There are two ways to look at Civilization: Beyond Earth. When considered as a standalone expansion for Civilization V, the game is a great leap forward. It offers enough of the old and familiar, but still throws enough new elements to keep gameplay fresh.
As the spiritual successor to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri however, it falls flat. It simply fails to live up to a lot of what its predecessor offered.
This isn’t what I had hoped for
Beyond Earth is best considered as an epilogue to Civ V. Humanity finally manages to mess up the planet and so turns to the stars. Where Civ V has historical nations as the meta-unit of play, Civ: BE has eight ‘sponsors’. They all offer their own varied bonuses, and are for all intents and purposes simply pseudo-nations. Pity that like most aspects of Civ: BE they’re given very little life or colour. Their interactions with you throughout the game are limited to the diplomacy screen and other than faction badges there is nothing to differentiate one side from the other. Tying each faction to cultural identity feels like it forced Firaxis to create opponents that were totally neutral so as to not offend anyone.
Strangely enough there are hints that leaders and their respective factions have more than just lifeless greetings and platitudes going on. Each technology and Wonder comes with a quote, in most cases from a leader. Why Firaxis decided to have the same narrator for each single quote is beyond me. This is a far cry from the variety and interesting narration of Alpha Centauri.
Once you’ve picked your sponsor nation you need to decide on what kind of colonists you’re going to be taking to your new home, how you load up your ship as well as the primary cargo you’ll take with you. Like all the choices you make pre-game they offer a bonus and help to add some replay value to the game. Sadly though they’re all fairly minor bonuses, and really only affect your early game. Now that you’re all kitted out it’s time to select your planet type, and place your base. Once you’ve made planetfall, the rest of the game proceeds how you would expect from a Civilization title: research tech; build units and expand. There are enough differences though that the game feels new even to veteran players of the series.
Space age advancements
Where Civ: BE does succeed is the renovation of its technology tree. Gone is the railroaded single path to each technology; instead we’re given a web, with major branches connected with multiple paths. Each branch offers 2-3 leaf technologies, which are more focused areas of research. It’s possible to go through a game and not touch a fairly large number of areas of research, which adds significantly to its replay value.
Leaf Technologies are also the key towards advancing your faction’s Affinity and they help integrate the new tech system into regular play. Despite being more complex than the linear tech trees we’re used to, the tech web is quick and easy to navigate; aided by a very thorough filter and search system. Which is great, since I found myself using tech to solve my immediate problems, as well as focusing my long-term goals towards an Affinity.
A fine thing indeed
Similar to the way Religions work in Civ V, Affinities help define and focus your faction. Each one offers unique units, upgrades and a victory condition, offering a different view on how humanity should advance and deal with their new world. Purity seeks to produce the ideal human, and extols the virtues of the Terran cultures they left behind, while Harmony wants to attune and incorporate alien life into your own, becoming one with the planet. Lastly Supremacy also focuses on making humanity better through technology and cybernetics. The Affinities also alter how your faction looks, with three distinct styles, which is a massive improvement over the bland starting units of the game.
Beyond Earth also re-imagines the Social Policies of Civ V. Now called Virtues, they have a far greater impact on the game than before. Unlike Affinities which are far more focused and integrated into the tech web, virtues are derived from the accumulation of culture. They are divided into four themes: Might, Prosperity, Knowledge, Industry. Each one offers you a number of different bonuses, from free units to improved combat bonuses. There are also bonuses for vertical and horizontal investment, and you can choose to spend your points as tightly or broadly as you wish. Depending on your environment and play style you may end up ignoring entire sections until you need them. Investing heavily into a single tree can offer greater rewards early on, but comes at the cost of other themes’ bonuses.
Trade has also been given a far more important role in the game. Minor factions will at points set up Stations around the planet that offer a number of resources to the player that can set up a trade route with them. Unlike Civ V, you can’t protect these stations and it is possible to totally lose them to an attack. The same goes for your trade caravans, though thankfully there is an early tech quest that allows you to protect them completely from alien attacks.
To go along with the increased importance of trade is improved diplomacy and espionage. It’s now possible to accumulate favours with a faction, and call them in later down the line when they might have something you need, or you need help with your war on another faction. If diplomacy isn’t your thing you can, with the right advances, plant nukes in your opponents’ cities, summon giant siege worms to wreak havoc on their territory and even use your spies to improve the effects of your own cities.
The Orbital Layer
While both Civ V and Alpha Centauri allowed for satellite technologies and structures, neither really did much beyond that with them. You either had them or you didn’t. Beyond Earth introduces the Orbital layer, which works as a second layer of terrain in many ways. You can launch satellites anywhere in your controlled area but you have limited orbital space, and it’s possible to end up with nowhere to put that new satellite that will help you blast bothersome cities off the map. Satellites do eventually fall out of the sky, either naturally or because they got shot down and it’s possible for you to send explorer units to check these crashes out and retrieve a reward from them. Hopefully before your opponents do.
Questing in Civ?
The last new feature is the Quest system. Quests accumulate over time, and are unlocked based on structures built, areas explored and technologies gained. They offer you various rewards upon completion. For example, your engineers might find a way to improve your defences, giving you some extra energy to play with or you could invest that back into your defences by removing the maintenance costs.
The trouble is that the quests themselves aren’t particularly exciting. Most are simple binary choices – to do or not to do – with the occasional long-term goal; but they do at least add something extra to focus on beyond simply surviving and winning the game.
Don’t poke the aliens
By default you’re the first faction to make planet fall and must contend with the alien life forms you find, and it’s easy to assume that the aliens are nothing more than analogues for the barbarians in previous Civ games. While to a degree they are, they will also mercilessly wipe you out en mass, with a very hard AI guiding them.
My first game ended when I spent way too much time trying to wipe the aliens out around my bases rather than exploring and building up a strong defence, only to have another faction declare war and steamroll over me while I tried to defend on two fronts. Thankfully you’ll find that there are caches of supplies, as well as abandoned settlements seeded throughout the world that can provide you with much-needed boosts along the way, especially during the early game. It provides an incentive to explore the world early while you’re alone with just the aliens so you can grab them before other factions start to arrive.
Is Beyond Earth a good game? Yes. In many ways it’s brilliant. It takes a lot of what was good about previous Civilization games and improves on them, and is thus well worth the time you’re going to end up spending on it.
The temptation of “Just one more turn” is still there, but it feels lacking in certain areas. There were times I wished I had no experience with Alpha Centauri, as it certainly would have removed a lot of my expectations for Beyond Earth. Should you get it? Yes, if you’re a fan of Civilization games then you should, and even if you’re new to the series it’s a great starting point since it is, for all intents and purposes a re-imagined game.