Civilization: Beyond Earth is the latest instalment of the popular Civilization franchise, and a spiritual successor to Alpha Centuri. Set within the conceit of colonising an alien planet after the collapse of human civilisation, the game adds an interesting sci-fi veneer to a classic Civ engine. Those poetic story-telling elements are present and highly successful, but Beyond Earth never shakes the feeling that it is a downhill chore once the excitement of a new planet and its futuristic trappings wear off.
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: PC, OS X, Linux.
Released: 24th of October, 2014.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Plot: The year is 2600-something-something, and a great catastrophe has rendered Earth unliveable. Humanity’s only hope is its nascent space colonisation program, namely you and the band of intrepid explorers you lead. Styled on top of the mechanics of Civilization V, this instalment takes place on the habitable planets mankind has discovered and involves intense strategic competition between rival nations as they struggle to claim this new Eden for themselves.
Review: I’m a wonder whore, always have been. I’m not ashamed of it, I take pride in that fact. There’s nothing sweeter in life than knowing, through covert operations, that Hutama is racing to build the Precog Project; and that I’m ten turns away from having it completed; and that this may or may not be just enough time to beat him. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got ourselves a good-old-fashioned wonder showdown. Every available worker is repurposed to start cutting down trees near my capital; the governor is instructed to pour all his resources into those little orange hammers, starvation be damned; and every other city stops what it is doing to start producing energy (read gold) to prop up my slowly tanking economy. There’s a touch of the North Korean in all of that, sure, but Hutama is going to suck it, and NO ONE is allowed to have something unique that I can’t have. Yes, I was an only child.
The beauty of the Civilization series of games is that when you’re starting out, there is no right way to play – just the way you want to play. The downfall of every Civilization game is that after many dozens of hours spent gleefully testing out the many ways to play, you do figure out the right way to play and every game becomes a dull, inevitable race to those right-playing-points only slightly leavened by a randomised geography. The motto of the series – ‘just one more turn’ – is absolutely right, as I stick to those first few games right to the bitter end, desperately seeking revenge on all of those evil nations who have royally fucked me over at some point in the game with a slight that will never be forgotten (YOU denounce ME, Suzanne Fielding? The woman with a million Adolf Eichmanns, who has single handedly put every alien life form and nest to the torch? You’ll pay for this. And I lied, that chunky supremacy suit makes you look like a Chinese knockoff of Voltron. Oh, you’ll pay; I’ll churn out a million Lev tanks and sweep across your territory like a wave of fire – once I’ve beaten Hutama to building this fucking ByteGeist…) But I digress.
The secret motto of the series, though, should be ‘one more game? Meh.’ Because while the early games in themselves are compelling, as is testing out a few of the different maps or victory conditions or other settings, after a while it settles into a routine where you head for some favoured techs, snatch up the usual resources, and employ the usual tricks to keep the AI on the backfoot until you are ready to engage. It’s the prime reason why you’ll play the shit out of, say, Civilization V for something shy of a hundred hours and then find yourself looking at it in your Steam library six months later going ‘oh yeah, used to love playing that. Why don’t I fire up a game and play a little again… oh, yeah, that’s why I got bored.’
I can’t help contrasting it to games like Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis IV, which hail from the same genre of strategy games, even though the mechanics are subtly but significantly different. Every other game I buy is basically a short-to-medium break before I inevitably succumb to the gravitational pull of CKII or EUIV again. On paper, they should be a whole lot more inevitable and predictable than a Civ game; they always take place on the same world map, with the same provinces, and the same limited number of buildings, technologies, and arts of war. Yet the strong limits on these variables and systems creates an amazing eco-system where every game truly is different and challenging. In Crusader Kings II the fate of Europe turns on a dime as one snotty, critically important kid dies of slow fever and a host of breakaway nations explode into a titanic power struggle that I am, like Littlefinger, trying to take greatest bastardly advantage of. Tiny, unrelated but sensible elements can radically change the approach of the AI to a dynamic power situation. No matter how many times I stare at that same map of Europe, knowing it off by heart now and astoundingly increasing my knowledge of obscure geography (you’re from Hesse? You bastards keep voting against me for Holy Roman Emperor! – I once said to a poor, baffled German friend), the situation is always drastically different and unfolds in a fundamentally different challenge. I’ve sunk over 500 hours into those two games so far, and show no sign of slowing down.
Not so with Civilization: Beyond Earth; which has a skin of colourful difference, but pretty much amounts to the same. That skin is amazing, and given that it would rise or fall on how successfully it separates itself from the player fatigue associated with Civilization V it does a good job. The fiction, the leaders, the tech web, and all the narrative that goes along with it are the most compelling elements of the game, making me feel like I’m playing an awesome new game. The developer’s love for and referencing of an entire swathe of science fiction make these elements of the game a huge success. The addition of ‘affinities’ where one chooses the future of mankind, which is linked to certain victory conditions, is not quite as successful. The differentiation between a supremacy, harmony, and purity approach is great; linking the points gained into these categories to techs, decisions, missions was also a great choice.
