Civilization: Beyond Earth Review

Something happened when I first saw gameplay of Civilization: Beyond Earth; I became upset. I became upset, almost angry, because I immediately thought “This is a studio-funded mod”. I was on the Firaxis Twitch channel, watching their first stream, so I began voicing that opinion and that I was disappointed by what I was seeing. It looked to me as if they had just traded certain assets for others: fish for algae, livestock for chitin, aliens for barbarians, historical units for sci-fi units, trade routes for….trade routes. So I voiced this displeasure by saying “Guys, with all due respect, please tell me what makes this game unique to your abilities and not something a talented mod team could do?” and you know what their response was? I was immediately banned from chat.

I was willing to move past that, however. I went to Firaxicon with all of the excitement I could possibly have for a historical franchise in my favorite genre. I thought to myself “I was probably being way too hard on this game, it will feel differently when I play it”. Sure enough, my first two hours were exciting. Sure, the mechanics felt familiar, I thought to myself, but the world is new and alien and filled with promise. I think most of you reading this would say that the first few hours of most games can be a little misleading. It’s when you really dive in to some games that you start to see the cracks. It’s when that “new feeling” wears off that you start to see a game for what it really is.

After 46 hours with Civilization: Beyond Earth, it has become apparent that I judged this game surprisingly well by its first impression. It barely helps me manage to overcome my initial reaction and it is very clear that, while Beyond Earth is not to intended to be a direct sequel to Alpha Centauri, Firaxis does not understand what made Alpha Centauri the classic that it has become and Beyond Earth fails to reach its potential as a result.

The different factions feel dry and soulless. Part of what made Civilization’s last foray into science fiction so memorable was how diverse and fleshed out the various groups were that had landed on the same planet you did. The figureheads leading those factions were far from generic. Each leader dealt with you in an immersive manner that really made the player feel as if they were dealing with true personalities. They weren’t just leaders of some other countries – they embodied their faction’s ideals. Leaders of Beyond Earth’s eight factions, by contrast, never feel immersive and hardly have personalities. They feel generic and lifeless and their dialogue is only barely able to conjure any hint of a soul. Hell, some of their lines of dialogue aren’t even voiced. Why not? It does not help that each faction’s bonuses are just as generic as their leaders.

The dry, soulless affair doesn’t stop there. Where Alpha Centauri, and even Civilizations prior, would voice each technology discovery in various voices and tones, here we get the same woman, with the same accent, reciting quotes that hardly feel poetic or deep and too often have no one to attribute to them. Another missed opportunity.

Those familiar with Alpha Centauri’s aliens will remember a rich back story about a hive mind and its desire to stay alive. It was a sentient entity and its story made you feel reticent to annihilate it. Here, the aliens have no such story. Hell, even if I choose the Harmony affinity( a gameplay mechanic I will explain later for the uninitiated) and continue to kill every alien in sight, it does not affect anything whatsoever.

The wonders all lack inspiration. Their completion is announced by showing blueprints of these structures and they, too, lack soul. Their bonuses, for the most part, are barely worth the effort it took to build them. They do not feel “wonderful” in game mechanic terms and even less so in their presentation.

Aliens are simply barbarians in a different form. Their behavior does not noticeably change based on how aggressive I am with them. Sure, they’re a bit more likely to attack if I’m aggressive, but they never become more than a nuisance- just like the barbarians.

Stations, Beyond Earth’s very obvious imitation of minor cities from Civilization 5, make for a very shallow mechanic since their relationship to you does not matter at all in terms of your diplomatic interactions with other factions. If a neighboring faction is attacking a station that I’m doing business with, there is no way for me to tell them to stop.

 I could go on. But instead I will focus on the 5 x’s. I’m pretty sure that my raging disappointment is already palpable.

eXplore: Each faction starts with an explorer unit that acts both as a scout and as the archaeologist unit from Civilization 5 – that is to say that they can both explore their surroundings as well as begin excavations at various dig sites, usually resulting in a nice boon to your colony by way of alien units, Energy (money), and other bonuses. It’s a smart addition to the early game excitement of exploration. There are plenty of strategic resources to look for, dig sites to find, future-colony locations to find and unique stations to meet and trade with. It’s part of why the first portion of the game is so appealing. The research/technology web, however, is a different story. While each technology does have mouse-over tooltips, the majority of it feels convoluted and vague and the actual decision to make it a web baffles me. If it is non-linearity they were after, there are some better ways that I can think of that have already been done (Sword of the Stars, Endless Legend).  Not to mention that the technology web’s presentation leaves much to be desired, as all of the techs are the same color and the icons are similar. The technologies themselves are sometimes exciting, sometimes boring, but mostly they’re just uninspired.

eXpand: There isn’t much new here, though new colonies start as outposts that must wait to become new full-fledged cities. It’s a bit strange, but it makes sense that the outpost would need to set up and start receiving supplies before it can become a bustling colony. However, the game seems to take an active role in discouraging expanding through rapidly decreasing health numbers as you build or take more colonies  (it honestly, plays out exactly like Happiness, except with what feels like a steeper penalty). eXpansion is also hampered by an alien menace that does little more than bunch up around its nests and create impassable sections of the map where no colonists dare go. Not to mention the siege worms creating barriers, too. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the additional challenges created by the alien mechanic; however, it seems as if they’re more of an added hindrance to expansion than fleshed out entities that truly affect the way the game is played.

