Civilization: Beyond Earth review

Developer Firaxis Games
Publisher 2K Games

Have you played Civilization V and thought wouldn’t it be cool to play Civilization but in space? Well good news because now you can thanks to Civilization: Beyond Earth.

I’ve got the game, I’ve been playing it, so what do I think?

OK let’s get the obvious out-of-the-way first, Beyond’s Earth predecessor Civilization V and the inevitable comparisons all sequels receive. I will do my best to keep the comparisons to a minimum but be warned it’s going to be impossible to avoid.

In the world of Civilization: Beyond Earth the Earth has become so polluted and uninhabitable that humanity has decided to build some spaceships, pack them with the best and brightest and blast off into space in search of a strange new world to call home. It’s a cheerful start and a lovely reminder of what we might face in the coming decades. Thanks for that.

Instead of starting your civilisation from scratch like you do in Civilization V (see, told you it was inevitable) you begin with a group of refugees from one of the spaceships landing on this new world and founding a colony.

And despite all the planets in all the solar systems in all the galaxies you’re not the only refugees from Earth who have decided to land here. Now what are the odds of that?

There are eight all-human factions, called Sponsors, to choose from based on hypothetical future alliances such as the Slavic Federation, Franco-Iberia, Polystralia, and the Pan-Asian Cooperative. There is of course an American sponsor called the American Reclamation Corporation because of course it has to have corporation in it, but there is no British/Commonwealth sponsor, no German sponsor, and no Scandinavian/Nordic sponsor which I found disappointing.

A faction leader

None of the faction leaders are very exciting or memorable, they lack any kind of personality or identity that makes them truly stand out and without looking them up I couldn’t tell you any of their names. There are no faction specific military units or faction specific buildings which doesn’t help to give any faction some sort of identity. Although each does have its own special ability that gives a small bonus, for instance the Pan-Asian Cooperative have +10% production towards Wonders and +25% worker speed which is always useful.

And yes only eight factions which means you are going to run into them again and again and again, which gets quite boring after a while. It also limits the size of your game to 8 players which annoys me, I love playing on a giant map with 10+ players on Civilization V for a highly charged and highly competitive match where no one has much space to expand without going to war.

Sponsors

However there is some nice customisation to be done at the start of each game you play to give it a different feel. Once you have picked your sponsor you have to pick what type of colonists are on your ship, what type of spacecraft your ship is, and what is in your ship’s cargo, all of which give you different types of bonuses, before picking what type of planet (map) to settle on.

For colonists you get to pick between groups like scientists who give +2 science in every city or engineer’s who give +2 production. The spacecraft options include a continental surveyor which reveals the coast line on the map and a tectonic scanner allowing you to see petroleum, geothermal, and titanium resources on the map without researching the required technologies (although you can’t build on them without researching the technologies). Then it’s onto your cargo where the options include machinery which gives you a worker unit to start with and weapon arsenal so you begin the game with a soldier unit. Of course should you be unable to decide or if you like to live dangerously there is always random.

Choose cargo

And finally you pick which planet to settle on and call home. The game will present to you a list of planets with a brief description about each one, telling you what type of planet they are (protean, terran etc). You can re-scan for planets to get different options, hit random world for a random planet or click on advanced worlds to seek a list of unique planets that offer a greater challenge.

There’s also the ever handy advanced setup where you can choose the world age, terrain type, rainfall, sea level, victory conditions etc., for when you want to customise more of your game experience. I like the frenzied aliens option (think raging barbarians).

Advance setup

The amount of customisation available at the start of each new game somewhat makes up for the disappointing lack of factions to choose from, however after a couple of games and trying out the various types of colonists, cargo, and spacecraft I found the ones that best fit my style of play (engies, tectonic scanner, and machinery) which I now tend to stick to each time I play.

Once you have navigated through all those tricky choices it is time to actually start playing and creating a new civilisation for humanity’s survivors.

The game starts with you landing on the planet which automatically builds your first city, you do not get to move about once you land, which sort of limits your choice where to put your first city but I like to pretend that the ship is running out of fuel and has to land as soon as possible.

Landing zone

The first thing you’ll notice if you’ve ever played Civilization V is that everything looks vaguely familiar, just with different names and a different coat of paint. Even if you haven’t played Civilization V before you’ll notice how similar things look to Earth, again just with different names and different colours. And this is one of the problems I have with the game right away.

