Sid Meier's Civilization V: Brave New World adds nine new empires, two scenarios and extensive changes to culture, trade and city states to the long-running series of strategy games. But how does it play? (Out Tuesday for PC, £17.99)
For all its tactical depth, the Civilization series of empire-builders has always tended towards total - and totally depressing - warfare. While most players have learned to relish that bloody grinding endgame as a natural, healthy part of global competition, it's also slightly undermined the other elements of the series.
And the thing is, as despotic tyrants go, I'm a bit of a wimp.
My world-building adventures have always been fast, expansive but essentially - and fatally - peaceful. I found cities and build wonders, talk my way into declarations of friendship and set my sights on launching space ships and achieving victory in the stars. But war? I don't have the stomach for it, not at first anyway. Once my empire is set in stone, I'll happily swamp a few small kingdoms with Giant Death Robots. But early in the game I can't cope with the pressure of battle, or really with the chance of losing just one city. I play permanent defense. And as a result I usually lose.
The last expansion of Civ 5 - 2012's 'Gods and Kings' - gave me some new tools to finally win my soft-centered victory of passive aggression. Religion expanded the culture war and the development of ideology, and espionage gave me a way to hobble my rivals neatly, and usually quietly.
And with Civilization V: Brave New World, that vision has been finally realised. A sustainable peace has come to the trembling, cowardly empire of Lord Rundzilla, Enlightened Absolutist. And Civ V is the game it was always meant to be.
More than an expansion, less than a sequel, Civ 5: BNW is a serious, thoughtful development of the best mainstream strategy game in the world.
The list of additions is long and rich, and worth reading about in detail elsewhere. For starters, Civ 5: BNW adds nine new civilisations and leaders, including Venice, Portugal, Poland and the Zulu. To this total of 36 leaders and peoples the game adds two new scenarios (the American civil war and the 'Scramble For Africa') and eight new wonders (Broadway, the Space Station and the Uffizi among them).
But as with Gods and Kings, the biggest changes to the game comes in the fundamentals. And as ever, even small changes can completely alter how the architecture woks.
In culture, the game now includes Tourism as an 'offensive' weapon to use against other cultures. Build popular landmarks and develop interesting cities, and visitors will start to amass cultural capital for your empire which you can translate into building blocks of a Cultural Victory. Great People are now Great Musicians, Writers and Artists who can make specific works of art - treatises and plays, books and music - which are placed within wonders to amass culture. Later in the game, archaeologists give you the ability to search your own lands for buried treasures, and build Landmarks or Great Works. Meanwhile the addition of Ideologies alongside social policies can alter the way your victories
Other major changes include International Trade Routes, which give you the ability to specify exactly how your cross-borders economy develops. For trade-focused empires this is a huge boon, giving Venice, for instance, which cannot found cities with settlers, the chance to punch their weight with only a small amount of territory.
Above: The World Congress also adds new depth to diplomacy, and goes a long way to making the last third of the game - usually the most boring in previous Civ V versions - far more interesting, collaborative, competitive and exciting.
The result in our first few playthroughs is a game which is not just bigger, and deeper, but more genuinely varied for players who don't just want to bludgeon their enemies to death with tanks. At least at first.
For that's the real key here - by focusing on the endgame for most of the changes, the developers have made a version of Civ in which war - when it does come - feels decisive and brutal, rather than grinding and boring. The much richer nature of cultural or economic-focused civs sets up more lines of potential conflict, where simple geopolitics, weight of numbers or early-game battles are less decisive than ever.
In this sense the game is also more approachable. While new players were often turned off by hyper-agressive AI or doomed diplomatic relationships, Civ 5: BNW gives them more options, more time, and more genuine choices to make - with more sensible outcomes. Relationships with other leaders tend to be more solid, and more consistent. War feels more like a choice than a collapse into chaos. Even losing games are fun to play. For experienced players the game is rock-solid and engrossing, but it's still involving for rookies on quick-game settings.
The new Venice civ is a perfect example. You can't build cities in this scenario, but with careful trade, use of the brilliant 'Merchant Of Venice' unit (which essentially detonates inside a city state and adds it to your empire) and a bit of diplomatic tact you can still come to dominate the map -- peacefully. Likewise the Shoshone empire can build cities which expand beyond the six-hex border, making them defensively rock solid - and less vulnerable to a sudden onslaught of military power. Elsewhere the game is full of smaller tweaks. Combat is now determined on a 100-point system, not a 10-point one, for instance, which leads to more nuanced battles.
The result is that while core of the game is as addictive, approachable and detailed as ever, it's also never been more fun to play. Peace is possible, war still coldly inevitable, economics more powerful and the diplomacy more genuinely two-faced, dark and disturbing. For cowards and cynics - as well as glorious traders, warriors and scientists - it's the best Civ ever made.