When I was very young, I would visit my aunt's house a few times a year, excited to see my cousins whom owned the latest consoles and games. During one of these visits, I found one of my cousins engrossed in some sort of strategy game, though it was tough for my adolescent mind to determine the exact details. This was my first introduction to Civilization. Never before had I encountered a game that granted so much responsibility and wonder. My mind escaped into the realm of imagination that only those my age were capable of finding.
Civilization: Beyond Earth, released on October 24, 2014, attempts to recreate the wonder that so many experienced during their introduction to the long-running Civilization series. By sending the player into the eternal void of space, Firaxis has worked to build upon the groundwork laid by Civilization 5 in an entirely new setting. Its success, in some spots, is exceptional and inspired; other features miss the mark slightly.
Beyond Earth is set in a future that could be defined as far flung, yet still retains a good sense of attainability. Humanity has committed what is colloquially called, "The Great Mistake", an event which has forced them to abandon Earth and seek out a new home world somewhere in the stars. The game thrusts players into the role of expedition leaders and bestows the monumental task of not only contending with the planet they've deemed as their potential home, but to flourish and make use of the resources laid out before them.
Forcing a reaction to your strange new environment is one of the great successes of Beyond Earth. In prior Civilization games, the act of improving your civilization felt very rigid. The approach to discovering technology, seeking out strategic resources, and producing an army is usually standardized between individual sessions. This is not so in the latest incarnation of the series, where the player is forced to create a strategy based on their immediate surroundings. The choices presented are extensive, but eventually prove to be one of the shortcomings of the game
Creation of a new game of Beyond Earth clearly presents the player with many of the standard options attached to the series. Map type, game speed, dominant environment, and a number of other items have all retained their position on the setup screen. Curiously, an optional choice included in prior entries is not found here, shared research is always on now for teams of players. This would allow multiple players to speed up research of a technology; one player's attempt to discover the magic of gunpowder may take him 30 turns, but with the help of one of his bureaucratic pals, he could be blasting away lesser savages in 15 turns! While I can't say that I've disabled it terribly often in prior Civilization games, but it's strange for that option to be absent.
Setting up the game to play with your friends is, for the most part, a breeze. Once players have joined the lobby, further details of the game are established, such as teams, difficulty settings, number of players (between 2 and 8), and most importantly your starting colony. It is here that you are given your first glimpse at the wealth of choices available.
Four criteria must be chosen. The first choice, your sponsor, takes the place of choosing a standard true-to-history nation. Instead of singular countries, you must pick between the worldwide equivalents of the European Union; groups of countries allied together to create a governing body. Following sponsor selection are options to choose what your settlers specialize in, what type of vessel they used to make landfall, and what supplies they brought with them. Each of the “loadout” options feels fairly unique from the other, and makes pre-game strategy require a little forethought. Getting a multiplayer game to load, on the other hand, currently requires some sort of arcane ritual that I was unable to parse. In my experience, larger player counts led to a significant chance of being greeted by my old friend, the desktop wallpaper. Luckily, the crashes were not a complete constant. I was eventually able to play a four player co-op game successfully, though it took a few tries.
One of the largest complaints of prior Civilization games is a lack of deviation in the route a typical game takes from start to finish. Firaxis has proven their receptiveness to this criticism by making a bevy of changes to create more forks in the road. The first, and arguably most significant, introduction is the "Tech Web". Where prior Civilization games were tethered to historical timelines, meaning that one could not, for example, know how to refrigerate their Chinese leftovers without having some knowledge of biology, Beyond Earth is free of this bond.
At the beginning of the game, your infant settlement begins with the Habitation technology necessary to create an initial outpost. The options for what to research next stem outward in all directions, forming the branches of the web. Of course, there remain some technologies that follow logically from a predecessor. These are called "Leaf Technologies", and can only be researched once you have discovered their parent technology. The web’s construction means that you are very unlikely to discover more than one third of it over the course of a single game, adding significantly to the replayability value. In co-op, this adds a very intriguing aspect that was lacking from the "Tech Tree" of prior games. Instead of allied research simply speeding up your advancement, you and your teammates can now pick and choose separate edges of the web that you'd like to reach, adding an extra layer of strategy. Similar to prior entries, you can also research technologies at the same time, a viable option if your group wishes to reach the same edge of the web.
