This isn’t really the place to revisit my unhappiness with Civilization V, but I’m sorry to discover the game hasn’t gotten better a year and a half after I reviewed it. Instead of addressing the problems with the game’s AI, interface, and design, Firaxis has been nickel and diming you with DLC maps and civilizations. Now that they’re selling a full add-on, what better time to give it the overhaul it needs?

But no such thing happens in Gods & Kings. This is the same disappointing strategy game it was a year and a half ago, except that it now has two finicky and mostly unimpressive systems shoehorned in.

After the jump, gods & spies doesn’t sound quite as snappy

The new religion and espionage are basically each a new resource. Religion is based on spending the faith you accumulate and espionage is based on moving around a couple of spy units. A handful of new buildings and techs affect these new resources, and some of the new civilizations specifically push you into using religion or espionage. But for the most part, these systems feel poorly bolted onto the larger game.

Religion is almost exactly like culture, which was almost exactly like technology. Basically, these are just more tech trees, where you save up points, get a reward, repeat. You’ve done that with technology all along. In Civilization V, you did that with culture. And now, in Gods & Kings, you do that with faith. Civilization V keeps adding buckets to fill up and then empty out, picking rewards from a list. It’s the worst kind of feature creep because it’s just repeating features it’s already got. It’s like improved shaving technology that just keeps adding blades.

To be fair, some nuances are different from technology and culture. The concept of religion as something developed over time is intriguing enough that it belongs in a better game. As religions are founded and as they develop, each civilization gets to pick from a menu of perks. But each item on the menu can only be picked once, so it’s like calling dibbs on the best perks. Eventually, your religion gets five perks that no one else has. It’s an interesting representation of religion that will be familiar to any history student. It begins with a rabbi advocating for the sick and poor, it develops into an evangelical movement across the Mediterranean, and it finally explodes as an established church that appropriates an entire empire. At each step, it picks up new elements. You’ve eventually got something that gives you, say, added population growth, a gold bonus for converted cities, extra income from incense and wine, cathedrals for your cities, and extra faith from quarries. Don’t ask about that last one. Sometimes you just have to put a point in the religious equivalent of a gift certificate.

It’s a simple enough DIY bonus system, but from here it falls apart. It fumbles the viral element of religion so well expressed in Civilization IV and Paradox’s game. Sure, religions can spread — and here is one of the many examples of Firaxis’ inability to do a good interface — but who cares? If it has any effect on diplomacy, you’d never know, thanks to the game’s wretched diplomacy, which remains as inscrutably bipolar as ever. Some religions benefit from spreading, but for the most part it doesn’t matter. So much for the new missionary and inquisitor units.

Furthermore, religion matters even less as a game goes on. Firaxis intends that religion will get less relevant as history progresses, which is plenty realistic from the perspective of a bunch of privileged overeducated Americans like me and Firaxis. But it’s also a gross mischaracterization of the rest of the world to present religion as something that you can pretty much forget about once the Enlightenment has run its course. More importantly, it’s a lousy gameplay mechanic to basically let something just cease to matter after a while. “Okay, we’re done with that,” Firaxis says, brushing the religion crumbs from their hands. It’s interesting that they added a new unit progression to keep crossbowmen relevant throughout history, but they didn’t see the need for religion to be a meaningful gameplay mechanic in the late-game.

The idea is that religion leaves off and then espionage takes over. Again, the concept is interesting. Espionage is basically an alternative to spending gold on the city-states, which were previously just a money sink. Now you can basically pick a city-state to influence for free, putting your spy there for sudden coups or periodic realignments in the form of rigged elections. There’s a certain Cold War thrill to seeing messages like “the United States attempted a coup in Hanoi but failed to overthrow the Chinese supporters that have an alliance with the city-state”. Sexy!

Spies can also be used to steal technology and peek into enemy cities. It feels like the former is too powerful and the latter is too overpriced. Can I afford not to have a spy working on stealing a technology? And am I really going to bother buying buildings to keep spies from stealing my tech? And why do I care about peeking into cities? In Civilization IV, peeking into cities was important because of how armies were hidden. In Civilization V, armies are always visible and there’s not much point looking at a city’s buildings. Sometimes I wonder if Firaxis is playing their own game.

The interfaces to manage religion and espionage are both awful, relying on long unmanageable lists that relate poorly to the rest of the game. I’d expect this from a mod. But from the guys who made the game? This is the best they could come up with for their new systems? Long unwieldy lists?

Some new units make an appearance, and most notably the naval balance has been reworked. It’s hard for me to care about this when the computer is still incapable of playing the game as designed. Mongolia throws unit after unit into my defenses, so I couldn’t care less what the units are. France parks armies underneath ranged fire and waits for them to die, so what does it matter if I kill them with a new tank or a biplane bomber? Siam marches its generals up to my front lines. Carthage declares war on me and never sends a single unit against me. If you want to play a game about civilizations shuffling their armies around ineffectually, Civilization V remains the game for you, and now it has new units to shuffle around ineffectually.

Then there are the three scenarios. The steampunk scenario has a nifty twist on victory conditions, but it’s otherwise little more than a reskinned and truncated version of the core game. The Fall of Rome scenario pits four warring factions against each other on a pre-set map to show off the game’s horrible combat AI. The Renaissance scenario is a time limited historical scenario that can be played on a real world map or a random map. It has rules for being Holy Roman Emperor, capturing Jerusalem, and sending ships off to the New World. The historical flavor here is great, and like the steampunk scenario, it’s nice to chase new victory conditions for a change. But the bottom line is that Civilization V remains a disappointing mess, all the more disappointing that its getting new stuff added instead of being fixed.

2 stars
PC