Sid Meier’s Civilization Beyond Earth | Principal Platforms:  PC (Version tested), Mac | Developer: Firaxis Games | Publisher: 2K Games | Genre: 4X Strategy | Year: 2014

Civilization: Beyond Earth PAL Box Art

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

For those of you just joining us, Sid Meier’s Civilization Beyond Earth is Firaxis Games‘ newest installment/spinoff in the classic Civilization series that sees your futuristic empire transported to a new world in dire need of culture, conflict and colonization. Supremely addictive and remarkably esoteric in presentation, the Civilization series presents a heady mix of turn based empire building, strategy and exploration that has remained a staple of the ‘4X game’ diet since the beginning. Directly inspired by (and billed as a spiritual successor to) the lauded title Sid Meier’s: Alpha Centauri, it’s obvious that Beyond Earth has some pretty big shoes to fill this time around.

So with that, let’s talk about what the game gets right.

The title screen alone does wonders for introducing you to the game’s theme with a minimalist appearance comprising of sleek menus and a gorgeous render of a distant planet sitting in the background. As first impressions go it’s a good one: it’s all about this new world; a grand adventure that awaits anyone brave enough to make planetfall.

You start with a pre-game draft of sorts as you select not only a faction to play as but also the colonists, craft and cargo that you’ll be taking with you. Each of these options deliver a unique set of bonuses from additional starting resources and units to science, production and culture bonuses or even an enhanced view of the dropzone or planet surface. It’s a cool feature and one that seeks to enhance the habitually routine early game that previous Civilization titles can be sometimes.

Once you’ve made planetfall and your first city starts to develop in earnest, it’s time for you to begin exploring and it’s here where Beyond Earth really starts to take off. The new planet that you’ll be calling home over a typical 6-8 hour game session teems with alien life that can be lethally aggressive to your fledgling colony and its citizens if you get on their bad side. Essentially the game’s analogue to Civilization‘s barbarian enemies, the aliens are designed to provide an element of danger to the undiscovered terrain.

But unlike the relative nuisance that barbarians always seemed to be (in Civilization V at least), the aliens in Beyond Earth feel like a more integral part of the game. Several technologies and related abilities allow you to better interact with not just the aliens but also the ever-present miasma; a toxic gas that covers certain hexes on the game map that damages stationed units that have not yet researched an effective countermeasure. It all adds to the sense that this randomly generated world is as dangerous as it is vast and anyone that has lost a squad of combat rovers to the terrifying visage of a roaming siege worm will surely attest to that!

One of the most marketed features of the game is the new technology web. Very different from the semi-linear tech tree of previous titles, the technology web proves to be one of Beyond Earth‘s leading innovations. You start with the Habitation technology researched at the beginning and from there lies an expanding web of research for you to pursue. Will you take the time to research Pioneering before dipping into Genetic Mapping? Perhaps you’ll choose to ignore the inner web entirely and delve straight into the more exotic projects such as Surrogacy, Swarm Intelligence and Dark Networks.

The start of every tech line is referred to as a “stem” with two “leaf” technologies that are accessible once a stem has been researched. This leads to a level of choice that is simply staggering; it’s probable that your approach to research in this game will be very different to that of your neighbouring opponents. Such is the complexity of research in Beyond Earth, Firaxis has wisely included a welcome set of filters and a search system to help players better navigate the labyrinth of futuristic sciences and esoteric terminology.

Awesome.

Awesome.

Like the crisp menu design, in-game Beyond Earth is similarly pretty; with gorgeous visuals that depict a vibrant alien world alive with character and colour. Far removed from the typically barren wastes of perhaps more realistic planet surfaces, the world presented here feels very distinctive. Despite running on the same engine as Civilization V, the game shakes off any stigma that may suggest this is a simple “reskin”.

