I like a good Halo or Call of Duty game as much as the next fellow, but playing high-adrenalin shooters week after week during the game industry's annual fall blitz is a little like drinking nothing but Red Bull for three months. It can give a fellow the shakes.
If you find yourself overstimulated by games this autumn, a cure can be found in Sid Meier's Civilization V (2K Games/PC/Everyone 10-plus), a turn-based tactics game that rewards players who sit back and take time to think things through before making any decisions.
A decades-old bastion of strategy bliss in the PC gaming world, the basics of the Civilization franchise remain firmly intact in its latest iteration. Players select an authentic historical leader and begin the game with a single city in a sparsely populated ancient world. As the years flip by, we scout and develop the land's resources, found new cities, and meet strange new cultures that we can either crush with our armies or become friends with as we work toward satisfying military, diplomatic, cultural, or scientific victory conditions.
The Civilization series is often used as ammunition by those who would oppose the games-rot-your-brain argument, and Civilization V makes it easy to understand why. Players can clearly see how a city's geographical location in relation to various natural resources – horses, marble, farmland – will affect its population, well-being, and ability to defend itself. Only the shallowest of players will fail to make correlations between the game and the real world – like, say, how a barren patch of land leaves local populations poor until the oil it holds is discovered and exploited, turning the area into a hotbed of greed as nations war over its army-empowering riches. Far from rotting your brain, Civilization V can be elegantly edifying.
Series veterans have expressed concern that Civilization: Revolution – the recent console entry in the franchise that greatly simplified the Civilization experience – would inform the design of this new PC game. Revolution's influence can indeed be seen, but it hasn't dumbed anything down. It's simply made the game more accessible.
For example, a clean, new interface includes bulletins that pop up on the right side of the screen, ensuring we're always apprised of crucial opportunities and changes in neighbouring countries' dispositions. Just below is a dynamic action button that leads players through all available activities, making certain that we never forget to move a unit or begin production on a new building before ending a turn.
Changes aren't limited to simply making things more user-friendly. A new social-policy system allows players to mix and match ideologies such as fascism and rationalism to grow our civilization in different ways. And the introduction of city-states that can be used as allies or pawns adds an entirely new element of strategy: I simply steamrolled these small nations until I realized that the rest of the world was slowly ganging up on me for being heartlessly militaristic.
But fighting the urge to fight can be hard, especially since Civilization's battles have never been better. Cities can now defend themselves, which means no more piling them full of soldiers you'd rather have on the front lines. And whereas players once stacked units into massive armies before merrily marching off to war, each unit now occupies its own space on the map, forcing players to strategically arrange attackers behind melee fighters in preparation for sieges. It will definitely get players thinking.
Of course, thinking is what Civilization is all about. That's what has given the franchise such staying power. Twitchy shooters are like the latest fashions; fun and popular one season, forgotten the next. If there's one game released in 2010 that I'll still be playing five years from now, it's Civilization V.