Civilization 5: Brave New World
The modern era is the worst section of a Civilisation game. Everyone knows this. After a few thousand years of stabbing, shooting and bombing each other, the world’s great powers settle down into a relative lull. Since most of the land powers by now have sprawling empires with thousands of workers and smoke-belching factories farting out tanks and jet planes by the gazillion, military victories are so headache-inducingly complicated that it’s a lot simpler to try and claim a technological or diplomatic victory instead.
With Brave New World, Firaxis are clearly trying to give the Civilization endgame a shot of adrenaline straight to the aorta, and turn the slowly grinding tedium into a more unpredictable and chaotic affair. Largely, they’ve succeeded.
As with most Civilization expansions, it takes a while to notice the best additions. At it’s core the game remains addictively time-consuming, with that patented ‘one more turn’ cliché still present and correct. The single unit per hex still makes combat a bit of a pain as you attempt to arrange your forces into some semblance of structure – city defences are as brutal as ever, and you’ll lose almost as many units just getting them into position as you will leading an assault. At this point it’s a shame that Civ 5’s clunky combat still hasn’t been tinkered with at all; there must be some balance to be found between the cumbersome stacks of previous editions and the current single unit restriction.
There are plenty of interesting new civilisations to try out. Venice is an especially juicy challenge, as they don’t get access to Settlers. Without the means to found new cities, the Venetians must use their Merchants of Venice to buy out autonomous city-states, giving you a wide ring of trading ports to send cargo fleets between. They also sport a beast of a boat in the ‘great galleas’, which can dominate the early medieval seas. Other new additions include the Portuguese traders, warlike Zulus (a favourite of mine from earlier games) and more. At their best, these new additions completely change the dynamic of the game, but even the less spectacular ones can be fun to try.
The aforementioned cargo fleets are an increasingly important addition. Early on you’ll only have a couple of open trade routes, so the slow trickle of gold is little more than a nice bonus. With a focus on the commercial policy trees and an appropriately mercantile civ, however, you can rack up absolutely ridiculous sums of money. While Civ 5 is well balanced enough that you can’t rely entirely on vulgar displays of wealth, more experienced players will find that the stacks of cash available make things a tad too easy, especially on the more forgiving difficulty settings.
That’s not to say that your mercantile dominance can be taken for granted. While playing as Venice, I was making a lucrative profit from my local whaling fleets, the proceeds of which were keeping my population largely happy. Come the first session of the World Congress (an early form of the United Nations), and the bleeding heart hippies of the Iroquois forwarded a motion that whaling should be outlawed. I spluttered in rage as all my jealous, impoverished rivals announced their support for the proposal, leaving me with three hundred thousand surplus pairs of whale-skin jeans and a rapidly shrinking economy. I spent the next twenty years or so campaigning and bribing my way back into power like a true Italian Prime Minister until I finally got my luxury goods back. Diplomatic sessions like these offer a welcome chance to dabble in world politics in the mid-game, and it’s gratifying to be able to derail the economy of one of your rivals with a few well-placed voters. Long term alliances also seem to stick a lot more often now, as the AI’s propensity for infuriating and repeated Judas impersonations has been dealt with.
In addition to the focus on trade and diplomacy, the way in which civilisations gain and spend culture has been overhauled. Three new ‘great persons’, the artist, writer and musician, can be used as a kind of non-combat offensive unit, spreading cultural influence across the globe. Musicians can go on tours in foreign states, ‘converting’ populations to your culture rather like missionaries spreading the faith. Alternatively you can create great works of art to store in your museums and galleries, encouraging late-game tourism and contributing to the altered culture victory, which now requires your civ to earn cultural influence over a certain number of rivals. Upon creating a great work of art you’ll get a little sample of, say, Mozart’s fifth symphony, an image of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware or the dulcet tones of Leonard Nimoy reading a passage from The Odyssey; combined with those clean art deco interfaces, gentle background music and lush leader tableaus, these additions make Civ 5 even more of a visual and atmospheric feast.
The numerous new additions to Brave New World like the World Congress and the enhanced trading system give fresh life to the franchise. New combinations of tech and policy, construction and religion reveal themselves as a reward for your time and effort, with new challenges presented to you through the enhanced diplomacy system helping to keep you on your toes. The highest difficulty modes still feel unfair rather than challenging, as every single country seems to wait for the most inconvenient time to bum rush you en masse, but there’s a nice slow ramp – you can find plenty of challenges to suit your skill, or lack of. There are even a couple of new scenarios to try out, that focus on specific periods in history, namely the American Civil War and the struggle for Africa.
Brave New World makes Civilisation 5 a better game. That crucial lull in momentum in the modern era has been almost completely fixed via the careful application of several new features, and the new civs and policy options are well worth exploring. New features mostly slot in without issue, and apart from the slightly unbalanced opportunities afforded by exploiting the new trade system, there are no tactics that stands out as particularly overpowered. Even trade is only good if you manage to keep your neighbours onside, as one costly invasion can put a stop to your profitable trade routes and leave you vulnerable to a swift invasion. If Firaxis can come up with a way to make land battles less cumbersome and frustrating, Civilisation 5 could well take its place as one of the all-time great strategy games. As it is, it’s still an incredibly addictive and deep experience, that’s benefited greatly from a smart and weighty expansion.