I’ve always believed that the Civilization games have had a simple subtext that comments on humanity as a whole, and that message is “we do not get along with each other”. Even if humanity is brought right up to the edge of existence, and forced to find a new world in which to start again on, we will still build giant orbital laser cannons and stomp all over each other’s sand castles.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is Firaxis Games’ new 4X strategy title, and is heralded as a spiritual successor to the 1999 Alpha Centauri, with the familiarity and modern mechanics of Civilization V. To fans of both Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and the Civilization series proper, Beyond Earth will sound like an exciting new title to sink hours of your time in to. Begin to play it, however, and you’ll soon experience the sour feeling of a game that doesn’t quite live up to expectations, leaving you underwhelmed, and waiting for bug fixes and DLC to ‘complete’ the experience.
You start your experience by choosing a ‘sponsor’, which replaces choosing a faction in previous Civilization titles. A sponsor is essentially a corporation that has funded your expedition, along with some exclusive perks, and whom you will personally represent. From there, you can choose the type of planet you wish to play on, the size of the planet, and what short-term starting perks you wish to have. Beyond Earth still gives players the ability to fine tune the experience they want, and the starting bonuses are a nice addition, however the sponsors available are limited, and their bonuses hardly make a difference to long term gameplay. This makes each sponsor feel incredibly similar, and the personalities of each faction is not entirely clear, if existing at all.
Once your game begins, you make your momentous fall to the planet surface, where you have nothing but a tiny colony buried deep within an alien ecosystem. The other factions will slowly descend to the planet surface and build their own colonies, one by one, yet they wont concern you at this point.
You will very quickly run into the indigenous life forms of this alien planet, and these aliens will undoubtedly hinder your expansion and exploration. You can attempt to leave the aliens alone, and go about your business in peace, or kick the hornets nest and start re-enacting scenes from Starship Troopers on them. Either way, the aliens are the equivalent to barbarians in previous Civilization games, yet are slightly more complex in the way that your actions towards them will dictate their aggression towards you.
As the game progresses, the alien life forms will become less and less of a problem, with even the colossal Dune-esque Siege Worms and sea faring Krakens becoming less and less of a threat. The other factions that are now pressing on your borders are now your biggest problem, as their various ideologies and goals will undoubtedly oppose yours.
This is where the three ‘affinities’ come into play. For those that want to embrace the alien ecosystem and life forms, the ‘harmony’ affinity is available. For those that want to reign supreme over the alien world, no matter the cost, then the ‘supremacy’ affinity is suited to them. And finally, for those that want to turn the alien planet in to a ‘new Earth’, the ‘purity’ affinity is the last choice available to players. These affinities sound good in theory, and remind me of the existentialism and anthropological discourse packed throughout Alpha Centauri. However, this is not the case, as the affinities simply re-texture your faction, and attempt to nudge you down a certain victory condition route.
You never feel the repercussions of our ideological crusade on the alien planet, as the planet never reacts to your presence or actions. There’s no ecological damage, such as sea levels rising in Alpha Centauri, or ethical conundrums that make you sit back and question your actions. And for faction based beliefs, goals and ideologies to be foregrounded before release as a major feature, it feels like there’s a lot of wasted potential here.
The tech web replaces the linear tech progression found in Civilization V, and although not totally original, and fairly standard in modern sci-fi 4X strategy games, it does suit the game well by allowing players to research a vast array of technologies that will eventually suit their needs and play style. Players can unlock wonders, which work the same as previous Civilization games, and also unlock new additions such as satellites and spy networks. Satellites are a great new feature that can aid in combat, boost your resource output, and much more. Spies work similar to how they did in Civilization V, and serve to steal technology, resources, cause havoc and overthrow entire cities.
Diplomacy is a nothing more than a copy and paste from Civilization V, but with minor tweaks. Factions now have the ability to trade favours, and these becomes inconveniently useless once it all starts hitting the proverbial fan, and you desperately start trying to cash them in. Leaders will regurgitate the same lines you head in Civilization V, and although this may be Firaxis’ way of reminding players they’re playing a Civilization game, it instead comes across as lazy game development, as we are all reminded that, yet again, diplomacy is completely awful.
There are a myriad of imbalances, and the game felt as if it required some more play testing. Trade feels overpowered, and the stat upgrades for units per affinity level upgrade is crazy. Other game design features, such as trade, becomes a huge annoyance as late in the game 90% of your time will be spent re-routing your trade units. Visually the game isn’t as attractive as more recent 4X strategy titles, and in no way feels like a step up from Civilization V. The soundtrack is a positive aspect of the game, and the beautifully done orchestral scores do put you in the mood for ruling a new civilization on an alien world.
However, after you put a few hours in to Civilization: Beyond Earth, the mask will begin to slip and you will see that Beyond Earth is nothing more than an overhaul mod for Civilization V. There are some nice new additions to the gameplay and style, but they are often shallow and disappointing, falling short of their potential.
A lot was expected from this bold new leap in the Civilization franchise, which is justified as the series has had over two decades to evolve and refine itself. Firaxis has the potential to do more, but the idea of inevitably incorporating numerous DLC expansion packs to patch up an underwhelming base game, like they did with Civilization V, feels like such as shame.
Younger and smaller studios are beginning to try their hand at the 4X strategy genre, and they are doing a better job, bringing more innovation and style to the table. Civilization: Beyond Earth, therefore, can only be described as painfully average.
“Making you a better geek, one post at a time!”