If Firaxis’ latest title has taught me anything, it’s that I should be very glad that I live in the time period I do. You see, those left behind on Earth have to deal with a dying planet, while those blasted off into deep space are going to have to contend with giant space worms. It’s a horrifying prospect either way, and no one is a winner. Thankfully, I only have to experience the horror virtually through Beyond Earth, the latest instalment of the Civilization franchise. A spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, it initially appears to have familiar overtones, with menus and the UI bearing resemblance to previous Civ titles, but the changes emerge even before the first turn has started.
While only eight factions are available to choose from, the ability to select specific starting bonuses is a great example of how the game focuses on choice throughout its gameplay. Sure, faction specific perks are there, but allowing players to choose between starting with a Clinic for extra health (something I’ll cover later) or a worker unit allows them to focus on their own style of play while providing a sense of flexibility. This is important, because while planning ahead has always been an aspect of the Civ series, Beyond Earth contains new challenges that, if the player is unprepared for, will punish without mercy. If players are to survive, they are going to need to adapt, or perish in the process.
And it’s all thanks to the untamed and unforgiving planet.
You see, the hex grid returns, along with familiar looking tiles upon which to build / improve / expand / and conquer, just like the previous Civ Titles. However, the inclusion of Miasma clouds, which damage any unit that ends their turn on them, drastically changes the pace of gameplay and the way players consider moving units around the map. This is on top the alien wildlife, which are not only aggressive at the best of times, but downright deadly if a lone unit stumbles upon a hive of them. These new additions make what is normally a quite peaceful and expansive start to Civ games a much more guarded and cautious one. And that’s just on land – the whole process starts anew once at sea. If the damn Siege Worms weren’t bad enough, the Kraken are just plain evil.
Anyway, before this descends into an essay on my hatred for the alien life, let’s get back on track. As I just stated, these addition alter the pace, and this is actually a running theme throughout the game. Settling a new colony / city takes time, with an outpost being vulnerable to attack until it grows into a colony several turns later. I personally think this should be carried over to the main Civ series, as it makes expansion a much more calculated affair and means players can’t just spam out settlements and deal with the fallout later. Well, they can do that, but then they have to deal with another aspect that can slow down the pace significantly – Health. Replacing Happiness, a negative Health score can cripple development of a faction, while the opposite translates to bonuses all round. It means that, again, making sure a new colony has buildings that produce health is a must, and I found it to be the biggest game-changer for me while playing.
All of these things combined mean that, at least for a few hundred turns, empires are far smaller compared to where they would be in previous Civ titles, but this is exactly why Beyond Earth should be treated as an entirely different beast. Take for example the Orbital Map, another new addition that introduces satellites into the mix. Having its own map overlay, it provides new ways to gain more energy (ie. gold) or culture, although the most interesting part is how it affects warfare. The fantastically named Planet Crackers can level the battlefield, providing you have coverage. This is because satellites cannot overlap, meaning players much choose which ones are best suited for the situation, and that’s on top of contemplating the 60 turn lifespan they have. The inclusion of satellites not only mixes up the gameplay successfully, but feels right for the sci-fi setting.
While the change of pace is a big factor in what makes Beyond Earth different, then so is the emphasis on choice throughout the game. The biggest example of this is the new quest system, popping up at various points to either ask the player to complete an objective (kill X of Y, go dig up that thing over there) for a reward, or simply present them with two options. It might be to decide if a factory produces more production or energy, or if an outbreak of Earth-born flora should be contained or left alone. Each decision not only ensures the slower pace doesn't result in a boring experience, but allows players to fine tune each game to their needs, or react to their changing circumstances. It ultimately makes it for a more interesting and fun experience.
Another example of choice in Beyond Earth is the new Tech Web. Replacing the linear Tech Tree of previous games, the new web looks like it sounds, with branches (main discoveries) and leaves (specialised research) going off in various directions. It allows for a level of freedom in discovering technologies that fits with the futuristic setting. That said, it certainly is the most disorientating change of Beyond Earth, especially with the technobabble titles making it hard to realise what each one provides. Thankfully, a search bar in the top corner is a lifesaver, allowing players to locate specific techs or upgrades, because without it players would be definitely lost. There are a few curios in the mix though, with certain upgrades for techs being unlockable well before the actual tech itself, but overall I found it to be a refreshing change to the formula.