Alien critters aside the planets don’t feel very alien. It’s just Earth but with resource substitutes and less colour. Instead of wheat you have fibers, instead of fish you have algae, instead of horses you have chitin etc. The grass is still green, the trees are still green, the deserts are still yellowy/brown, the snow is still white and the water is still bluey/green (although quite sickly looking), all just like Earth. That’s fine for some planets but not all of them, why can’t some have purple grass with blue trees and red water or orange grass with red trees, purple deserts and pink water, mix up the colours, make things different, it doesn’t have to look like Earth.

It all looks so dull. It’s just different shades of green with some brown for the deserts. After a while everything begins to look samey and runs together making it hard to tell what is grassland, plains, or marsh at a glance. There are no bright or vivid colours. It’s possible that this was done on purpose, possibly as a way to make the planets feel strange and confusing. Or maybe the artist only had a couple of crayons to work with and just did the best they could.

Resource pod and relic

None of this is helped by the miasma effect in the game. A dangerous and often annoying terrain feature early in the game which the manual describes as ‘an “infestation” of the tile with virulent spores that are actively hazardous to humans and their machines’. The miasma makes the tile look like it is covered in a cloud of bluey/green smoke. Still sticking to only a handful of colours. Well done game.

Aesthetics aside miasma is an interesting feature to the game and one that I like. Early in the game it slows yours, and the other players, exploration and expansion because it is toxic to your units, dealing out 10 damage should they end their turn stood in it, trade convoys can not pass through it, and it has healing properties to the alien wildlife.

Even more aliens

Later on in the game you can start removing the miasma from the map or you can harness it, even adding it to the map, both actions can upset other factions. Harnessing the miasma eventually allows your units to share in those same healing powers the alien wildlife enjoy and can act as a good defensive buffer on invading armies. Unless of course they enjoy those same healing perks as you in which case you’ve just given them additional healing powers as they invade. I have been caught out like that before.

The music that sometimes plays is absolutely brilliant and fits the game so perfectly that it deserves a special mention. It is hauntingly beautiful. It starts off sounding rather depressing, sad, and lonely, fitting perfectly for the idea that humanity has been forced to leave Earth and spend hundreds of years travelling across the cold dark empty void of space before landing on a strange alien planet to start a new life. Slowly the music becomes uplifting, inspirational, and hopeful, yes humanity has had to leave Earth but they will survive, they will make this alien world their new home, and humanity will go from strength to strength.

So far then it is sounding like Civ V just with a sci-fi theme. Well yes and no. The core mechanics remain the same but there are a few differences and additions chief of which is the affinity system.

Affinities are philosophies that allow your civilisation to evolve beyond their humble human origins. They also change how the buildings, units and leader of your civilisation look, provide special upgrades for your units, and give you access to a couple of unique units. There are three affinities to choose from – Harmony, Supremacy, and Purity.

Affinity progress

Those on the Harmony path are basically hippies. They want to live in harmony (duh!) with the new planet and its wildlife, getting rid of the bad parts of humanity and all round integrating living side by side blah blah blah. Civilisations following the harmony affinity are able to train alien units to fight for them and have bonuses for surviving miasma.

Supremacy is tech focused and can be seen as something like humanity becoming the Borg or Cybermen. They want to upgrade humanity with technology and robotic parts and as a result their unique units are based around robots and mechs.

The Purity path wants humanity to remain pure, no mixing with tech or aliens, so sort of like old timey racists. They want to preserve humanity how it is and seek to terraform this new world into a new Earth. The unique units here are tanks and battle suits.

As you unlock affinity points you level up in the affinity you just gained points for unlocking more of its bonuses. It is possible, in fact you will, gain levels in all three affinities as you progress through the game.

Affinity quest

Each affinity also has its own victory condition that can only be unlocked by reaching their higher levels. For example the Purity victory is called “The Promised Land” and involves bringing and settling those left behind on Earth on the new planet. This is achieved by the lengthy process of researching a specific technology that unlocks the “Exodus Gate”, reaching a certain level of the Purity affinity so that you can build the bloody thing, then building it which isn’t quick and takes up a tile, before bringing settler’s from Earth through it to settle somewhere on the new world. You have to settle 20 settlers from Earth in order to achieve victory this way and you can only bring through one per turn. If you have a large Empire it can take a lot of turns for these settlers to reach somewhere safe where they can actually settle as well adding time to it all. Oh and as soon as the “Exodus Gate” is complete prepare to be attacked as well. Yeah it’s a lot of hard work and very difficult but who said victory will be easy?

The Harmony and Supremacy victories aren’t any easier. There is still the classic domination victory and a First Contact victory open to everyone. No they aren’t any easier either.