Part of this is also because of the game’s rather excellent soundtrack that is as bombastic and pleasing as you might expect. For me at least, it’s just another one of those vital ingredients designed to take you there – to transport you to this universe that you’re eager to see more of. The fact that the full game soundtrack is made available for free in the game’s files is certainly a nice bonus too.

Elsewhere on the visual side of things, you have military units that are suitably unique and well animated with mechanized walking artillery, satellite launches and drop pod deployment that look rather satisfying to witness. The smooth SFX also compliment this presentation nicely, especially since the sound is far less abrasive than Civilization V with its spam of notifications and that constant ear piercing wail every time one of your troops dies on the battlefield…

In the gameplay department things will be immediately familiar to fans of the series. You’ll found outposts which eventually grow into cities (a much more balanced system than the city spam of old) and construct various buildings that each offer a specific bonus to science, growth or production etc.

One particularly nice addition is that of quests. In addition to your usual concerns as leader, Beyond Earth introduces several optional missions for you to attempt over the course of the game. These range from simple tasks such as excavating downed satellites (which can literally fall out of the sky during gameplay!) and establishing trade routes to more difficult tasks such as producing an advanced building or killing a siege worm. Many quests ask you to make a decision that will effect the bonuses that you’ll have access to over the course of the game and it’s nice being able to try a different option in subsequent games to see what approach best suits you.

I think the quest log is a natural fit for a Civilization game as it’s something that helps keep you engaged long after your empire’s core infrastructure is up and running. It may just have been me on this one but I felt as if there were fewer instances of simply clicking ‘end turn’ over and over again; which was something that plagued the Civilization V end game far too often.

The early game is bolstered further by the new scout unit replacements called explorers. Whilst functionally the same as scouts (good viewing range, fast movement and weak combat strength), explorers come primed with a special module that allows them to set up an expedition site at certain ruins or points of interest in the game world. Once complete these expeditions provide all sorts of powerful bonuses that can really set your faction up in terms of position. Later in the game you will discover technology and virtues that enhance your explorers further which is a nice approach as it makes these units relevant for longer and generally more enticing for newer players (who will often underappreciate the value of early game scouting).

There are a handful of minor changes and additions that enhance Beyond Earth too. Resource icons fit flush with the map, one worker now covers tile improvements on sea as well as land (no need for clunky work boats) and military units upgrade themselves automatically which makes managing an army much less of a hassle. The game feels more optimized too with a much faster boot time than Civilization V and a low hard drive footprint overall. Modding support via Steam Workshop is available from launch and what I’ve seen of the LAN multiplayer so far has been positive too.

But despite being instantly recognizable as a Civilization title, Beyond Earth is a game that only the expert crowd will assimilate immediately. Beyond Earth dispels the notion that this may be a simple clone of Civilization V as you’ll find a significant investment of time is needed to fully grasp the many new systems and subtle intricacies popping up in each session. Despite the obvious similarities here and there, Beyond Earth is certainly its own game and that is a good thing.

A variety of satellites can be launched into the atmosphere to provide certain powerful bonuses until they naturally de-orbit or are shot down by rival leaders.

Beyond Earth has a lot going for it then but after just a single game you’ll notice that not everything is perfect with Firaxis‘ latest effort.

The first negative aspect that hit me early is the lacklustre and rather boring factions that you get to play as. The personality and background of each leader is somewhat samey and only divulged by trawling through reams of text in the game’s ‘Civlopedia’ – there’s no introduction screen or customized background delivered when selecting a leader or starting a game either, which hardly endears you to your choice. Each game starts with a generic personal log written by your leader which hints at something grand but despite a few glimmers of a story, the game largely fails to deliver any sort of meaningful narrative. Considering Alpha Centauri‘s comittment to a storyline, I can’t help but view this deficiency in Beyond Earth as somewhat of a missed opportunity.

Mechanically each leader comes packaged with a rather uninteresting bonus. A free technology after launching a satellite or a dull passive buff to unit combat strength may be somewhat more balanced perhaps but it’s not all that exciting either. Beyond Earth lacks a Venice, a Germany or an India- a Civilization that offers a very unique and often nuanced playstyle each game.

