I have long been a fan of the Civilization franchise and treated myself to Civilization: Beyond Earth in this summer’s Steam sale. The trailers looked stunning, with fantastically realised alien worlds and new and unique buildings and troops that made me love Firaxis all over again. I wasn’t disappointed in the way the game looked and felt. It was vast, alien yet familiar, and stunningly rendered. I could, however, have been forgiven for thinking that I was just playing a Civ V mod. Despite a few unique and interesting elements, the whole game felt no different to a playthrough of Civ V, just with less character, personality and victory fanfare.
Where Beyond Earth struggles in its realisation is that it lacks story and personality. The only sense of story we receive is a singular cutscene before gameplay starts. Gone are the individual and unique civilisations and their leaders from Civ V. Instead they are replaced with rather bland alliances from a cookie cutter mould who fail to interact with the player in the same way that their counterparts did in Civ V. This is a shame, as the alliances had the potential to be something so much more. Firaxis have projected their perceived planetary alliances into this game, and in the next centuries, if countries could be convinced to work together for a common goal, I could certainly see these alliances be prophetic. With alliances such as Polystralia and ARC
(American Reclaim Corporation). These cultural alliances would have had so much scope for individuality that it seemed wasted to have them all essentially the same, except for a slightly different character model. Civ V‘s leaders had so much personality. Personality was completely lacking in Beyond Earth and it made diplomacy feel unrealistic and unvarying. There was no scope to truly build relationships with the other leaders which felt frustrating as the game progressed.
One of the ways in which Beyond Earth does shine however is its replacement of Civ V‘s Barbarians with Alien lifeforms unique to Beyond Earth‘s planets. They are not immediately hostile so your civilisation can have relatively peaceful goings on with the planet’s indigenous flora and fauna, both of which have their own unique designs. Other alliances who share a similar Affinity to you will appreciate your unwillingness to attack the indigenous alien lifeforms or find this outmoded and a sign of weakness. Depending on how you wish to achieve victory in the game will depend on which path you choose. The alien fauna, however, will immediately become hostile if you travel too close to one of their nests making the beginning stages of the game a lot more interesting than any of the previous Civ games. There are more incentives not to just let your explorers run on autopilot as, if they accidentally stray too close to an alien nest, they will be immediately annihilated. Instead, you can choose to attack their nests directly by training warriors, sparking an all-out alien war within the first few turns of the game, or you can choose to ignore the nests by directing your explorers a respectful distance from alien spawns.
So much of Beyond Earth was simply Civ V with a UI overhaul and some renamed elements, but the unique elements and true stylistic changes speak to the potential that this game truly has. The Tech Tree from Civ V is replaced with a Tech-web and it allows for far greater customization of your civilisation and requires some real thought on what to research as it will directly influence the direction your civilisation will develop and how you can achieve victory conditions. It allows for more experimentation in this new game world and makes the player feel far more in control of their cultural development. There is a constant underlying decision of whether to research based on your civilisations needs, predicting the actions of the surrounding civilisations, or simply research to head straight for a victory. I really enjoyed this new element of the game. It was even more disappointing then that when victory conditions are met the game ends very abruptly with a pop up saying you’ve achieved victory and then unceremoniously dumping you back to the main screen. For a victory that actually requires some depth and consideration, and after on average about 6 – 10 hours invested in a singular scenario these victory screens just felt very lacking and made the ultimate gameplay resolution seem almost disappointing.
In Beyond Earth Firaxis has implemented a quest system which I thought was a brilliant idea. With the length of time it takes to play a full scenario the quests serve as a welcome break; something different to do for a while which I quite enjoyed. Ultimately, however, this new system was unvarying and felt under-developed. Rather than being choice or expansion oriented they are instead tied to the construction of buildings. Most of the quests are simply a choice between two options but seem to have no real effect on the game world other than an immediate gain in food, energy, production or culture. This is once again a system with so much unrealised potential. After playing through a couple of different scenarios you also come to realise that the quests are the same each time you play, meaning you stop paying attention to them and they become more of an annoyance, rather than an essential gameplay element.
Despite its flaws, however, I couldn’t dislike Beyond Earth because of how much I loved Civ V, and essentially Beyond Earth was simply more of the same. It was a disappointment as a new, standalone game, but had it been released as a Civ V mod it would have been an amazing addition. For a franchise that has lasted this long and is now in its 6th full iteration I certainly expected a little more. I am interested to see whether future updates and expansions will bring anything new to this game, which simply felt like it needed a little ‘more’.