Your crew of intrepid Earthlings must also determine the ways in which they react to the potentially dangerous flora and fauna surrounding them. Will they attempt to ravage their new homeland for resources, further melding humanity and technology? Perhaps they will find the planet and its exotic life forms alluring and attempt to intertwine with it biologically. Maybe, though, they will be reminded of their task of finding a new home for their humanoid friends and remain staunchly independent of the planet, using its resources only as necessary.
Over the course of the game, these choices will affect your colonies both aesthetically and mechanically. Beyond Earth does a fantastic job of making each of these Affinities unique, meaning that games played in pursuit of the Harmony affinity will play significantly differently from those where Purity is chosen. From gaining the ability to heal in miasma (the planet's gaseous substance that harms your units) to creating gigantic Roman Legionnaire-esque robots (complete with gigantic banners), I found the benefits of each Affinity appealing and wanted to play more simply to experience their spin on gameplay.
Unit upgrades also stem from Affinity choice, which is a marked improvement on the standard upgrade path of units in other Civilizations. Upon advancement of their dominant Affinity, players are given a choice between two "perks". Some upgrade points contain perks that sound very beneficial and have the potential to alter the way you use the unit, while others make the choice fairly clear. Each unit’s upgrade path eventually branches further depending on their settlement's dominant Affinity, which has a much more substantial effect both visually and perk-wise.
As a lover of sci-fi, I found the UI, landscapes, and units to be just what I was looking for in terms of art design. I should note one huge disappointment in the UI department. In prior Civilization games, the act of creating a wonder felt so satisfying, due in part to a splash screen displaying the wonder and the process of creating it. In Beyond Earth, this is reduced to a mere shot of the wonder's schematics. Though it definitely matches the minimalist feel of the rest of the game, I found myself clearing the notifications of a created wonder without even bothering to view the message itself.
Alien life forms are a welcome, but flawed, change to the early gameplay formula. As opposed to fending off the same barbarians over and over, the planet feels much more varied and hostile. Multiple types of aliens are available to hound your poor, terrified settlement, meaning that strategies must be created and modified around how to best deal with them. Some, like the Manticore, can fling acid at your units via a ranged attack. The Siege Worm, however, is large, destructive, and undefeatable by normal means, making it potentially terrifying in the early to mid-game.
Though I very much like the idea of these new early opponents, they didn't play quite as well as I would hope. Due to the still-problematic AI, the aliens seemed to react illogically to their surroundings. They were often docile when the situation called to be aggressive, and hostile without any provocation. Siege Worms never quite became more than a nuisance to me, and I can count on my hand the number of times I was legitimately worried that they would destroy one of my cities or the tiles around it.
Quests represent another idea that I greatly appreciated, but were not given enough depth to truly make an impression. At semi-random points in the game you are presented with quests which may be sent from your own citizens, Stations (the Beyond Earth equivalent of City-States), or elsewhere. Some of these are multi-faceted, and require very active involvement on your part. Many, though, are little more than a paragraph describing an issue within your settlement requiring your decision-making skills. These generally require you to choose between two options, both bestowing a small benefit such as extra Health or extra movement for your naval units. Quests of this nature are plentiful, which significantly lowers their feeling of importance. There were quite a few times that I simply hovered over what each choice offered and selected one without even glancing at the accompanying text. I would've gladly accepted a smaller number of quests if each had a satisfying amount of depth or required a greater degree of participation.
That last point sums up my feelings on Civilization: Beyond Earth. There are a number of noticeable improvements, but most are not explored with enough depth. To compound this, some systems in the game seem to have reverted to issues that existed within "vanilla" Civilization 5, such as the endgame. On all but the hardest difficulties, it becomes obvious early into the end-game whether or not you will be victorious, but the fact remains that you must grind through the remaining turns if you wish to see the victory screen. This is especially frustrating considering the amount time spent getting to that point, leaving unfinished games due to inevitable defeat feel like time wasted. Seeing the issue fixed with the Civilization 5 expansion, Brave New World, makes me wonder where Beyond Earth's development began.
