Beyond the Review, Part II: Civ IV: Beyond the Sword
TomChick - News - 07/26/07 - Link

The core game of Civilization IV is one of those desert island games you could play forever and never exhaust. Which means some players wonít notice the great work Firaxis and its fans have done with the mods and scenarios. Beyond the Sword has some scenarios you wonít want to miss. It also has a couple that you will want to miss. So here they are, ranked in the order that Iíd recommend them, from least good to best:

The Ones to Skip

Afterworld is more like a proof of concept than an actual scenario. As a proof of concept, it works. Yes, you can take Civ IV and turn it into an X-Com clone! How about that? Afterworld does have a slick sense of style, mainly in the cutscenes and atmospheric visuals. But itís sorely lacking in the gameplay and usability departments. The claustrophobic camera might add to the atmosphere, but itís a real pain in the ass when it comes to figuring out whoís going where and which zombie is closest. Itís also a pain in the ass moving your soldiers (well, weird tentacle-armed legless floating robot torsos, at any rate) one square at a time, and having to sit through every combat animation because the Quick Combat option resets itself each turn. The RPG system consists mainly of broad combat upgrades that supposedly give you a variety of options for plowing through the zombies, and youíll occasionally find a power up, which is a pretty sorry excuse for equipment, much less loot. I got through the first five or so objectives without ever leaving the first map. At which point I decided this one wasnít for me.


The most disappointing scenario is Derek Paxtonís Age of Ice. Itís like a teaser for his superlative Fall from Heaven mods. It starts out as a trade-off between building up a defensive position in the lower left corner of the map and trying to break out to level up a few heroes and units. At some point, the balance sort of flips and you get a long slog mopping up a sadly non-dynamic world. It feels more like harvesting a canned map than playing Civ IV. I really admire what Paxton has done with Fall from Heaven and itís a mystery to me why he or Firaxis would opt for this unimaginative Heroes of Might & Magic approach. This simply isnít a good way to present Paxtonís work. Iíd recommend skipping this one, and going straight to the latest Fall from Heaven mod.


The Ones to Try

Charlemagne shows off the new accelerated start option to plop you into France (or thereabouts) with a starter kingdom. The gimmick is that youíre currying papal favor by building religious buildings and doing religious things. You know, handing over relics, conquering infidels, doing quests for the pope, that sort of stuff. Kowtowing to Rome, basically. Thereís a running tally of whom the pope loves most, but Iím not convinced the AI understands the rules (a recurring suspicion I have about many of these mods!). It would be nice to have more feedback about why the pope loves Albion more than Eleanor. Hereís one of several scenarios that could have used better documentation in the Civilopedia. Still, itís pretty cool to have a powerful NPC civ handing down gifts. Those Papal Pikemen with their shining silver armor sure are pretty. Also, thereís a nice twist for managing medieval armies in that you need to bring along a Supply Train if you want your units to heal. This makes venturing into the Holy Land feel like, well, a bona fide Crusade. Itís nice to see supply represented as something other than an obscure tax tucked onto a remote tooltip.


Like Charlemagne, Crossroads of the World plays on a fixed map, but centered farther to the east. Set in the Medieval Middle East, this scenario is a fleshed out sandbox for Beyond the Swordís corporations. The objective here is to make money, and it reminds me a bit of the Viking scenario from the Warlords expansion. You make money primarily by competing with your opponents to ďharvestĒ minor civs. You can pillage them with raiders, conquer them, or seed them with ďguildsĒ (corporations). These guilds are like their own characters. Its Adalís bananas vs. gems from Borneo vs. Venetian culture vs. Genoan industry vs. silk from the Traders of the Ilkhanate. Thereís an intricate latticework of resources and even moreso than the corporations in the core game, they give the economy its own sense of character. Considering itís a fixed map, the shifting economic factors and different approaches give this scenario a lot of replay value.


A quick bit of advice: if you want to play Next War: turn off the spaceship victory. Next War fits a set of sci-fi techs onto the end of the tech tree. Everything up to that point plays the same, but theoretically, your game will extend into a cool new endgame phase with robot armies, badass armored juggernauts, assault mechs, and domed cities made infinitely happy by mind-control centers. However, since the spaceship techs come before the new toy techs, the leading civ will likely blast off just as youíre getting ready to go all O.G.R.E. on someoneís ass. Hey, come back here! So to enjoy what Next War has to offer, switch off spaceship victories.

Thereís also a grand world-map scenario that picks up just as the four sides are about to start researching the new stuff. This is a slightly overwhelming but effective way to jump directly to Next Warís goodies.


