Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth
Since the dawn of Civilization, the goal has been to leave the world’s problems behind and embark on a new chapter for humanity in outer space. That’s where Beyond Earth begins, but it soon becomes clear that escaping our planet is far easier than getting out of the shadow of Alpha Centauri. Not the star system, you understand, but Meier’s beloved 1999 strategy game.
Beyond Earth is Civilization V in space rather than Alpha Centauri 2. While that’s no crime, it does make it hard not to draw comparisons, or to feel a measure of disappointment at its paucity of ambition and how much less personality it contains than either of its ancestors. It isn’t just a reskin that swaps barbarians for aliens and bans the old jokes about Gandhi getting the A-bomb, but nor does it ever really feel like a game about taking humanity to the next level. Where Alpha Centauri chose to use the 4X genre as a place to explore society and philosophy as much as warfare, Beyond Earth is content to simply be our next battleground.
For the most part, it has to stick relatively close to familiar concepts. Battles are fought primarily with ever-shinier conventional weapons rather than outlandish future nightmares, and there’s a frustrating lack of unit stacking that makes the map far fiddlier than it needs to be. The equipment looks the part, however, and it’s not long before elements like an orbital layer come into play, and superweapons start to unlock. The aliens also add a novel threat – at least in the early stages after planetfall, or if you get the ability to deploy Siege Worms against enemy cities, or create a few oversized xeno monsters of your own. Leave the regular ones alone and they’ll typically return the favour, or even become friendly. Clear their nests and at least they’re kept contained. After a while, however, native fauna is left painfully outclassed, and most are barely even a distraction by the mid-game.
The best, most dramatic, change from Civilization is the Affinity system. Each faction acquires points towards a particular outlook by researching technologies and making decisions in what are somewhat charitably dubbed ‘quests’. Over time, they go from being entirely uninteresting Earth-centric groups – such as the PanAsian Cooperative and Slavic Federation, which are only a squirt of easily ignored lore from being just a starting bonus – to devotees of either Harmony, Supremacy or Purity. Harmony factions will adapt themselves to the planet, Purity players try to beat it back and make it as much like Earth as possible, while Supremacy types use cybernetics to pull themselves into the future. They all have a space-cult flavour, but benefit from emerging fluidly from individual choices rather than simply being chosen, and increasingly affect everything from the look of cities to the nature of your troops.
This system works well, and allows for a decent amount of flexibility, especially in conjunction with what’s normally a tech tree, but is now a tech web. The difference is that, while initially imposing, this map of research opportunities makes it easy to see exactly what each node unlocks and leads to, with developments split into branches, which represent an interest in the field, and leaves, which are more involved projects that master it. Engineering, for instance, unlocks Power Systems and a Defense Grid, and along with Physics is the way towards Robotics. Many of these also come with Affinity points. Under Robotics, for instance, Tactical Robotics is a Supremacy tech, while Swarm Robotics is aligned to Harmony. Individual units unlocked by these techs are then upgraded further by Affinity points to create an army that will ultimately favour one of the three sides, but you don’t have to commit up front, or go exclusively down one path. That way lies the best toys, but there’s still scope to dabble. The catch is that this focus on Affinities largely kills any sense of knowing the factions, each of which seem to choose their own leaning based on little more than a coin flip. Their leaders have little personality, even sharing a bland script, and never play in a way that separates, say, ARC from Brazilia or even for the most part in a way that shows off the Affinities. Nor is there a sense of their actions being driven by their philosophies and backgrounds in the way Civ gets for free due to its use of real people and real cultures, or that Alpha Centauri achieved with its ideologically driven factions. Here, they’re cardboard cutouts.
Beyond Earth can’t find a grip on Civ’s ingrained sense of wonder, either. There’s a connection to everything that happens in those games, from the research projects to the simple pleasure of going from spearmen to spacemen. Beyond Earth’s future is, by contrast, a dull one, offering little to discover or excite. Its planets are so Earth-like that it’s almost a surprise to see terrain you wouldn’t find over in Civ V. Its idea of a victory, which can be anything from making contact with a sentient alien species to returning to Earth as a conquering force, is a still image and a paragraph of text. Likewise, where once Wonders were worth a movie or some art, here they’re just blueprints and a quote. Almost never is there even the sense of having created something truly amazing instead of merely useful.
The result is a game that has no trouble inheriting Civilization’s classic ‘one more turn’ factor during an initial playthrough, but struggles for the same claim on ‘just one more game’ once a battle has been won – particularly given the superiority of its own spiritual cousin with the expansion packs installed. It’s a solid, enjoyable strategy game while it lasts, as you’d expect from one that borrows so much from Civ V, but very much a sidewards step for the series rather than a bold leap forwards for its kind.