The AI has seen a good amount of improvement since Beyond Earth's predecessor, but it still lacks the sophistication necessary for a game of this magnitude. Often times, our opponents seemed timid and more than willing to allow myself and my allies to complete an endgame victory requirement with little or no opposition. For example, in a game involving three teams of two, my team created The Beacon, a gigantic monolith that, if held, would grant us victory in thirty turns. One of the AI teams noticed this and almost immediately declared war on us, forcing us into a satisfying "defend at all costs" scenario. The other team, however, made no move or even a hint of a move to oppose us in our victory. While the hostile team gave us a bit of discomfort, a full, intraplanetary war would've been so much more logical and exciting. Further expansion on this example reveals another flaw, though this particular instance is specific to us co-op gamers and difficult to hold the developers responsible for. In the previous example, my settlement was housing the wonder necessary for victory. Upon the declaration of war, I began to fortify my cities in anticipation of the impending siege. However, shortly after announcing their hostility, the opposing team sent a majority of their military to attack my ally...on the other side of the continent. My side saw a few skirmishes between robots and hovertanks, but most of my units built to defend the Beacon never even saw combat. The whole situation struck us as odd and took away some of the satisfaction of our victory, which is unfortunate considering the six hours we spent achieving it.
If there's one suggestion I wish could’ve been repeated to Beyond Earth’s development team, it's the idea of "quality over quantity". While you are given many choices in an attempt to make your colony feel distinct, they begin to feel trite and insignificant over time, occasionally delving into annoying. I wish more time had been spent making a smaller number of options feel as complete as possible, such as the AI or Quest lines. Despite this, the game is gorgeous and does introduce a number of welcome changes to the Civilization series. If you enjoyed playing co-operatively in Civilization 5, as I do, you'll find this to be a similarly fun, albeit slightly pricey, experience which will serve you well as an option adjacent to the near-perfection of Civilization 5. The final question, and one that I believe marks the success of a Civilization game, is how well it imparts a belief of wonder, power, and responsibility. Despite its flaws, sessions of Beyond Earth saw me explore the ruins of a mysterious alien planet, crush those who opposed myself and my allies, and stamp out any danger to my little bastion of humanity with fierce loyalty. The feeling remains as untouched as it ever was.
Beyond Earth feels like fanfiction resulting from a Civ V victory. It possesses the same strong Civ V gameplay at its core we've come to love after all the expansions. Yet, it still suffers from some of the problems V did when it first appeared.
The tech web is a cool feature that definitely works for a game set in the kinda-distant-but-kinda-close future, and is by far the most unique thing about this package. I'm also a huge fan of the affinities, which grant your cities and units their own unique flavors as you travel down the various paths. The planet succeeds at feeling like a hostile, alien landscape where everything is trying to either murder or digest non-natives. The presentation is fantastic, but it simply falls short in execution.
The AI is completely nonthreatening, even on higher difficulties. Perhaps they are keenly aware that aliens might wipe us all off this hostile world and are loath to battle other humans, but the computer opponents don't seem to care about your actions. I even founded an undefended base in direct conflict with their borders and they just pretended like it wasn't there.
Your "civs" have a shockingly low variety of troops they can recruit. While each unit has three mutations (dependent on your affinity), there really aren't that many to choose from. I know this is the future, where all of the "good tech" has apparently already been discovered, but it's still strange to build the same exact units throughout the entire game.
Why are quests seemingly showing up at random? Why are affinity points couched in the tech trees on top of opposing ones? Why are there only 8 "civs"? The game's limited scope betrays the initial wonder at landing on an alien planet.
Beyond Earth is a game that I really wanted to love, but was, in my mind, marred with perplexing design choices and a constricting range of things to do. It feels like a well-made mod for Civ V, but by no means does it feel like a proper followup, especially at $49.99. I had a great deal of fun with BE, but all throughout my time with it, I found myself wishing I was playing Civ V.