When Firaxis Games first unveiled Civilization: Beyond Earth, most fans were excited, but below the surface there bubbled a lingering fear that it might be another sidestep for the franchise. Your standard Civ gameplay painted over with a thin sci-fi veneer. It’s easy to understand why that fear existed, as the Civilization series has been running in place for a while.
Civilization V was more about polishing basic mechanics than strategy. Combat was cleaned up and menus were streamlined, but little was done to enrich the game’s strategic core. If anything, Civilization V dumbed things down somewhat – the tech tree was more linear, the social policies system wasn’t as deep as it seemed at first blush and, in general, the path to victory was less complex than in past games.
Well, Civilization: Beyond Earth isn’t a side step, it isn’t a paint job, it’s the sequel Civilization V should have been. It has the accessible, easy-to-use interface of Civilization V, while adding significant strategic depth to nearly every aspect of the Civilization formula.
The Civilization games have never been solely about dry strategy, numbers and stats – a lot of the series’ appeal comes from the personal stake you have in the game. You decided where to put those roads and cities, and what to build in and around them. Over the dozen-or-so hours it takes to finish a quick game of Civ (it can take far longer if you want) you really become attached to your little empire, but in reality there’s only so much you can do to make your civilization your own. You can pursue different victory conditions, but one civ pursuing, say, a cultural victory is going to look more or less the same as the next. Same thing with civs going after a domination or space race victory. Past Civilization games have been based on real-world history, and so the path you take is, to a large degree, already laid out for you.
It’s a big, intimidating alien world. Get out there and make your mark.
Civilization: Beyond Earth, on the other hand, plunges headfirst into mankind’s final frontier-exploring future, and along with that comes much greater freedom to bend humanity to your twisted whims. The linear tech tree of earlier Civ games has been replaced by a sprawling tech web, which allows you to delve deeply into certain branches of research, while completely ignoring others, something you haven’t really been able to do before. Sure, a lopsided tech tree probably isn’t great strategy, but the fact that Beyond Earth lets you say nuts to strategy if you want is an interesting and welcome step in the right direction.
The greater focus on player choice doesn’t end there, in fact it starts from the very first second of a new game, when you choose what corporation you want to ally with and what technology and people you want to load into your spaceship rather than just picking a canned civilization. Once you land on your new planet, you’ll also find that the somewhat shallow Social Policies you spent your excess culture on in Civilization V have been replaced by Virtues. Virtues are similar to Social Policies, but there are now far more branching decisions to make. Speaking of decisions, the game also presents you with a steady stream of quests, which will require you to make frequent binary choices. These decisions can yield hefty rewards and change your empire’s make-up in a big way, so do you make your choices strategically or go with your gut? Again, the fact that Civilization: Beyond Earth even presents such options is a major new frontier for the series.
Ultimately though, the most significant new wrinkle in the Civilization formula is Beyond Earth’s Affinities system. As you choose what to research and make quest decisions, you’ll earn experience towards one of three affinities, and if you focus on one affinity over the others, either through choice or chance, you’ll start to see your civ transforming in pretty radical ways as the game progresses. The Purity affinity is isolationist and believes in the superiority of human civilization and physiology, so if you progress down the Purity path, your units will remain very human-like, but develop complex mechanical suits to deal with the alien terrain. The Supremacy affinity is all about domination and technology, to the point your units will eventually start to look more robot than man. Finally, the Harmony affinity believes in getting in bed with the aliens, so your civ will start to become almost as alien as the creatures native to planet. The Affinities system gives players yet another tool to mold their perfect little society, while giving Beyond Earth a nice healthy infusion of BIG SCI-FI IDEAS. Civilization: Beyond Earth isn’t just fun, it’s got a good head on its shoulders.
Greater freedom of choice isn’t the only major change to the Civ formula introduced in Beyond Earth — as the title implies, you’re on a new planet now, and just the simple act of exploring and maneuvering on its surface feels distinctly different. The world is your oyster in most Civilization games – a vast field of largely unguarded resources just waiting to be tapped and exploited. Not so in Beyond Earth. In this game, the terrain is choked with impassable canyons and life-sapping miasma, and pushover barbarians have been replaced with massive siege worms and sea monsters that can easily lay waste to cities. You don’t have history to comfort you now, to tell you it’s all going to work out for humanity, and if you don’t manage your civ properly it could easily be swallowed up by a particularly indifferent alien planet. That may sound harsh, but there’s a certain thrill to it. Civilization: Beyond Earth, particularly in the early turns, feels like a refreshingly uncertain adventure.
You’ll learn to hate these guys.
Of course no game is perfect, and Beyond Earth has its handful of flaws. The satisfaction that comes from constructing a building or wonder in past Civ games largely relies on the fact that they exist in real life. You know innately, without even looking at the stats, what building, say, a monastery or hospital or factory is going to do for your city. You feel an automatic sense of accomplishment when you build the Pyramids, because you’ve been told your entire life of their importance. Unfortunately some of that is lost in Beyond Earth’s futuristic setting. What exactly does a cytonursery or molecular forge do for you? Who knows, you just have to look at the stats – that visceral “Yeah, I just built a colosseum!” feeling is gone. It’s even worse with wonders. Is the Panopticon or the Ectogenesis Pod really worthy of wonder status? You just have to take the game’s word for it. I’m not sure there was any way to avoid this particular issue, but it’s an issue nonetheless.
The new, more intimidating terrain also wreaks a certain amount of havok with Civilization V’s one unit per tile rules. The rule worked out fine on Civ V’s gentle, wide open plains, but the crevasse and toxic gas covered planets of Beyond Earth can lead to traffic jams. I found myself doing a lot more rote juggling of units in Beyond Earth than in past Civ games.
In the end though, the game’s flaws are minor, and largely insignificant in the face of everything this game does so well. This is the game you’ve been waiting for, for a long time Civ fans. Again, this isn’t just a sci-fi re-skinning, it’s the most significant step forward the series has taken since Civilization IV (which is nearly a decade old at this point). Civilization: Beyond Earth boldly goes where no Civ has gone before, and trust me, you’re going to want to come along for the ride.