Seeking out new life and somewhat new civilizations
The Civilisation series has seen great change since its inception in 1991. Beyond Earth continues this trend with a massive overhaul of the context behind the game play and strategy seen in Civilisation 5. Sadly, the excitement of exploring, adapting and settling on an alien planet is overshadowed by a nagging sense of shallowness and déjà vu that threatens to undermine the new status quo.
First of all, Civilisations are now called Sponsors – the multinational benefactors from a dying Earth, hoping to find a new place for humanity in the stars. Of course people from the modern era will find it harder to associate with these Sponsors compared to previous incarnations of their Civilisations, based more on historical fact than a hypothetical future. Reading through the Civilopedia however, was helpful in establishing context for the playable Sponsors.
The Civilopedia is impressive in Beyond Earth due to a detailed fictional history being created, as opposed to the historical regurgitations of the past. When you go to setup a new game though, it becomes evident that the Civilopedia is for the most part where this wealth of interesting lore and world building comes to a halt.
The limited eight playable Sponsors are barely differentiated beyond the leader in the diplomacy window and forgettable starting bonuses that might include more of a particular resource like energy (gold from previous games) and culture. This is made increasingly inconsequential by the choosing of your settlers; essentially another beginning buff, but one that anyone can choose regardless of Sponsor. The lack of personality in the Sponsors is offset by the new Affinity system, but still comes off as underwhelming.
The Affinity system is supported by a quest mechanic where rewards and bonuses are received by completing certain minor objectives and making simple story-like decisions that promote a certain Affinity while providing bonuses.
The three available Affinities are Harmony, Purity and Supremacy. These involve adapting to the new alien world, making it more like traditional Earth or becoming a transcended species incorporating technology above the other ideologies, respectively.
Affinities are notable for the changing aesthetics in units and buildings, and are progressed mainly through the new spider web looking tech tree, promoting dedication to a particular Affinity over time. Eventually this leads to one of the new victory conditions.
It quickly becomes apparent that the different Affinities and victory conditions share heavy similarities with each other. This could have been alleviated If the identity of the Sponsors was incorporated with each of the three Affinities – multiplying and fleshing out the visual and mechanical differences between Sponsors by the time they reach the end of a game. More familiar aspects of the core Civilisation experience are still present and important, having gone through certain changes.
Other than Stations, (essentially City States from Civilisation 5) the only other non playable factions are hoards of aliens scattered around the map. Aside from the average soldiers, there are giant ground worms and krakens in the sea that will seriously mess your day up. The aliens’ aggressiveness is increased by attacking them and approaching their nests. The unexpectedly difficult early game the aliens create, makes for a more interesting combatant than the barbarian counterparts of older games. The poisonous miasma that hurts any unit standing on the tiles it occupies also emphasises the hostility of Beyond Earth’s environments.
The premise of surviving on a strange and exotic new planet is strongly supported by these additions. Interesting game play experiences are also created as players choose how to contend with these specific challenges. For instance, you can make units invulnerable to the miasma or alternatively employ orbital satellites to target an area of the map to remove the miasma entirely. And all of these paths to adaptation are intrinsically and thematically linked with the different affinities.
Alongside older features, Beyond Earth maintains notable grievances from previous games, while fixing others. The intelligence of non player controlled leaders is still very limited and they are usually incapable of reason. Bartering with resources and land is a matter of finding the deal they have stubbornly decided is the best they will offer. In practice, the diplomacy window often becomes a chore to use and hinders immersion.
The wonderfully active Civilisation modding community has already set about improving many of the quibbles early adopters of Beyond Earth are having. Useful and welcome changes like coloured units for each Sponsor, a colour coded tech tree and entirely new Sponsors to play as are already available for free using the Steam Workshop.
Beyond Earth maintains notable grievances from previous games, while fixing others.
Multiplayer has also seen a noticeable improvement in terms of the stability in online matches. My friends and I still set the movement animations to be instant, but as a change from Civilisation 5, we can actually stay in a session without constant disconnections, lag and frame rate issues.
Beyond Earth’s main qualities tend to be endemic to the series as a whole, rather than as a result of it being an individual experience. While the game definitely deserves to exist with hopes for future expansions to address many of the game’s current problems – playing Beyond Earth seems to self perpetuate the reductive and yet not entirely groundless perspective that it feels like a glorified expansion for Civilisation 5.
While the modding and probable upcoming expansions will make Beyond Earth better, the game looks uncomfortable resting on laurels that haven’t evolved in the meaningful way fans of the Civilisation games may have hoped.