The Tech Web also acts as the main progress point to the Affinity system, which provides three different paths to take a faction down – Harmony, which focuses on becoming one with the new planet and its alien life; Supremacy, which focuses on melding with technology; and Purity, which focuses on remaining as human as possible. Gaining more points in each path unlocks special perks and victory conditions, as well as cosmetic changes to the player’s units (as well as acting as the upgrade system for the game, removing unit micromanagement.) It adds a real impact to the gameplay, as Harmony factions will not only be unharmed by Miasma, but ride the local wildlife to terrifying victory. Meanwhile, Supremacy ends up with robots replacing their army, while Purists get to keep all their limbs and pilot mechs. Of course, it also affects how other factions react to you, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The important thing is that, it adds a new level of replayability beyond exploring new tactics, something I’ve never really seen in a Civ game before.
We’ve spoken a lot about what has changed, but one thing that has stayed very similar is the combat. Unit stacking is still not possible, and ranged units are still the key to victory. So, with the exception of satellites, it’s business as usual… apart from attacking colonies. This is where I found the combat to fall apart, as defences proved too powerful and meant any wars I took part in ended in a stalemate with nobody losing ground – only units. It made conflicts feel almost like an afterthought instead of a means to an end. In fact, it was more of a way to distract the player from achieving victory rather than presenting an actual threat. Maybe I just needed more units and Planet Crackers, but that’s how it came across to me.
So with that in mind, Diplomacy is perhaps more important than ever, but for the most part it remains the same song and dance. Other factions will bug you mercilessly as before for open borders and declarations of friendship, and yes, they will ask for unreasonably one-sided trades, but the inclusion of favours means players can finally get something back from the otherwise greedy AI. Of course, with strategic resources being the only thing to trade it makes every demand and offer seem much more costly, but here’s the thing – the favour system works. At one point I was in financial dire straits, but I was able to call in an outstanding favour to balance to books – no questions asked. To me, it finally makes diplomacy feel balanced, and I hope they carry the idea over to the main series.
Achieving victory in Beyond Earth appears to require much more of a focused approach than previous games. Thanks to the Affinity system, only a few choices will be available to players at once, as a jack-of-all-trades will be unable to do anything other than a domination victory (which, with combat as it is, is practically a fool’s errand.) That said, the difference between the victory conditions is a great touch and provides different gameplay experience. For example, the Promised Land condition requires a huge gate to be built and for players to move settlers from Earth onto the planet to set up camp, while the Emancipation condition charges players to send a large force of troops through the gate back to Earth to subjugate those left behind. It comes across as more interesting, despite the fact it’s still pretty much “build lots of X until finished.”
I’ve talked about the various mechanics and what has changed, and I could very well keep going on about but let’s get to the heart of the matter – is Beyond Earth enjoyable to play? Provided you can take a step back and adapt to the much slower pace, I think it not only brings some interesting new features to the table, but manages to be an enjoyable and addictive experience in its own right. It’s also downright atmospheric thanks to the soundtrack. Each turn is accompanied by music that with a sense of uncertainty with a dash of hope for the future that really adds to the experience (even when those bloody worms are loitering near a colony.)
That said, there are issues. My biggest gripe with the game was that, despite the inclusion of a multi-levelled tutorial wizard, for the most part it does a poor job of preparing players for the intricacies that lie ahead. I found myself learning my through trial and error, as the advice and the civpedia did little to assist me. Then there are the balance issues; at the time of writing, the African faction seems to be able to win every time thanks to their population growth perk. On top of this, peace between other factions seems easy to maintain as long as trade routes are kept up. But getting to the point of trading, of maintaining a decent defence force from the local wildlife, and ensuring the colony stays healthy – all the while working towards a victory condition –makes it challenge I find more than enjoyable. Firaxis have managed to capture the feeling of taming a wild frontier, with a sense of freedom to go about it how you wish to.
- The emphasis of choice throughout gives players the power to play as they want.
- The different Affinities & victory conditions provides variation & replayability.
- The slower pacing provides new and exciting challenges…
- … but getting used to the change of pace takes some getting used to.
- The tutorials aren’t the most helpful at introducing new aspects.
- Conflict between factions seems like an afterthought than a means to an end.
The Short Version:
It’s Civ, but not as we know it… and that’s a good thing. The focus on choice and adaptability on the alien world allows players to deal with new challenges on the way to taming this new frontier. It’s not a flawless effort, but provided you can overcome the slower pacing of progress, the addiction of going yet another turn is absolutely there, making Beyond Earth a highly enjoyable entry in the Civilization series.
8 - GREAT:: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games