggles…” but the thing is, they’re really not. They’re actually a pretty big deal. Civ V is the first Civilization game that attempts to inhibit warmongering players by making conquest a logistical pain in the ass, and not in a good way. I’m actually kind of staggered that unit movement and the UI are elements of the game that have received no attention whatsoever in the expansion, and it definitely takes the wind out of the sails of the good work that’s been done with the new units and the refined military tech progression and the social policies that mean having a large empire full of conquered cities isn’t a paradoxical millstone around the player’s neck. It’s a crying shame, and something that I can only assume isn’t an easy fix otherwise Firaxis would have done something about it by now. They certainly haven’t been shy about changing everything else in the game.
Civilization V is now – mostly – a whole new game. An extensive patching and balancing regime made it playable, if not exactly good, and this expansion takes it the rest of the way. Again, Gods and Kings isn’t a revolutionary expansion pack by any means, but that’s not what was needed from it. A revolutionary expansion pack would have just added more stuff that was broken. Gods and Kings instead elects to fill out the areas of the game that were looking rather anaemic despite the comprehensive patching, as well as oiling and polishing the parts that did work to a more or less acceptable standard, and Civ V is afar better game for it. It’s not perfect, and I’m not saying it’s better than Civ IV, but it can at least sit alongside it now without looking like the Quasimodo of the Civilization family. After eighteen months of patching and one expansion pack, Civilization V finally feels like Civilization to me. At the end of the day, that’s all I ever really wanted.