Robolenin Reviews Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

…..Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is a sci-fi turn based 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) strategy game set some 600 years in the future. Driven from Earth by events referred to as the “The Great Mistake,” the factions of the world have poured their resources into an interstellar colonization project. The player assumes the role of a Faction Sponsor at planetfall as they attempt to ensure the survival of their people on a hostile, mysterious alien shore.

…..Created by Sid Meyer and Firaxis Games, and published by 2K Games, Beyond Earth acts as a spiritual sequel to 1999’s Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, known to fans as SMAC. Despite winning multiple game and strategy game of the year awards Alpha Centauri holds the poorest sales records of any Civilization game.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

…..Beyond Earth, like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, is haunted by the success of its predecessors. But whereas Scott was able to at least openly connect Prometheus to the Alien universe, Beyond Earth is only able to make terse reference owning to EA’s continuing ownership of the Alpha Centauri name.

…..Where SMAC imagined the colonist Factions separated into ideologies (the environmentalist, the capitalist, the soldier, et al) Beyond Earth’s Factions are for the most part regional alliances or mega states. The Pan-Asian Cooperative Faction for example, holds eerie similarity to the existing ASEAN+3 (Association of South East Asian Nations +3 [China, Japan, South Korea]) regional framework.

A selection of Beyond Earth's Sponsors
A selection of Beyond Earth’s Sponsors

…..The game’s cynical vision of the future comes into focus most clearly when examining the ARC or American Reclamation Corporation — a corporate surveillance state. The ARC encompasses North and Central America, Canada, and Mexico, and is the game’s espionage and intelligence Faction.

…..The Australian Faction (or Polystralian, encompassing Australia, Polynesia, New Zealand, and some SouthEast Asian nations) is portrayed as the world’s new food bowl and economic powerhouse. Polystralia is led by Hutama, an activist and celebrity turned political leader. Despite Polystralia quietly encompassing my greatest hopes for my country of birth, it’s sad that such a unique vision of Australia’s future is coming from Firaxis and not the Australian Federal Government.

Hutama, Sponsor of Polystralia
Polystralian sponsor, Hutama

…..Beyond Earth’s lore, for all its cleverness, suffers from poor delivery. In Civ 5 you can build a Colosseum, see that it increases Happiness by two, and imagine your citizens cheering from the stands. The player knows what a Colosseum is intuitively because the concept is borrowed from history. Gene Gardens and Feedsite Hubs in Beyond Earth are things that the player doesn’t know, and desperately need some well placed exposition. Civ 5’s FINISHED popup (which displays what’s just been built in a City) is conspicuously absent in Beyond Earth, and would have been the perfect opportunity to insert a little bit of lore on each Building. As always there is a huge amount of lore to be found in the Civilopedia, however most players probably aren’t going to be reading the (surprisingly cool) Civilopedia passage for the Recycler Building.

…..“Without Recyclers, it is doubtful that some settlements would have reached the size they now are, as limited Earth-type resources would have halted expansion before native substitutes could have been discovered.” 

…..Beyond Earth’s inability to feed that rich and immersive lore to players in a palatable in-game way has led many to denounce the game as bland and homogeneous. There really is a wealth of brilliant content here, but it’s been obscured by some unfortunate design choices.

The omission of Civ 5's FINISHED popup is baffling
The omission of Civ 5’s FINISHED popup is a baffling missed opportunity

…..Gone too are Civ 5’s brilliant loading screens that narrated a Leaders background and emphasized their flavor as the map booted up. All you’ll find on Beyond Earth’s loading screens are brief written excerpts from your Sponsor’s Personal Log.  Again, the potential content for these screens already exists in the Civilopedia and the game’s brilliant promotional material such as this Interview with Polystralia’s Hutama.

…..“The first and most moral responsibility of Freeland will be establishing a decent brewery on the new planet. Yeast should be going through the same vetting process as the colonists. Maybe a more rigorous one.”

…..The lore here is smart, funny, and endearing — it just never comes up in gameplay. Considering each of the Sponsors have an in-game voice actor, it would have been a relatively small step to have them voice a little bit of fluff for the loading screen.

Civ 5's narrated loading screens help provide context for the player's actions

Beyond Earth's disappointing loading screen
A comparison of Civ 5 and Beyond Earth’s loading screens

…..The Faction specific bonuses in Beyond Earth are weaker than those in Civ 5, but are complimented by three additional bonus choices of Colonists, Spacecraft, and Cargo. The bonuses on offer here are pretty diverse, ranging from yield boosts of Science, Culture, etc to potential gamechangers like Continental Surveyor, which reveals the map’s coastlines at the start of a game.

