Exploration and progression are what make Sid Meier’s Civilization games so addictive and rewarding to play. The excitement of discovering new areas of the world you didn’t know existed, unearthing ancient ruins, meeting other civilizations, along with the feeling of growing something and expanding and overcoming the odds (take that Ghandi!)…these are what make previous Civilization games so popular and fun. Beyond Earth takes these concepts, mixes them up, adds a couple of new ingredients and throws them onto what is essentially the same game. But the sense of discovery and progression are even more acute here and if you’re a sci fi or strategy fan you’re going to enjoy this.
For those who don’t know, Civilization is a turn-based strategy game played on a hex grid where the goal is to build a Civilization “that stands the test of time”. Winning a game means dominating every other civilization or becoming the most technologically advanced, gaining cultural recognition or schmoozing your way to victory via diplomacy. In the process, you must suss out the other players and their agendas and grow your colony from a band of ragged settlers into a fully functioning kick ass state. It sucks hours of your life away but you just can’t help click that button one more time.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is a departure from the normal history-based games where you play as world leaders such as George Washington or Genghis Khan. Instead it is set in the not-too-distant future when Earth runs out of resources and must send colonies into the deepest recesses of the galaxy to build new civilizations. The premise could be viewed as a prediction of what occurs at the end of previous games when victory is reached and space exploration is achieved.
In the set up, instead of picking a world leader, you choose your sponsor. These can be either amalgamated countries such as Polystralia or corporations like Kavithan Protectorate. You must also decide which ship you will be descending to the planet on and which equipment and cargo you are taking with you, as well as the usual settings, such as map size and type. Each of your customisations come with bonuses to give you a boost when you land and begin to colonise your new hostile home, e.g. Kavithan Protectorate gets new tiles twice as fast while Polystralia get extra trading routes.
It’s fair to say that this is basically the same game as Civilization V in terms of mechanics. Movement across the tiles is the same and much of the units and buildings will be familiar enough to make Civilization veterans feel at home.
However there’s a sense of urgency when you first land on the planet and establish your first city; the environment is unforgiving in that it looks familiar (water, mountains, green grass-like areas) but is warped in some way (purple hues staining the landscape and clouds of noxious miasma that gradually suck the health out of your units the longer you leave them on those tiles).There’s no sense of leisurely exploration like in previous Civilization games where you know what to expect from the world. Right from the start you’re on your guard and having to strategize your movements, goals and productions.
I wasn’t being dramatic when I said this world was hostile but forget about the barbarians; they are so 2010. Aliens are the new enemy and they don’t like intruders. And they’re everywhere and they will remember how you treat them.In fact aliens and the planet will attempt to thwart you at every chance, with one trying to eat you and the other trying to poison you. You really are fighting for survival in the beginning. These difficulties are ones you must deal with over the course of the game and there are three very different approaches in the form of the new affinity system.
Affinities are the main method of customization in Beyond Earth.They make the game more personal because they represent your take on how to deal with the alien life and in what form you wish humanity to progress.
The Purity affinity is all about preserving the old world and making the planet into the new Earth. Adopting Purity means purging alien life from the planet, using dirty bombs to wipe out other civilizations and making contact with Earth. The Supremacy affinity means pretty much ignoring your host planet and going down the technology route in an extreme way so that eventually your civilization will be more machine than human.The Harmony affinity takes you to the polar opposite of Purity and lets you get involved in the ecosystem in a slightly creepy way. This gets interesting later on in the game when you can have units made up entirely of aliens such as the Xeno Swarm, adapt so that the deadly miasma becomes a resource and healing option, and call up siege worm assaults to opposing player’s cities.
Affinities add extra layers of importance to every decision as well as increase the sense of freedom and customisation.Mid and late games become particularly interesting as you see core units like marines and rovers completely transform based on your affinity choices.
A new quest system acts as a kind of informational tutorial to guide player’s actions by providing significant rewards. The quests include tasks like taking out alien bases and exploring or researching new technologies. Things you would do anyway but there’s an added incentive and they can be helpful if you feel a bit overwhelmed and aren’t sure what to do next. The quests provide ample context for why you are making certain decisions, again making this feel like a more personal game.
So what about victory? Isn’t that the whole point? There are five ways to win.There’s the usual domination victory where you conquer all the other civilizations through means of force. But the rest is all new and exciting. Gone is the unfulfilling Time victory where all you have to do is make it to the end of the game. As well as Domination, there’s Contact, Transcendence, The Promised Land and Emancipation.
