Ever since Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri released in 1999, fans have longed for a new chance to head back to the stars, and Civilization: Beyond Earth certainly appears ready to fulfill that desire. In it, Earth is on the brink of collapse, and looks to the colonizing space for salvation. Players select from eight sponsors (factions), customize a couple of starting benefits, and choose a planet type. The race to become the dominant empire begins as soon as you land.
Although the planet is divided into a familiar hex grid, playing Beyond Earth is very different from Civilization 5. A number of key systems have undergone changes. The ground is covered in a toxic miasma that damages units. Instead of keeping an eye on happiness, players have to manage over the population's health. Players will have to build clinics and perform other actions to make sure the inhabitants are healthy, otherwise every aspect of the game, including production, science, and expansion take a hit.Unfortunately, expansion and population growth both negatively impact overall health. If the health of your empire becomes extremely low, then even your fighting units will start to underperform.
Other key differences include how a new colony has to start a few turns as an outpost before it turns into a city under your control, and how trade is managed by building an unit that is sent off to another city. Empire management also includes a number of quest events, which often involve newly implemented technologies. For example, a recently discovered bio-material can be adapted toward making stronger materials or repurposed as a food source.
However, one of the most prominent new features is factional Affinity. Players can gain points in one of three Affinity paths: Supremacy, Purity, or Harmony. Supremacy looks to a completely transhuman future through use of cybernetics, computing, and genetic engineering. Harmony uses genetic engineering to adapt humanity to its new alien environment. Purity, in stark contrast to the other two, seeks to preserve humanity as is and seeks to tame the land to suit its needs. Affinities are not tied to faction, and players can choose to earn points toward more than one. An Affinity path will unlock bonuses, quest opportunities, and unit upgrades with an aesthetic that reflects their chosen path. Factions with opposing Affinities are more likely to be distrustful, while those with the same are more likely to be agreeable and cooperative.
New World, New Problems
Beyond Earth's new features should build up to a great and exciting new experience, but somehow it falls short. The faults start small, then grow by degrees as the game progresses. Let's start with the indigenous alien life forms. The barbarians from the traditional Civilization games are replaced by alien creatures that, for the most part, will leave players alone unless they happen upon a tasty explorer. But there can be so many of them that they become a major hindrance to exploration and expansion. A quest upgrade makes it so that aliens will leave your trade vessels alone, but that decision often feels forced on a player. There's no peaceful way to move aliens away, other than to park a military unit next to a group of them in hopes that they'll all attack it and perish in the battle. While no one will blame you for defending yourself, I don't see the fundamental difference between doing this and outright eliminating them.
Prepare for a lot of bug hunting if you decide to start shooting at the indigenous creatures. They spawn frequently from their nests, and it soon feels like every alien beast on the continent is coming for you. After spending a dozen turns defending your cities, other factions will start to frown upon your wanton destruction of the local wildlife. But it's not as though there's any sort of technology, say a stun gun or prod, that simply drives the creatures away from an area.
Other annoyances include how the neutral faction trade stations appear to exist for the sole purpose of being exploited. Assign a trade vessel to one and you're almost guaranteed a lucrative route. Although they will request favors from the Quests menu, they don't act like the city-states in Civ5. You can't negotiate with them, trade units, or add them to your empire. Other than a improvement in trade, there's often very little reason to fulfill their requests. You can't even tell rival factions to stop attacking them, but other factions will almost certainly become angry with you if you destroy one that they were trading with.
Web of Confusion
Beyond Earth's biggest problem is tied to its very heart and soul: The technology web and victory conditions. Instead of a traditional tree, as seen in previous Civilization games, Beyond Earth features a web with multiple connections and sub-technologies. In one sense, it's good, in that it offers an unprecedented sense of flexibility toward scientific development. The problem is, unless you really take the time out to memorize what each technological innovation does, it can be very easy to be confused by it. Deciding between the merits of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, or quantum hypercomputing simply isn't as straightforward as trying to invent the wheel, discovering gunpowder, or electricity. On my first playthrough, there were times when I became so bogged down with trying to decide on a technological direction that I lost sight of the victory goals.
