Whatever you do, no matter how tempted you are by the sci-fi setting and purple landscape, don’t think of this as a brand new video game.
As novel as Civilization: Beyond Earth sounds, as fresh as it looks, and in spite of some pretty big changes it makes in a few key areas, you’re much better served thinking of this as a Civilization V mod. A very ambitious one, which has some ideas that work and some that don’t, but ultimately an experience that remains bound to the core mechanics and systems of Civ V.
This is something I struggled with for much of time with the game. So many of Beyond Earth’s building blocks remain the same – hexes, city-building, trade routes, strategic resources, diplomacy – that it’s easy to start the game and get rolling using your Civilization V strategies. Which, a lot of the time, actually work. But you can’t use them forever, or too often, because just when you settle in and think this nothing but a reskinned version of Civ V, this alien world throws them right back in your face.
While Beyond Earth shares the bones of its predecessor, there still are a few big changes. The biggest is to the tech tree, which not only affects how you advance your gear during the game, but also how you win it. Instead of Civ V’s false sense of choice, which actually just leads all players down the same path while offering the illusion of freedom (all players get to the same place eventually), BE’s tech tree is a convoluted web. You begin in the very centre and can then spread out as far and as fast as you want, in any direction, moving all the way down one path while completely neglecting another if you want. Imagine if in Civilization V you could research stealth bombers while not having discovered pottery; well, you can basically do that here.
This is daunting at first because, unlike the real world’s more obvious effects (I know what happens when you research currency and gunpowder, thank you), the weird sci-fi terms used here take a while to get your head around, so you’ll be spending quite a few games clicking blindly learning exactly how everything works and what everything means.
For most of the game, this freedom is liberating. Civilizations (or factions, as they’re now known) can now splinter off and just…do their own thing, without having to wait to advance through entire ages before they can refocus their energies. Example: if your colonies aren’t producing enough health, then you can just focus on tech that improves health, one after the other, until it’s fixed.
Later on, though, this technological anarchy becomes a bit of a problem, because BE has a number of different ways you can win the game. There are a couple that all players can push towards, then there are more that are available only if you’ve chosen to head down a certain path in the game. You reach those victories through the pursuit of tech, and with the tech tree spread out and players free to go all over it (instead of everyone being locked into the same general direction of progress), the end can come – in the form of an opponent’s victory – suddenly and without warning. Which depending on how long the game has been going for, can be a real bummer.
Another big change from Civ V’s basic formula is the concept of affinities, which replace Brave New World’s ideologies with something much more visible. Think of them as RPG classes; your research, actions and decisions shape which of the three paths (Purity, Supremacy or Harmony) you head down, and while you can dabble in each, the one you eventually settle for will affect not just your relationship with other factions, but how your cities look, how leaders look (see above) and even which units you can use, since each affinity gets their own unique weapons and abilities.
The other major alteration to the Civ V template you’ll come across is your military units. Instead of a sprawling timeline made up of dozens of units spread across millennia, BE only gives you a handful of basic types. There’s a single infantry, armour, artillery, aerial and naval unit you can build, which sounds insanely limited, but as you play you’ll “level up” each one. There are multiple types of infantry to upgrade to, for example (see below), and in some of the best news since the dawn of the franchise, you’ll no longer be stuck with old/outdated units. As you advance your tech and affiliation, each unit you own automatically upgrades. Bless the Maker.
Some other additions/tweaks to Civ V’s fundamentals include:
Orbital units: These can be launched into space, and provide temporary bonuses to your tiles, buildings and/or units. They’re seemingly useless, but can be handy buffs in those times when you’ve got nothing else pressing in a city’s build queue.
Seeding: Instead of being stuck with a civ’s pre-determined game and start bonuses, BE lets you customise your own “landing”, since you’re touching down on an alien planet. You can choose from a number of ways to land, which units you start with, where you drop, which buildings your first city starts with, etc.
