I have gone through something of an odyssey to bring you this preview. A labour of love it was, to be sure, but my mission took me from my dysfunctional home computer to the NZGamer office, through rain, tiredness, failure to install, and mysterious errors relating to supposedly absent CD-ROMs (preview versions are a funny breed). I have waited in vain through dead calm; I have been tempted by sirens; drugged with drink. I have even watched the new Transformers movie (which, by the way, is a cheese-filled spectacular that panders to our childhood in the best possible ways).
But I kept faith. I have weathered the storms, cast my tiredness aside, said 'to Hell with my day job', and finally gotten some time alone with my prize. Sweet, sweet Civ expansion goodness...
Now, obviously, Beyond the Sword is loaded with the kind of extra content expected from a Civilization expansion. The ten new civs introduced are the Native Americans, Portugal, the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, the Maya, the Khmer, Babylon, Sumeria, Byzantium, and Ethiopia. Along with them come sixteen new leaders, both for these fresh empires, and for those previously featured (for example, the Celts get Boudica, and France recruits Charles de Gaulle). Unfortunately, I can't offer a great deal of comment on the leaders, as the graphics in the preview copy are unfinished for many of the new additions. Along with the new civs come new unique units and buildings, too. But this is all par for the course. You want to know about the expansion's hook.
Beyond the Sword earns its name in two important ways. First and foremost, the expansion offers players new non-military tactical options. The big changes here are in Espionage, peaceful Religious Victory, and the all-new Corporations. While these options don't shift the focus completely away from open warfare, they allow for a better balance between direct military force and more subtle moves toward world domination.
Espionage, crucially, has been moved into the earlier stages of the game. It has also had its profile in the game raised dramatically: it even gets its own financial slider bar, like science and culture. Great Spies have also been added to the game, and in addition to creating a unique building, being added as specialists, or helping start a golden age, they can be used to infiltrate rival cities, giving you extra intelligence from that civilization.
One of the more intriguing additions is the Apostolic Palace, which is a kind of religious precursor to the United Nations, able to be built with Theology. As the name suggests, this Wonder simulates the Papacy. Once the AP is built, every civ with the relevant religion is eligible to vote for the leader, who in turn can (like the head of the UN) put forward propositions to be voted on. Obviously, the AP lends itself best to already strong religions. However, the AI likes to pick up the religion that has the Palace, because it is a road to power. The downside of the religion's popularity is more voting civs means less votes for you. But it also places you in a strong position for alliances: not only do you get the international relations bonused from sharing religion, you can also join in resolutions such as embargos and holy wars. And, best of all, the AP opens the door to an early UN-style diplomatic victory.
Later, in the modern age, religion fades in importance, and capitalism gives rise to the new international institutions – Corporations. As well as giving you the thrill (and other perks) of spreading a religion-like entity in your cities and those of your friends and rivals (an aspect of Civ IV which previously evaporated as the game went on), corporations allow you to make use of excess resources, turning them into food, production, happiness, more useful materials, etc. They also essentially tax the cities they spread into, which is exciting if you run the corporate HQ.
Corporations also highlight the other way in which this expansion goes ‘beyond the sword’: it explores the modern era far more satisfactorily. New units are added, including anti-tank guns, to mitigate the Industrialism-fuelled blitzkrieg that the first civ to build tanks could otherwise unleash, and also airships, which can spot submarines, and are also just pretty awesome. Seriously, people: zeppelins! ZEPPELINS! I’m just sore that the preview version didn’t have the graphics for them yet.
There’s also an extended Space Race: you now have to make it to Alpha Centauri first to win, not just launch the ship. And, to that end, the craft is customizable. So you might get a skeleton vessel into the sky before anyone else, but if Montezuma spends the time and effort to supercharge his civ’s rocket, it could quite easily overtake yours somewhere in the darkness.
In order to fully experience these additions to the late game, Beyond the Sword also comes with an Advanced Start feature, letting you kick the game off not just with advanced tech, but with cities, units, improvements, etc, that you ‘buy’ before the game actually starts. It’s like a cooking show: “…And here’s an empire I prepared earlier.” It does cut out the fun of expanding naturally, but it also stops the absurdity of having an unsettled planet in the renaissance or modern eras.
Even further beyond swords are the sci-fi scenarios the expansion ships with. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play the squad-based anti-zombie overhaul of the game. But the futuristic scenario featuring an Earth ravaged by global warming, and ruled by four superpowers, with clones and mechs at their disposal, was pretty cool.
All this new content is great. But what really makes Beyond the Sword incredible is the advances to the look and feel of the game. Here, Firaxis have gone far beyond the call of duty. Beyond the Sword actually runs noticeably smoother! And the movement of units look more natural; less rigid. Pathfinding, too, is markedly improved. You’re not just buying more game, you’re buying a better game.
To have breathed new life into an already vibrant title like Civilization IV is a very impressive feat. And that right there is the bottom line. I had to tell you all about the new content. And the new content is exciting. The non-military additions to the game already make for a more exciting expansion than Warlords. But the winning stroke here is the polish.
Beyond the Sword plays better, and looks better. Civ fans: this is more than worth forking out for.
The Good: Great new content, and even more polish.
The Bad: Not being made Pope, after you've worked so hard!
The Ugly: My mood after staying up too late playing Civ.