As a long-time fanatic of the Civilization series, winning a science victory has always seemed like the least satisfying ending to me. After thousands of years expanding across the globe, writing the history of humankind and clashing with other civilizations, you build the greatest technological feat the species has ever known and blast your citizens off to this great adventure to colonize a new world.
And then you close the game.
No idea what happens to them when they reach the stars. If they succeeded. If they were happy. It always felt like getting absorbed into an epic novel, only the throw it into the ocean once you get halfway through.
Civilization: Beyond Earth allows you to read that last half and find out what happened when your people after they landed on their new home. In my case, it usually ended in public health crises and being eaten by giant armoured worms.
Just like antagonizing massive alien wildlife, shooting for the stars with a Civilization game strikes me as a somewhat dangerous move for developer Firaxis. It automatically invites one to compare Beyond Earth to Alpha Centauri, the amazing “Civilization in space” classic that the company released in 1999. It is never easy to have your new work compared to one of the greatest games ever made and those looking for Alpha Centauri 2 are going to be disappointed. While Beyond Earth does have more customization, a stronger narrative and is more open-ended than previous Civ games, it is no where as deep at AC was. Civilization V is very much in its DNA.
It has the same hexagon-based tile system. Same lack of unit stacking. Gold might be replaced by energy and happiness with health, but at first glance, but even casual fans of the last game will instantly be comfortable with the basics. (The game’s advice-giving AI can even has a setting for people who have played Civ 5.)
Not to say that there aren’t differences. The first big change is the setup screen. Instead of choosing a civilization with set bonuses, you’ll go through a series of decisions to craft your new colony. First you’ll have to pick your sponsor culture, which are all somewhat-boring unions of existing countries. Then it is down to what supplies you take on board, and whether you fill your colony ship with engineers, scientists, artists or the like. In the end, this means you have the ability to customize your civilization, and its bonuses, right from the start. There’s a certain joy in filling up a space ship with high-tech worker robots, and then imagining it being crewed by slam poets and and stage magicians.
That customization is a good thing because I found BE’s opening-game to be more challenging than in Civ games past. Alien lifeforms swarm all over the odd, colourful landscape of your new home planet. Unlike Earth’s barbarians, armed only with flimsy axes and hurtful words, some of the alien units are legitimately frightening and nearly impossible to deal with early-game units. In my first game, four of my soldier units got turned into worm food before I wrote off half the continent as uninhabitable (until I researched fighter jets).
Combine angry xenomorph wildlife with with a toxic fog that damages your units and heals alien ones (at least until you research ways to deal with it), and you get the real feeling of an isolated colony struggling to carve out a foothold on a hostile alien world. Losing scouts and outposts to non-players now feels like an actual danger
One of the biggest changes in Beyond Earth is the Affinity system. Players can led their newly-transplanted civilization down the path of the ideologies: Harmony, which embraces the new ecosystem; Purity, which seeks to change it into a carbon copy of Earth; and Supremacy, which embraces anything to “better” the human species. Players get experience in each of these three affinities by researching associated technologies or completing one of the many quests offered.
At first, affinity seems like a minor distraction. But it soon reveals itself to be a crucial part of the game. It is the basis for upgrading your units, which are made more powerful and more specialized when you gain affinity points. As well, three of the game’s five victory goals require the player to be heavily invested in one of the three ideologies. That, combined with the fact that the fully-upgraded, affinity-specific military units are incredibly powerful, means it is probably better to focus on one path instead of dabbling a bit in all three.
The tech tree is another massive departure, and the thing that most calls back to the days of Alpha Centauri. Instead of the linear research of previous Civ games, Beyond Earth’s tech is laid out in an intimidating web, with tech “branches and leaves.” It makes your civilization’s advancement a lot more open-ended, replacing the false choices of Civ 5 with actual decisions on how to proceed. Instead of all players reaching the same destination slightly diverging paths, you can grow your civilization in a completely different direction from your opponents.
On balance, that’s a good thing, and means that you won’t be always making the same choices through multiple playthroughs. However, it can also make thing feel a little directionless, making it hard to decide what your next move will be. It is easy for me to understand what benefits will come if I research gunpowder in Civ 5. The advantages of getting the guys in the lab to investigate Tissue Engineering are a little less intuitive. What great advances have my people been missing out on, running around with non-engineered tissues like Neanderthals?
It also makes it a lot more difficult to gauge how far along your opponents are when it comes to winning the game. A couple times, I was surprised to learn a civilization was a heartbeat away from taking the game because of the direction they took with research. Both of these issues will likely get easier after more experience with the game.
The affinity system and wide-open tech tree help ease one of the more intangible issues with Beyond Earth. Moving the series from past earth to a new futuristic planet loses some of the fun of the Civ series. A generic sci-fi theme isn’t just as fun as an alt-history earth of Civ 5, where Aztec airstrikes could decimate Japanese oilfields.
The quests and the affinities allowed me to inject a much-needed narrative into the thin futuristic world. My first civilization started out as a collection of randomly-named outposts, but by the end game, the quests I chose turned it into a nation of nanobot-infused zealots and former test subjects that rode giant bugs into battle, only to be crushed under the giant robot heel of our oppressive neighbours.
Some of the game’s other ideas are interesting, but don’t really work as well as the could. The ability to send satellites up into orbit to provide benefits on the map is an interesting one, but it is confusing to get one’s head around. As well, since the orbital layer is somewhat hidden and the advantages are minor, it is an easy part of the game to completely forget.
In the end, Beyond Earth is a hard beast to get a handle on. Taken by itself, it is a very good game, one that encourages the same “one more turn” addiction that the series is famous for. But at its core, it isn’t terribly different from Civ 5 and its expansions.
It is certainly more polished than Civ 5 was when it was released, and feels much more like a finished game, where as the predecessor was merely alright until it was elevated by its expansions. If you’re new to the series, or a Civ 5 fan who is looking for new mechanics and a new theme to freshen things up, it is certainly worth picking up. I will certainly keep playing it and enjoying the experience.
But for anyone who was hoping for a radical departure from the previous games or a return to the world of Alpha Centauri is advised to continue searching the stars.