Sid Meier creates strategy games that are so expansive, so rich, and so complex that the mini-games, the scenarios, the sideshow distractions in the games are more rewarding then some stand-alone games currently on the market. In Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword, the latest expansion pack for Civilization IV (), there’s a World War II scenario that is more entertaining than any turn-based WWII simulator I’ve played in the past year–and that’s not even a small fraction of the game’s content.
Meier is never one to shrink from creating scale, depth, or complexity in his games. He also enjoys throwing in the occasional history joke. (If you completely fail at beating a scenario, you’ll often be congratulated for having the leadership skills of Dan Quayle).
Civilization IV, which has sold over three million copies and is arguably one of the richest, most complex, and open-ended society-building games ever made, is now more complex thanks to this latest expansion pack. Beyond the Sword focuses its additions to the periods of history after the discovery of gunpowder. Eleven new scenarios, ten new civilizations, and 16 new leaders augment an already impressive cast of characters and players throughout history. If you’ve been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to play as Portugal, your wait is over.
Beyond the Sword isn’t an expansion pack that I’d recommend for new Civilization IV players. New players should cut their teeth on the basic game elements and the early periods of history before they even attempt to get to the modern age and Beyond the Sword’s considerable additions.
The most obvious new features to the game happen later, when you’re in the modern eras. You’ll be introduced to the corporation feature of the game, an element that behaves much like the “religion” aspect. Players can create corporations that specialize in certain resources and need to be spread throughout the world. You need a specific technology, resource, and Great Person to found a corporation’s headquarters and then the company itself. Your company can be spread via executive emissaries to other cities (even foreign ones) and each branch will net the player additional gold.
A corporation is a hungry beast, eating some of your resources and then granting you other ones and gold. Mercantilism and the state property civic models can affect corporations, much as religions can be affected by adopting a state religion or freedom to practice. While corporations provide another layer of complexity to the game and can net a clever leader some easy funding, the majority of players will find their time and resources better spent on scientific and military investments.
Espionage is introduced earlier in the game, allowing the player to spy on and disrupt foreign countries during earlier time periods of history. The spy unit will evolve from being a masked person of mystery to a James Bond-esque agent later in the game. Yet I still found the espionage system clunky and not as well integrated as some other elements. I like that having your spy get caught will negatively affect diplomatic relations, but the spies seem so limited in their abilities. You can sabotage production, poison the water, steal, gather intel and ferment unrest, but I want the ability to assassinate units, raze buildings, and detonate nuclear weapons. How much fun would it be to send in a spy to detonate the tactical nuke your enemy has been keeping in his capital?
The game also re-introduces the “random events” element of the original Civilization game. You can discover new resources, engage in diplomatic marriages, or recover from terrible natural disasters. These provide some moments of chaos and can tip the outcomes of close games, but generally they can be regarded as amusing distractions that help make the highly-formuliazed game seem more random.
While all of the previously discussed elements add more content to an already deep game, they don’t add anything that fundamentally alters gameplay or changes how you play the game. The new scenarios break this mold by introducing gameplay with unique restrictions, units, and plots. You can play as one of four modern nations locked in global war, or as part of a sci-fi exploratory force, or in a tower defense-like mission that pits you against waves of technologically-advancing enemies. I’m a particular fan of the World War II themed Road to War scenarios that allow you to play as one of many of the world players in several theaters of war.
The ability to advance start (effectively skipping early parts of history and allowing to player to select certain technological advances) is a welcome addition to the game, finally enabling the player to start the game in the period of history they want.
Such a wildly successful franchise as Civilization is resistant to change, and though Beyond the Sword sprinkles in new features, it’s the underlying gears that need some tinkering. You’ll still arch an eyebrow when you see your infrantry units equipped with machine guns lose to camel archers. Likewise, you’ll want to see a better realization of the espionage feature’s potential. Perhaps you’re like me, and want to see the religion feature’s evolution into the modern era complete with religious fervor, zealots, and mass marketing. (Yes, corporations are like religion institutions, but neither seems as well defined or essential for victory as could be.)
Macworld’s buying advice
Fans of the Civilization series appreciate how rich and rewarding a world simulator Sid Meier has created. Beyond the Sword gives you more of the same, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The game could use some tweaks to various gameplay elements but the overall experience is something that you can’t help but want to get lost in. The new wrinkles and folds that Meier has introduced into his maze-like world only makes immersion that much easier.
[Chris Holt is a Macworld assistant editor.]
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