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Review – Civilization IV Beyond the Sword

One of my biggest critiques of the Civilization Warlords Expansion was that I felt Firaxis had produced just enough content to make the game worth buying, and not a smidgen more. Being a Civilization fanatic, I had no choice to buy it, but my hope was that the next expansion, when it came out, would be more satisfying. In the months coming up to the release of Civilization 4: Beyond the Sword, I began to get giddy as a schoolgirl (I even found myself shopping for plaid skirts) that this expansion would deliver. I was not disappointed. And my new skirt fits really well.

I’ll breeze over the stuff you’ve already read elsewhere (or seen in the game): new leaders, new civilizations. There are more of them, an they are in fact delicious. My one critique is that I feel that many of the new civs have unique water-based units, and I generally feel that those are weaker than their land-based counterparts, unless you’re playing an archipelago map.

The overriding theme with the new units in the game is balance. There are a variety of new units which serve as counters to some of the existing staples – the anti-tank infantry provides an oil-less counter to tanks. Ships-of-the-line provide a counter to the frigate. Mobile-SAM provides another anti-air unit beyond SAM Infantry.

An issue with some of these units is that they make their target foil obsolete, or at least greatly hamper them. The anti-tank infantry receives a ridiculous amount of anti-tank bonuses (both 100% vs tanks AND starts with ambush), and the ships-of-the-line beats out the frigate in everything except speed. Hopefully, Firaxis will tweak these units to keep everything viable.

City building, the cocaine of the Civilization player, has been wonderfully improved: there are many new unique buildings, new wonders, new tile improvements, and new national wonders. One thing I like in particular is the fact that there are buildings that are resource driven and not just +X% to a characteristic. An example is public transportation, which grants a city health bonus, and that bonus is increased even more when you discover oil.

One of the new worker improvements is nature preserves, which are delicious on toast. Actually, they’re used to protect and grow jungle and forest late game. The preserves also grant a commerce bonus if you’re running the environmentalist civic, and if you build the national park national wonder, the city it’s built in gets a free specialist for every preserve inside its “Fat cross.” This makes for a very strategic and unique city late game. Other city improvements are more rote: the customs house gives another bonus to foreign trade, and levees add production to river tiles. But let’s be honest: no Civilization player will ever say no to new buildings, imaginative or not.

There are several new technologies in the tech tree, and the existing tech tree has been substantially rebalanced. Part of me is frustrated, as much of the tech tree balancing could have been done in a patch in the massive six month-plus gap between the final Warlords patch and the BTS release. Some notable items include shifting cavalry and grenadiers later in the tree, and not making the monument obsolete until astronomy. One nitpick is that the new technologies are narrated by Sid Meier, not Leonard Nimoy. I like Sid, but his voice lacks the soothing Vulcan undertones of Mr. Spock.

I’m usually not a graphics guy, but one thing that I am in love with is that there is unique art based on region for units. This is slightly unsettling at first: when I saw an Asian civilization swordsman (which looks like a ninja) I freaked out. But overall, I really like the added flavor of this change. I also think it’s the right balance: unique art for each Civ would be annoying and confusing, especially with the Civilization count at 34. But I’d like to see more regional differentiation (as I called out in my Warlords review) at a gameplay level: perhaps the European civs get slaves as a luxury, and the Asian civs get opium. And the African civilizations just get screwed, like in real history!

The gameplay has been dramatically improved across the board: empire control functionality, random events, war, and AI behavior. The AI in particular has been given a huge overhaul, playing smarter both militarily and diplomatically. In wars with the AI at the Prince level, the AI has been able to manage multiple fronts as well as rapidly shift defensive units around to compensate for incoming stacks. The days of a single battle royale at the computer’s first city determining the outcome of an entire war are over. The AI is also smarter when trading and dealing: they no longer take resources just to take them, but rather need to have a strategic reason for doing so.

Random events are a direct rip-off of Galactic Civilization 2, but they are a lot of fun. These range from good (bountiful harvest makes a city grow faster), shitty (hurricanes devastate a city), choices (good or bad events that can be boosted or mitigated by your decisions, usually at a cost), and quests. Quests are very cool, and usually involve war goals or city building in a time frame for a nice bonus.

One thing that frustrates me in multiplayer is that because events are, well, random, sometimes you can find yourself getting no quests while your human friends get many. In a single player game, this isn’t such a big deal, but in multiplayer, there should probably at least be an option to seed events “fairly.” Given that one of the failure conditions of quests is an opposing Civilization completing them first, I wonder if it’s a bug that the quests aren’t offered to everyone at the same time.

The Espionage system is one of the biggest changes to gameplay. Espionage is now a separate economic slider, and espionage points are accrued against other civilizations. Espionage points are also gained from some buildings, or by setting up spy specialists. There is also a “great spy” unit as well. These points have passive effects (such as seeing what your enemy is researching), but also can be spent by running missions with spy units.

Although the espionage system offers a great deal of new functionality, much like real-life spying, it’s mostly only an inconvenience to enemies. Additionally, I don’t care for the addition of the Great Spy, which has somewhat weak bonuses compared to the other GP units. I also dislike the fact that the new Spy specialist is the first “non civilian” specialist–it’s somewhat disjointed compared to other specialists, and given the weakness of the Great Spy, you usually don’t want to risk getting one.

Finally, my favorite addition is corporations. One of the things I begged for in my Warlords review was that the next expansion have new resources. Unfortunately, BTS doesn’t have new resources. The good news is that corporations make resources more important than they’ve ever been late game. The system is fairly complicated and the manual does a terrible job explaining it.

The idea is that you can found corporations which exchange resources for certain bonuses. The corporation does not “consume” the resources, but rather calculates based on the number of instances of the resources you have. Accordingly, once you build a corporation, you will usually begin to trade as much of the bonus resources from the AI as possible to maximize effects. Two corporations are godsends if you’re missing aluminum or oil (as they create them from other resources, preventing you from getting devastated late game if you’re lacking), but the rest give some bonus of money, culture, or hammers in exchange for resources.

However, these bonuses come at a cost: the city maintenance costs become quite burdensome if you expand corporations into every city. But for boosting your super cities, or rapidly improving strategic locations, corporations become an excellent strategic weapon.

Overall, BTS is one of the most content packed expansions for a Civ game to date. In addition to extensive new content, there are many changes that show the guys at Firaxis haven’t been asleep at the wheel, but rather leveraging the strong engine that Civilization 4 had to offer. My biggest critique is that the game shipped and was immediately patched due to a lot of sloppy code issues, and that there is already a second COMMUNITY DEVELOPED AI patch that fixes several other issues. Firaxis, on the other hand, has yet to announce when the next “official” patch will be delivered.

One object of amusement to me is the discussions on the Civfanatics message boards regarding this gap in communication. It seems the fanboy base has determined that the presence of a player patch, and the general quality of the game is sufficient that anyone who is upset at Firaxis’ lack of communication and patching is an idiot. While I love the expansion, I am exceedingly frustrated at the lack of communication and think that any defense of Firaxis is just silly. It is a shame that the PC software market has gotten so sloppy that this sort of behavior is not only acceptable, but even defended by the fan base.

Soapbox aside, hopefully an official patch will come soon, and they will continue to tweak and balance BTS, which has currently replaced DOTA as my time waster of choice. And if that’s not proof of a good game, I don’t know what is.

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16 years ago

I agree with your review. I have been playing Beyond The Sword since it came out and I love the additions it made to the game. This is one expansion that is worthy of buying.