This lack of flavour also impacts the game’s diplomacy system which feels watered down even when compared to Civilization V‘s rather dubious offering. Luxury resources and research agreements are gone and with them go many of the reasons to actually want to trade with the AI in the first place. You can now trade favours which is an interesting idea but they don’t seem to be valuable enough to really bother with.

Another big change in direction concerns the new affinity system and military conquests. After you’ve explored the planet for long enough your faction will begin to develop a leaning towards three different ideologies: Harmony, Supermacy and Purity. Researching certain techs and choosing certain quest decisions will all offer points in one of these three affinities and once a certain threshold is met, your faction will level up in that chosen affinity and gain access to new units, new buildings and new abilities. Some players may choose to focus on one primary affinity and others may mix in points and bonuses from all three.

Native aliens will get riled up and aggressive if a player continues to attack them on sight.

Native aliens will get riled up and aggressive if a player continues to attack them on sight.

Harmony represents a deeper connection with the planet thus offering access to alien units and the ability to avoid the environmental hazards. Supremacy focuses on augmentation, unity and robotics whereas Purity seeks to preserve humanity with its massive warships and human settlements.

In terms of conquest, the affinity units which unlock once you’ve acquired a certain level in a chosen affinity are absurdly powerful and constitute a mandatory investment for your faction as the game progresses (lest you be steamrolled by more advanced opponents). I think this may lead some games to feeling partiuclarly unbalanced and rather samey but it also comes with the effect of making the domination playstyle the dominant one, as it were.

Melee units are much more effective than they were in Civilization V which is nice but the added focus towards military strength quickly leaves more peaceful players with a bit of a predicament on their hands. Beyond Earth favours the warmonger and you can see it clearly by looking at the reduced culture system. Developing your civilization’s culture provides you with unlockable virtues which come in four trees of interconnecting and synergistic bonuses that enhance your empire. Virtues are comprehensive, effective and straightforward which is good but this is practically all you will use culture for as the game develops. There will be fewer buildings to construct over the course of the game which means that even the keenest city builder is going to be nudged towards fighting eventually.

There’s no longer a culture victory or any sort of derivative victory type for that matter except for domination. The Promised Land, Emancipation, Contact and Trancendence victory types all make for something welcomingly different but did each of these have be explained so poorly? You’ll find yourself repeatedly trekking into the Civlopedia for more details on how to actually win and even then it’s definitely not as comprehensive as it could be. Personally I think that a Transparent victory would have been good idea…

Then you have wonders; the towering achievements of human engineering that take ages to construct, provide outlandish bonuses and offer more than a few bragging rights for their committed builder; indeed, the world wonders in Civilization have always been a bit special. Except that’s not the case in Beyond Earth because the wonders in this game just plain suck.

It seems someone at Firaxis got a bit conservative this time around as many of Beyond Earth‘s wonders offer scant yields and muted effects in comparison to previous games. Why bother spending 30+ turns building a wonder that offers less incentive than a standard trade route that can be active in less than half the time? More on the topic of trade later…

And the problems with wonders don’t stop there which leads to one of Beyond Earth‘s biggest problems; the game feels too sterile. Whether it’s selecting a faction, building a wonder or achieving victory, the fanfare in this game is severely lacking. Much like the leaders, wonders tend to lack personality as well as potency. As an example, let’s take a look at this wonder called the Crawler.

The Crawler’s main gimmick is that of a gigantic construction engine that builds other wonders; something that sounds great in theory but doesn’t live up to that expectation in-game at all. This very expensive world wonder provides a rather tepid, situational bonus and arrives too late to be of any real use. Then you add in the fact that the wonder screens all look like this:

CelJaded-Beyond-Earth-(12)

The Crawler, tepid wonder extroidinaire.