eXploit: It is the typical Civilization exploitation mechanics, with an added quest system. The quest system is little more than an occasional choice between two bonuses and adds very little consequence to the overall game. The trade routes are exactly the same as in Civ 5 and, towards the end of the game, they are so numerous and so frequently in need of renewal that it begins to feel like an economy simulator. The new espionage system feels slightly more innovative, as assigning increasingly dangerous and powerful missions to agents can be fun and the new UI for assigning those missions is both easy and quickly understood. Many of the strategic and basic resources feel like re-skinned versions of Civ 5 resources and only a few of them feel inspired. However, because so much of this portion of the game is nearly directly lifted from Civ 5, it’s pretty solid and still fun if you haven’t grown tired of Civilization 5 yet.

eXterminate: Military units have been streamlined into just a few core units that are provided upgrades through the aforementioned Affinity system. The Affinity system forces the  player to pick among three different paths of ideology through choices and various technologies. You can read about those three “choices” here or you probably already have an idea of what they are. The problem is that at the end of the day, the choice of Affinity only changes things aesthetically for the most part, and does not effectively change the way the game is played.

Sure, playing as the Supremacy Affinity led me to hunt down more of the aliens for the research bonus I received each time an alien unit died by my hand. But at the end of the day, the choice of Affinity was less of a choice of ideology and more of a choice about minor changes to play style. Meanwhile, the AI is still woefully incapable of carrying out war, despite the drastic decrease in units.  If the fact that the AI is still so pathetic at conducting itself in battle isn’t proof that this game amounts to little more than a drastic re-skin, then I don’t know what is.

eXperience: At the end of the day, Beyond Earth is greater than the sum of its parts. It still manages to be fun for the first 30 hours or so. It is only after you’ve played a couple full games or so with each Affinity choice that Beyond Earth starts to show its true colors. Not since Master of Orion 3 have I been this disappointed by the next iteration of a 4X series. Alpha Centauri should have been a great lesson on how to make a fantastic science fiction 4X game. It was developed over 15 years ago and is still relevant today, and its strengths (and very few weaknesses) have been discussed ad nauseum by the 4X community.

This should have been easy for Firaxis: bring about the spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri while bringing in modern design elements and fixing what may not have worked as well (is it just nostalgia, or am I forgetting what, if anything, was wrong with AC?). However, it’s clear that Firaxis either wasn’t capable of reproducing the Alpha Centauri x-factor or wasn’t aware of what made that game so great. The fact that diplomacy and AI issues are still present from Civilization 5, despite many cries of frustration from fans and well documented examples, leads me to believe that they’re both incapable and unaware of how much we hate these things. It has just become painfully obvious that Soren Johnson (Lead Designer of Civ IV) was the best thing that ever happened to Civilization since Sid Meier, and that Jon Shafer (Lead Designer of Civ V) actually knew a thing or two about how to make a good User Interface.

Beyond Earth is a disappointment on so many levels that I could have given another 2000 words worth of examples, but I’ll end the review with a quote from a Steam friend: “So the Brasilian colony asks me for Open Borders. “Sure thing, neighbor!”, I reply. We are happily open bordered for 30 turns and they ask me to open borders again. “Sure thing, neighbor”, I say and we are happily open bordered. I send them a couple of trade convoys and they say, “Hey neighbour, this trading thing is great, thanks!” They say “Hey neighbor, thanks for not expanding towards us.” And I say “No worries, neighbor.” And we are all chummy and bestest friends. We even have awesome friends in common. Then our open border agreement runs out and I say, “Hey neighbor, wanna do that open border thing again?” And they say “NO WAY! We declare war on you!” And I say WTF Firaxis?”

Yeah. WTF Firaxis?

TL;DR: Firaxis squandered an opportunity to create their own sci-fi classic by not understanding, or flat out ignoring, what made Alpha Centauri so great. We weren’t looking for a sequel, but we were expecting a talented team, using an engine already built and functioning well, to be able to create their own great game. However, it’s just barely above average and I don’t consider it worth the $50 price tag. Yet.

You might like this game if:

  • You just want more Civilization and don’t mind all of the quirks and diplomacy issues that came with it.
  • Money is no issue and you don’t mind spending $50 on an extensive, professional-quality mod for Civilization.
  • You like the science fiction setting and Pandora: First Contact didn’t really do it for you.

You might NOT like this game if:

  • You expected anything close to a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri.
  • You need something that doesn’t follow the familiar Civilization pattern or you really like what makes Endless Legend so different.
  • You expect the same amount of content or a game that’s the same level of quality as Civilization V: Brave New World

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DevilDog played for 46 hours in single player on an Intel Core i7-3770K 3.5 GHz with 8 GB of DDR5 RAM and a GTX 770 on Windows 8.1 64-Bit.

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