World-conquering war games are nearly as old as the video game medium. But such expansive empires are exceptions to the rule of human history. Modeling the kind of soft power through which, say, Venice built its trade hegemony and Denmark stamped an outsize influence on European politics has historically been much more difficult. Civilization V: Brave New World pushes the latest incarnation of the legendary strategy franchise in that direction with great success.
Brave New World follows in many Civilization entries' footsteps by pulling out themes of human history and crafting around them, rather than embarking on a Quixotic quest to accurately model unbelievably complex interactions. In reality, the United Nations doesn't meet every 60 years to debate two proposals that could include a global embargo on a major power, but that implementation makes a vastly more fun and interesting game mechanic than a largely impotent body that great powers ignore with impunity.
The revamped cultural victory path is the best part of Brave New World. Splitting the new tourism rating off of the existing empire-wide culture score lets empires pursuing cultural hegemony engage in a slew of new interactions that otherwise-occupied nations can safely ignore while focusing on their own goals. Saturating the world with explorers digging up ancient artifacts creates new diplomatic pressures and production priorities that are more fun to navigate. Segregating cultural "Great Person" generation from the others is a wonderful change that lets one to three cities focus on that, and removes the punishing need for cultural nations to focus exclusively on artist specialists. The cultural endgame is much better delineated, so a culture-pursuing empire develops quite differently than any other as it must invest in expensive late-game buildings to multiply its tourism score.
The addition of trade routes is another change that encourages you to look outside your borders through a lens other than conquest. Crushing barbarians is more important when they roam neutral territory between your empire and a trading partner, since that extremely expensive and valuable route can be destroyed easily by any unopposed military. Having your trade lines cut by a hostile civilization is devastating. Fighting over control of critical shipping lanes is a welcome addition to combat, which previously took place almost exclusively around fortified cities.
The diplomatic victory improvements are less of a resounding success. Winning a world-leader vote still ends up being a simple matter of buying off as many city-states as possible more often than not, but the addition of the World Congress creates an exciting vector for peaceful interactions for any kind of play through. Sending diplomats around the world to procure votes for a pet project is fun, and a powerful way to shape the world without going to war. Bribing enough of the world to hit 51 percent on the vote to institutionalize your religion or ideology as the official world system could be well worth the cost — but then again, you might not care if you're planning on spreading your ideas at the point of a sword.
Like Gods and Kings before it, Brave New World's greatest success isn't in its new systems. The trick that Firaxis has managed for a second time is in not upsetting the existing game. The World Congress is not so powerful that warmongers have to drop everything they're doing to deal with it, and tourism is not an overwhelming tide of city-flipping offensive culture that forces you to abandon your space program to combat its effects.
I have few complaints about this second and final expansion to Civilization V. My favorite game in recent years is better than ever thanks to Brave New World. The way Firaxis has fleshed out the thin areas of the game without screwing up the many things it does right is impressive. Peaceful no longer means passive.
VIDEO GAME REVIEW
'Civilization V: Brave New World'
Style: one-player strategy (eight-player online)
Publisher: 2K Games