The Ones Not to Miss

Actually, you probably can miss Road to War: World War II. Itís not going to appeal to the typical Civ IV player. It certainly went over my head. But thereís no denying that mod-maker Dale Kent went above and beyond the call of duty to make his meticulous World War II scenario. In fact, he made three: one in the Pacific, one in early Europe (Hitler-less), and one in earlier Europe (also Hitler-less). There are some minor changes in the combat rules, but this is mainly an exhaustive exercise in flexing Civ IVís modern combat model. Many units are named after real world vehicles and the tech tree has been built to introduce incremental advancements among combat units, spaced out by lots of empty techs.

Instead of religion, there are political philosophies spread by propaganda units. Civics are mostly a couple of broad choices (Skilled or forced labor? Fascism, communism, or democracy?), normally limited by which nation youíre playing. Thereís a scale of industrial capacity that adds to the number of units you can support, as well as your military production. Itís enough to make your head swim, which is a good thing for the typical WWII wargamer. For the rest of us, there are always supporting players like Australia or Norway.


Broken Star reminds me a bit of the Mediterranean scenario from Warlords. I really like these clear-cut deceptively simple victory conditions. In Warlords, the idea was to capture and occupy other playersí steles to rack up victory points (unfortunately, it didnít seem like the AI was up to the task, which made it ultimately disappointing). Broken Star has a similarly elegant victory condition, but set in the whimsical world of a crumbling Russian empire. Eight factions start with their own modest single-city rump republics, divided from each other by swathes of rebel controlled territory. In this territory are stacks of super powerful Coalition armies hunkered down on eight nuclear silos. Each faction has to control four of them for a period of 25 turns to win the game. Of course, you can also use the nukes, but there goes one of your victory conditions.

Itís a really clever set up, and itís made more challenging by the fact that Coalition forces will occasionally dribble in from one of the map edges and make a beeline for a captured silo. One of the unique gimmicks is that you can use gold to buy and level up units. Since the tech tree is strictly used to improve military units, itís a very military oriented scenario. And youíll see a lot of Beyond the Swordís new tactical missiles flying around.

But again, like Warlordsí Mediterranean scenario, I question the AIís ability to grok the victory conditions. I had no problem grabbing four silos without any serious competition. Of course, once I grabbed the fourth silo, I seem to have tripped a flag that made the AI go apeshit on me. I lost the game. But it would have been nice to feel like I wasnít the only guy trying to win.

Also, unless Iíve missed something, espionage egregiously breaks this scenario. One of the things a spy unit can do is destroy a tile improvement, even out from under an army. So any spy can simply waltz up to one of the nuclear silos Ė remember, these are all-important victory conditions -- and then take it out of the game by spending a pittance of E-bucks. Uh, hello, Firaxis playtesters? Anyone home?


Gods of Old has the potential to be my favorite mod for making such a subtle but important change to the core game (in fact, itís so subtle that unless you pour over the Civilopedia and piece together different entries, it might not make any sense). In this mod, religion has been reworked so that your choice of faith gives you buildings with special powers and unique unit upgrades. Religions here are more like schools of magic in a fantasy game. It would have been interesting, to say the least, if Civ IV had been this bold with real world religions. Instead, we get Gods of Old with ancient religions whose names sound like babytalk.: Nanna, Utu, Enki, and such. Itís like a touch of the crazy stuff Derek Paxton did with Fall from Heaven, but existing within the context of vanilla Civ. As far as tweaks to the core game go, this mod is a great one.


The Ones You Really Donít Want to Miss

Final Frontier is probably my favorite mod for how it renders Civ IV unrecognizable by launching it out into space and hundreds of years into the future. Yet it still manages to retain most of the elegance of Soren Johnsonís basic design. Thereís a fair bit of twiddling around with different planets in each system, and I wish the planet types were a bit more intuitive. As it is, you canít figure out just what youíre getting from a system until after youíve spent the colony ship. And building queues are pretty much ruined since each system behaves like a basket of cities. You have to manually switch among planets to build things.

But the trade-off is a nifty conceit of stacking buildings to create specialized systems. In the early stages of colonizing a new star system, you need to make the most of habitation, mining, and nutrition facilities. Laying this basic groundwork has the feel of terraforming and it paves the way for more refined development. Do you want to make an uber military base? Build a training compound on each planet and rack up the +2 prestige (xp) bonuses to spit out some wicked capital ships. Interested in optimizing research? Load up your planets with mag-lev networks and satellites, complemented with universities and research labs.

