slow_boat_to_Russia

Civilization V is a ramshackle collection of astonishingly dumb tactical AI, half-baked diplomacy, a godawful mess of social policies, an even more godawful mess of religion, a precarious interface, and a Keystone Kops routine of armies, navies, workers, generals, and now artists stumbling over each other one hex at a time. The difficult part about having a strong military isn’t the upkeep. It’s figuring out where to put everyone. Add to all this some crass DLC and it’s enough to send you screaming back to Civilization IV.

Until a new expansion comes along.

After the jump, how brave? How new?

Now more than ever, Civilization V is a Frankenstein monster of clumsily stitched together gameplay under a thick layer of pancake make-up production values widely mistaken for game design. If you care enough about strategy games to peer closely, you’ll see an absolute abomination. Better not to peer closely. Instead, click, pick, and next turn your way through what passes these days for “interesting decisions”.

Brave New World crams more of these decisions into the game, mostly at the mid- and end-game, when the pacing has stalled. The idea seems to be that Civilization V needs more clicking and picking when you’re not fighting a war, which the AI is incompetent at doing, so you probably shouldn’t be fighting wars. Do this other stuff instead. Move artwork and artifacts around among the slots on your civilization’s tourism paper doll, which is a bit like equipping pauldrons, earrings, and off-hand weapons in an RPG. Yep, it’s called tourism.

Your tourism stacks up against other civilizations’ culture in a new kind of culture war. This doesn’t make any real world sense, but it demonstrates that Firaxis might still understand that doing things for gameplay reasons should trump doing things for realism reasons. For instance, I don’t have to travel to Spain to read Don Quixote, to the Netherlands to see Van Gogh’s paintings, or to Italy to hear Rigoletto, so it’s rather silly to put those things under the rubric of “tourism”. But I like the idea of works of art being used as weapons to counter the cultural pull of other countries. It’s a cool gameplay mechanic whatever Firaxis calls it. In the late-game, you can send archaeologist units out into the world to pick up artifacts that you can add to your artwork. Here are some ancient American beads in my museum, alongside Klimt’s The Kiss. That’ll subjugate Catherine of Russia!

It’s still blatant busywork and the interface is as bad as it’s ever been, but it gives you something to do as you trot your artifact hunters around continents ravaged by improvement graphics, trying to pick out the archaeological sites from all the visual noise. But then you find something and bring it home to your museum, much like monks carried relics back to your temples in Age of Empires II. It reminds me a bit of how Firaxis made Great People more interesting in Civilization: Revolution. The Great People were housed in cities and could be kidnapped by spies. So what if the AI is too dumb to understand it and the interface is too rickety to manage it? It’s a little more flavor for your cities and it’s something new to click and pick through the endgame that isn’t a space race.

The late-game diplomacy depends heartily on a new system called ideology, which is a textbook example of Firaxis flailing around clumsily with a new system that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere, so, what the heck, just stick it in this box over here. Ideology is a skill tree inside a skill tree, which is something I’ve never seen before. As if the social policy tree and the long religion lists weren’t a bad enough idea, now there’s a DIY tree in the Industrial Era, tucked into a corner of the social policy tree. You choose an ideology and then arrange tiers of skills by unlocking slots and…oh, whatever. Leave it to Firaxis to think it’s a good idea to stick more lists of random improvements under forced theming. Just as religion was like another social policy tree, now ideology is like another religion system. Stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Cram it in wherever it fits and if you can’t find any such place, cram it in anyway.

The best new system is trade routes, which are present from the ancient era on and a significant source of income. These complement Civilization V’s other systems nicely, affecting religion, diplomacy, culture, map control, city-states, and especially your economy. You’d almost think they should have been in the game all along for how well they fit! You can use trade routes to boost production or food inside your own empire, or you can reach outside your borders for cash and science. You only get a handful of trade routes, set up by building caravans or cargo ships. The routes expire every so often, which means you’ll be regularly evaluating how, where, and with whom you want to trade. It’s more clicking and picking, but with long lists and sortable tables of data to help you. Of course, you’re benefitting whatever civilization is at the other end of the route, so keep that in mind. I want Catherine to be jealous of my beads and my Klimt, and the trade route to St. Petersburg ensures that my traders pass the word along. But do I want Catherine getting free money and science? Hey, I’m actually making an interesting decision!

I also like the new World Congress for letting civilizations introduce a variety of rules tweaks and then vote on them. City-states were already an important feature, but with the World Congress, they’re even more important for the extra votes. The number of extra votes increases as eras progress, which lends Civilization V the feel of an evolving world community lining up behind super powers. It’s a bit of a crap shoot what rules will come up. Artists grow faster than engineers! Japan isn’t allowed to trade with anyone! No more wine! But this adds to the World Congress’ charm. If only the UN were this adorably eccentric.

The two scenarios seem exciting at first glance — you do know there are scenarios in Civilization V, don’t you? — but you can’t play more than a few turns without seeing how they can’t hold up due to Civilization V’s inept AI. Such feet of clay on otherwise impressive accomplishments! The Civil War scenario presents on a grand battle across a map of the US with big fat rivers that need crossing and cities that supply specific types of military units. Civilization V doesn’t do battles well, but you can play as the Confederates and pretend the bad AI approximates the ineffectuality of Lincoln’s generals. The “Scramble for Africa” scenario is a promising 100-turn scoring challenge on Africa with a randomized interior each time you play. You can choose among a wide range of players, from European colonizers like Germany and Belgium who score for developing Africa, North Africans like Egypt and Ethiopia who score for earning gold, and sub-Saharans like the Zulu and Boers who score by earning culture. The players all start around the edges of the continent and have to work their way towards the interior, where city-states stand in for savage tribes. But the AI doesn’t understand the victory point rules. 20 turns in and it’s apparent you’re the only player actually playing the game.

Unlike Gods & Kings, which made things worse, Brave New World addresses some of Civilization V’s considerable shortcomings. It peppers the game with busywork where you’d normally be hitting “next turn” over and over, waiting to administer a beating to the game’s brain dead military. Now you’re playing on turf where the AI is stronger, managing the strategy level of the game, finessing the economy, wrangling trade routes, expanding out into the map. It helps the pacing in a not very good game where pacing was one of the significant problems. So if I’m going to play Civilization V, the best thing I can say about Brave New World is that this is the preferred way to do it.

2 stars
PC