When it comes to computer games, calling a game a sequel usually means something. At its worst a sequel has the same engine with nothing new beyond a slightly different story or new scenarios. At its best a sequel builds on its predecessors, presenting the same game, but only with more, hopefully of everything, and with earlier problems cleared up.
"…the case can be made that it’s not a sequel at all…"
Civilization V is neither the worst, nor the best, that a sequel can offer. It certainly uses nothing like the same engine as Civilization IV…and it doesn’t seem to build on the ideas, either. In fact, the case can be made that it’s not a sequel at all, instead being a license product much like Civilization: Revolutions and Civilization: Colonization.
Having said that I’m going to treat Civilization V (CivV) as its own game, comparing it at times to another game in the same genre: Civilization IV (or Civ4). In broad terms, both let the player become leader of a real world civilization, starting in 4000 B.C., and through strategy, guile, and/or brute force lead that civilization through time, hopefully growing and expanding, eventually to dominate the world.
As a new game, CivV is very rough around the edges. Every time you load up the game you’ll have to click through the ESRB warning, save games aren’t handled as smoothly as in Civ4, pathfinding and unit AI aren’t as developed, you can only select useful options like “fast animation” at the beginning of the game (problematic in the late game, where aircraft animations take 15 seconds apiece), and a host of other little issues abound. Still, this type of game, even when inefficiently programmed, can present a fairly addictive format, where a player gets trapped into playing “just one more turn” for hours at a time, and CivV certainly accomplished this.
While you nominally take the role of a famous leader (e.g., George Washington for the Americans), the leader is just a figurehead. Your civilization is completely defined by a few benefits, including a special unit and, often, a special building. For example, the Egyptians can build special chariots and tombs that grant bonuses. This differs from Civ4, where a choice of leaders can influence your civilization somewhat, in addition to civilization bonuses.
The world, incidentally, isn’t necessarily Earth, and the player has the option (much like in Civ4) to influence how the world is randomly created, with many small islands, one huge continent, or many variants possible. Curiously, CivV still includes Earth elements such as the Great Barrier Reef, which is randomly placed in the ocean (and grants a bonus to your civilization for finding it).
Once civilization is chosen and world built, the player is placed on the world with a settler and a weak military unit, and the game officially begins. The first order of business is to found the capital city. Usually, the settler is placed at a good site, so this occurs quickly. Next is to explore around the capital with the military unit. While exploring, the unit will eventually encounter resources (good for the civilization, once developed), enemy barbarians, city-states, and other civilizations. The latter two lead to diplomacy.
City-states are unique to CivV. These lone cities usually have resources (or something else you want), and, if you pay them a bribe, they’ll share their resources with you. Over time, you’ll have to keep bribing them (or optionally solve a random quest for them, but bribes are more common by far), and that’s really all they have to offer, being one trick ponies. Give them money, they give you stuff. You can conquer them, but usually it’s a better deal to just pay them off or ignore them. On the other hand, dealing with other civilizations is much less trivial. Getting on good terms with other civilizations is important; even though there’s no technology or map trading like in Civ4, resource trading is critical in this game.
Your civilization is rated for technology, happiness, and culture. As you build libraries and such, you’ll produce more research points, eventually letting you discover important technologies like the wheel, or acoustics, or whatever. Unlike in Civ4, the tech tree is more of a vine; you pretty much need every technology to advance (including Chivalry, even if you don’t have any horses or don’t intend to build knights).
Happiness is key to growth. Each new resource in your civilization produces happiness (5 points), and you’ll quickly learn to get new resources from other civilizations or city states whenever possible. As you get more people or build/conquer more cities, you’ll get unhappiness. An unhappy civilization can’t really grow, and a happy civilization gets more golden ages, so you’ll always want as many happy points as possible. Unhappiness gets produced with every city added to your empire, making growth difficult in any event – growth via combat is doubly hard, as conquered cities can create “bonus” unhappiness.
Culture’s primary purpose in CivV is to determine policies. As you gain culture points, you can choose policies for your civilization, like Piety (makes your civilization a little happier), Patronage (makes dealing with City States easier), Honor (helps with military), and so on. Once you pick a policy, you’re stuck with it forever. This is a major difference from Civ4, where your system of government (basically a collection of policies) could change depending on need, going from a slave-filled to theocracy to mercantilist republic in a few years, and could then be reverted if needed. In CivV, your government is fixed, there’s no changing anything; as most policies are real no-brainers (e.g., one policy gives you six turns of bonuses, while another gives over a dozen turns, minimum), it really seems like every time you’ll play CivV, you’ll play much the same way. Additionally, as you get more cities or choose more policies, the number of points needed for the next policy skyrockets, meaning you generally don’t want many cities in your civilization.
Another important difference between CivV and Civ4 concerns adapting your civilization. In CivV, if your people are unhappy, you have exactly one way to fix it: by building happiness-producing buildings (at least, after you’ve gotten all the resources you can, but that’s a given). If you’re short on money, you likewise can only respond by building more moneymaking buildings (or tweaking your cities for small differences). If you want more culture, again, your only option is to build culture-making buildings. This forces extremely careful civilization management, as any shortfall will likely affect your civilization for a long, long time.
Civ4, on the other hand, has the same options as CivV, but in addition you have sliders that let you decide what’s more important to you at a given point in time: if you want money, you can sacrifice making culture or happiness for your people, and same for anything else. Civ4 also has espionage, but that’s not in CivV at all.
All the growth penalties mean there are few benefits to having a large civilization; research, perhaps, is about all you can gain from having a large number of cities, but I’ve found that half a dozen cities are more than enough to cover the entire tree before the game ends. CivV isn’t about size at all, and even an advanced, warlike civilization won’t build more than a dozen units or so (compared to the stacks of units common to Civ4). Entire games of CivV can be played out in around 4 hours. Incidentally, there’s no stacking in CivV, just one combat unit per hexagon, so it’s just as well that armies aren’t supposed to be large in this game, even if it leads to strange quirks like archers shooting further the riflemen.
"…I find myself wondering why they didn’t use some of the good ideas of Civ4."
There are multiple ways to win the game of CivV, but, once again, I find myself wondering why they didn’t use some of the good ideas of Civ4. One way to win, for example, is the United Nations. In CivV, you win by building the U.N., then getting city-states on your side (i.e., simply paying money), and they vote you in. It’s a sure thing. That’s all – everything – that the UN can do. Now, compare this to Civ4. In Civ4, the U.N., in addition to making it possible for you to win – and it was always dicey – could let you vote for free religion, bans on nuclear weapons, end wars, and other things. Why take all these options out of CivV? This is just one example, but it highlights a powerful theme of CivV: it’s much like Civ4, but with less of everything.
Civilization V is certainly a fun game, but it seriously lacks the addictive quality of Civ4. Yes, I still click “next turn” plenty, but I do so out of boredom, hoping the next turn will be more interesting… and I’m starting to regret taking Civ4 off the hard drive for this. Granted, the version of Civ4 I played had multiple expansions, and in time I hope CivV gets “expanded” to be as fun and addictive as the games that have come before it.