It's hard to imagine a world without Civilization - and by that we mean Sid Meier's landmark life simulator. The series has been around, in one form or another, since 1991, and its bloodline is undeniably linked to numerous digital offspring from The Sims to World of Warcraft. With this new expansion, the ever expanding Civ universe has actually gone the whole hog and embraced The Universe, star systems, planets and Star Trek-style leaders and all.
The new mode is called Final Frontier and is essentially an extension of the main aim of the game. Instead of winning the bid to get into space, you now have a new objective - to reach Alpha Centauri as well as actually getting into space. It's something that hardcore fans (and Richard Branson) will relish, but this expansion also makes it easier for new players to play short games and still play a fun game without missing out on any toilet breaks or week-night onanism.
Advance Start allows players to jump into an advanced level with a set level of funds in the bank, doing away with anything that might have been thought of as laborious by newcomers. Speed the game up and it's accessible by everyone - even the fan community requested the Advance Start in addition to helping Firaxis build what is, in effect, pretty much the ultimate iteration of the series. If there's somewhere else for it to go, we really can't see it. Which, er, is probably why we're writing about games rather than making them.
There are 10 new scenarios including Babylon, Portugal and The Netherlands and 16 new leaders - Sitting Bull, Tokugawa, Gilgamesh and Justinian for starters. The key difference to the way you rule is through corporations that can be spread, grown and used to dominate the world. We're talking McDonalds and Microsoft scale here, not making pasties in a medieval kitchen.
The addition of spies and espionage missions means playing against someone isn't just about knowing what buildings and units to use first. Drop a spy behind enemy lines and you'll get valuable info, cheaper goods and the chance to behave in the contemporary ways spies do by discreetly dropping Polonium 210 into tea cups. Poison a leader or the water supply of your rival and hey presto, you've been sneaky and reduced a population by several thousand.
How you'll sleep at night we don't know, but it adds a level of cunning in a game often ruled by quick mouse clicks and knowledge of previous games. As you pass funds towards espionage, you'll get the odd intelligence alert too. The David and Goliath situation that a newbie and veteran find themselves in is now a more appealing match.
The Sim City-style random events that occur can also cause the game to swing in your favour, or not. There are tidal waves, floods and all manner of natural disasters and unexpected demands from your citizens. Helpfully, good things also happen like the discovery of new resources, or a plea for help from another culture. Help them and that will make up for all that nasty poison business you've been up to. The rise of your civilization through strategy and confrontation, rather than non-stop wars is something Firaxis is keen to emphasise and the 'Beyond The Sword' title is a conscious effort to distance itself from the likes of Command & Conquer.
The new wonders include Cristo Redentor, Shwedagon Paya, Statue of Zeus, Mausoleum of Maussollos and the Moai Statues. These are all perfectly balanced, though the Statue of Zeus wonder is particularly good as acting as deterrent to anyone that might think of going to war with you. Again, the fan community has helped build these through forums and working directly with Firaxis.
To conclude, this expansion is mind-boggling. If you thought the eight disc, book and board game Civilization Chronicles pack was the end of the story, think again. Beyond The Sword seems like a critical purchase for fans and has made a special effort to welcome newcomers too.
Tim McCracken speaks
And then we write down what he says and put it on the Internet, because he works for Firaxis and therefore it's probably interesting isn't it?
Eurogamer: How significant an expansion is this to the Civ series?
Tim McCracken: This is actually our biggest expansion pack ever - what we've added is 25 new units, 18 new buildings, 16 new leaders, ten new civilizations and eight new wonders.
Eurogamer: Tell us about the wonders.
Tim McCracken: One of the new wonders is the Apostolic Palace - this acts like a UN early in the game. If you found a religion and send your missionaries out to other cities and convert other nations to that religion, then you build the Apostolic Palace which will trigger global elections. That's really important - say you had Tokugawa next door to your Napoleon, these people aren't going to get along with you so you're going to have to focus on your defensive game - you're going to have to focus on your military. But with the Apostolic Palace, one of the things you can trigger is 'don't go to war with me' - so you will literally make sure that they'll take their weapons and put it behind their back - all the way until they discover communism. So it's not a permanent headlock but it holds them for a long time.
