Review – Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Conquering planet 32b.

Sorry guys. If you’re going to make a Civilization in space, you’re going to get compared to the classic, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.  It’s just going to happen.  And it sucks.  Alpha Centauri is a true classic.  Not the wimpy kind of classic that “was really good for its time”, but a genuine, still awesome, game that hasn’t been surpassed.  Seriously, go get it here if you haven’t played it.  Yes, it’s unfair to be compared against the greatest, but even without Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth (BE) is a bad game.

The basic game plays like any other Civilization entry. The player starts with one city which forms the heart of a global empire.  Players build more cities, research technologies, culturally advance towards bonus giving virtues, and conquer their way to victory.  It’s a tried and true formal that still largely works.  On top of the old engine, BE adds ideologies.  The player chooses technologies and quests that pushes them down three paths representing their engagement with the alien world they’ve landed on.  Harmony embraces the world, Purity shuns it in favor of emulating Earth, and Supremacy seeks domination through technological integration.  Advancing down an ideological path provides key bonuses and upgrades units while adding neat artistic touches to factions.  In addition to ideologies, BE also has quests that direct the player to complete tasks for bonuses.  The quests do triple duty as a tutorial, measurement of victory and a storyteller.  They provide optional and welcome structure in a very open genre.  They also represent all that is wrong with Beyond Earth.

Mouse over the five victory quests and you’ll notice that four of them don’t actually involve interacting with the other players.  They’re all variants on “research technology, build a thing, and wait a number of turns to win.”  The best and obvious route to victory is often to expand quickly, placate the opponents, and watch the numbers go up.  A smarter AI would notice the player’s snooze towards victory, but this cutthroat bunch remains totally clueless as your giant victory phallus reaches towards the sky.  You can practical hear the snoring as your game winning space tower or Earth gateway go up.

“But wait!” you cry. What about the fifth victory condition?  What about Domination where the player conquers their opponent’s capital?  Good question!  Let me introduce you to health, the replacement for Civilization 5’s happiness.  When the player conquers a city, it lowers the faction’s health.  A low health value tacks on crippling empire wide penalties that ensure you’ll regret abandoning your friend, the “End Turn” button.  Ultimately, the player can research technologies to mitigate the health problem, but it effectively means the early game is forced pacifism.  Even better, the AI is brain dead when considering peace offers.  It does a straight calculation based on army values.  If the player has a bigger army, the AI offers cities to end hostilities.  Don’t bother with the barbarity of actual warfare!  Be civilized about it by declaring war, building a large army, enjoying a nationwide tea time, and negotiating for half their empire 15 turns later.  Factions regularly offered me cities to end wars that I hadn’t fire a shot in.  Oh fun.

I admit, I could deal with the lackluster gameplay if there were a little more to the flavor of the game. Alpha Centauri did this beautifully by creating factions with unique traits and back stories that both guided gameplay and contributed to the development of an organic story with every playthrough.  Not so in Beyond Earth.  Faction choices only provide minor bonuses and their mythos contributes little to the story of the game.  In fact, choices in BE mean very little.  Implemented intelligently, these decisions could have help craft a unique world with each game.  Instead, BE throws tons of tiny decisions at the player that seem to have little effect and require little thought.  It’s hard to really feel involved when the choices are minor increase to stat A or minor increase to stat B.  Even the victory quests feel limp as they are buried under several menus and provide little in the way of exposition.  No part of this world feels realized.

Beyond Earth is a failed attempt at updating Alpha Centauri. All of the basic elements were pulled from the earlier game without the commitment to a strong identity.  Instead, BE comes off as a halfhearted attempt at recreating a classic without understanding what made it great.  Don’t buy this game.

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