Quests: Taking pages out of both Total War and Paradox’s playbook, BE now has little quests you can complete, whether they be killing things, finding things or building things. Complete them and you get a reward, while some turns are interrupted by “quest decisions”, smaller choices you have to make, which basically amount to “would you like a small bonus to this resource, or this one?”
Even after playing the game non-stop for a week, I’m still struggling to isolate my thoughts on Beyond Earth. It’s just so close to Civ V in so many ways – even down to where the menu buttons are – that as you can probably tell from the number of times I’ve mentioned the game above, I can’t stop assessing its systems and merits compared to their equivalents in Civilization V.
I like the idea, at least in theory, that this is an elaborate expansion to Civilization V, unlocked only if you achieve a space victory. Especially when you consider that, despite differences in development personnel, it’s still got so much of the DNA of Civ V’s expansions, especially Brave new World, in how it seeks to unshackle the player from the game’s decades-old systems and give them more avenues for expression, freedom and customisation.
Every time I’ve played a game of BE, and I’ve played four now, I’ve crafted myself a radically different faction. I’m not talking slight bonuses based on who I picked, I mean genuinely unique experiences, mixing up the type of units I use, my approach to the alien wildlife, the kinds of tech I’ve researched and the victory I’ve pursued. Each one has felt fresh, a lot more individual than playing the same game with different coloured units.
At other times, though, it feels like there’s simply too much choice. The tech tree is daunting, and will probably remain that way for me for months, and while they’re sometimes welcome, the constant quest decisions feel like padding, something there to give the player something to do to compensate for an AI that was remarkably passive in every game I played, regardless of the difficulty.
Initially, at least, the presence of hordes of aggressive aliens offsets this boredom. BE’s aliens are a more numerous, aggressive form of Civ’s barbarians, and you’ll spend the first half of a game fighting them off from your colonies then hunting down their nests (since they endlessly respawn, and pose a constant danger to your scouts and workers).
Once they’re gone, though – and they’re always gone eventually, either due to human expansion or AI hunting – there’s not much activity – and by activity I mean the active stuff, like exploring and fighting – to take their place. Thanks to the above-mentioned passive AI, I fought three wars across four entire games of BE, which means that once I’d finished my initial exploration and building, much of my experience was clicking “next turn” while waiting for research projects and big construction builds to finish.
Those aliens, which could could have been another break from Civ V’s influence, are ultimately a big disappointment. While there’s mention of sentient life in BE’s main storyline, the only aliens you actually encounter in the game are wildlife, simple beasts that you can either avoid or kill. Another series spinoff, Colonization, pioneered a deep and fascinating depiction of civilized, native inhabitants back in the 1990s, adding a second layer of diplomacy and trade atop the interactions between the main factions. The primitive creatures roaming around here, meanwhile, are little more than mindless obstacles.
In spite of all the tinkering with certain elements, all the ideas that work and the ones that don’t, at the end of the day the core experience here – the things you’ll be doing 90% of the time – is the same as Civilization V. I’ve spoken mainly about the differences between that game and Beyond Earth because, well, that’s all there is to talk about, since we’ve already reviewed Civ V and it’s expansions. Once you get your head around the way various resources and actions have been renamed and reskinned, only to serve the same purpose (gold is now energy, happiness is now health, you’re still building naval units even though you have absolutely no need to), you see that much of what you’re playing is something you’ve played before, only now the ground is purple instead of green.
In one way, that’s a little disappointing. The original Alpha Centauri, to which this is a spiritual successor of sorts, was more daring with its deviation from the core Civilization experience. Then again, it could afford to, since it was released around the time of a legal wrangle over the brand name.
And yet, who in their right mind would complain about getting more Civilization V? Over the years, and especially since the release of Brave New World, it’s grown into one of the best PC games of all time, maintaining the series’ trademark “one more turn” compulsion while adding a host of extra choices, options and features that give it a ton more depth and focus.
Beyond Earth is best seen, then, as a continuation of that trend. As much as it feels like an expansion to Civilization V, it also feels like the bravest, boldest and most unique spin on the game we’ve seen yet.