Buy 'CIVILIZATION IV: Beyond the Sword': PC
Sid Meier knows how to make a quick buck or two in the video game industry, but he's in a rather unique position to use this knowledge. His very name is a brand name of quality — one he has persistently upheld with top-tier game after top-tier game. From his three versions of Pirates to Alpha Centauri, to his civil war simulations, it's pretty hard to think of a Sid Meier game that isn't a fun, triple-A release, and this tends to persist to his expansions. There are not many people for whom this is true (EA Sports notwithstanding), but Sid Meier's done it again and again for 30 years, and Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword, the third expansion to Civ IV, follows this vein quite well.
Beyond the Sword advertises itself as the largest Civilization expansion ever and backs this up by introducing numerous features that significantly change major gameplay dynamics ... and then throws in a whole pile of new scenarios, including a few that are total conversions that make completely different games out of the Civ IV rule set. Whether it's starting one of several corporations to spread your economic and cultural influence, or using the much more robust espionage rule set against your enemies (and allies), you've got more options to mess with your opponent, and any one of them makes new courses to victory viable. Just don't forget the military and workers, because you never know when the new Random Events system will screw you over with a natural disaster or other unfortuitous circumstance. You should also look out for the balance tweaks that will enhance some tactics but weaken others.
Many players of Civilization complain of its extremely slow start; one city to manage just doesn't make things very interesting at the outset. Fortunately, the new Advanced Start options in the custom game menu let you begin with a region of the map already pre-explored, letting you go directly to an era of choice and receive an amount of gold which can be used to quickly establish a civilization within a 10-turn limit. This option speeds up play exceptionally, removing one of the biggest complaints about the series and allowing you to get right to two of the more powerful pieces of new, optional content in Beyond the Sword.
Espionage has been a hallmark of the series since at least Civilization II, and Beyond the Sword expands it immensely with a dedicated Espionage system, supplementing the spy units with new techniques. Espionage points are generated by diverting a city's income (that could otherwise go to research or culture), and these points can then be split between civilizations, or espionage missions can be used against opposing civilizations. Some are automatic, while others are issued from spies, and they can have all sorts of nasty effects, from destroying enemy buildings or improvements to stealing technologies, to inciting revolts that can leave an enemy city wide open to your conquest, to simply stopping enemy spies from entering your borders and doing all this nasty stuff to you. The options are not gamebreakers, but they do turn Espionage into a powerful set of tactics that add a major wrinkle to play, especially as time advances and you approach the end of the game, when one stolen tech really can make the difference.
If you've ever listened to Rammstein's "Amerika," you probably understand how corporations influence the world. Beyond the Sword introduces these modern-day superpowers, which behave in many ways similarly to religions (insert joke about Bill Gates being Satan here) as extensions of your civilization, turning a resource (great person) and a couple of researched technologies into a gold bonus. Used judiciously, they can provide you with immense help and influence around the world, but used poorly, and you get the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (ba dum psh!) Seriously, though, they can cause you quite a bit of trouble.
You never know when something will go wrong in the real world, and Civilization IV's random events throw things for a loop; whether they are natural disasters or Barbarians deciding to rule the world, bad things can happen to anyone, anytime. Of course, there are also good things hidden in there as well, and the random events factor immensely into the game's difficulty. Playing on a lower difficulty level, I found natural disasters pummeling everyone else numerous times before Barbarians decided to invade my civilization.
All of this is stacked on top of several of the most significant items from Civilization IV: Warlords (Great Generals, Vassal States, etc.), which is included in Beyond the Sword, in case you lack Warlords, along with a whole ton of minor tweaks, changes, and rule changes. Most of the subtler edits are just that, but when combined with the new features and elements of play, Beyond the Sword's standard mode is immensely different in nature than the original Civilization IV, even if not all things are as graphically polished as they were for the last packs. For example, new Wonders only get beautiful final sketches, rather than full videos of the landmark from the conceptual stages to reality. This produces enough differences to definitely make this expansion a must-have for hardcore players.
That's even before you throw in the game's new scenarios. Afterworld tears down all of the civilizing elements and details and gives you five superpowered soldiers (who can be upgraded to become even more superpowered) who have to investigate the mysterious behavior of what are basically zombies in a large research outpost in the far future. Civ Defense pits you against a nigh-endless army of lions, zombies, and general craziness in the vein of a Tower Defense game, while Final Frontier puts you in space, cut off from Earth, forcing your colony to deal with a truly unknown environment. For all the cool stuff added to the main game, the added scenarios range from intriguing to just plain amazing, on top of the already very powerful modbase the game provides. The scenarios represent the meat of playability for many gamers in spite of none of them being a perfect replacement for the original game. The Next War scenario can integrate into the main game to make an already-epic experience even more so by adding near-future content en masse.
For $30 in an environment where many people were expecting to pay $50 or more, Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword represents a near must-buy for any owner of Civ IV. Between all the wrinkles in the main gameplay, all the scenarios which completely change or add to it, and the fact that this comes with little to no system requirement increases or, well, anything that doesn't add to the gameplay, Beyond the Sword is little more than another stop on Sid Meier's traditional formula but is so much fun precisely because of this. It makes an old but sweet game new again, far more so than the previous Warlords expansion did. Sid Meier is to PC strategy games (and piratical sims) what Shigeru Miyamoto was to console gaming in the '80s, and to say I'm looking forward to his next effort is an understatement. It isn't often that an expansion pack is worthy of being called an Editors' Choice, but Meier's has earned it.
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