Version tested: PC
Bad news - they didn't bring back Leonard Nimoy. The highlight of Civ IV, was of course, the befuddled-sounding Mr Spock solemnly intoning "BEEP. BEEP. BEEP" upon the discovery of satellites, or confusedly quoting Velvet Underground lyrics when rock'n'roll was created.
While Beyond the Sword is an excellent expansion pack in all other ways, that a few more shillings could not be raised to have the poor soul record new lines deserves a mournful moment of silence. Instead, Sid Meier steps into the breach to dole out the requisite quote whenever a technology not already in the parent game is researched. The man's a legend for sure, but unfortunately he has exactly the voice you'd expect of a middle-aged American game developer. Hint: it's a few octaves higher and a whole lot more whiny than you'd really want of a disembodied voice that announces you've just made one of all history's greatest discoveries. Let's have Spock for God again, please.
So, the second expansion pack for the fresher-than-ever strategy stalwart, and as observed in our review of the last one, Warlords, it's hard not to go at it without a certain preconception along the lines of "hang on, exactly what in this game needs expanding?" Especially as Warlords has already redressed its parent's accidental bias against military victory.
Well, what makes Beyond the Sword arguably the Civ series' finest expansion pack is that you don't really notice it's there. You play Civ 4 more or less as you've always done, and most of the extra bits slot in so neatly and logically that it seems they've always been present. They're so exact a fit, in fact, that were they not included in the vanilla game of any future Civ 5, Firaxis should be made to go and stand in the same corner of money-grabbing ignominy as Maxis have skulked for several years now.
Traditionally, an expansion pack is like a benign tumour for its host game, a new lump crudely grafted onto a spare bit of exposed skin. Beyond the Sword, by contrast, is more like a new organ. It's a third lung for Civ 4, allowing it to breathe more easily - and you to craft a slightly more unique victory. 'Beyond the Sword' refers not really to the expansion having a slight modern-age bias, but to Civ IV now being less war-centric than ever.
There are piecemeal tweaks throughout (for instance, far-flung colonies can secede from an Empire and set up shop on their own, while a space race victory now involves waiting for your rocketship to reach Alpha Centauri rather than simply building it), but the three most obvious additions are espionage, corporations and random events.
This former is a ramping up of the fairly basic spy games in Civ IV vanilla. Rather than laboriously and expensively sending spies across the land to gather intel on your rivals, you can now gear a city or your whole civ towards espionage in the same way you can towards culture or production. With enough relevant buildings and manpower, you'll start automatically receiving info on what the other empires are up to, and can even choose to concentrate your efforts on a certain nations. Thus if Egypt are getting dangerously close to researching nukes, you might find out enough in advance to launch a pre-emptive strike (or desperately shower them with gifts in the hope their radioactive gaze falls from you). Of course, all this subterfuge will eat into your R&D, so the degree to which you favour intelligence over brawn or commerce can affect your game enormously.
Corporations, meanwhile, help achieve economic victory. No doubt knowingly so (Civ IV is, after all, a game that displays a picture of Al Gore to denote the internet and in which Mount Rushmore can only be built once you've discovered fascism), it's essentially the religion mechanic repainted . Your agents spread the word in other nations, only wherever they successfully convince the locals of their cause's worth, they'll yield coin rather than influence. They're also a means of converting less useful or even obsolete resources into more valuable ones or positive effects for their host city, bringing stuff back into play that's often abandoned by the late stage of the game Corporations come into play in.
It's a sly and fascinating addition, but founding each of the seven corps is aggravatingly exact in its requirements - the right Great Person and the right resources. While you might end up with one or two by luck, actively seeking a corporation is really only a task for someone who feels they've mastered Civ IV. Really, that's the kind of expansion pack this is - layering on artful intricacies to bring back now those bored of the original game. The great strides of accessibility Civ IV made over its predecessors aren't the focus here. This cheerfully makes the game more terrifying to those who already cringe at its complexity, and in that respect is grist to the mill of those who troll the EG comments thread for any and every PC game review to make disparaging remarks about the platform.
What haven't I talked about yet? Oh, so very much. The random events are a neat touch - natural disasters that can damage your cities or improvements, but persecute the other Civs with equal frequency. In that event, you'll be given the option of whether to send help to an afflicted rival, which offers a sporadic but useful extra way to cement diplomatic ties. Which might then be severed when an arranged marriage to one of their noblemen falls through. These events rarely change the outcome of the game, though they certainly spice it up a bit, but they could be said to be a little too random. The arranged marriage thing, for instance, is a nice idea, but can grate a little because you've had nothing to do with the marriage, and suddenly an already highly-strung civ is mad at you through no fault of your own.
Most of the events comprise only a small text-box with a short list of response options, so this is an addition that feels a tad slapdash compared to the others. More, they can upset a careful strategy - an annoyance for cheerless Civ purists, but like espionage and corporations, do help liven up an already excellent game in danger of being played to death. Much of the time, they make a world that can become quite rote in the twilight turns of the game a little more organic again. A few even take the form of simple quests (e.g. a corporation requesting resource land-grabs from other civs), which offer something extra to do during the glacially slow waiting period during the late-game of a less aggressive bout of Civ 4. And crucially, in case you're already preparing an enraged letter threatening Sid Meier's wife and family, you can just turn them off if you don't like 'em.
Ack, still so much more to mention, but no way to do so without just writing a shopping list. And no need to, either, as the critique boils down to to the journalistic stereotype of if you love Civ 4, just buy this, OK? You won't be disappointed. If you can't stand Civ, then, predictably, stay the hell away. If you only quite like Civ 4, then it's still worth a look for the custom scenarios. These are officially-made or approved mods for the game, and offer some really dramatic twists. Afterworld is a pseudo-X-COM, basic but impressive in the distance it flees from the Civ template; Next War throws in a load of future tech; Final Frontier takes Civ to the stars in an attempt to recapture some of Alpha Centauri's lost magic. Some you'll play only once, some never, but there's more than enough to justify the £15 for this goes for from online game-grocers. So, the best Civ expansion ever? Yeah, why not?
8 / 10