The occasionally thrilling Beyond Earth can’t quite get beyond Civilization V

, | Game reviews

The beginning of Beyond Earth is all very exciting. I mean the very beginning before the beginning. Before the game has even started. Before I’ve even landed on the planet. I choose my faction first. I’ll be the Franco-Iberians, who earn free technologies every so often as their culture develops. For colonists, I naturally choose artists, who boost culture. Inside the spaceship with the colonists, I’ll carry the machinery that will give me a free worker for a headstart developing the landing area near my starting colony. As for the type of spacecraft, that’s a tough decision. I eventually go with a continental surveyor that shows me all the coastlines on the map. I find a certain comfort in knowing the exact shape of my new world. It’s what the artists would want.

In any other Civilization — in case it’s not clear from the full title of Civilization: Beyond Earth, this is absolutely a Civilization game, and more specifically a Civilization V game — I would have just chosen a faction. France. Rome. Polynesia. But Beyond Earth lets me build my ark/spaceship step-by-step. It gives me a multistep sense of agency in how the early stages will play out. It keeps me busy making choices before I’m even playing. That’s ultimately what Beyond Earth is all about. Making choices. Constant, unrelenting, obsequious, nagging choices that will come together to create something massive, slow, and tedious.

After the jump, a series of interesting decisions.

Beyond Earth is at its best during the early going, after your spaceship has landed and as you’re making your way out into the alien environment, taming it, shaping it, dipping into the first level of some of the quests, working out your borders, and deciding what faction you’re really going to play. Your choice of Old Earth nationality is really just a bit of prep work. Beyond Earth has only three factions and they’re not even called factions. They’re called “affinities”. Harmony, purity, and supremacy. Or, whether you choose to co-exist, tame, or ignore the planet. Your choice of affinity gives you global modifiers, it composes your army, it determines your visual palette, and it sets you on the path to your primary victory condition. Affinities would even drive diplomacy if diplomacy involved any sort of meaningful gameplay. These affinities are the biggest determinants for how your game will play, with the virtues — a culture-fueled tech tree like the one in Civilization V — being your sort of subclass.

It’s an intriguing approach to suggest that you don’t truly know who you are until you’ve made contact with the planet and let it shape your ideals, just as you shape its terrain. It’s one of the best case examples of how Beyond Earth constantly asks you to make choices. And not the usual choices of where to send a scout and whether to focus on science or culture. Beyond Earth is full of discrete, one-off, A or B, often mutually exclusive choices. You will never just be Franco-Iberian artists, and you certainly won’t be anything as simple as France, Rome, or Polynesia. You will be the sum of your decisions, on the path to harmony, purity, or supremacy. It’s a thrilling progression as it unfolds, as you discover youself alongside the planet.

There’s a lot of discovery here. More than any other Civilization, you have a lot of exciting options for how to shape the landscape you find. As you research techs from a lazy whorl with so much at your fingertips, you learn new improvements to drop onto the alien surface. Generators for more energy, farms for more food, paddocks to harness alien livestock, terrascapes for a rich taste of home bounty, academies for science, manufactories for serious production at the cost of health. These are some of the richest decisions the game has to offer. What landscape do you want? Make it! More than any other Civilization, putting workers on “automate” gives up a crucial part of the gameplay. These are the choices that make the world where you’ll play. What you do with your workers is some of the most exciting gameplay in Beyond Earth.

And as you play, quest decisions pop up, helping shape the narrative of your game. Some of these quests are sidestories. Some are simply choices about buildings you’ve made. Some are long-term commitments that lead to victory conditions. Amplitude’s recent fantasy strategy game, Endless Legend, does something similar, with unique quest lines leading to victory conditions for each of the factions. Since factions mean so little in Beyond Earth, the victory quests are tied to affinities. Will you work your way up to the harmony victory, the purity victory, or the supremacy victory? They’re all cleverly imagined multi-step processes, much like the spaceship victories in the earth-bound Civilizations.

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And all of this stuff is great as you first play Beyond Earth and work your way toward the endgame. There’s a thrilling sense of possibility as you discover yourself and your new planet. But the more you play, the more you discover something else. The more you discover that these decisions pile up and amount to a lot of nothing. There are so many choices to be made, and so many of them are inconsequential for so many different reasons. Let’s consider one of the central throughlines of advancing your affinity: military upgrades.

There are only a handful of military unit types, which works wonders at streamlining combat. But as you work your way up one or more affinities, you improve all units of a specific type. Each time you improve a unit type, you get to pick one of two perks. These are minor things, of course, but presumably important enough to make the decisions interesting. You should have a great time agonizing over whether you want your armored moonbuggies to get a flanking bonus or to heal a little faster. At which point you have to consider how combat works in Beyond Earth.

It doesn’t.

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The most immediate sign that there’s going to be trouble in Beyond Earth is the scramble and shuffle of units trying to get around each other thanks to the one unit per tile rule. This is bad enough in terms of traffic jams. It’s worse in combat. And it’s even worse when the AI tries to fight battles. The AI’s ineptitude at managing one unit per tile was a game-killer in Civilization V, so naturally you’d hope Firaxis addressed the issue in Beyond Earth. I played a few games specifically to suss out whether there were any improvements here. After all, if I’m going to make decisions about which perks to give my military units, I want some assurance the decisions will matter. No assurance was forthcoming.

