Did you know that Firaxis Games never really finished Civilization 5 when it shipped in September 2010? I’m frankly not even sure if the developer realized it. None of the gamers at home did. To us, Civilization 5 was an exceptional entry Sid Meier’s strategy series that, like Civ 4 before it, didn’t quite manage to capture the greatness of Civilization 3. A lot of the cool-yet-not-fully-baked ideas from Civ 4 were discarded for the follow-up, and the game turned out to be stronger for those omissions. Now we have Civilization 5: Gods & Kings, a release that’s labeled as an expansion pack but which really amounts to a massive title update.
And it’s a welcome one too. Don’t take my intro the wrong way: I’m not putting forth an argument that Civ 5 is technically flawed or that it’s anything less than a full game without the changes that Gods & Kings introduces. The point I’m making is that the newly reformulated rules and added gameplay concepts introduced in this expansion reverberate so deeply to the core of Civ 5 that it feels like a sequel that’s arrived before its time. It may even be a contender for toppling Civ 3 from its “best of the series” throne, but it’ll take many more playthroughs spanning many hundreds of hours before we can make that determination. For now, I’m just going to call it like I see it: Civilization 5: Gods & Kings is an essential add-on for anyone that takes their world-building seriously.
Livin’ On A Prayer
The “Gods” portion of the expansion’s title plays out in the return of religion as a gameplay concept. Religion was a component of Civilization 4, though it was mostly a passive one, with players adopting a religion and then putting in some light work to spread it (and eventually upgrade it). You take a much more active role now, accruing a new resource called Faith that eventually opens up the ability to found a pantheon, and later a full religion. The process of building your religion involves selecting specific benefits that, once chosen, are off-limits to the rest of the civs founding their own religions. You then spend Faith to build message-spreading units — and, with certain buffs chosen, Holy Warriors — to spread your beliefs across the world.
What this really amounts to is a major new addition to your toolbox of world domination plans. You can choose to ignore religion entirely, and while you’ll miss out on any advantages that having a set of chosen beliefs could bring you, it’s easy enough to offset any missed opportunities by focusing your efforts in a different direction. That’s one of the beautiful things about the Civilization series after all; there’s no guaranteed recipe for success, it’s all just in the way you play. Conversely, you could lean heavily on your religion and build up a fanatical following, pushing out across the world with your message of “worship what I worship, or else.”
Civ 5‘s religion mechanics also trump Civ 4‘s for keeping whatever belief structure you align with relevant straight on through to the end game eras. There’s no tech discovery in the late-game that renders all of your careful strategizing obsolete. You continue earning Faith throughout the game, and can continue to use it to your advantage. I used a belief that allowed me to spend the resource on Holy Warrior units, and those fanatical nutballs held my front lines together right into the end of days. You can also use Faith to, say, boost culture, by selecting a belief that allows you to spend on a variety of religion-specific, culture-producing structures. Even fans of the scientific victory can expect help from religion with the right belief selection. It’s a surprisingly multi-faceted mechanic, and a very well thought out one as you read through the various belief buffs that are available.
Spy Vs. Spy
Gods & Kings also brings back espionage, with the mechanic being introduced only after players reach the Renaissance Era with their chosen civ. It’s much more subtle an addition than religion is. You manage your spies — one is unlocked every time you enter a new era, starting with the Renaissance — entirely from an in-game menu, assigning them to different cities or city-states. A well-placed spy assigned to monitor a competing civ will steal tech and uncover dirt, though monitoring city-states can be equally valuable if you’re the sort who likes to build up a large collection of allies.
Unlike the newly added religion features, espionage is largely self-managing in Gods & Kings. As the player, your big decisions in this arena revolve around figuring out what you’d like religion to do for you. Personally, I found that my spies were useless in other civs since I had a solid research lead over the competition. Instead, I sent my agents off to city-states in the same neighborhood as my capital, locking them in as solid allies and creating an added buffer to guard against armed conflict in the event that a competing civ got any funny ideas.
Might Makes Right
The new religion and espionage mechanics amount to big changes, but the most dramatic update that Gods & Kings brings to Civilization 5 is actually an under-the-hood tweak. The flow of combat has been dramatically improved thanks to a number of updates, the most visible of which is a move from a 10-point health scale to a 100-point health scale. I had already gotten a sense of this from my Gods & Kings hands-on preview, but now that I’ve seen firsthand how the tweaks alter the flow of combat across an entire civ’s life I can’t quite understand why the 10-point scale was used to begin with.
Your individual units are much hardier, and much more valuable now. The series had already been moving in that direction, with Civ 4 putting an end to the classic “stack o’ death” tactic by not allowing more than one military unit to occupy the same hex. Civ 5 continued to embrace that approach when it was released, and the newly reformulated health (along with an array of other under-the-hood changes) means that you’re not simply throwing away your pieces. There’s more strategy in the combat portion of Civ 5‘s turn-based strategy now. Whether you’re absorbing shots from a city under siege or staging a blitz attack using your faster-moving units, the combat feels much more plausible than it ever has in a Civ game before.
The Nuts & Bolts
Sitting alongside all of the marquee features in Gods & Kings is the expected assortment of additional content for you to play with. You’ve got an assortment of new civs (nine of them in all), several of which are appropriately geared toward players that want to take advantage of the new religion mechanics. With new civs come new units and buildings, and there are plenty of those, as well as a few more Wonders.
There are also three new scenarios to play through: Fall of Rome, Into the Renaissance, and Empires of the Smokey Skies. With all of the fantastic new content and tweaks that Gods & Kings brings to the core game, it’s amazing to look at these scenarios and realize that they’re also part of the expansion. Those who read my intro to this review and started getting riled up at the idea of this release amounting to the title update that fans have been waiting for will find plenty of purely new stuff to pick over in these three rules-changing scenarios.
Fall of Rome, as you’ve probably figured out already, plays against the backdrop of the end days of the Roman Empire. It’s a combat-heavy scenario, and a perfect showcase for the expansion’s changed combat rules. Into the Renaissance adds religion into the mix, involving players in a war for material and philosophical supremacy during the real-world time of global exploration and expansion. The standout, however, is Empires of the Smokey Skies, a steampunk scenario with a fictional setting that introduces civs/leaders, units, and concepts that aren’t a part of the main game. In Empires, you’re facing off against an assortment of Captains of Industry and Robber Barons for control of the world and its two most precious resources.
I really can’t understate what a dramatic improvement Gods & Kings offers over the vanilla Civilization 5 experience. Firaxis didn’t do a bad job at all with its 2010 release, but this add-on brings about some truly marvelous changes. Only time and distance will determine if this is “The Best Civilization Yet,” but for now you can rest comfortably in the knowledge that this is as must-have an expansion as expansion packs get.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PC on a copy provided by 2K Games)