Unsurprisingly, Contact is achieved when you make first contact with a sentient alien race; this requires deciphering the Progenitor code and beaming a contact signal into outer space.Transcendence is the most environmentally friendly victory and links to the Harmony affinity; you must make contact with the interconnected consciousness of the planet by building a Mind Flower.The Promised Land seeks to re-establish contact with Earth and bring Earth’s inhabitants through the portal to what is essentially Earth 2. This is tied in with the Purity affinity and requires you to build and protect the Lasercom Satellite.Emancipation also requires the Lasercom Satellite but the goal here is to bring salvation to the lost people of Earth with your superior technology, by force if necessary. This ties in with the Supremacy affinity.
The path to victory feels much more structured with the different ways to win linked to the affinities, of which your choices are often dependant on what path you pursue in the tech web, how you react to quests and which virtues you wish to follow.
Speaking of which, by far my favourite change to the Civilization formula, and one I hope to see more of in future games, is the Tech Web. I’ll admit I gave a little girly gasp when I opened it up for the first time.It’s a dramatic departure from the linear tech tree of Civilization V – starting from a central point it expands in a circular manner as you research the various different techs. The core technologies appear as branches and specialised techs within these are the leaves. It’s beautiful.
Compared to the tree, the web feels liberating. Instead of having a set number of choices, it lets players see all the available options in a concise clear way, letting them plot a course and allowing them to diverge whenever necessary.With so many options available at any given time it’s easier to react to situations and the steps between each item are small enough that you barely notice as you start to drift into more fanciful concepts during later stages of the game, such as Cybernetics and Astrodynamics.
Another appreciated improvement is how culture is handled. Instead of having the option of chasing a cultural victory, it is used to bolster other play styles.Like social policies in Civilization V there are four virtue trees that focus on different aspects:Might, which translates into military strength, Prosperity (city growth), Knowledge (science and culture) and Industry (er…industry).
Again this affords more flexibility than social policies because there are more options to mix and match, though players receive specific bonuses for progressing deep within a tree or picking from multiple trees as long as those virtues are in the same tier.
Everything generally feels more valuable because of the options available. More customization and more specific paths add up to a game that feels deeply personal. Throw in the fact you are representing and trying to ensure the survival of not just a nation but a whole planet, then you have a game where the stakes are high and you can dictate the outcome.
But of course there are flaws. The AI doesn’t function particularly well though the issues are no worse than in previous Civilization games so if it hasn’t bothered you before, it won’t now.Issues include other leaders not really following through on their actions or making seemingly random decisions without any reason behind them.Diplomacy feels restrictively rigid and leaders are lacking the personality of previous games though this could be because here they are the face of a corporation.
It’s possible now to earn favours that can be used with other civilizations but they usually ask for so much in return, it doesn’t really feel worth it.And there’s no longer any trading of technology between civilizations which seems strange, almost as though it was an oversight.The aliens don’t really fare much better, making random attacks without any reason.
Often the end game can get bogged down with tedious administrative tasks and it can take too long to reach the end, especially when it’s obvious you’re going to win. And when you win the game ends without any option of playing on to see what would happen.
But I have to say that the good stuff far outweighs the bad. Like Covert Ops. Once you develop espionage ability you can recruit and deploy secret agents into other cities.Depending on the intrigue level in the city your agents can perform different activities such as ciphering energy and stealing technology and even starting a coup d’état.You can also send them into your own cities to help keep the intrigue level down.
Satellites are also a neat touch. These are units you can build and launch above your cities.They award extra bonuses to land units and cities within their range but these ranges can’t overlap so some careful planning is required if you want to build more than a few.
Beyond Earth looks just like a Civilization game but with a sci fi twist. The landscapes are familiar but with a strange colour palette and the UI are clean and machine-like.The battle animations look and sound great, especially the alien noises and music blends in well.
It may not be completely revolutionary but Civilization: Beyond Earth still introduces some interesting concepts and shakes things up just enough to keep old fans happy and new ones intrigued.It’s more accessible than previous titles and other strategy gamesbut just as complex and rewarding as ever, boasting heaps of customisation and new units and technologies as well as some new mechanics. I know this is a game I’ll be playing over and over again, and I thoroughly recommend you to do the same. It won’t be a waste, I promise.
MLG Rating: 9/10 Format: PC Release Date: 24/10/2014
Disclosure: Sarah Findlay purchased a copy of Civilisation:Beyond Earth by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 3 weeks on a PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.