Eurogamer: What about the units? What's new and how do they work?
Tim McCracken: Some of the new units that we've added are the mobile sam and mobile artillery. The mobile SAM is a powerful anti-aircraft unit. We've also added tactical nukes - they're like regular nukes, except they're a lot cheaper but they're not as powerful. But they still produce the wonderful mushroom cloud that everybody loves.. .We've also added paratroopers. Usually if you're in combat with someone, they're going to line their borders with units. With a paratrooper, you can actually slip in behind enemy lines and take out a very important resource - if you take out oil, your rival can no longer produce tanks.
Eurogamer: What key changes and enhancements have been made?
Tim McCracken: We've beefed up the espionage system which is based upon points and you can select which mission you want to do. You can do everything from supporting a revolution to poisoning the water supply. There will be some missions you won't be able to do because you won't have enough points but when you've earned enough points, you'll be able to pull of greater espionage missions. If the city is in revolt, you'll take out a large chunk of it's culture. Also, the more time a spy spends inside a city, the cheaper things get. A key thing we've added are corporations which kind of replace religion as the game goes on. If you have a corporation that you've founded, you can spread each corporation through an executive. The corporation is good because it's going to give your finances a massive boost but you have to be careful about who you're giving funds to. If you have an oil corporation and you support another corporation, you're giving them the ability to make tanks.
Eurogamer: You've got new leaders in the game. Can you tell us about some of them?
Tim McCracken: Yes. We've added loads of new leaders. We've got Abraham Lincoln, Gilgamesh, Justinian. He'll be annoyed with you as he plays but the opposite of him is Sitting Bull - he'll try to take you over culturally.
Eurogamer: What about how the game plays; what can fans expect to see in terms of development?
Tim McCracken: We've beefed up our space race. Typically in Civ IV, the space race works by building your space ship to immediately win the game. The minute you've launched your space ship, that person wins. Now, we've added complexity to it so while you may launch first you're not necessarily going to reach Alpha Centauri first. So if Napoleon just launched into space, I can focus on my thrusters and try to beat him there. Of course, he can send in spies after me and try and take me out that way.
We've added Random Events too, which you can turn off or on. They'll be a tsunami or earthquake which will suddenly appear but they'll be good things too - like a golden age or a wedding between two empires which will boost diplomacy between the two of them.
Eurogamer: Though satisfying, Civ can take a long time to play - are there any modes for gamers who don't have a massive amount of time to invest?
Tim McCracken: Yes. Advance Starts allow you to start later in the game, in a place like the industrial period. If people have a short time to play, the best thing would be to select and Advance Start in combination with a Quick Game which speeds everything up. You could play a full game of Civ in your lunch break, for example. Advance Starts are great in multiplayer - you usually start in the ancient period which hasn't been very interesting in the past. You can customise the game right from the start, drop a city wherever you want, add population, add culture, you can even draw out your roads. All of this costs money and you're given a pool to start with but ultimately the amount you spend at the start reduces your final total.
Eurogamer: We understand that there's some sort of space mode in this expansion?
Tim McCracken: Oh yeah! The Final Frontier space scenario is almost like an entire remake of the game all over again. There's a brand new tech tree, loads of new units and a brand new terrain! We wanted to show the community who have been great, how crazy you can be with the scenarios. Final Frontier takes place 100 years after earth - after contact was lost with earth... as you play through the scenario, you'll find small clues about what happened to earth. It's a lot different to the base game of Civ. Instead of conquering the world, you're conquering all of space. Instead of building a city, you're colonizing a star system. You can go into each star system and plant buildings on each planet and assign population to them. Then there's Star Bases - they're kind of like satellite cities, they can harvest resources from an asteroid field, spread the influence of your city and they can also defend against attacking units. There's pop up hints which will tell you all about the new units and there's also the Civilopedia with an explanation on the concepts.
Eurogamer: Could you imagine the game appearing on Xbox 360? C&C 3 has, and it's doing well...
Tim McCracken: Possibly. There's nothing set in stone. We're always paying attention to the trends of the industry...