Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth (PC)

By Walter Hare

Published on Sunday, November 9, 2014

A review of Civilization should have the Civ pedigree of the writer in clear light, for we all have our peculiarities as Civ fans about which is best. I’ve been playing since the second game, skipped the third, loved the fourth and have begrudgingly come to admit that the fifth is probably better. And Civ: Rev was a fun week of abusing overly simple systems and AI.

With that out of the way, I find myself generally disappointed with Beyond Earth, but simultaneously hopeful for its potential, and considering Firaxis’ track record concerning expansions, there is merit in that attitude. Beyond Earth makes attempts at fixing a few of the enduring problems that have plagued the very structure of the Civilization formula since its inception, and though it ultimately fails to do so, it is at least on track.Beyond Earth 1

 The basic philosophy behind Beyond Earth’s design appears to be “transmute Civ 5 to space and increase the variability of all choices,” and this is apparent straight from the beginning. Instead of any number of dozens of civilizations to choose from, you instead choose from one of eight, each of which has one unique bonus. From there, you have a number of choices to make regarding your planetfall revolving around early game advantages, but which have very little impact into the midgame.

It’s far more limited than the basic civilization system, which gives you bonuses and units of all kinds, but it ensures that the makeup of your civilization is at least somewhat unique to you. Once you make planetfall, you do all the things you do in Civilization 5; build cities, improve tiles to gain resource advantages, contend with the locals and start trying to win a tech victory but eventually just move towards domination because screw it.

In terms of resources, happiness is now ‘health,’ money is now ‘energy,’ and everything else is almost exactly the same. You get bonuses for hitting certain culture thresholds, you research tech, build roads, and expand. The one unit-per hex rule is still in effect from Civilization 5, so combat tactics do not differ greatly from that. It is still awkward moving ranged units into range and melee units around each other, but I find that to be superior to Civ 4’s giant death squad-stacks.

Beyond Earth 2

The biggest change is likely in regards to the tech tree, which is now a tech web. Starting from the center, you branch out to trunk technologies each of which has two ‘leaves’ which can be researched later, or skipped entirely. A standard game, which I found to last between 300 and 350 turns, will see you getting through just over half of the web.

The other major addition is the ‘Affinity’ system. Over the course of the game, through choices made during random events and researching specific technologies, you can gain points towards one of the three affinities; Purity, Harmony, or Supremacy, which represent pure human blood, symbiosis with the native aliens and symbiosis with machines respectively. While gaining levels in one affinity does not prevent you from progress in another, in order to gain the higher level bonuses of each you will likely find yourself actively pursuing only one of the three. This represents global bonuses as well as access to a handful of specialized units and buildings. Several of the new victory conditions also rely on high levels of affinity specialization.

Beyond Earth 4

Firaxis have also added what they call ‘quests,’ though really they are just simple, short term objectives with varying levels of reward. Similarly, building certain improvements for your cities will prompt decisions which, while tied to narrative queues, give the player the options for more customization, letting you choose one of two basic bonuses, usually to do with the function of the building. During the first playthrough these systems will make the game feel alive, but on the second they quickly become a formality at best and a chore at worst as they repeat verbatim.

The sum of all this is that the game makes you feel like you have more choices. Most bouts of Civilization call upon the player to make the most of their formative decisions in the first third of the game, but past that point you are basically set on auto pilot, trying to maximize everything from round to round but moving forward in a rather static way. This was solved to some extent by Civ 5’s expansions, but is a dogged problem nonetheless. Beyond Earth allows the player to be constantly adjusting themselves, moving forward in slightly different ways, particularly as a result of the tech system’s shape being so greatly altered. This is a fundamentally welcome change, and the sole reason I have hope for Beyond Earth in the future.

Beyond Earth 3

However, Beyond Earth suffers from such a lack of ‘stuff’ that each game feels the same, regardless of affinity or tech choices. Sure you can extend your reach to any side of the tech web, but you’re still just chasing after the happiness (sorry I mean health) or money (er…. ‘energy’) culture, military or whatever needs you may have at any given moment. While I’m sure with more playtime I could discover more precise and interesting ways to navigate the web to create certain strategic effects, these were not readily apparent even after several full games. Each game simply felt like the last.

Units suffer from similar homogeneity. Instead of having to constantly replace them with new tech, once you have reached certain affinity levels you are allowed to upgrade, at no cost, any applicable units. These upgrades are generic across the board, regardless of how interesting the new unit may look. It’s always plus 10% to this or 15% to that, even if it’s a giant mech or hideous alien beast. While effectively this means there are dozens of units in the game, there are fundamentally only a handful of uniquely operating types. This lack of diversity is particularly noticeable in the sea and the air.

Beyond Earth 5

If Beyond Earth allowed more fundamental specialization and customization revolving around affinity and research, and granted more interesting boosts to units and city management based on these choices, the goal of making the entire length of a game of Civilization more interesting and variegated could very well be fulfilled. But now it just feels samey and boring. If I have a three hundred foot tall slobbering alien under my command, I should damn well have three hundred foot tall slobbering alien options at my disposal. Right now, Beyond Earth doesn’t give that to me, and until it does I can’t recommend it to anyone who’s already played a fair amount of Civilization.

– wh
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth on Green Man Gaming

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