Beyond Earth utilizes a lot of sterile (and not to mention cryptic) iconography and the sort of blueprint-esque presentation screens as seen above lack the sort of visual impact you’ve come to expect (Civilization IV came with animated videos for each wonder!)

This situation is made all the more upsetting by the fact that a good wall of decent flavour text does actually exist for wonders in the game’s Civlopedia, Crawler included. But is there much point in having this if you’re forced to go digging for it everytime? I appreciate that Beyond Earth has a bit more work to do in this regard as all of these structures are fictional and don’t carry the same weight as say Stonehenge or the Statue of Liberty, but it works against the game regardless. Wonders need to be much better than this and also need some sort of developed illustration to give them life, as right now I don’t see much benefit to building one at all. There are already several mods dedicated to tweaking wonders and at this stage it’s not hard to see why.

And the lack of personality in this game persists. City states have been reduced to minor powers; neutral outposts that possess no units, fewer quests and nothing that to make them notable outside of being mere trading hubs. It’s quite likely that you’ll fail to even notice if one gets destroyed by a rival faction; they’re that unremarkable.

Then there are the victory screens which offer you even less! Each game ends with a simple illustration and unsuitable voiceover before booting you back to the main menu without so much as a kiss goodbye. No results screen, no fanfare, nothing special at all. You won (or lost) and that’s your lot.

You can find the replays screen (which I think has been shown at the end of every Civilization game up until now) by digging through the main menus but then it still doesn’t show you the popular map view of how your game played out. This isn’t so much a replay screen as much as it is a spreadsheet screen, as the demographics are all that get shown here (and for some reason can’t be accessed in-game anymore). Considering that this game runs on the same engine as Civilization V it’s a very puzzling omission and makes you wonder if Beyond Earth began to run out of development time at some point in the pipeline.

Cities are still pretty but they feel more sterile than the Civilization games of yore.

A few bugs and other minor points give this impression too. The title screen music doesn’t loop for some irritating reason, trade convoys often display the wrong unit graphic and voiceovers sometimes fail to activate when multiple notifications activate at the same time. There are a few grammatical errors such as “bonics” instead of bionics and the quest log button labelled show failed quests appears to actually hide failed quests instead.

The achievement list is a quick cut-and-paste job from Civilization V and the Moby Dick reference doesn’t even make any sense as it’s used in reference to the land based Siege Worm instead of the more suitable sea based Kraken.

But getting back to the things that matter to 99% of gamers…

Trade routes! Man, saying the trade routes in this game are a bit powerful is like saying Montezuma is quite partial to using a spear now and then.

Internal trade routes between your own cities are absurdly powerful which means any player not maximizing their use of these is simply not going to have an optimal game. On the lower difficulties it won’t be too much of a problem though as the AI in Beyond Earth has not improved much at all. The AI opponents are still lacking in their ability to wage an effective war, set up reasonable trade deals and make much of an impact without several handicaps to prop up their game.

Firaxis Games has already stated that a patch is in the works and no doubt a lot of what I’ve said above can be fixed in time but where does that leave us at the moment?

This is not Civilization V, and despite the numerous comparisons that I’ve made so far, Beyond Earth stands comfortably as its own unique game. If you’re a Civ fanatic like me then you’ll still find a lot to enjoy in spite of the flaws, but I can’t help but wonder if similar 4X titles are starting to innovate at a faster and more competitive rate.

It’s clear that Firaxis is still one of the top developers in this genre but perhaps it’s time they lowered their scope and raised their game?

 

CONCLUSION

In spite of a puzzlingly weak AI and an overall lack of adequate game balance and personality, Beyond Earth‘s unique theme, excellent presentation and engaging gameplay ultimately won me over. It’s far from perfect, but Beyond Earth has still succeeded in delivering an utterly absorbing strategy title that will likely hold my attention for a long time hereafter. But can we try and add a little more feeling in the first expansion please, Firaxis?