Civilization: Beyond Earth

For a long time now the Civilization series has been a remarkable and well-received series of games. You take one of the many civilizations from history and over a series of turns, guide them from being a people just learning to use fire to a culture,through the middle-ages and all the way up to colonizing the moon. Taking place on a grid-based world in which you build and develop cities, create armies and manage international politics, you can either make yourself the paragon of nations or a demon every nation rallies against while Ghandi threatens you with nukes and Washington proclaims that his mighty army of swordsmen are not intimidated by your tanks. It's been a fun and enjoyable series full of personality and life. Be it because you were out pillaging the landscape and razing everything you could or because you were sitting around, tinkering with every little minor detail in your city population count.

When Beyond Earth was announced it seemed like it would be something amazing. It would use the beloved Civilization formula, one Firaxis had gotten RIGHT in Alpha Centurai and apply it to colonizing new worlds. It wasn't like they were strangers to this as every map in Civ is randomized. Things like satellites, taking off into the future, being unconstrained by the marked progress of history, even the prospect of alien life-forms that could function in manners that normal humans could not. From a series of games with an immense pedigree of quality no less. It seemed like such a sure slam-dunk.

So what the heck happened?

My best guess is that the game has succumbed to the EA disease. A studio announces some new and cool title, show it being amazing and enjoyable, then release the game with stripped down features for full price.

The set-up for Civ: BE is pretty straightforward. The Earth has become uninhabitable and teetering on the edge. In an effort to preserve mankind the nations of Earth have launched as many colonists as they can to inhabit the stars. You represent a faction of these colonists who have just landed on a strange, new world teeming with alien life-forms and deadly Miasma. It's essentially the same game as Civ V after that. Sure, things LOOK different, but aside from the miasma the worlds are little more than reskinned Civ V worlds with things like algae replacing the fish resource. You progress down the new tech-web, hunt down technologies and wonders to push you towards your eventual end-goal, deal with the other civilizations also seeking their own goals, stave off hostile outsiders while exploring ruins and... well, it's the same game as Civ V.

Unlike Civ V, and probably the biggest series departure, the game replaced the old, linear, tech-tree with a new tech web. The concept is simple. Instead of following a 'set' path towards victory, each player can opt to build, more or less, their own path. There are a series of 'branch' technologies covering broad areas of tech like Engineering, with several 'leaf' technologies that are more 'specialized' versions that deal with a unique aspect of that technology, such as Power Systems or a Defensive Grid for Engineering. Are you a peaceful people seeking more to establish a new life instead of conquering the world with guns? You can steer away from any military tech with relative ease. Feel like the best way to to survive is to turn your people into cyborgs? Avoiding any technology that primes you for human enhancement in favor of major technological prowess can be theory.

In practice, it doesn't work out like that. For example, the Alien Biology tech is one of the leaf-techs that holds immense value as it renders your workers immune to miasma and allows them to clear it from hexes under your control. This is a very valuable tech as the only other way to easily clean up miasma is to launch satellites with the dedicated purpose of clearing miasma up just to clear out an area which can become a strain on production until later in the game. The only problem is that not only does this tech have such a huge impact upon the game but it brings players more in-line with the 'harmony' affinity which may not be cool with someone looking to become the ultimate paragon of human nature. That's not to mention that many of the branch and leaf techs will end up simply being faster to research than anything else available. Why bother researching a 20+ turn tech that only gives somewhat marginal rewards than a 2-turn early game tech that, while not essential to your play style, offers something useful?

On the plus side, miasma is a cool new addition. The concept is fairly simple. Miasma is something that will inhabit a hex and deals damage to any human unit that ends its turn in it but heals alien units. This may not seem like much, until you need to launch an invasion on an enemy base and the only way through is a field of miasma or you can push the enemies into such a field which can very easily turn the tide of battle. It is such a simple thing but adds so much more to depth when you're carefully trying to tip-toe around it while pushing your enemies into it. Especially if you go down the Harmony affinity in which you can actually reverse the effects of the miasma and earn combat bonuses.

