Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth Review

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Posted November 4, 2014 by John Clark in Video Games

Developer: Firaxis

Publisher: 2K Games

Price: $49.99

Available On: PC [reviewed]

Truth be told, I’ve never been very good at the Civilization games. I grew up on II, and had a short run with IV. I spent dozens of hours on V trying to get my bearings, but for some reason, the intricacies of managing economies, harvesting resources, and negotiating diplomacies always eluded me. Part of it was impatience, early-game excitement wearing thin as technology took longer to unlock and each turn neared over a minute to complete. Another part, though, was just a sense of retreading the same ground I had been for over a decade; with every iteration in the venerable series, I grew a little bit more exhausted researching mathematics to construct catapults and navigating the nuclear-driven psychopathy of Mahatmas Gandhi. Perhaps this, then, is why despite being mechanically quite similar to its predecessors, Beyond Earth is the first Civilization game that finally gripped me.

The parallels to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri are impossible to ignore, but it’s best to remember that Beyond Earth is part of the mainline Civilization series, and compare it instead to its predecessor, Civilization V. The engine for both games is the same, and the visuals and core gameplay are nearly identical. At first glance, it almost seems like Firaxis’ latest outing could have simply been another expansion to V, like Brave New World. After playing it extensively, I can tell that’s not exactly the case, but I’m not sure that there’s enough new content to justify a fully priced release.

To its credit, Beyond Earth shakes up the formula in some fascinating ways. First off, choosing a leader with a specific set of bonuses that is the same every time is gone; instead, I was faced with nearly half a dozen modular options that could be mixed and matched to my leisure. Sponsors serve as the game’s equivalent to nations, while new choices come in the form of your ship’s colonists, cargo, and technology. Experimenting to find a perfect fit for my playstyle was a lot of fun.

 

Some Harmony-unique units involve aliens under the player's control.

Some Harmony-unique units involve aliens under the player’s control.

 

Once my ship landed and my initial outpost was built, I was confronted with my first challenge: the planet itself. Beyond Earth‘s alien life is much more than just a reskin of the barbarians from titles past; they’re more numerous and powerful, with smaller units backed up by massive siege worms that can lay waste to entire early-game armies and seafaring krakens that can strangle the life out of a naval route. As if that wasn’t enough, the terrain itself presents a threat in the form of poisonous miasma that damages units and blocks trade caravans.

It’s a good thing that the alien life is such a threat, because my fellow colonists were some of the least aggressive I’ve ever seen in the Civilization series. Even when I experimented on higher difficulties, I was surprised to find that my rivals almost never started wars with each other or even me, and when they did, they’d make a single, half-hearted series of attacks before practically begging me for peace. In the second half of the game, their hostility increased a little, but I was still surprised to find myself, typically a defensive player, the most aggressive person in the game.

Remarkably, my ship came out on top of this fight.

Remarkably, my ship came out on top of this fight.

 

This lack of aggression is just a single facet of one of Beyond Earth‘s weakest aspects: the leaders and sponsors themselves. Previous Civilization games placed iconic historical figures in the roles of national leaders, and this made them easily recognizable. Beyond Earth‘s leaders are fictional characters with seemingly elaborate backstories – found only by digging into the in-game encyclopedia – but when I was actually playing, I had a difficult time telling them apart. Besides condemning or praising my choice of Affinity, they all acted almost exactly the same as each other.

These affinities represent the second major departure from Civilization tradition. The mostly linear technology tree from past titles is gone, replaced by a sprawling web that allows players significantly more choice in how they prioritize upgrades. Tied into many of these choices are affinity points, which increase a civilization’s aptitude in one of three idealogies: Harmony, Supremacy, and Purity. Harmony represents a willingness to integrate into the planet itself, and allows players to cooperate with the aliens and heal from, instead of being damaged by, the miasma. Supremacy represents the use of cybernetics to create a collective consciousness, granting bonuses to tactical play such as flanking and unit formations. Finally, Purity forsakes both of these philosophies in favor of idolizing Earth’s past; instead of adapting to the new world, they want to make it adapt to them, building massive war machines and gaining skills that let them demolish the alien life that much easier. Each Affinity has its own victory condition, in addition to the Domination win of previous games and a new condition dependent on making contact with an alien civilization. Though the tech web itself is overly minimalistic in design – only one example of an issue I actually had with finding information in quite a few aspects of the user interface – the flexibility it grants is admirable.

 

The tech web can be as confusing as it is impressive.

The new tech web can be as confusing as it is impressive.

 

Beyond Earth sports a couple of other minor additions to the Civilization formula, such as in-game quests that provide extra resources, affinity-based unit upgrades, and an orbital layer that serves as home to a handful of temporary units that provide certain buffs or combat applications. On the downside, there are less basic military options than Civilization V, with only a single base air and naval military unit. Ultimately though, what made it stand apart to me compared to Civilization V was how it feels. It’s a small thing, hard to pin down, but despite it playing very similar to its predecessors, I found myself more wrapped up in Beyond Earth than I have been in a 4X game for a very long time. The story is nearly non-existent, with any lore revealed almost exclusively through the Civopedia, but the gameplay itself made my imagination run wild. When I finished constructing the Bytegeist wonder, I thought about what it was like to live in a city where everyone has access to the same collective consciousness. Building my first Rocktopus brought to mind visions of a hulking, techno-alien creature hurtling through the sky like something out of a sci-fi epic. I was caught up in the possibilities, some feasible, some outright fantasy, of where humanity could be in the next hundred, two hundred, or five hundred years. It did what none of the other Civilization games, for all their improvements and polish didn’t: it felt new. I wasn’t retreading human history, I was creating it. Not everyone will necessarily feel that way, and without that visceral enjoyment, the game’s full price tag will seem steep for an extremely iterative sequel. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed Beyond Earth and am looking forward to see what additions Firaxis has to their latest endeavor.


About the Author

John Clark