Developed by Firaxis Games. Published by Take-Two Interactive. Released October 24, 2014. Available on PC. Review copy provided by publisher.
In the Civilization series that bears Sid Meier’s name, you have to make a lot of decisions: Where to plant your first city, what to build first, where to move your soldiers, whether you should attack your neighbor. Meier famously believes that all game design is about creating interesting decisions for the player. Civilization: Beyond Earth was made by Firaxis under the tutelage of Meier’s philosophy as players colonize a new planet around 250 years in the future and must contend with other human factions and a hostile alien environment. Unfortunately, the myriad of new decisions you have to make in Beyond Earth become uninteresting far too quickly, at once paralyzing you and forcing you to mark time in annoying ways. Thankfully, the game is still enjoyable for a Civ fan even if it is flawed.
Despite the wonderful emotional hook of the introductory cinematic, the story set-up is rather slim and you have to infer a lot of it. Humans as a species have discovered the ability to travel to a distant planet to set up shop and they all launch their spaceships at roughly the same time to land on the same planet. The human groups and their leaders have notes of known cultures, such as Elodie from Franco-Iberia and Hutama from Polystralia, but other than their accents there’s not much character differentiating them. You found a city on a new planet and use that city to construct military units, buildings which provide permanent bonuses to your faction and support units such as satellites and workers to improve the harsh landscape. The action is turn-based, so you have ample time to decide how you want to move your units on the hex grid before the other factions and the aliens take their turns.
When you start a game of Beyond Earth, you are immediately forced to make a series of decisions that make very little sense to a novice Civ player. You are ostensibly kitting out the spaceship you’re launching from Earth to colonize a new planet by choosing your faction’s culture and what equipment you are bringing along. It’s easy to see that choosing a weapon arsenal will get you a free soldier unit when you found your first city, but it’s difficult to know whether that will be important or not without know the situation on the planet. These choices are a way to differentiate each playthrough from another, I suppose, but I found myself frustrated because I had no idea what impact it would have on my game. A good general or leader uses the information available to decide what to do, and I felt I was forced to make important decisions in a vacuum just to see what happened.
Once you do get to the new planet, it’s clear it doesn’t like you much. There are alien units prowling around which will attack your units and your city on sight. There is a green gas miasma infecting some of the hex tiles around your city which damages your units if they end their turn there. The early game in Beyond Earth is harsh, and new players will have to adapt quickly if they want to survive. The game does a pretty good job of guiding you through with an effective tutorial and hint system, along with a series of quests that introduce certain concepts. There’s a quest to investigate a nearby crashed satellite with your explorer unit and set up an expedition there, introducing the idea that you can, you know, do that. There’s a quest to kill a huge siege worm, a task that is very difficult without strong tactics or advanced units, but it reinforces the concept that aliens can be harvested for resources if you’re OK with that. The quest system is extremely minimal, with text and some simple choices available, but it does help in structuring the game experience a bit.
The technology web could have used some of that structure to make it easier for players to understand. In other Civ games, you progressed generally in a line through the ages, but in Beyond Earth you have the ability to choose to research one of seven techs right from the start. The technologies are shown in a connected circular web, with more important “branch” techs above more specialized “leaf” techs, which allows for some cherry-picking the techs you want. Allowing progression to occur organically is a great design feature on paper, but in practice it is easy to feel paralyzed at how to proceed. With so many new concepts and make-believe terms to become acquainted with in the science-fiction setting, information overload becomes a real problem. It all starts to read as scientific mumbo-jumbo after a while.
Affinities are a nice addition to the mix, though. You can level up your faction in the three philosophies of Harmony, Supremacy and Purity, usually by choosing certain technologies but also through quests. Advancing your faction in Supremacy, for example, means your people are comfortable with assimilating technology such as cybernetics into their bodies, while Purity stands for keeping the human genome and way of life intact even on an alien planet and Harmony is all about coexisting with the alien life there. The three philosophies feel real and grounded in something that would actually occur if humans were forced to survive in a harsh environment. As you gain levels, your units become more powerful but you also gain specific bonuses such as making explorers immune to alien attacks. It is also interesting to see how the opposing faction leaders will choose to adapt on the new world. The first time you encounter General Kozlov of the Slavic Federation who has adopted Supremacy, for example, you’ll know it from the glowing eyes and cybernetic implants on his head. It’s creepy.