Another unique addition to the game is the Affinity system. At the start of the game the player is presented with three options on how to progress called 'affinities'. Affinities offer bonuses to units, free resources and new victory conditions if players manage to level-up an affinity enough. The Harmony affinity will make aliens less likely to attack, allow you to turn miasma from a bad thing to a good thing and even let you bait aliens into attacking enemy cities as the game progresses. The only problem is that there are only two ways to get levels for an affinity and one is through the technologies you research. This means you may have to outright avoid some techs to stay true to your affinity.

Intrigue has vastly improved from Civ V. Before it was just a cool side-feature and the only point of having it around was to install agents in your own cities. Not so with Civ: BE. Now you can have multiple options, from simply siphoning away funds, to stealing techs (actually valuable since it's very likely the computer will have a tech you don't) or causing a city to defect to your cause! Even if you don't want to bother with it, having the spies around offers bonuses to various things, like health, but once again, such positives make it a technology that is difficult to ignore.

Satellites would seem like a sure way to bring new tech, right? Not really. You build the satellite and launch it into orbit where it stays stationary and provides a small bonus or effect to the tiles below until it crashes. It can't move, meaning that their deployment needs to be carefully timed or else you'll just waste turns and resources. Buildings have a cool new feature where they offer one of two unique bonuses, be it something like granting +1 culture or removing their maintenance cost. Of course, the problem is that one of the two often trumps the other unless you're going for something very specific, ruining the point. Units can now be upgraded en-mass but aside from a power increase and one optional upgrade they remain the same and, unlike in Civ V where they have one possible promotion to increase their combat strength. Having one Marine specialize in woodland warfare while another on open terrain? Gone. Submarines? Gone. Units and buildings unique to civilizations? Gone.

Then there are the aliens. Unlike the barbarians in prior games, the aliens are meant to be treated almost like another civilization and as something that needs constant monitoring. For the early game even the weakest alien can put your marines on the defensive and, as you grow stronger and stronger, you need to be careful as massive Siege Worms and Krakens can cause havoc to a city, army or fleet if the player doesn't keep a watchful eye to them. On the plus side aliens add a unique aspect to the game and it is very easy to end up wary and terrified of the aliens. Hoping that Wolf Beetle Squad doesn't decide to attack your explorer or you don't accidentally stumble into a swarm of them or running away in panic as a Siege Worm follows you. On the downside, their difficulty is vastly unstable as they go from 'terrifying threat' to 'annoyance except for those siege worms' to '*yawn*' far too quickly once you hit the later techs.

So, the game sounds like a mixed bag compared to Civ V, right? Some cool new features have potential, a few are failures but not actually 'bad' right? Well, that's right. But that's sort of its biggest crime. The game is so sterile. It doesn't feel like a new game in the Civ series but rather like someone took Civ V, stripped out a bunch of the early-game content, tacked on three to four mods, gave  it a sci-fi coating of paint and called it a day. I'm not even sure I would say that it's true for the last one as we never really get to see the new strange and fantastical worlds. No reddish landscapes, teeming alien jungles, worlds stifled with miasma or sky-cities. No worlds with acidic rain or boiling lava. No worlds where flight is a problem due to high gravity, or where primitive sentience is developing, or even where mankind can create that primitive intelligence. It's just another randomized Earth-like map with continents, forests, islands and the like.

The problem with Civ: BE is that it's a really good game, but it doesn't earn that 'good' status on its own but rather from the game it's based off of. Had Civ: BE been an expansion pack for Civ V it would be right at home and possibly getting a 5/5, but on its own it's just a disappointment as a sequel. It doesn't live up to what it could, what it SHOULD, be. It has some cool ideas, it has some that need work and it needs more content. It survives because it has a solid parent of a game to draw upon but it hasn't done enough to distance itself far enough away. I want to rate this game lower because it is a disappointment in my eyes but even so, Civilization: Beyond Earth is a solid game regardless and managed to pull off the "one more turn" effect where you sit down intending only to play a short amount only to suddenly notice several hours have passed and it's now 3 A.M.