Pan Asian Cooperative Sponsor, Daoming Sochua
Pan Asian Cooperative Sponsor, Daoming Sochua

…..Beyond Earth is ridiculously replayable, with the game’s diverse environments often forcing the players to adapt their strategies on the fly. The game’s Affinity and Virtue systems (essentially replacing Policies and Ideologies) allow players to develop their growing Colony in a myriad of ways, depending on their goals and the environment.

…..One of the biggest additions to Beyond Earth, made possible by its sci-fi setting, is the Tech Web. No longer bound to represent Civilization’s advance through the ages, players are free to advance through the Tech Web freely in any direction. This new approach allows for some incredibly diverse strategies and gives the player the ability to drastically tailor Research to their specific needs. The nonlinear nature of the Web means an easing of the vicious and often hair-tearingly frustrating rush for Wonders in Civ 5.

Beyond Earth Tech Web
Beyond Earth Tech Web

…..Otherwise, gameplay in Beyond Earth doesn’t stray very far from its predecessor. The hassle of manually upgrading your troops is gone with units automatically adopting an Affinity’s characteristics as you increase in level — however this can lead to some brutal massacres if one Faction’s forces upgrade during the middle of a battle.

…..Unfortunately the Affinity system doesn’t drastically change the way a player approaches the game. Beyond Earth’s Harmony Affinity can eventually heal units stationed on Miasma Gas hexes — but that’s probably the only Affinity specific tile improvement that you’ll pursue, and will normally be a low priority. Bonuses to tile yield are found scattered throughout the Tech Web and are available to all players. It seems like an opportunity was missed to create diverse tile improvement imperatives between the Affinities by placing yield bonuses throughout the Affinity levels themselves.

Beyond Earth's three Affinities
Beyond Earth’s three Affinities

…..A lot seems missing from Beyond Earth’s combat units. Despite unique units for each Affinity, gone are Faction Unique Units and Great Generals/Admirals. Each Affinity has access to just two naval units, Aircraft Carriers and Battleships — a far cry from Civ 5’s late-game four way struggle between Aircraft Carriers, Battleships, Destroyers, and Submarines. In Beyond Earth Aircraft Carriers can be useful to snipe wounded units or bomb cities, but rarely seem like a necessity when Battleships do an equal job for a cheaper price.

Civ 5's diverse Naval Units

Civ 5's diverse Naval Units
Civ 5’s diverse Naval Units

…..Health points (previously Happiness points) have also undergone huge changes. The penalty for negative Health has been drastically reduced compared to Civ 5. Health between -1 and -9 incurs a laughable -10% Culture and Science penalty — between -10 and -19 Health players face a meager additional -10% to Production and double Intrigue from enemy Covert Actions. Yield from additional Cities effortlessly surpasses the game’s penalties, and mid-game Buildings almost entirely mitigate the risk from covert operations. Gone is the tense race between expansionist Civilizations to construct Happiness boosting wonders like Chichen Itza and Notre Dame.

…..Wonders too have taken a big hit in Beyond Earth, especially as you advance outwards in the Tech Web. This is probably a balance consideration considering the flexibility of the Web, but aside from a few choice early game wonders (Gene Vault [+4 Food, +1 Culture, +10% City growth rate] and Metetwork [+4 Culture, +2 Health, +25% Culture in City in which it was built) their only real Late game value is the +7 Culture per Wonder provided by the Monomyth Virtue.

…..Beyond Earth’s overabundance of Health and Culture, combined with Virtue abilities to reduce penalties for new Cities, removes the benefit of maintaining a small but advanced empire that was such a balancing force in Civ 5. In Beyond Earth bigger is always better — and Civ 5’s brilliant dichotomy between Tall and Wide (small and large) empires has been lost.

A Supremacy Affinity City
A Supremacy Affinity City

…..Graphically, Beyond Earth is gorgeous and crafts some wonderful and diverse alien landscapes. At the start of a game of Beyond Earth players can choose or randomize what type of planet they will colonize. The standard Map Types like Continents, Archipelago, and Pangea are all here, but Beyond Earth also has three Map Terrains, Lush, Fungal, and Desert. These Terrains change the not only the appearance of the standard Map Types but also feature distinct characteristics and incredibly, their own soundtracks. Some games will see you navigating the barren wastelands and canyons of Desert maps, while others will see you engaging in dogfights above crystal backed mountains to the Fungal specific, and utterly genius Promethean track.

…..What made Civ 5 really great was the ease of play. Every choice that needed your attention was brought to you in a convenient popup. No longer would a momentary lapse of concentration mean that vital military units wouldn’t take their objective, or a frontier City would go without construction orders. Even with the addition of Religion, Espionage, and Trade in Civ 5’s expansions Gods & Kings (G&K) and Brave New World (BNW) gameplay was still sleek and intuitive.

