How civilized can you get?
Occasionally, along comes a game more demanding than the most lusty of succubi; a game that will truly suck the essence out of you, and you love every minute of it. Civilization 4 was such a game; from the moment you played your first turn, you knew it would claim far more of your time and energy than you were sure you had to give. Just one more turn? No, just one hundred more. And now that the latest expansion has dropped, it's time to re-evaluate your schedule once again.
[image1]Before we launch straight into all the new stuff, let's get the game's most noticeable flaw out of the way: Leonard Nimoy is no longer the voice for the game's pithy quotations. And since the tech tree has been considerably changed up, you'll be hearing Sid Meier's voice, and not Nimoy's very early in the game. Sid's a nice guy and all, but he's no Mr. Spock.
The expansion brings with it a host of changes, additions, and re-balances of Civilization 4's old formula. The benefits of the previous expansion, Civilization 4: Warlords, are rolled right in as well. Among the new systems are the espionage system, the corporation system, an advanced start system, and an army of new combat options. This is before we even look at all the new scenarios and mods that come packed on the disc.
Espionage makes for an interesting addition to the game. Unlike the somewhat awkward spy unit of pre-expansion Civ 4, the re-worked espionage system provides for a variety of different options. By spending espionage points, which are generated much as research points are, you can work on counter-espionage, foment rebellions, gather information, attempt to steal technologies, sabotage buildings in opponents' cities, influence local civics and religion, or even poison the local watering hole. Most of these require you to send a spy along to a target city, but there are still some passive benefits to building up espionage points, most of which are just gaining inside information on your foes' activities. The espionage system doesn't really require you micromanage carefully, so it's a pretty rewarding system all around. While you shouldn't be expecting to watch James Bond murder his way through the Soviet Union to make certain your civilization comes out ahead, it's nice to know he's on your side.
Excuse me a moment, I have to conquer Mongolia.
[3 hours later] Crap, it's that late already? Alright, well, let's talk about one of the other new systems quick – the random world events. The addition makes a lot of difference to the game, and they're worked in amazingly well, frequently playing off of the events that are already ongoing in the game. Random events pop up due to wars between civilizations of different religions, over-farming, failed royal marriages, or just plain chaotic weather patterns. In a lot of respects, the random events are reminiscent of Galactic Civilizations 2, though they generally feel more balanced and less arbitrary.
[image2]Some of the new systems don't go over as well, though. The corporate system in Civilization 4: Beyond the Sword presents an almost nightmarish window into our own corporate structures. Founding a corporation is an interesting proposition, as it may very well harm you more than it benefits you. Corporations can potentially generate massive profits, but they take a great person, access to specific resources, and a fair amount of startup capital to get off the ground. Even after that, they can end up costing a lot to maintain, and getting rid of them is hard.
Spread a branch office to your foe, however, and suddenly the maintenance burden is lessened, because your neighbor is now shouldering some of it. It's a weird, and eerily accurate, process, where frequently no one but the corporation really profits much. When you feng shui your trade routes, resources, expenditures, and diplomatic relations just right, however, corporations can generate an impressive amount of income – finding and maintaining those balances is the trick, and it's not a simple one. Overall, corporations can be far more trouble than they're really worth, so players that aren't trying to eke every last benefit out of the game should really just stay away from 'em.
[image3]The combat refinements - including some considerable changes to artillery units - change up warfare in some interesting ways. The new specialized units bring some flair, and can help define some civilizations' preferred ages. Likewise, the new rulers (and in the case of Rome, a change in the ruler) also help spice things up in some interesting ways, and help to provide an even more varied experience. The new changes and additions help the game's replay value immensely – though it's not as though it was needed in the first place.
Hang on, Egypt's getting uppity again...
[Another 3 hours later] Well, I'm happy to report that the pharaohs have made friends with my cannon balls. A few rounds through their fancy stone walls, and suddenly we're the best of buds again! Hatshetsup was positively grinning when she heard I wasn't going to put holes in the roof of her palace – but it's not cause she asked me real pretty, it's because she always serves the best beer at her diplomatic functions.
The A.I. in Civilization 4 has been revamped immensely with the new expansion – for once, you can't win the game just by keeping up with the science and agreeing to the occasional demand. When I first took up Civilization 4, I got into the habit of playing on "Emperor" difficulty level and doing alright for myself, but Beyond the Sword has forced me to scale back to "Noble" to break even, and "Warlord" to do well for myself. Between the new complications and the much cleverer A.I. opponents, I've found the game to be a renewed challenge, and a heck of a lot more fun. Given that the game was already siphoning off shreds of my very soul to power its dark simulations, I fear I might need the services of a preacher before I'll rid myself of this game. What's worse is that I'm not even clear I'll want to get that exorcism.
[image4]Getting away from all that's new to the gameplay, the expansion also comes packed with a variety of mods and new scenarios. Some are great. Some are really quite bad. There's a total conversion packaged with the game that's frankly terrible; it attempts to be some kind of tactical RPG, but ultimately comes off as a clunky turn-based strategy game with ugly units. Though it's interesting to see what can be done with the platform that Civilization 4 was built upon, it's a poor addition to the expansion. There's also a fantasy total conversion packed in, which fares reasonably, though will likely not distract you much from the main game. The varying new scenarios and little mods add some extra amusement to the game, especially the Next War mod, which expands into futuristic, sci-fi technologies.
Overall, Civilization 4: Beyond the Sword presents a lot of additions to what was already a great game. It's a good expansion, and capitalizes a great deal on fixing some of the weaknesses of the original. That said, the expansion doesn't do anything that will make someone who did not already enjoy Civilization games dance for joy. The expansion is absolutely great for those of us who willingly waste our lives away on turn based strategy games... then again, I used to have a girlfriend before this game caused me to neglect her. Blast!