I love me a good Civ game, have done for a long time. Since playing the original Sid Meier’s Civilization as a child, I pumped a lot of time into Civ 4 and its expansions while at university and then moved on to Civ 5 when it came along a few years ago. A lot of mixed reactions were thrown up when the fifth instalment of this grand PC gaming institution dropped onto our shelves, a lot of people said it had oversimplified the franchise while others hailed this stripping back of the mechanics as one of its great strengths. I am personally in the latter camp, I really, really like 5 and was therefore pretty excited for this latest offering to appear on my Steam profile, particularly as it had been compared so strongly to it’s elder brother in the previews I had seen.
So, no time to waste – let’s just get stuck into it. The first career-defining choice comes almost as soon as you click the New Game button – which faction to choose? Well, in this game you actually pick a “sponsor” rather than a nationality, these sponsors have familiar sounding names though as they represent fantasy alliances between present-day nations that give some grounding to what could otherwise be a totally abstract and purely mechanical decision. There is a rather paltry eight sponsors to pick from, and their abilities are fairly high-level perks that would seem to only very gently push your civ in a given direction rather than define your game plan from turn one, but I went ahead and plumped for the Pan-Asian Cooperative who get a boost for wonder production and worker speed.
The game tries to further deepen your set-up choices with Colonists and Cargo options, both of which again give very top-level bonuses that don’t give the same sense of character that the nations do in Civ 5. I went for production bonus and a free worker to try and accentuate my choice of sponsor, maybe I could try and out-build my opponents to claim victory?
After setting the difficulty to hard (I’m a seasoned Civmeister, after all) I was dumped into my new alien home. First thing that struck me was the obvious abstraction of all the resources in the game. Sure there was basalt and silica lying around, but what the devil does floatstone or firaxite do? Are they good for early game or late game units? One advantage that the Earth-bound Civ games have is that you can relate to all the stuff in the game – obviously horses boost production, sheep provide food and gold gives you cash, but on this scarily unfamiliar world I was back to square one. Still, not to worry as I’m sure it will all become clear from the in-game tutorial.
Well, not quite. While the regular pop-ups and tool-tips that litter the opening few turns are helpful in explaining what a city is and how trade works etc they kind of gloss over the new resources and other map furniture, but then again that all adds to sense of exploration on your first play through. I guess that your intrepid settlers have no idea what floatstone is for neither!
The early-game plays in a familiar way, with your city growing it’s borders and your workers hurriedly dropping mines and plantations to supply the townspeople with their food and luxuries. I really enjoyed the new Explorer unit, which is able to dig on sites of interest and will often find useful things like functioning satellites and alien units, or even an item to help you on your way towards one of the new victory conditions, but more on those later.
So I’m merrily zipping around the map with my explorer, when suddenly my screen is dragged off to a distant corner where I witness a new civilisation establishing its home city! This is new! I’m able to establish communications immediately with my new neighbour, even though I have no idea how to get to his capital nor was I even aware of the continent they now inhabit. I am even able to establish trade relations with these people, of which I was made aware when a few turns later they started asking me for stuff, like energy (gold, basically) or science in return for “favours”. These ominous sounding IOUs are commonly offered by the AI players, but I never got a feel for what they were. I mean, obviously you could use them later to drum up a good deal for yourself when that civ is on its feet and pumping out gold/culture/science etc. But what would they be worth? If I accepted a favour for 200 gold in the first 50 turns, would that favour still only be worth 200 gold in another 200 turns? Or would inflation dictate that I could demand something more substantial for my previous kindness? This was never explained, and to be honest it made the already terrible diplomacy system (lifted straight out of Civ 5) seem more abstract and pointless. Another thing that riled me about the diplomacy is that if someone offers you a deal, say a bunch of titanium for some gold, the diplomacy screen obscures your resource read-out at the top of the screen and you have no way to check your current status before accepting or declining the offer. This is a real disappointment and lead me to often decline seemingly good deals out of fear I wouldn’t have enough of it left to finish my own objectives. Bah.
After a bit more building and light expansion, I noticed that I was getting lots of “Quests”. These are another new feature to the game, and clearly they are intended to inject some much needed narrative into your progression through the game. Perhaps these would help me define my race within the playthrough, building upon the rather non-committal sponsor and colonist selection? No, unfortunately they actually become rather annoying. They are fine in isolation, they present you with a charming little paragraph of story explaining how your newest building has changed the way in which your colonists are living, working, reproducing or whatever, then it gives you a binary choice of perks to apply to those buildings. So you might choose between giving your Clinics an additional boost to health or food, for example, which sounds interesting at first but the problem is that once the decision is made it’s very hard to track how that has actually affected your game or the destiny of your civilisation. Sure, you can go into the city screen and look at the extra apple icon you have hovering over your city tile or whatever, but that’s not building narrative it’s simply plying you with binary decisions that are instantly forgettable and ultimately annoying.