…..Ironically, Beyond Earth suffers from some of the very same innovations that made Civ 5 so great. Trade is now more important than ever, but in its current state is an absolute mess. Where Civ 5 had a global cap on the number of Trade Routes, Beyond Earth Trade Routes are capped by City. Initially two Trade Routes are available, but can be expanded to Three Routes per City. For a later game Colony of 10 Cities, this means 30 Trade Routes to micromanage. And I do mean micromanage — Beyond Earth has taken away the ability to sort possible Trade Routes by a particular yield. This means that each Trade Route, every 25 turns, will have you scrolling down a long list of Cities, examining each one individually. Beyond Earth features some Trade Route sorting options, namely Sponsor Name, City Name, and Nearest Destination — but with the exception of sorting by Sponsor (maybe to avoid inadvertently aiding a rival) the options are absolutely useless. During the late game a constant barrage of Trade Route decisions will see you selecting routes randomly, out of frustration.

Beyond Earth's Arid biome
Beyond Earth’s Arid biome

…..It might read like I’m putting an inordinate amount of emphasis on Trade in Beyond Earth — but due to how indispensable it is now, and how meek the AI generally is, the majority of the late game is often literally pawing down lists of Cities looking to maximize your profit. With content like Leader dialogue imported directly from Civ 5, it seems like someone at Firaxis made a conscious decision to remove the ability to Sort Trade Routes  by Science or Energy from Beyond Earth. Whyyy??

…..In many ways, Beyond Earth seems stripped down compared to Civ 5’s years of expansions and tweaks. Gone is the diplomatic tension and struggle for the support of City States, gone is Religion and the ability to send Missionaries abroad, gone is the ability to win a Cultural Victory with Tourism, and gone are the important late game wildcard Nukes. There will undoubtedly be expansions coming out for the game, and I’m excited for them, I’ll probably be there on day one. But at this stage, Beyond Earth suffers from a comparative lack of content.

Supremacy Victory
Supremacy’s ‘Emancipation’ Victory

…..Where are my atmospheric units that can engage Satellites? Where are my planet busting weapons? Where is my diplomacy? Where did all the Great People go? It sounds harsh, but Beyond Earth sometimes feels a like an early access title, with inferred future upgrades that will eventually hit version 1.0.

…..That’s not to say that Civ 5 didn’t receive similar, harsh, and justified criticism upon its initial release in 2010. And I should make it clear that when I’ve referred to Civ 5 in this review, I’m alluding to its current state with its two expansions Gods & Kings, and Brave New World.

For those looking to get into the 4x genre, there is no better option than Civ 5 and its expansions. For a game initially released in 2010 it still looks amazing and years of bug and balance patches, as well as new content, have polished the game to an incredible standard. New players will probably feel a closer connection with Civ 5’s historical setting and limited number of cities than Beyond Earth’s sci-fi setting and macro-dominant gameplay.

Civ 5's exceptional expansion, Brave New World
Civ 5’s exceptional expansion, Brave New World

…..As I wrote at the start of this review, Beyond Earth is haunted by the success of its predecessors. The formula developed by Firaxis for Civ 5 is arguably the pinnacle of 4X turn based strategy, and worthy of being used in a new game. If you’re a fan of SMAC, Civ 5, or 4X games in general, you owe it to yourself to at least check out the demo on Steam. It’s just that it’s hard to earnestly praise Beyond Earth for adopting mechanics that already worked in Civ 5. Inversely, it’s easy to criticize diversions from that formula that haven’t exactly worked out.

The 'Deacon Alien' from Ridley Scott's Prometheus
The ‘Deacon Alien’ from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

…..I really do love Beyond Earth  (especially in Multiplayer when real human guile comes into play) but at the same time, writing this review has made me appreciate Civ 5 more than ever before. I will undoubtedly keep on playing more Beyond Earth but, as it stands, the game just isn’t the Civ 5 killer I’d hoped it would be. If Firaxis gives the same love and attention to Beyond Earth as they gave to Civ 5 since its launch, the game truly has a chance to escape the gravity of its predecessor.

…..In the end only time will tell if Beyond Earth is a true space pioneer or a failure to launch.


One thought on “Robolenin Reviews Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth”

  1. It’s sad to see Firaxis release such an unpolished game. I really believed it was better than this. I told all the naysayers to just trust these developers to deliver a proper spiritual successor to their own brilliant title.

    It wasn’t meant to be. The disappointment I feel borders on a sense of betrayal. BE is a decent game, but it’s decent mostly because of the mechanics it just carried over from Civ 5, and without ever coming into its own in any meaningful. And that’s just not good enough.

    Hardly any story, no sense of satisfaction in completing a wonder or even achieving a victory. Almost everything feels tacked and at times very crudely done. B+ as a fan made reskin or total conversion mod, D- as major standalone installment.

    The SMAC transcendence victory on its own was far more satisfying and far more generous than all five victories in BE combined. Shame on Firaxis for thinking this is what the fans deserved. Shame on them even more if they held back or left out content just to bring about later for future DLC or expansions.

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