Going Beyond the Empires
After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terraformed and colonized: This is the premise behind one of my all-time favorite sci-fi shows Firefly. It’s also the setting for Civilization: Beyond Earth. Not the most inventive storyline, but one that opens up a game for a broad spectrum of story arcs and can generate some amazing tales of intrigue and adventure. It has always been a very solid premise for a sci-fi setting and an ambitious new project for Firaxis, the company responsible for the wildly popular Sid Meier’s Civilization V and its expansion Brave New World.
However Civilization V is a hard act to follow, already having such a solid groundwork laid in history itself. It evoked the rich tapestries of empires long lost to the sands of time as well as more recent ones. It used leaders and empires, both familiar to me and not, with long and well-recorded histories whether through story or record.
Beyond Earth does not have this. At its very surface it is a well-rounded re-skin of Civ V with none of the historical background or charm. Firaxis Tried to create a new world for us to play in complete with quotes and pictures just like in Civ V, but the problem is the people the quotes are attributed to are fictional and I have no stories about them to relate to. A game like Star Trek Online, Lord of the Rings, or even Sunless Sea at least have a source material to work from. Beyond Earth has nothing like that. In addition, a game like Sunless Sea lays out the story as you move along which Beyond Earth does not do –perhaps if the quotes were instead snippets of story or history it would capture some of that same intrigue.
I do see an attempt at this with Beyond Earth’s Mission function. At various times Story Missions pop up and you have to make a choice that affects your path for the rest of the game such as whether to eradicate the local wildlife or try to domesticate it. Many of these decisions give you points towards an Affinity: Harmony, Superiority or Purity. Each of these dictates which boon and advancements your civilization makes towards final victory.
The Affinity points themselves are unlocked via the game’s Technology map system. The main Technologies branch out from one central hub. Under the main technologies are what are called leafs. These leafs give you further abilities, while some also give you points towards an Affinity. You can pick one of three: Supremacy, Harmony or Purity.
Each Affinity has its own style of play and can affect your game in different ways. For the sake of this review I’m going to focus on Harmony since this is the one I sort of fell into on my playthrough. Harmony focuses on the idea that we made a mistake trying to bend Earth to our will and instead of making the same mistake twice, works towards integrating the planets strengths into our own. Some of the benefits include an immunity to the toxic Miasma that coats parts of the planet and of course the ability to alter and domesticate wildlife to use as units.
Affinity points unlock upgrades for your military units. In Civ V each unit had to be upgraded separately, which could be irritating, but in Beyond Earth they upgrade all your units at one time. This makes things much easier and more fluid. You pick between two bonuses for your units. Individual unit upgrades have been toned down but I think overall this makes the combat upgrade system more fluid and moves the pace of the game along at a smoother pace (though I still found myself mashing the End Turn button a lot). I felt this was the one of game’s strongest features.
Beyond Earth revamps the hex system of Civ V with a few improvements. I loved the Miasma mechanic. The map is dotted with translucent blue-green gas, which causes damage to your units the longer they stay in it. It causes you to think about the paths you take both on the map and as you work your way through the skill tree, as certain technologies can give you immunities and boon from the Miasma like I mentioned. The downside is it forces you to micromanage your units as they travel through territories. I did not mind this too much but I could see why some may find it unnecessarily nit-picky.
I found the interface hard to get used to, and was unable to find the unit list at all which left me rather frustrated. At one point I put my tac-jet to sleep while I had it wait for orders and was unable to find it again. It took me a while to memorize which icons represented which military units without scrolling over them to see the description.
The layout of the map itself is beautiful. I liked the depth of field effect where the map becomes unfocused at the edges, but since it is so alien many aspects mingle together, becoming hard to navigate and understand. Furthermore I think sometimes there is too much similarity in color between your basic units and the units of other nations. I pine for the bright stripes of Civ V empires. As garish as they looked, it made it easier to differentiate.
Similarly the tech web can become confusing for players both new and seasoned. Who knows which technology will benefit you the most and which to ignore altogether? The search function helps and I am sure multiple playthroughs and online guides can help players decide which technologies work best. Like the first game to sport the Sid Meier name it takes a while to adjust to the learning curve, and I find this game’s curve is a bit steeper. Especially towards the beginning.
The aliens on this world are frustrating. They are indeed tougher than Civ V’s barbarians and sport an annoyingly random AI. They seem to simply exist and really add little to the game save to severely hinder early expansion. It would be nice to be able to tame them or harness their powers for something other than a random event from an excavation. Tech that allows you to build your own aliens does not require you to have them around so there is little reason not to wipe them out early except for the fact the other budding nations on the planet might take offense. Then again, getting rid of Miasma around my city seemed to piss off the city next to me, as did everything else I did.
Fortunately other civilizations did little but threaten me in early game. The diplomacy is similar to it’s predecessor in that you unwires favors, negotiate open borders, denounce people and so on but Beyond Earth added a wonderful table that lets you keep track of what conflicts and alliances you have with each nation as well as the Affinity points everyone has gathered.. It is a wealth of information at a glance and I love it. Especially because diplomacy is my least favorite aspect of any Civ game.
All that being said, when it is time to fight the aliens it sure is fun. The combat is fluid and the outcome of each potential interaction is laid out clearly for you when you scroll over your target. In addition I was happy to see a lack of bugs in the combat system – though I have heard whispers they exist, I have not seen any personally.
Cities seem to be tougher nuts to crack as are the Siege Worms which roam about freely. The worms themselves make for a wonderfully tense addition to the game, because, as the aliens aggression grows, so does the likelihood that the worms will just decide to attack your roaming units and splatter them across the landscape like beef in a woodchipper.
At the end of the day Beyond Earth as a stand-alone game makes for a very solid and interesting strategy title. I look forward to future additions to what so far seems to be a promising new franchise. I know I will be revisiting it fairly often while I wait for an expansion.
- Challenging NPC's
- Interesting Affinity system
- Solid combat
- Promising atmosphere
- Visually appealing map
- Lack of charm or depth in the setting
- Boring factions
- UI is irritating to use at times
- Technology progression can be hard to understand on your first playthrough