After some short time of modest expansion and exploitation of my surroundings, I had to start thinking about which Affinity I would like my civ to concentrate on. There are three of these affinities and each one will represent a radically different approach to mastering the new planet you find yourself on and establishing control over your neighbours. They are in some sense similar to the Idealogies from Civ 5, but what’s nice here is that the Affinities are somewhat represented graphically by your units and there are more meaningful ways to affect your end-game strategy as each one will allow you to trigger its own specific win condition if you progress far enough.
I started concentrating on the Supremacy affinity right from the start, for no reason whatsoever other than it just seemed cool. However, as I began to unlock the various perks and upgraded unit types with each unlocked level, I never really felt as though I was forging my own destiny; rather that I was simply researching all the techs that would boost my affinity and making more binary choices about what bonus to give myself every now and then. It got to the point where I didn’t even care what else a certain tech would give me other than the affinity points, as really they are all that matters when it comes to closing out the game. It just seemed that there was no reason to concentrate on anything else as everything useful in the game came as a result of earning more of those red, blue or yellow points.
It seemed a bit weird to me that the units should be so closely linked to your affinity levels. They weren’t so much representative of the path you had taken through the tech tree (or web, as it is here) but rather simply how many of the techs you had unlocked gave a boost to that affinity. It seems much more rational, in my opinion, to have the unit types fundamentally linked to the techs themselves. Like how researching iron working will unlock Swordsmen, or how rocketry unlocks Artillery, in classic Civ. Still, it’s nice that in this game you will actually get different units to fight with based on your choices in the game, this is one aspect of the gameplay that really does feel emergent and narrative-building – it’s just a shame that the other civs in my game were so reluctant to battle with me, I suppose I’ll just have to take the fight to them next time!
Aside from the Affinity tracks, you are also able to progress along Virtue trees which are reminiscent of the culture trees in Civ 5. I actually really liked this aspect of the game, the choices you make aren’t as binary as they are elsewhere and the bonuses you get for collecting “sets” of virtues makes the decisions a lot more meaningful. I started heavily in the industrial track to really carve out a manufacturing advantage over my opponents, but when I got bored of the one-dimensional nature of my decision-making I started to spread out a bit more and get some perks to my science and food generation also. The bonuses you get from these virtues are often much more visible than from the quests and affinities, particularly if you concentrate on one track and get all the way to the bottom. I was rewarded with a colossal boost to my civ’s health rating once I got to one of the final Industry virtues, in fact it was so big that I thought it was perhaps a bit overpowered at the time, but now I think that those kinds of things are truly narrative-building – isn’t it easy to imagine that a society with complete and total mastery of their industrial processes would be more prosperous as a result? I don’t know, but at least letting the player create their own narratives for these things is better than just popping up a box of flavour text every two minutes.
So after much dialogue-clicking and yellow-point-collecting I was able to construct the Emancipation Gate, a large wonder that must occupy a whole tile within your borders that serves as a portal for you to send your troops back to Earth and establish control.
It’s a shame that the developer has gone back to this wonder-related end game format, they removed the terrible Utopia Project win condition from Civ 5 when the expansion came out and I always assumed that was because it felt unsatisfactory to simply build something to win the game, but obviously not! Here it basically comes back with a new name and yet somehow they’ve managed to make it even more tedious. You see (for the Supremacy victory), once it’s built you then have to send 1000 points of unit strength through it; presumably that will be the Earth invasion force that will propel you into a glorious and prosperous future for your people. But, thanks to the inability to stack your units, this becomes a painful logistical exercise where you shuffle your guys in one-by-one and click the Emancipate button until the bar is full. There is nothing narrative-building in that, let me tell you. The other two affinities have similar victory wonders that must be built for them to trigger and the “Contact” win condition also requires some other stuff for you to construct, in fact the only way to have a “buildings-free” victory is to simply capture all other players’ capital cities.
I realise that I concentrated rather heavily on the narrative aspects of the experience in my thoughts above, but that’s only because they’re so prevalent in the gameplay. I think it’s a real shame that the game went down this route as the game engine don’t support the narrative style very nicely at all; what it does support is quality strategy and optimisation that emerge from its mechanical systems, and these seem rather under-represented. Players will inevitably tell their own narratives over the top of the on-screen action if you let them, forcing story points in the way that Beyond Earth does is detrimental to the experience.
There’s so much that I wanted to talk about with this game, it’s been difficult to get my true feelings for it across. I don’t hate this game, despite the amount of things I don’t like about it, it’s just that it seems like such a step backward for the franchise. Civ 5 felt like such a complete experience once it got its expansions and I really hope I can eventually say the same thing about Beyond Earth.