Ever since the first Civilization game was released back in 1991, the series have constantly evolved its relatively simple turn-based strategy formula. Build cities, set up your infrastructure, keep order and build up your military.
It always begins in the same way. You're a simple settler, a man with a pointy stick in the middle of an unexplored world. Your goal is to go the way of peace or war, from the stone age to modern age while fighting off your opponents. A struggle that can take a military, diplomatic or a scientific form. A history lesson in the shape of a game.
So far, it's business as usual in Civilization V. The world is now built of hexagons instead of squares, but the actual difference in moving your troops around is minimal. It does give us some more strategic alternatives when it comes to placing your warriors and ranged troops in preparation for an attack, though.
Civilization has never been one of the heavy weights of the strategy genre - the kind of a game where you need a long education to understand. The game has always had the immediacy of a board game. It says a lot that an encyclopedia has become standard in the series; it has grown bigger and bigger. It makes it easier to loose control when you during the course of a turn you have to keep track of your empire spread over three different continents. In earlier games I usually let the computer deal with the minor details while I focused on the fun stuff (which usually included weapons).
This is where Civilization V enters the stage. "I'll simplify the series, without losing depth," it would say if it could talk. It does this in two ways; first by serving up the information in a more interesting and attractive way and make your actions more meaningful. The inviting art deco-inspired user interface makes it really easy to see which part of your kingdom that needs attention, it's easier to understand how everything comes together that way. Are your citizens upset? Hover your mouse cursor over their icon and you immediately get a simple overview about why.
In Civilization V you have less units to move around than in earlier games, which makes every turn count more. That's also true for the new combat system, where every hexagon on the board only have room for one unit. The placement and the design of your army is a lot more important than its size, which gives a bigger strategic depth to the combat - especially compared to earlier games which usually ended with two big piles of troops that tried to kill each other.
Sid Meier once said that a good game consists of a series of interesting decisions, and your decisions in Civilization V are interesting since it's easy to understand their consequences. That also helps to create that classic feeling of "just...another...turn!". The game demands a lot of your time, and can be terribly hard to tear yourself away from.
Diplomacy works as usual. You can make basic deals with other civilizations, but despite the beautiful presentation where you see the leaders in their natural environment their intelligence doesn't really shine through. They do have different personalities though, and in general they act just like you'd expect them too - Caesar wants to conquer everything in sight while Gandhi is more peaceful.
It's a good thing that the basic game in Civilization V is so good, since that's all you get. The interesting historical scenarios and playful modifications from the earlier games are gone. The scenarios are bonuses for those that pre-ordered the game, and it's hard to not get a sour taste in your mouth when the developers are contemplating releasing them as downloadable content at some point in the future. At the same time, the mod tools will be released for free after launch.
Finally the music, arranged by the Prague philharmonics, should get a positive comment. Once again we're bombarded by classic music, but its quality this time around is of an unusually high quality. Various pieces with different tempos are played depending on if you're at war or not, and the pieces are seamlessly woven into each other so it's easy to get lost in dreams about Victorian queens and marches to war through foggy landscapes.
Accessible, but large, would be a good way to describe Civilization V. It might be accused of loosing depths in its aim to be clear and simple, but I tend to think it more as if the series has been refined to bring more focus to the important and fun stuff. Because of this, Civilization V makes the series more relevant than ever.