..the merits of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, or quantum hypercomputing simply isn't as straightforward as trying to invent the wheel...
The key to success is to decide on an Affinity early on and run with it, but this also leads to problems. Previous Civ games made it relatively easy to switch victory conditions mid-game. If it doesn't look like you could complete a Science victory, you could try for a Diplomatic or Cultural victory as a fallback. Not counting the final score, all but two of Beyond Earth's victory conditions (Domination and Contact (essentially an economic victory)) are tied to Affinities. This approach seriously cuts down on the sense of flexibility, because researching technologies that don't contribute to your Affinity gives a rival faction time to pull ahead. Not only should you decide on an Affinity to purse at the start of the game, you should decide on a victory path early on too.
Another side effect of the Affinity system is that it tends to rob faction leaders of their personality. In past Civilization games and Alpha Centauri, players could associate play styles with leaders. Some would predictably become warmongers while others tended more toward trade. Since the AI chooses an Affinity at random, leaders tend to have different personalities from game to game. Even if you manage to maintain a friendly relationship with a faction, differing Affinities could be the rift that prevents you from growing the relationship. Not to mention, there's a part of every campaign where leaders, both friendly and not, line up to tell you how terrible your Affinity is. The lack of unique units further reduces factional personality. Although each Affinity has a special look to its units and cities, every faction that shares the same Affinity will look identical.
On a better note, Beyond Earth's diplomacy system is generally well-rounded and uses nicely detailed leaders, with expressive reactions, and an appearance that changes with their Affinities. The diplomatic overview also keeps a running record of past deals, and issues that may impact negotiations, like whether or not they've denounced you for killing the native wildlife four hundred turns ago. What's missing is the ability to trade technology. I also couldn't find a way to determine, at a glance, how factions related to each other. The diplomacy menu remarks on factions that are working cooperatively, but I wanted to know who was at war with whom, or if there was a chilly relationship I could exploit.
The espionage system has a broad selection of options that range from stealing money to inciting a coup or detonating a dirty bomb in a rival city. However, the bad news is, espionage quests are so hard to pull off and leave so much to chance, that's extremely unlikely that those high level actions will come to pass. Even "easy" tasks performed on normal difficulty by a top-level agent with a ton of support from headquarters, along with the espionage bonus Wonder, and no counter-agents to worry about, fails about 4 out of 5 times. Even if they do succeed, there are other random things that can occur. If the spy is caught, he has to flee the city, assuming he hasn't been killed. By the time late game rolls around and everyone has artificially intelligent surveillance software running in their cities, espionage becomes practically useless.
Perhaps all that wouldn't be so bad if there weren't limited unit types, and such a wide gap between generations. Not counting late game's mega units, which are unlocked through research, everyone uses the same unit archetypes. Variety comes from pursuing an Affinity path, which determines bonuses and aesthetics.There are four upgrades to every unit, and each step is much more powerful than the last, and the final tier is near invincible. I blasted a late level armored unit with an orbital laser and all it did was polish the paint. The exception to this are the aircraft, which are pathetically weak. Beyond Earth features only one type of aircraft, and even when fully upgraded, the only thing they pose a threat to are other aircraft.
Leaving the Cradle of Civilization
Civilization: Beyond Earth takes some getting used to, even for longtime Civ fans. Although the game has more than a fair share of quirks, I believe that it has the potential to become a much better game. While the Affinity system lacks the kind of personality and flexibility that other Civ games have, I'll admit that it is an interesting twist. Even after multiple playthroughs, I can't really say that I'm completely comfortable with the technology web. Perhaps it's because a web makes for more indecision than a straightforward tech tree. Or maybe it's because I'm one of those people who can't decide between a creating a giant robot or a giant bug to crush my foes.
Despite its faults, Civilization: Beyond Earth does fulfill its promise to take you to a distant world, where you'll find exotic alien life, meet future leaders of mankind... and conquer them.