Review: Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword (PC)

Beyond the Sword

And so rolls in what is touted as the ‘biggest Civ expansion pack evah’. Announced only a miserly six months before release, Beyond the Sword aims at polishing and improving Civilization IV while adding a handful of new features and scenarios. How do these new goodies add up to the Civilization experience? Read on to find out!

Beyond the Sword advances the game of Civilization to include important factors that have defined the modern world, like Espionage and Corporations. Random Events is also a looked-forward-to new feature, as is the general layer of improvement in the game. And of course, who can forget the multitudes of new leaders and civilizations!

The new leaders include old favourites like Hammurabi for the Babylonians and Willem von Orange for the Netherlands, while exploring some new territory with Charlemagne for the much-discussed Holy Roman Empire or Zara Yaqob for the Ethiopians. The new leaderheads are especially better than the earlier ones, especially in terms of animation, which flows much smoother than before. The other leaders have also been improved, to some extent. Queen Boudica makes for an excellent new warmonger leader with her Aggressive/Charismatic trait combo (remember Warlords?), and I’m sure nobody can make more money than the Persian Darius and his Organized/Financial combo!

The espionage feature is something Firaxis has loved showing off. Unfortunately, it hasn’t left me very impressed. Don’t get me wrong – espionage is a very useful tool in world domination, but it just doesn’t work right here. Espionage builds up in points, similar to Culture or Research, and it even has its own slider! As you accumulate these points, you will get some info from other Civilizations, like what their cities are going, what their demographics are, or what technologies they are researching.

You can send a spy onto missions now, which include causing unrest in a city, or poisoning its water supply, or even stealing from its treasury. While the ability to cause a revolt is useful, most other features aren’t exactly very good, since they are all temporary. Also, there is a fine chance of your spy being caught. In the end, the ends don’t justify the means when it comes to espionage. You can play a nice, victory-laden game of Civilization without so much as looking at espionage!

Corporations are another feature that don’t work as well as they should. Corporations work like a late-game form of Religion. It is a great way to earn money and spreading corporations means that the cities having the corporations’ branches will have to pay money to the headquarters. While the entire concept of Corporations is nice and all, founding them is a pain. Firstly, you need to found the two required technologies – all nice. Then we need to get the two required resources feeding into one city. Then you need a specific type of Great Person to found the corporation there!

It is this heavy set of requirements that is an obvious turn-off. I’m not so interested in corporations to go hunting resources and hoping to get the right Great Person and then sacrifice him!

Random Events on the other hand, is one feature that does hold up. Random events add colour to the game by adding some, well, random events here and there. Some of these can be unfortunate, like an earthquake devastating one of your improvements, or fortunate, like the finding of a certain species of parrots that is going to make a certain tile hot property. You might also find ‘quests’ which will give you certain bonuses, provided you complete them right. What I found especially nice here is how relevant these ‘random’ events are to what you have done in the game.

In one early game, I declared war on Gandhi and the war came to a point where both sides were evenly matched. At this moment, I realize that a ‘great diplomat’ has offered a chance of peace, which would give a bonus +1 Diplomacy point! Sometimes the events are so relevant, I get paranoid. My only complaint here is that the random events aren’t frequent enough. I could only get about 10-20 random events at a max in a game of Normal length.

The improved AI certainly makes its mark, though. You will have close allies declare war on you, complex diplomatic webs and foreign relations in general will be more complicated. Often you might pick a side in a conflict only to realize that it would have been better to pick the other side! Such unpredictability makes for an exciting game of Civilization, without doubt. The more detailed Foreign Advisor screen definitely makes up for the backstabbing art that is diplomacy.

Apart from these main features, the game introduces several minor changes and improves wherever possible. If you wanted something in Civilization IV, it is most likely included in Beyond the Sword. One feature I wanted, was more realistic Colony Management. In BtS, colonies have an extra maintenance fee, exceeding which will make the colony self-dependent, but your vassal. Bug them more, and they might just declare independence and kick you in the groin.

While gameplay is addictive and top-notch, the graphics have not been ignored. One of my favourite changes in BtS is that the performance has been improved considerably. The late game is still very slow, but it is definitely faster than vanilla Civ IV. Also, with the addition of Corporations, improved AI, advanced Space Victory and so on, you won’t be bored with the late game anyways.

Units now come in different looks for different civilizations. This looks awesome, because every civilization now feels almost unique. The units are detailed enough to look pretty, and spartan (pun not intended) enough to run fast on your PC. Overall, while the game seems beautifully improved since vanilla, the novelty fades and you’re back to the core game quite soon.

Sound is one section that hasn’t been used very much in BtS. The civilization-specific music is now louder and more audible. This is great because there are a lot of awesome music pieces in BtS, like the themes for Gilgamesh, Justinian or Boudica. Otherwise, there are hardly any new sound effects and everything is good old Civ IV.

So to summarize, Beyond the Sword is truly an expansion pack well worth its money. In fact, I can’t even imagine Civ IV without Beyond the Sword now. While it isn’t perfect and there is still some room for improvement, it is a solid pack that you can’t do without if you own Civilization IV.

And now for the tally, folks!

+ Improved Performance
+ Deeper, Richer gameplay
+ New Civilizations/Leaders (and lots of other such assorted goodies)
+ Worth the price

– Corporations and Espionage not as great as they could be.
– Performance could still have been improved.

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