Civilization 5: Gods and Kings hands-on preview

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For years now, Firaxis has been refining its Civilization strategy series, stripping out features, putting them back in, tweaking them, updating them, patching them, toying with them in every way. Take Civ 4, which introduced religion as a gameplay concept. The feature was stripped out with the release of Civilization 5, but now it’s coming back in a newly enhanced form with the upcoming Gods & Kings expansion pack, which is out on June 19, 2012. The pack also brings back spying and espionage, along with a number of gameplay tweaks and new scenarios — one of which is set in a steampunk world with its own rules, rulers, and technologies — that serve to deepen the experience of raising up your chosen group of people from the early days of figuring out what a tool is to the latter day of blasting competing civs back to the stone age with nuclear missile strikes.

I got a taste of the pack recently, in the form of a hands-on preview. It didn’t offer the full Gods & Kings experience — the later section of the game, where espionage becomes a viable strategy, was closed off — and there’s still a lot of balancing and tweaking going on, but I did get a sense of how these new and revised elements shake out in a live setting.

Religion is perhaps the most significant component of the upcoming expansion, at least from the perspective of the early portion of the game. There’s a new resource called Faith that you accrue in a variety of ways, just like you would Culture or Happiness. You can choose to ignore it, but it will inevitably find you as other civs put it to work for them. You build up Faith early on in a number of ways, such as building shrines and finding treasures hidden throughout the world. Once you’ve worked it up to a sizable level, you’re asked to choose a Pantheon.

Think of Civ 5‘s religious Pantheons as platforms around which eventual religions can grow. You choose one from a list of around 30, and each one offers a different bonus. Those who wish to embrace religion while shooting for a cultural victory might enjoy the early boost offered by Ancestor Worship, which gives a +1 Culture bonus from shrines. Desert Folklore, on the other hand, is a good choice for those who got stuck founding a civ in the middle of the desert, as it offers a +1 Faith bonus from all desert tiles. There’s even a Pantheon that supports a more combat-oriented approach, with God of War offering a Faith boost for winning battles close to your city walls.

civilization 5 gods and kings hands on preview civFor my playthough, I decided to go with the Religious Settlements Pantheon, since the +15 percent border growth it offers suits my particular play style. That’s only the initial phase of your religious growth, however. The next step is to build up enough Faith that you get your first Great Prophet, which can be “spent” on founding a new religion. You can choose from a list of preset options or name and choose a symbol for one of your own. I went with one of my own creation: Lokitivity, which embraces the worship of my fluffy dog, Loki.

My nation of Lokiites grew quickly thanks to my chosen Pantheon, and that growth was further helped along by the Founder and Follower beliefs I got to select when founding my religion. Founder Beliefs are bonuses that you get as your religion spreads — in my case, it was a +1 boost to Culture for every foreign city to embrace Lokitivity — while Follower beliefs more directly affect your own civ. I went with Holy Warriors, which allows you to “spend” Faith to purchase early land units, much like gold. The holy fervor that my dog inspired among my people allowed for the rapid purchase of warrior and archer units that I then spread across the land in a show of righteous, fuzzy fury.

My holy war against the cat-loving peoples of the world allowed me to check out the newly tweaked battle mechanics that Gods & Kings introduces. Unit health and damage is now measured across a 100-point scale rather than 10-point one, which increases the survivability of each individual unit. Civ 5 did away with the concept of stacking multiple units on one hex, so the changed health system creates a more realistic take on armed conflicts. Damaged units can now last long enough to beat a retreat if that’s what the situation calls for, allowing you to preserve veteran forces that happen to get caught in a bad spot.

I learned this firsthand, unfortunately. While my faithful Lokiites were strong in their beliefs, they were weak in combat skills. Barbarian hordes proved to be no match for my holy warriors, but even the lowest of the city-states turned away my aggressive advances. There’s still balancing to be done in this regard, but it’s clear that more care must now be taken with how you deploy your military forces for combat actions.

I also spent a couple of hours tooling around in Smokey Skies, which is the steampunk-flavored scenario that Gods & Kings adds to the game. There’s a lot of context that you can read up on in the Civilopedia, but the basic setup pits five fictional civs against one another in a race to obtain three of five “titles” and then hang onto them for a set number of turns after that. These titles work much like the “top civ” lists in the main game. For example, the Captain of Industry title goes to the civ with the highest production while the Grand Philanthropist is the civ that controls the most Wonders.

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Guiding everything is a specially crafted tech tree that fully embraces the steampunk aesthetic. The scenario begins at the end of the Industrial Era, as the world is coming into the Steam Era (the Airhsip Era eventually follows). There are different resources to gather than what you would find in a standard game, and you’ll be fielding some wildly imaginative land and air units, such as massive treaded tanks and balloon-borne airships. There’s a lot of personality and depth to this scenario, especially once you start digging into the Civilopedia entries. While Smokey Skies will always start out at that start of the Steam Era, Firaxis says that it should be a simple enough task for modders to create a game mode that allows players to use this world’s altered tech tree and unique units from the very start of a game.

That’s as far as I went with the preview build. Civilization 5 is the sort of game that demands tens of hours of investment. Even this abbreviated version of Gods & Kings was a hefty investment. The true quality of the expansion isn’t going to come out until multiple full playthroughs are possible and everything is fully balanced. Even on the surface though, the improvements that are coming to Civ 5 in this expansion pack speak to yet another win for Firaxis. Time will tell of course, but the fact that I’m sitting here at the tail end of this preview with thoughts of going back to play speaks volumes.