Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis Games
ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10+
Reviewing Civilization V a few years ago was interesting as a newcomer to the series. Sure, I once tried to get into Civilization IV, but its dense nature repelled me and I wasn’t in the mood to be resilient. Civilization 3 also sits in my Steam library, still yet to be played. The streamlined UI, accessibility, and massively improved tutorial in Civilization V, however, were perfect for someone like myself who needed less of a history lesson and more of a primer for the game. I got my feet wet, found out the water was fine, and became a decent navigator of history. Well, enough to understand what I’d played and reach a verdict: I really liked it.
For someone who’s more of a science fiction fan than history buff, Beyond Earth should be right up my alley. It’s got Civ V basics, and it’s taking us into its vision of the future. I never played Alpha Centuri, so my only expectations were based on seeing some fringe topics in a Civilization setting. It’s a shame, in that case, that this new, official, non-expansion of Civilization isn’t resonating with me at all.
It starts out on a good enough foot, introducing players to the new planet they’ve discovered, now in a spaceship rather than a primordial stew or something, along with the slow drip of other factions as their vessels land in the opening moments of a game — this time announcing themselves on arrival, rather than the medieval on-foot discovery needed in the past. You’ll even be given a few bonuses to utilize in beginning your new civilization, giving a more personal flavor to the opening hours. It’s otherwise all very familiar, with changes such as different nationalities, sometimes re-envisioned as a corporation or future equivalent to government, or your early settlement having to ward off aliens, rather than barbarians. You’ll get a solid footing in a tech tree, now structured in a circular fashion, and develop workers to build improvements, along with creating policies which will dictate the type of government you run. Trade routes can be established for efficient expansion and economical gain, and leaders can be met with diplomatically or with aggression.
Beyond Earth, being rooted in the Civilization series, clearly has a solid foundation for the game it wants to be. So much of Civilization V’s structure is referenced, in fact, that it feels more like the formula has been repackaged, rather than reinvented. Sure, I expected as much, but it turns out that the Civilization model in a science fiction setting hasn’t been properly adapted to make it feel independent of its predecessor.
I really love the idea of exploring new worlds, pioneering distant-future technologies, and interacting with factions in a more intelligent and imaginative setting than building the first steamboat, but Beyond Earth captures none of that sensation of discovery for me. In fact, it makes the wonder of mankind’s early feats of engineering seem even more magical, in comparison. Maybe it has to do with the knowledge of what nuclear technology meant for us, or how far we’ve come. How far we can go, and where that will take us, seems stuck in the confines of practicality in both gameplay and scenarios.
Beyond Earth does make attempts to craft events around the player’s experience, as messages will occasionally pop up with a blurb about how perhaps an old relic from earth could be destroyed for technology or respected as history, or what part of town should benefit from food sources immediately, but these are boiled down to small incremental differences in the grand scheme of things. Not much of it seems as significant as historical installments understood landmarks in technology and human achievement to actually be. Is it as exciting as it sounds when we merge our DNA with native alien life? No, it’s an extra point towards food or industry or something.
We’ve somehow back-tracked in terms of visuals, as well, at least in presentation. In the addition of the new, less is communicated to players, as the UI is a mess in comparison to the thoughtful trimmings around Civilization V’s screen. God help you if you zoom out on the tech tree. There may be plenty of options and meaningful diagrams, but they’re sitting in a convoluted arrangement of menus that look like ugly placeholders instead of clean, futuristic screens. I also noticed several bugs in the upgrade tree models clipping duplicates of themselves, and never could figure out why the basic tile view has disappeared in favor of an orbital option that displays satellite coverage. We can’t we at least have the option of either?
While it may seem like I’m focused on the content of Beyond Earth, rather than the core game, it’s because the content seems to be the most drastic difference between this and any prior Civilization game I’ve played. Some of the difference is face-value obvious — we’re in the future — but also in its aforementioned lack of heart and imagination. It also feels loosely applied to a gameplay model that’s familiar to anyone with a history in this franchise. That’s not to say there’s nothing at all to call it different, as experiments like the orbital coverage bring an interesting buffing mechanic to regions of the game, but their effects feel exactly like an experimental mechanic: safe and minimal, rather than an integrated component. Alterations such as this perforate the game with a mix of questionable design and insightful change, with too much of a balance and not enough of the latter.
The major disappointment in Beyond Earth is how the recycled core make any other familiar fiction, visual, or philosophies feel recycled in turn. Civilization V marked a zest for strategy games, with room for innovation and growth. Firaxis has demonstrated an ability to evolve and refine at the same time, and this is the finesse that Beyond Earth so greatly lacks. Instead, it feels a lot like Civilization V is trying on a new look and hoping for the best.
Firaxis’ ambition may be great, but their inspiration seems to be left behind on our home planet. We’ve gone maybe out to Mars in this one, and it’s a shame that Civilization’s foray into the future is one that reminds us only of how inspired things were in the past. I’d love to see something more inventive in a full release, but maybe that will appear in a less fiscally-demanding expansion at some point. I’m no expert on what that could (or should) be, but it could at least contain more confidence in exploring how old gameplay systems can be re-imagined, rather than retreaded. Otherwise, this is the game whereupon Firaxis has discovers that they aren’t good at anything more conceptual than historical or pre-existing franchises. For their sake, and ours, I certainly hope beyond Earth is a stumble that can be corrected down the road.