In short, Civilization IV's latest expansion, Beyond The Sword is everything one could reasonably hope from an expansion pack. For those of you accustomed to skimming right to the end for the final analysis, there it is. If you enjoyed Civilization IV, and particularly if you're still playing it, you'd be doing yourself a disservice in not playing Beyond the Sword.
Built on the already superior gameplay of Civilization IV, which has arguably offered the best Civ experience yet, the latest expansion borders on being so packed full of features, that it could have been released as a standalone product. Enhancing and legitimately expanding every corner of Civilization IV while incorporating the best of the first expansion, Warlords, Beyond the Sword manages to dramatically improve the complete gameplay experience without doing damage or disservice to the foundation. It's like upgrading to broadband from dial-up, or adding bacon to a cheeseburger, once you've taken the step you'll never go back. Gameplay elements like the Apostolic Palace and Spies among dozens of others integrate so fluidly into the overall game that it will be hard to imagine how one played without them.
The feature list for Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword is a lengthy piece of bullet-point mania, highlights including dramatically overhauled espionage, corporations, advanced start options, improved AI, unique game-altering scenarios, new space-race, new techs, wonders, civs, buildings and on and on. Where the previous expansion Warlords focused closely on developing combat while giving passing attention to the game as a whole, Beyond the Sword has no centerpiece but instead puts massive effort into improving the entire game experience.
Even before starting a game, features like new leaders and races, new landmass types, and even the option of generating a new map without completely restarting sneak into view before you've founded your first city. And, if you prefer not to lumber through the Stone Age, activating the Advanced Start feature allows you to begin in any age of the game and spend predetermined credits to quickly build a custom civilization of your desired size and style.
The early game, assuming you haven't launched straight into later ages, is highlighted by the addition of a vastly revamped espionage system. Of more use to less combat-oriented styles of gameplay, spies and espionage points are invaluable in exposing and manipulating your opponents often without repercussion. By allocating espionage points toward enemies you can enjoy passive abilities like revealing what techs they are researching and exposing troop movements, or by sending in spies you can participate in active espionage like sowing the seeds of unrest or stealing technologies. Active spies prove less useful for players with a frequent war-lust, and the spy units do have a troubling habit of being discovered and eliminated just before undertaking a useful mission, but the overall addition of the gameplay option provides a broad expansion to an already full book of strategy opportunities.
Of note also is the overall improvement to the game's AI, which offers a generally better and more fair challenge at every level. Casual players may be surprised to find their favorite difficulty setting a little more competitive than the last time they played, with the computer making better decisions in offense, defense and development. The computer also does a satisfying job taking advantage of the new features and units, and will be using spies and corporations to its advantage even if you don't. Compounded with the inclusion of random events, many of which provide you strategic choice in how you handle the situation, the overall sense of involvement with every turn is heightened throughout the game. Just because you've decided to turtle up and drive toward a late-game space race victory doesn't mean that enemy spies aren't laying the foundations of unrest in your city or stealing away hard earned technology.
In a move which aches with metaphorical significance the religion system of the early ages is replaced in the later game by the new Corporation system, which employs similar mechanics of growth and reward. By establishing a corporation in your civ you begin to franchise it much the same way that missionaries in the early game spread religion to other cities and cultures, and the bigger your corporation becomes the better the rewards.
And, when you get tired of the traditional Civilization game, there are nearly a dozen new scenarios to challenge you. Unlike previous expansions which have added scenarios employing the traditional models of gameplay within confined victory conditions, many of these scenarios change the game so dramatically that you may feel like you're playing an entirely different game. The scenario Afterworld offers an X-Com style gameplay in the far distant future, Civ Defense smacks not-surprisingly of Tower Defense and Final Frontier, which is available as a demo, provides a 4X style space strategy game. With a blend of in-house created scenarios and the best of fan-made mods, the scenarios, which I usually give only a cursory glance in previous expansions, are almost entirely worth at least a single complete play-through if not revisiting over and over again.
With hundreds of enhancements and a truly refined Civilization IV experience, Beyond the Sword hits all the right notes. Building upon the best Civ since the first, the expansion reignites the addiction and begs to be played for just one more turn. An easy choice for any Civilization fan, you'll be hard pressed not to find a dozen enhancements you suddenly can't live without in the first few hours alone.