Then there are virtues, policies that award specific bonuses, which you acquire as you gain culture that allow you to customise your civilisation even further (think social policies in Civ V). Virtues are broken down into four categories – Might, Prosperity, Knowledge, and Industry.

Virtues

Might covers the military and grants bonuses like increasing the strength of your units or gaining science for every alien you kill. Prosperity covers city growth and has policies that boost how quickly a city grows such as by increasing the effectiveness of health related buildings. Knowledge, not unsurprisingly, covers science and has policies that grants a boost to how much science is generated. And finally Industry covers your production and finances granting bonuses to how much production or energy is produced by various buildings.

Again though after a couple of games you will start to develop a pattern for what order you unlock the virtues in. For me it is always Might virtues until I get the virtue for gaining science for killing aliens so I can keep ahead of my opponents technologically before switching to the Knowledge virtues.

Researching technologies can be a bit of a pain. You are placed at the centre of a giant web branching off in all directions because the developers wanted to do away with a linear tech tree where you start at one end and finish at the other. It’s meant to show uncertainty about the future and the way technologies develop, it also gives you greater control over how your civilisation will develop by allowing you to choose what technological path they go down.

Tech web simple

It’s a good idea on paper. In practice it’s a bit of a mess, feels disjointed, is somewhat confusing and doesn’t make a lot of sense.

For instance why do petroleum and geothermal power both need to be researched? Why? We know that stuff now. OK not me personally but scientists and brainy people do. We already have the technology why does it need to be researched again? Those ships were filled with the best and brightest, the sort of people who know and understand about petroleum and geothermal power so why does it need to be researched?

Tech web expanded

Half the time I find the technology that I want to research more through luck than any kind of judgement.

The game also offers a variety of quest’s to give the game some direction, story, and guidance.

One type of quest comes the first time you build a building, a box pops up with some dialogue and a couple of options which will determine the course your civilisation takes. When you first build the early game building ‘Old Earth Relic’ for instance you get the choice of leaving them untouched which makes them maintenance free or you can open them up to the public which grants them +1 culture. This helps give some replay value as there is a large number of combinations possible.

Quest

Another type of quest involves picking between two stations, which are small independently run well stations that give you things like culture, energy or science if you set up trade routes with them, although they aren’t always in positions where you able to trade with them immediately.

Choose a station

The rest of the quests are things you should be doing anyway – founding outposts, researching particular technologies, collecting so many resource pods (which are just pods sent ahead of the manned spacecraft, littering the planet and are packed full of goodies like science and energy). Nothing that exciting but good guidance early on.

Despite all the choice and customisation on offer in other area’s of the game there is a surprising lack of units available which is not helped by the upgrade system which automatically upgrades all of your units and prevents you from building previous versions. It’s weird, normally I would love a system that automatically upgrades all of my units for free and doesn’t let me build outdated ones, but here it really points out the lack of unit variety.

Unit upgrade double

The different affinities help with this somewhat as they allow each basic unit to evolve along one of three different paths, but even then that doesn’t hide just how few there really are. There is at least one unit for each unit type, there is a naval unit, a siege unit, a ranged unit etc.

Diplomacy seems pretty pointless without some sort of trade or luxury good to trade with one another and there is now a favour system, but I haven’t had any luck with it.

And then there are the aliens. Well we are on an alien world remember?

Aliens

At the start of the game they are very dangerous and pose a serious risk to you, especially the siege worm and kraken, they slow your expansion, hamper scouting, and mean you can’t send your units off alone. As the game progresses however they become less of a threat and feel somewhat pointless. With the exception that killing them will piss off anyone who follows the Harmony affinity and make Purity followers like you that is.

There are only seven alien types, two water based and five land based. Oh and guess what colour they are? Yep you guessed it bluey-green, however that makes sense since it would act as a type of camouflage.

More aliens

A larger variety of aliens would have been nice along with some purpose for keeping them alive later in the game. Or have them become more aggressive and stronger or breed faster as the game progresses so that they constantly remain a threat.

Conclusion

Bit of a weird one this. I like it more than what I probably should but not as much as I want too. It’s a good solid strategy game with a decent sci-fi setting, the affinity system is interesting and there is some good customisation available which adds to the replay value. It just feels a bit lacking and devoid of personality.

Green Thumb

Hopefully Beyond Earth’s first expansion Rising Tide will help to fix some of the issues I’ve mentioned here. Check back soon for my review of it.

Get Civilization: Beyond Earth on Steam

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