Beyond the Review: Civ IV: Beyond the Sword
TomChick - News - 07/25/07 - Link

As you can see from the score Iíve given Civ IV: Beyond the Sword, I think itís the perfect game that gets 100% of everything right. It has zero flaws. It is as good as Tony Hawk 2.

Okay, maybe not (although I do think itís better than Tony Hawk 2). But I sure did like it a lot. Which is pretty much the only thing it means if I give a game 5 stars. For the particulars, youíll have to actually read the review.

Since the review had an 800-word limit, give or take the odd paragraph, I was left with a lot to say. Thatís what this space is for. So following are some desultory notes about Civ IV: Beyond the Sword.

Espionage is really really terrible. Thatís right, I said Ďreallyí twice. Who thought it was a good idea to jam an enormous money sink into the game thatís paid in increments of 10% my entire income converted to potentially useless E-bucks, particularly when the benefit is entirely questionable, unlike culture, where the decision to pay the tithe is actually an interesting one? Who thought it was a good idea to stick an entirely separate screen into the game that requires scrolling down a list so I can constantly adjust tiny +/- buttons according to the shifting winds of diplomacy and realpolitik? Who thought it was a good idea to present a menu of options, mostly useless and some with sub options, each with a cost but with no indication of how many E-bucks Iíve got in total? And who thought it was a good idea to not let me back out of any of these screens with the escape button, which is what I can do with pretty much all the other screens in Civ IV? Who slaved espionage to the CTL-E key, which is a sloppy jab of my middle finger a smidge too far to the left from opening the World Builder and thus ripping asunder the virtual world Iíve worked so long and hard to enjoy?

I have found two uses for espionage: 1) As a money sink to play keeping up with the Joneses, in the hopes that I can eventually piss away enough money to see into my opponentsí cities, which replaces one of the main benefits of hosting a religion. Sorry, religion, youíre not as cool as you once were (although, with the new Apostolic Palace giving serious early-middle game teeth to religious solidarity, Iím willing to take that comment back). And, 2) as a way to briefly force an opponent into a civics choice that will let me spread my religion or my corporations into his cities until he changes his civics back. I suppose there could be some awesome military benefits in there, but I havenít found them yet. And Iíve been unsuccessful using spies to limit an opponentís growth by spreading unhappiness and unhealth. Maybe espionage, like culture, takes a dedicated effort that I havenít puzzled out yet. Maybe in one game Iíll be able to prevail during a particularly tense race to build a preferred wonder because my spy sabotages his production. Maybe Iíll funnel enough money into espionage to steal some really sweet techs one day. But at this point, I wish espionage wasnít in there. And until someone cleans up the interface, I donít have much desire to muck around with it. Sid Meier, how could you have let this happen to Soren Johnsonís game?

Okay, and thatís it for the kvetching. It sounds worse than it is, partly because I had high hopes for espionage. As it is, I just do my best to ignore it and I pay whatever it takes to replace whatever damage enemy spies are doing.

Then there are corporations, which are the expansionís other big bullet point. I have mixed feelings. On one hand, itís a nice late-late-middle or early-late game replacement for religion. The stars (i.e. techs, resources, and Great Persons) have to line up just right, and even then, it can be a lot of busywork to pull of a successful corporation. Sending corporate executives around feels uncomfortably like playing with the lawyer units in Activisionís horrible Call to Power games.

But one thing I love about corporations is how they add even more strategy and atmosphere to the resources. For instance, copper and iron matter if youíve got Mining Inc. And when was the last game you had where copper mattered after the medieval era, bar the occasional Wonder of the World? And not only does copper matter, but every bit of copper you can get matters. Standard Ethanol can subvert the distribution of oil with corn, rice, and sugar. Cereal Mills is an awesome late game means of city booming. If you can corner the market on precious metals, Civilized Jewelers Inc is a great boost to culture.

And when corporation work, boy do they work. It almost feels like somethingís off. Should I really be making this much money? But, hey, the beta testers wouldnít have left this in there if it was unbalanced, right? So Iím just going to run with it and enjoy obscene wealth while I can.

As for the more subtle changes, I find some of them far more important. I love the fact that overseas trade gets a customs house to make it a significant source of wealth later in the game, although trade routes are still awfully mystifying to me. I wish it didnít feel so much like voodoo. But overseas trade is now a significant risk if you donít invest in navy. The new blockade rules are great for cutting off overseas resources (especially significant on the Terra maps and their New Worlds, which are my favorite way to play). Blockades also make your coastal cities vulnerable without some way to fight at sea. And I love that privateers are a great way to mess around with another civilizationís fishing boats without going to war, not to mention a way to suck up some of his overseas trade money. Privateers also make frigates useful, even though frigates are vulnerable to ships of the line, which are slower than privateers. Suddenly, naval combat is interesting again.

Dutch dikes, the national version of leveeís which add hammers to river tiles, are my favorite new building for adding a hammer to every ocean tile. Combine those with the new Moai Statues, an early national wonder that also adds hammers to ocean tiles, and the Dutch are a great littoral civ.

I like how airpower is a bit more tightly contained, with improved mechanics for fighter interceptions (although I thought that was how it was supposed to work all along) and strict limits on the number of planes you can base in one city. Of course, forts as air bases are now useful. Not to mention naval bases. Itís good to have reasons to build forts.

Iím glad to see Golden Ages cost only a single Great Person instead of an unmatched pair. Golden Aging is now a viable choice when Iíve got a Great Person burning a hole in my pocket. I really like the idea of national parks around my bigger city, setting aside forests for happy faces, and eventually getting free specialists from them when I build a National Park. Once again, Civ IV gives a sense of character to the map.

The accelerated starts are a great feature if you donít want to just start at the same place as everyone else by choosing a starting era. It could use some idiot proofing, as Iíve managed to stick myself in untenable situations several times for not quite grokking how the accelerated start works. But Iím glad itís in there. The Ďno tech brokeringí option is a great way to reward civs who research their own techs and I canít imagine playing without it. Random religions sounded cool, but I found I was getting confused about what techs still had religions left. I think Iíd rather have just go ahead and have Hindu Zulus and Islamic Greeks.

Just to warn you: Tomorrow, Iíll go on at length about the scenarios.

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