Ed Beach talks rapid-fire when he's dishing details on Gods & Kings, the Civilization V expansion pack that Firaxis announced this morning. I can't blame him. He's got a lot to say.
Beach, the lead designer on the game and a longtime game developer who has been involved with numerous strategy games, had only 30 minutes to give me the rundown on Civilization V: Gods & Kings and what it brings to the turn-based table. So he had to talk fast.
Civilization V: Gods & Kings's major new features are religion (given a makeover since its appearance in Civilization IV) and espionage (which can now give you access to the deep, dark workings of the game's artificial intelligence). The game also adds a load of new city-state quests and some tweaks to the combat system (like a shift from 10 health points per unit to 100).
Firaxis also says the game will ship with new leaders, new factions, new technologies, new units, new buildings, and everything else you might expect from a new Civilization experience. There's a lot of new.
Even the old features are new.
"Religion is being integrated in a whole new way that the series has not seen before," Beach told me when we spoke on the phone Tuesday. "We're looking at religions as a brand new way for you to customise the way you're playing your civilisation, and sort of take advantage of your play-style, where you are in the game, what path to victory you're pursuing in that game."
You'll start off with a pantheon — a set of gods from, say, Greek or Norse mythology. As you play through different time periods, your religion will evolve and expand, spreading through cities across the world not unlike the "culture" system currently in Civilization V.
There are 11 religions in the game. All of the major ones are in there, along with one or two more obscure faiths, like Zoroastrianism. Each religion can be decked out with a set of benefits called beliefs — benefits that help you spread happiness throughout your civilisation.
There are four categories of beliefs: founder beliefs, follower beliefs, enhancer beliefs, and pantheon beliefs. Each category comes with its own specific bonuses — one bonus, called "Goddess of the Hunt", gives you an extra food modifier. Another bonus, "Holy Order", allows you to buy missionaries to help spread your religion around the map.
There are also Great Prophets, hero-type characters who can help turn your fledgeling religion into a global phenomenon.
Relax, atheists: You won't have to use the Religion system to progress in Civilization V: Gods & Kings. You can go through the entire game without touching it. You might miss out on a few benefits, but you can safely ignore this new feature if you're feeling overwhelmed or faithless. By the time the endgame rolls around, it won't be relevant anyway.
"The religion game kinda happens through the first 2/3 of the game and then kinda naturally tapers out," Beach said.
Then you get spies. Perhaps the most exciting new feature in Civilization V: Gods & Kings is espionage, a returning mechanic from previous Civ games that, like religion, has been given a new coat of paint. Once you have access to spies — which happens during the Renaissance era, Beach explains — you can use them to invade your opponents' cities, steal technology, and even start revolutions.
You could do this in previous games. What's unique about the spies in Gods & Kings is that you can use them to crack open the brain inside your computerised opponents, revealing the AI's deep, dark secrets.
"If you have a spy lurking in the right place and in the right time, all of a sudden you'll get these deep dark secrets," Beach said. "The AI might be planning an attack on you 15 turns down the line."
That's right: The AI is sophisticated (and nasty) enough to plan a betrayal 15 turns in advance. And you can use your spies to find this out. Your spies can also level up, boosting their information-hunting skills. Eventually, you'll not only be able to find out when the AI will betray you, you'll be able to uncover exactly which city it plans to invade.
You can then use this information in the new diplomacy system. You can confront a computerised opponent about its future betrayal, or you can tell a third-party and ask them to get involved.
You can also send your spies into city-states, rig elections, and try to build alliances, old-school style.
"Think about the Cold War era," Beach said. "The US and Soviets fighting over third-world countries... It's a phenomenal new addition in terms of making the world feel alive."