Civilization 4 is arguably the best Civ game to date, and while the premium pricing of its first expansion, Warlords, didn’t seem to justify its modest feature set, the new expansion, Beyond the Sword, suffers from no such problem. In fact, if anything, a feature list that could fill the grand canyon may over-complicate things a bit too much.
For your money, you get a host of new gameplay features, civs, leaders, units and scenarios. On the other hand, some of the new features take an already complex game and ratchet the volume up to 11. Beyond the Sword doesn’t sacrifice any of Civilization 4’s old addictiveness, but it does raise the question of how complex is too complex?
Headlining the new features list are Espionage and Corporations. Corporations have been compared to late-game religions, in that once you found one, you own it and can spread it to both your own cities and those of your opponents by sending out Corporate Executive units to build Corporate Offices. The similarities end there. Instead of spreading influence, corporations are designed to give you access to resources you may not have at the expense of those resources of which you have an abundance. For example, if you’re having trouble feeding your Civ’s citizens you might found Sid’s Sushi Co., which consumes resources like clams and crabs to produce food and culture.
Espionage, on the other hand, comes into play much earlier in the game. Prior to this expansion, the commerce your civilization generated was used to cover maintenance expenses and produce some combination of cash, research and culture. Now you also have to factor Espionage Points into the mix. These points can be used with your spies to execute various missions, like sabotaging a city’s production, fomenting revolt, or stealing a technology. However, as much as a fun espionage adds to the game, it’s not necessarily documented well enough for players to really understand how to effectively use them.
Although you have to appreciate the creative thinking that went into these new features, it’s hard to escape the fact that putting these complex new components into the game is hard to do successfully. And there is evidence to suggest that both Espionage and Corporations are forcing the game through some growing pains, especially for the game’s AI, which sometimes seems to have as much difficulty managing them as some players.
Corporations, for example, are an incredibly complex beast to manage. They can prove beneficial to your empire, but they also have the potential to cripple it. The last thing you want to do with a corporation is spread offices far and wide – nor do you want the AI to do it to you. The resulting maintenance penalties you pay–particularly as the game’s new inflation model increases your civ-wide maintenance over time–become crushing, making adequate revenue generation all but impossible. Considering you have to use up a great person to build a corporation in the first place, the notion that you could actually be hurt by them seems extreme. The good news is there is an unofficial patch that addresses this issue, as should the next official patch. Still, figuring out exactly how to make the most of a corporation all but requires a degree in advanced mathematics and right now even the gods among civ players are having a rough time agreeing on exactly how to judge their benefits (relative to their costs). Given that, to expect the average player to understand the infinitely complex forces at work in successfully integrating a corporation into you civ’s empire may be asking a bit too much.
Of course there’s plenty of other stuff here to play with. As with all Civ expansions there’s a host of new civilizations and leaders to play with, including Native Americans (Sitting Bull) and the Holy Roman Empire (Charlemagne). These additions, along with the new unique units and buildings that come with them -as always- add a little extra flavor to the game, without changing the gameplay.
Certainly, Civilization 4 has proved to be a highly customizable game and, because of that, user-made scenarios are plentiful. Clearly, the folks at Firaxis have taken notice and, in addition to offering several new scenarios themselves, they’ve included a bunch of the most popular user-made scenarios as well. So, if you grow tired of the basic Civ routine, there’s plenty more to explore. Although most scenarios offer up an era-based version of the root Civ4 experience, like ancient Rome, others completely change the nature of the game, such as Fall from Heaven (fantasy) and Dune Wars. The strongest scenarios, however, really are the ones that stay the closest to the Civ 4 formula. Scenarios that practically try to create a new game out of the Civ 4 engine don’t fare as well. Afterlight, for example, attempts to turn the game into a sort of X-Com-lite, squad-based combat game. It’s an interesting diversion, but it doesn’t take long for it to become clear that the engine wasn’t designed with that kind of gameplay in mind.
Getting lost in the shuffle of all these new features and scenarios is the fact that Firaxis didn’t just shovel a heaping layer of new content on the game, they also considerably tuned the AI to perform better and not require as many artificial handicaps to stay ahead of you on higher difficulty levels. For example, I’m not exactly among the Mensa class of Civ players. Mostly I bop around between the Noble and Prince settings, occasionally playing in Monarch when I really feel like getting creamed. With Beyond the Sword’s improved AI, I get the kind of challenging game on Prince that I used to get on Monarch and it comes without the AI getting as many massive artificial bonuses as it used to. More-so than ever before, when your civilization is crushed beneath the collective heels of its opponents, it feels like you’ve really lost a strategic battle for global supremacy, rather than because you’re just stuck too far behind the 8-ball. You might even find yourself losing games to victory conditions other than a space race, something I never encountered in any previous version of Civilization.
Also often overlooked is the fact navies are now able to play a much more crucial and realistic role in your Civ’s dominance of the high seas. It’s not just the new units, like the very handy Privateer units, which allow you to plunder your opponents without fear of repercussion (only the owner knows their nationality). That’s all well and good, but the real treat for Master and Commander aficionados is the fact that you can now use your navies to create naval blockades of trade routes or to protect your own ports. This is a long overdue improvement to how naval units are handled in the Civilization franchise.
Other welcome changes that affect gameplay include the fact that siege engines can no longer eliminate enemy units. They can damage them, but at the point of victory they now must withdraw from combat, forcing you to eliminate the remnants of your opposition with conventional forces. New modern combat units such as paratroopers, mobile artillery and tactical nukes add new flavor to modern warfare. And a few refinements to the technology tree fill some gaps in the tree, while also extending the end game a bit, which makes it at least a little more likely you’ll see a Civ victory that doesn’t involve a space race.
Although the added complexity all these new features lay on to the game may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and certainly there’s some play-balancing Firaxis still needs to address in the inevitable patch, there’s no question that Beyond the Sword is one of the most ambitious game add-ons you’re likely to find and the vast majority of these changes are welcome ones that add significantly to the Civ experience. Civilization 4: Beyond the Sword is turn-based strategy at its absolute best. If you’ve been on the fence about giving it a shot, wait no more.
Developer: Firaxis Software
*Originally published at Gameshark.com, 9/2007
*Minor text updates 2/16/2016