Let’s just start again…
Sid Meier’s Civilization V is a great game, especially when combined with all of its expansion packs. It is a game where that “one more turn” mentality can easily wipe out entire weekends. But that popular formula of taking a fledgling civilization and nurturing it through history to ultimate victory has been cast aside in the latest Civilization offering from Firaxis. In Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, players will take control of a familiar, yet unknown, faction which is fleeing a ruined Earth, along with other factions, and are forced to set up a new home on an alien world. Gone is the chance to develop known technologies, the chance to admire your place in history, and the ability to aim for victory. Instead, players can look forward to stumbling through a strange new world, learning as they go and hoping that decisions they make will lead to success. Oh, and there is a sombre warning about the future of our Earth if things don’t change.
It is the opening cinematic that spells out the moral tale for Beyond Earth, in which we see people of all cultures coming together to flee an Earth that is rapidly heading for cataclysmic destruction. More social commentary is offered throughout the game, but it is up to the player as to how much weight they place in this cautionary tale. Whether the well meaning messages are taken to heart or ignored entirely, it is very clear that Firaxis’ vision of settling on an alien planet is fraught with difficulty.
Players begin the game by choosing a faction from a smaller selection than they may be used to from the previous Civilization games. Each faction comes with a different starting bonus, and players may then choose an additional bonus as they fill the extra space on their massive colonization ship. Following a short trip through space, players will then get to choose the site for their first settlement on an alien planet.
And what an alien planet it is. Strangely coloured, the planet is home to various different alien species who will constantly be a source of irritation to a newly founded settlement. Then there is the Miasma that floats around the surface, damaging units and making expansion yet more difficult. Resources are available, but even they are alien in nature and will take a while to get used to.
In many ways, Beyond Earth is a simple re-skinning of the vanilla Civilization V. One aspect has simply been replaced by another, but the way these aspects affect the game remain the same. The aliens are the new barbarians, happiness is now health, and gold has become energy. In these respects, once the player learns the new names for the old aspects, gameplay can be quite familiar. However, in other aspects, things have changed much more substantially and will make life on this alien planet a little more alien for the player.
The tech tree is perhaps where the most striking change can be found. Gone are the linear branches that the player can follow to almost certain victory. Now, players are face with more of a tech web, branching out from the center in all directions, giving the player many more choices as to how they evolve their civilization. Then each branch of the web gives access to leaves, further defining their progress. The fact that many of the technologies are new and will take time to understand for the new player, adds even more uncertainty to their time on the planet. Players are no longer as limited to what they research and are able to skip entire branches if they wish, but with what results? Research is much more complex in Beyond Earth.
But it is the affinities that will make the most difference to the game. The affinity system contains three possible routes that the player can take – Harmony, Purity and Supremacy. Harmony will see the player wanting to embrace the new alien world and combine alien with human DNA to ensure survival. Purity, on the other hand, wants to re-create Earth on this alien planet. Supremacy turns to technology for survival and makes use of cybernetics. Through researching specific technologies, or through certain decisions made during the regularly popping up quests, players will earn points in these affinities, and that is where things get interesting.
Not only do each of these affinities offer a different victory, something which the player will likely be aware of after their first game, but also they offer much needed upgrades and customization to military units for the player. From each of the base units, each of the affinities will change the way a unit looks and improve their effectiveness in battle, while also giving the player a chance to choose an improvement for further customization.
The new orbital layer adds another new and interesting feature to Beyond Earth. As players research the various orbital technologies, they can fill the skies over their controlled lands with limited time objects that can provide energy, remove the poisonous Miasma or many other improvements. These objects will eventually fall back to the planet’s surface, and need to be built again if the benefits are still needed, but they add an interesting new resource to be monitored and taken advantage of.
Quest paths offer players another way to progress in the game. Whilst these are generally optional, the advantages of following a quest, be it exploring an alien structure or launching a specific satellite, can be quite useful and eventually lead to victory. However, I personally found that trying to follow these quests often took up my research time and found me falling behind the other civilizations. They are enjoyable to follow, offering small snippets of narrative that build on the story of life on this new planet, but not always easy or quick to complete.
At its core, Civilization: Beyond Earth is incredibly similar to the last entry in the series. However, new names for technologies and resources, new systems, and new victory conditions will still leave many veteran players flailing in the dark for at least their first few of games. Despite this, Beyond Earth still manages to be incredibly enjoyable and emphasize that “one more turn” mentality that will keep players around way beyond their bed times. It may feel more like an expansion to Civilization V than a fully fledged standalone, but there is a lot of new stuff to learn and entertainment to have, making Civilization: Beyond Earth an essential title for strategy gamers.