It’s a shame it doesn’t work at all. For example, I have a lot of Firaxite (a resource associated with high level supremacy units) and the game successfully encourages me to plan my colonisation, my wars, etc around monopolising this precious resource. The problems come in when I have to research techs and whatnot associated with the other affinities; I can’t avoid them, because I need the facilities or perks that come with those techs. In really long, competitive games I end up in the confusing situation where I’m nominally a supremacy player but every now and then my harmony or purity score will surpass that – changing my cities into ugly looking greeny-brown piles of crap. Stalwart supremacy allies will suddenly turn on me, as my 6-supremacy, 6-purity score accidentally tips over due to a purity tech advance into 6-7 (or more, the number of points you get towards an affinity isn’t evenly weighted, exacerbating the problem). Play long enough, like I did, and you’ll end up confusingly maxed out in all three affinities – leading to a future for mankind is far that from clear, with Xeno Titans fighting alongside Lev Destroyers and ANGELs.
And those victory conditions. The usual Civ standbys are there – such as capturing capitals, domination, etc, etc. But now there are specific victories for harmony (build and defend a mindflower!), supremacy (build and defend a teleportation gate!), purity (build and defend a differently coloured teleportation gate!), and the generically available transcendence (build and defend a giant transmitter!). The idea of differentiation is great, the implementation is dully same-y. The fundamental flaw with Civ is that it’s all about the economy, stupid. Every game asks you to optimise your production and energy as best as possible – as both lead to either producing units and buildings, or funding them, or both. There’s some research laquered on top; but fundamentally you’re playing an optimisation game which is ambivalent to the other cosmetic or diplomatic choices you might make.
Thus the games start to look and feel the same; as even when you shake up your play style or the map, you’re still stuck within the same problem space. The optomisation part becomes even more glaring when one factors in the AI; which should theoretically be much better at this than you. But it isn’t; indeed ratcheting up the difficultly level doesn’t result in a smarter AI, just one that gets huge resource bonuses while you get huge handicaps (leading to the weird situation where I competed neck and neck with a civ that had built next to nothing and improved only a handful of their tiles, while I had constructed and boosted everything with a legion of workers reshaping my territory – it was jarring, to say the least; particularly when those miraculous backwaters became mine through conquest). Once you’ve worked out your sure-fire optomisation root that difficulty level becomes almost irrelevant; with some compromises (like accepting you’ll miss a wonder or two; sigh) you’re still beating the AI handily in the same way. It’s dull; and utterly unlike Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis IV, where the cosmetic or optimisation limitations open up a far richer and varied form of play. In Beyond Earth, you’ll find the AI acting and negotiating in the same way time, after time, after time. With enough experience, it becomes pretty obvious the relevant calculus it is trying to perform. From there it is easy to game, or at least hard to treat the AI seriously as an agent you are playing against.
One last, strange Civ phenomena deserves mentioning – and that is how my favourite elements, to start with, become a bane in the later game. Civilization V could be overcrowded; I loved playing huge maps, but 16 civs was too many and 20-something city states really cluttered up the place. It was the war of all against all, and in custom games I would always end up tweaking these numbers down. In Beyond Earth, the map is strangely bare and desolate – with a maximum of eight civs, and only a handful of outposts. This translated into joy in the early game, where I could expand with impunity and capture the most spectacular spots – always driven to start up another city when I could afford it. But in the middle game, this was a chore – the boredom of managing the production of a sprawling empire, the boredom of methodically conquering another sprawling empire. I found myself simply burning captured cities to the ground and leaving wild space in its wake. No wonder Suzanne fucking hated me.
This translates to other parts of the game too; where commanding your first fleet of workers to improve the terrain was a fun and strategic decision with a palpable feeling of progress. Yet soon enough it turns into a regular decision of “what? You’re preventing me from ending my turn? Well I don’t know, fuck it, go to this random empty space and build a terrascape.” I built a lot of terrascapes for the simple reason that they provided a broad range of bonuses so I didn’t have to think too hard about it, and they took forever to build – meaning that I wouldn’t have to be bothered again with commanding that worker to do something else for a blessedly long amount of time. Towards the end of Beyond Earth, it is that familiar slow trudge – unable to delegate (although you can, but that means having faith in an AI that has no idea how to play the game like you do), you do everything yourself and only the thought of smashing Suzanne’s ugly, purity capital into the ground keeps you going.
It is a thin gruel; and a strangely counter-intuitive thing. Civilization: Beyond Earth differentiates itself enough from Civilization V to stave off fatigue for the first dozens of hours, but then it too begins its slow, cold, calculating decline. I probably won’t return to it for another year or two. Under the veneer of colourful choice is a familiar system you’ll game, and a host of endless, routine clicking. I hate to say it, but again it’s the opposite of Paradox’s wonderful games; where there the veneer is never mistaken for more than veneer, and the hilarious diversity of the system is the true joy. Sometimes I begin to suspect that we say “just one more turn…” because we’re terrified of the banal alternative that Beyond Earth offers us – having to start a completely new game, and do it all over again from scratch.
Rating: Two and a half stars.