Mankind reaches for the stars, but does it ascend to new heights or fall flat on its stupid face?
Civilization: Beyond Earth is about mankind finding its feet in the wider universe, leaving planet Earth behind to find all-new exotic locations in which to shoot each other with rocket launchers. Those hoping for something approaching the complexity and unique character of Sid Meier’s sci-fi spectacular Alpha Centauri, which is the obvious touching point here, will be disappointed with Beyond Earth, which treads a more familiar path. In fact, it feels more like a standalone sci-fi expansion to predecessor Civilization 5 than its own beast.
Each one of the game’s factions is an expeditionary force from a particular region of Earth, each packing a perk that makes them more suited to a particular style of play; the American ACR is better suited to corporate espionage for example, while the Franco-Iberians get a free tech after unlocking a certain amount of social policies. Lacking special units and structures, it’s a shame that the colonial forces never feel as unique and flavourful as the national leaders in a regular Civ game. There’s also nothing like Leonard Nimoy’s wonderful voice-over telling you the history of your people while the map loads up, which always felt like a fantastic touch that invested you in your choice of nation. Presentation overall is rather brusque and flavourless, aside from some satisfying sound effects and a beautiful, expansive score.
This is Humata, leader of the Polystralian faction, rejecting my modest trade proposal. Smug git
After choosing your faction, you’ll pick a few different materials and benefits for your colony founders before shuttling down to the planet surface. Firaxis has done a solid job of creating worlds that look suitably alien, but at the same time weirdly relatable. There’s lots to find, and with new side-missions providing an incentive to explore, you’ll want to make use of your scout units while you develop your first holding.
Lacking unique buildings and units, most of the difference between factions on the field comes from the new Affinity system. By focusing on researching certain technologies, you’ll nudge your fledgling colony in one of three directions. Harmony encourages a union between humanity and the alien life inhabiting your new planet. By following this path you eventually unlock a towering xeno siege monster, and therefore it is my favourite. Purity is a martial-focused path that encourages the use of brute-force human technology, while Supremacy is more tied-in to trade and industry.
Picking one of these paths slowly morphs your colony, both in terms of the way you approach expansion and conflict, and on a more basic level the visual make-up of your cities and units. Harmony players, for example, will make use of flashy green plasma cannons and sleek, almost insectoid green structures and vehicles. Purity colonies meanwhile, employ a retro-futuristic look eschewing style and elegance in favour of hard-nosed functionality. The system does a terrific job of making you feel like you’re really leading your colony in a particular direction, and it’s Beyond Earth’s biggest success.
The tech web is a blizzard of scientific jargon at first, but you swiftly come to appreciate the versatility that comes from using it
The way the Affinity system ties into the tech tree necessitated a redesign of one of the most familiar features of the Civilization franchise. Rather than the previous linear structure, which meant you were forever sacrificing one tech path in favour of another, the technology tree in Beyond Earth is really more of a web. Each branch has a core technology, and then a couple of related ‘leaf’ technologies, specialist options that offer big rewards and opportunities, but take a lot longer to research. The web structure means that it’s far easier to pick and choose what you want to go for at any particular time. Say you want to improve your colony’s health; Whereas in Civ 5 you might have had to switch tech paths, spending countless turns working your way to the one you wanted, now you can jump across to the relevant branch.
Should you choose to pump all your research into finding new ways to shoot people with lasers, you’ll find a combat system that’s very reminiscent of Civilization 5. If you disliked that game’s on-unit-per-hex rule and slightly awkward tactical manoeuvring, you’ll find much the same issues with Beyond Earth, though there is a far greater variety of units to play with. When you factor in all the special units that each Affinity unlocks, you end up with a respectable amount of options.
Earn enough Affinity points through research and side-missions and you’ll unlock the ability to customise a particular unit, picking one of two unique abilities. This offers a nice way to kit your army out for a particular brand of warfare. I pumped up my out-of-combat healing, and combined it with the Harmony Affinity’s ability to heal in the toxic miasma clouds that permeated my planet. This opened up some amusingly devious combinations; my favourite moment was dropping a toxic satellite bomb that spread poisonous mist in a contested zone – resulting in a combat environment that restored my troops’ health while sapping that of the enemy.
City structures slowly morph into the preferred look of the Affinity you follow
Combat’s solid then, but right now the AI seems a bit hesitant for my liking. I spent more of my time fending off the alien populace, who operate much like barbarians in classic Civ, than I did defeating my fellow humans. Twice I got to the endgame without really coming under all that much pressure, taking the shine off my eventual victory somewhat. Strategy games have a difficult balance to find between super-aggressive, unfair computer opponents who can’t wait to invade you even if it doesn’t really make tactical sense, and passive types who quietly let you get on with things while they sputter away to little effect in the background. Beyond Earth never quite gets this balance right.
Beyond Earth does some things extremely well. The sci-fi theme is solid, and there are innovative changes to technology research and faction development that are smart and fun to use. What disappoints me most is its lack of personality. Though the basic blocks are there – visuals are lovely, the music is excellent, and the general ambience when you’re idly clicking through turns waiting for a wonder to complete is satisfying – there’s just something missing. For one, I never really feel like I’m competing or engaging with real characters.
The factions of Beyond Earth are a bland lot, who all feel like they’re ultimately playing at roughly the same game. Some variation occurs in the late game, when everybody decides on a victory condition to pursue, but getting to that point seems to always boil down to extended combat, without the complexities and subtleties of Civ 5’s established supporting systems like culture, religion, art and tourism. This can result in some disappointingly dull campaigns, in which your enemies feel largely indistinct, save for their primary colours. Diplomacy, save for a nice option that lets you bank favours to call in later in exchange for lopsided deals, adds little character to your interactions.
Aliens can be a real pain in the arse, and will be the main focus of your military campaigns.
Again, taking Civilization 5 as an example, (although that’s another game that felt a little light at launch before expansions opened it up) you don’t get the variety of Korea beavering away on a science victory in a corner of the map, the Celts forging a new world religion while a warlike Genghis Khan sweeps across the continent in a violent charge, demanding your tribute lest he names you his next target. At its worst, Beyond Earth makes you feel like you’re simply going through the motions, without an unfolding narrative around you to give weight to your decisions.
This is horribly compounded by the unforgivably lacklustre finale. Once you’ve earned your victory through one of eight paths, from contacting Earth and returning home as saviours of the human race, to unearthing and utilising incredibly powerful alien artefacts, you’re given a brief pat on the back before being returned to the main menu. Eh. Civilization 5 doesn’t exactly serenade you with a victory choir either, but it does at least give you a few moments to study how you got to this point, showing your progress and statistics compared to your opponents.
SID MEIER'S CIVILIZATION: BEYOND EARTH VERDICT
I’m sure Firaxis will eventually make a great game out of Beyond Earth. They’re a smart development team that knows how to improve and iterate on a solid core product, which Beyond Earth certainly is. Right now, though, I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the state of the game. It’s perfectly enjoyable, but for every smart innovation it seems to have lost a portion of both complexity and character. There’s potential here, but we’ll have to wait for a couple of meaty expansions to see Beyond Earth’s promise fully realised.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Unlocking your Affinity’s ultimate unit is always fun - who doesn’t like towering alien siege engines or robotic death walkers?
Tidy graphics and a beautiful score
Smart tech web makes researching less of a chore
Passive AI that doesn't put up much of a fight
Offers the least satisfying conclusion to a game in living memory