Sid Meier’s Civ­i­liza­tion: Beyond Earth

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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.

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