The map resources are more powerful and more remote, tucked into the cover of asteroid belts: oxygen, water, rare metals, crystals. Borrowing a page from Stardockís Galactic Civilizations, (which itself borrowed a page from Civilization III, which got the idea from Brian Reynoldís Alpha Centauri), the influence system is based partly around starbases, which you build to stake your claim. As youíd expect in any sci-fi game worth its salt, thereís an extensive tech tree that wonít make any sense at first. The spaceship interaction is intuitive and exciting, with a paper/rock/scissors system of bombers trumping capital ships trumping destroyers trumping fighters trumping bombers. You get the idea. Add a bunch of missiles gradually churned out from your starbases for good measure and top it all with a planet destroying doomsday missile.

Religion is reworked as a system of values, each of which guarantees you a special building. Wealth gives you an awesome market, whereas survival gives you extra terraforming, and power gives your ships a boost. Like Gods of Old, Final Frontier makes your pick of religion really matter. Finally, there are distinct sides with important differences. Itís not at the level of Alpha Centauri, but thatís certainly the direction it takes. Youíll come to hate the Brotherhood almost as much as the Red Syndicate. But itís those New Earth fuckers whoíll really get your goat.

Unfortunately, I ran into enough egregious bugs that Final Frontier deserves itís own ďUh, hello, Firaxis playtesters? Anyone home?Ē. I donít know if itís because this is the most ambitious mod or if itís because this is the mod I played the most and therefore had the most opportunity to see broken bits. But I wasnít able to get through a game without bumping into serious problems of one sort of another, one of which brought my game to a screeching halt after 330 turns (Final Frontier games run for a full 400 turns). I suspect most of this can be worked out with patches, so Iíd actually advise against getting too interested in Final Frontier until some of these issues have been sorted out.


Finally, my hands down favorite mod in Beyond the Sword is the absolutely do-not-miss Rhyeís and Fall of Civilization, a fan-made mod from Gabriele ďRhyeĒ Trovato that meticulously scripts the march of history. This is an absolutely brilliant labor of love that marries Civ IVís addictive elegance to Europa Universalisí fastidious historicity. Itís one of the most exciting and robust mods Iíve ever seen for any game.

You choose an empire and let Civ think for a while, counting down until itís time for your debut. Then youíre dropped onto a map of the world in your empireís actual birthplace. And there you are, playing Civ IV with real-world empire placement according to a real-world-ish timeline. As time goes on, historical things happen around you courtesy of new civs dropping into the game, dying civs fading away, and some really creative use of the random events. One of the most impressive details -- and a testament to Trovatoís obsessive care -- is that no matter where your settlers go, thereís a historical name for a city founded on that tile.

Instead of the leadership traits, each civ has a distinct unique power. Each civ also has three unique objectives that serve as victory short-cuts. This gives every nation its own victory puzzle, not to mention a great way to jump into the smaller players on the world stage. The Aztecs, for instance, might not be able to hold their own with the big boys in Europe, but theyíve got their own agenda (which includes enslaving Europeans!). For instance, Carthage needs to conquer three sources of dye, control five cities on the coast of the Mediterranean, and win the race to discover astronomy and circumnavigate the globe (this latter victory condition is a popular one). If she doesnít do that, no sweat. Youíre still playing Civ IV and can win the game the normal ways. Have fun doing your level best to bring Carthage into the modern era.

To keep things from getting too wacky, there are all under-the-hood calculations that determine a civís stability. This affects how well your empire holds together, and if you fall too far behind your civís stability goals (broadly indicated on the treasury screen), your empire is liable to break apart and spawn a new rogue civilization. In other words, civil war. There are also waves of plague that will eat your population and armies. In the late post-Nationalism eras, votes will pop up among the most successful civs to vote on resetting ill-gotten territorial gains.

It all serves to make Civilization even more like civilization. In my first game, I chose Greece. I held out against the Roman Empire to my west, and then converted to Islam to placate the Arabs to my east, which made it harder to hold out against Rome. Then along came the upstart Ottomans with their artillery, and I was eventually squeezed into a single city on the Peloponnesian peninsula: Athens, the jewel of the world thanks to my emphasis on culture. I crossed the Mediterranean and set up a thriving empire in the vacuum left by Egypt on the Nile delta. But Athens was too much of a temptation and Rome eventually took it from me. I was left to watch helplessly from across the ocean as my lovely Athens dwindled to a fraction of her former glory under the mismanagement of the crumbling Roman Empire. Iíd never enjoyed losing a game quite so much. And Iíd never been so eager to immediately jump in and try again.

The main drawback is that this is a really CPU intensive mod. The map is huge and thereís a lot going on here. These games move slowly, and if youíre barely hanging on with only a couple of cities, youíre going to spend a lot more time waiting than playing. But Rhyeís and Fall is well worth the waits.



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