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Civilization IV: Beyond The Sword

Info and a chat with Firaxis' Tim McCracken.

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.

Corporations replace religion as the game progresses which allows you to play at being Alan Sugar rather than Jesus.

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 Final Frontier space event will delight Trekkies and Civ fans who are bored with all the events happening on earth.

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.