The military units are pretty straightforward, at first. There are only eight basic units you can build and they all have distinct roles. You start out with the ability to build a generic soldier unit and the scouting explorer, before unlocking ranged units, tanks, artillery and eventually naval units and flying tacjets. Once you start to advance in one of the three affinities, you also gain access to special units like the awesomely huge Angel robot or a cadre of alien-riding cavalry. In addition, the basic units all improve gradually with affinity level so your units start to look unique, and your troops start to become specialized with tactical bonuses you choose. These specializations change the name of the unit, however, which kept mixing me up. The symbol for each unit type remains the same, but you’ll be asking yourself what a viper, a cobra, or a centurion are. Despite the confusing names, waging war with the new units is really entertaining and exploring the tactical benefits of each affinity’s special bonuses is a sci-fi strategist’s dream. In particular, combining the use of orbital support units like the Tacnet Hub, which empowers your ground forces, with a traditional attack is great fun.
Diplomacy between the factions largely remains unchanged from previous iterations of Civilization, which is really disappointing. You meet your opponents gradually over the course of the first few turns; they introduce themselves immediately upon planetfall. You can trade strategic resources for energy or science, but because there are no luxury resources to trade, keeping a good relationship with a partner doesn’t feel that important. There is a neat new intangible thing you can trade called a “favor”. You can give a faction something they need in exchange for a favor, and later on trade that favor for a resource or diplomatic agreement such as going to war. In practice though, the number of favors needed to get a faction to do what you want can be frustratingly out of reach. In one game, I banked nine favors with Daoming Sochua of the Pan-Asian Collective and offered all of them to get her to declare war on my enemy but she refused. Nine!
In addition to diplomatic trade, Beyond Earth simulates commercial trading with a large number of trade routes that becomes annoying to manage. After you build a trade depot in a city, you can build two trade units which can form a connection to another city, netting both of them bonuses. The alien lifeforms love to attack your trade units, forcing you to defend the route or have the connection severed, which can get tedious extremely quickly. There are also ways to increase the number of trade routes per city, and if you have an empire of 5 or 6 cities, you quickly spend way too much time micro-managing these routes. The interface for choosing a city connection doesn’t allow meaningful sorting or allow you to automate the process, which would have been appreciated.
I quite like the espionage system, however. Sending spies to different cities to have them steal energy – the game’s currency – or technology allows for some dastardly strategies. You have to level up your spies and the intrigue level of the city they are stationed in, so you have to accomplish low difficulty missions before trying for something more substantial. Your affinities also allow you to do some deliciously awful things like unleashing a huge alien siege worm beside an enemy city. Still, as you progress through the game, you’ll have access to more and more spies and it eventually starts to feel like busy work, too.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of Beyond Earth is the decisions you have to make for each type of building you construct. A quest decision will pop up after you build your first gene smelter or ultrasonic fence that give a snippet of text and a binary choice for a permanent bonus for each copy of that building type in your empire. When each tech unlocks a building or two, over the course of a game it seems like you’ll end up making fifty of these decisions. Even during the first playthrough, these decisions feel egregious but by the fourth or fifth time the same decision comes up, you start to cringe. Some of them are so useful that you wonder why someone would ever choose another way, while others feel almost meaningless. Will it matter if this building gives +1 health or +1 science over the course of the whole game? I have no idea.
Beyond Earth has a large number of new concepts that separate it from its roots in Civilization V, but not all of them are successful. But, beyond the success or failure of individual features, is the disappointment I felt in playing a game that doesn’t truly feel like it’s on a new world. Yes, there are aliens to contend with, fanciful new resources to collect, and philosophies to explore. You are still doing exactly what humans did on Earth, though, which is try to blow each other up or race to complete objectives. Other science-fiction strategy games, including Firaxis’ previous entry Alpha Centauri, attempted to tell a story of humanity’s struggle in a new, unique way that Beyond Earth never quite manages. I will still play Beyond Earth for hundreds of hours because it is the type of game that gets my motor running, but I wish it achieved more.
Bottom Line: An overall solid turn-based strategy game that suffers from information overload resulting in analysis paralysis for the player, Beyond Earth has a few really interesting systems but ultimately doesn’t transcend those mechanics into something unique or awe-inspiring.
Recommendation: Civ fans will enjoy the sci-fi aesthetic and new features, but Beyond Earth is far from a classic.[rating=3]