And it’s not just a matter of the AI players getting tripped up trying to move units or being unaware how to use them or even how to keep them alive. It seems the AI isn’t even aware of certain basic features, despite the streamlining that comes from having fewer units. For instance, you can quickly get to aircraft thanks to the way technologies are laid out in a web rather than a tree. There is only one kind of aircraft, and its main counter is other aircraft. So I’ve parked an attacking army just outside the range of an enemy city’s defensive bombardment. I am delighted to see the AI uses airstrikes against my army. But lets see what happens when I try to counter these airstrikes. Since there isn’t a variety of aircraft types or a dedicated anti-aircraft unit, there is instead a simple paper/rock/scissors system whereby you can use aircraft for strikes, but nearby aircraft with overlapping coverage can be set to intercept, which will do damage to striking aircraft. But if the enemy then sets his aircraft to sweep, it will counter intercepts. So there’s a guessing game. Sweep, strike, or intercept? Seems pretty nifty. Flexible. Decision-based.

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But in my test game, the AI never once attempted a sweep. It kept feeding airstrikes into my intercepts, over and over and over again. I trashed over a dozen aircraft before I just moved in and took the undefended city. Rather than send in defenders, it kept sending in aircraft and then sending those aircraft to get shot down by intercepts. All it had to do was set some aircraft to sweep and we’d have a battle for air superiority. No such thing happened. This was two notches above the even difficulty level, and three notches above the default. If, at this point, the AI doesn’t understand the tools of the game, there’s little hope for it.

And this is just one example. You can see the same issue with positioning units on terrain, using ranged attacks, healing units, or bonuses like flanking and fortifying. The AI simply doesn’t understand them. So suddenly my decisions about whether to give my moonbuggies a flanking bonus or additional healing ring hollow. Who cares which I pick? I can’t lose at combat unless the AI gets the sheer weight of an economic advantage to just throw overwhelming numbers at me, and even then, I can tactically cheese my way through a lot of those encounters.

Not that the passive AI is very determined to attack. Or even get ornery in any meaningful way. Diplomacy is still the same inscrutable black box that powered international relations in Civilization V, declaring wars in which nothing happens. This, more than anything else, keeps Beyond Earth from attaining even a fraction of the amount of personality in Brian Reynold’s Alpha Centauri, where the factions had personality that you could see in action, diplomatically and otherwise. In Beyond Earth, statements of support and declaration of condemnation and wars and alliances often mean so little because the AI is so passive. There’s even a new resource called favors, which are little bundles of IOUs that are supposed to drive factions to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. The best I could get for my favors was 100 spacebucks each. Some favor.

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Then there are several features of questionable value and inconvenient interface like orbitals, trade routes, espionage, and some of the dullest wonders I’ve ever had to peer at closely to determine whether they really were wonders. That? That’s a wonder? That’s what passes for a wonder on this planet? Okay, Beyond Earth. I guess those are 1250 production points I don’t need to spend. Why can’t I check important information when given diplomatic ultimatums? Why can’t I see how other factions feel about each other, or if they’re even at war? Why do the numbers I might want to check blur out when I’m making a quest decision? Why can’t I get stats on enemy units on the map? Why can’t I see which tiles are being worked from the main map? Why is miasma so hard to see? I get that pink fungus in Alpha Centauri might have been ridiculous, but it sure was visible.

What ultimately kills the exciting early game for me is the knowledge that it’s just going to grind down to a long slog of “next turning” over and over and over again, waiting through each AI player’s prolonged and passive frippery, hoping I’ll get my victory condition done before someone else. This is what passes for endgame in Beyond Earth. The longer the game has gone on, the less pretense it makes about asking me to make decisions. I’m just picking buildings that did the same stuff as the earlier buildings. Do I want to boost science or production or food? So many options for whatever I like, all under nonsense science names and a busy iconography that will barely register, and sometimes locked behind strategic resources that I’ve hardly needed all game. It’s as if Beyond Earth never thought I’d make it this far, as if all this cool stuff about calling wormstrikes on cities or launching tacjets from carriers or using advanced evolved supreme titans of harmony were just bullet points to make me think there would be an endgame that consisted of something other than “next turning”.

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Instead, all the decisions I’ve made have snowballed into a massive unwieldy clockwork of inconsequence, lumbering towards an inevitable conclusion like a giant Katamari ball consisting of all those little decisions, none of them steering it in any meaningful way, but each of them lending the monstrosity a tiny bit of mass. Then the ball reaches the requisite mass and a screen tells me I’ve won and I’m back at the main menu. No recap, no score breakdown, no map to admire, no ranking. Poof. My Katamari ball of inconsequential decisions is gone and Beyond Earth is ready for me to start again by building a new spaceship to land on another planet. Don’t think I’m not tempted. I like making decisions. I like discovering who I am and where I am. I like parts of Beyond Earth. Katamari Damacy was a good game.

But as I start another game just to try something different, I’m keenly aware that the man who runs Firaxis, the man whose name begins the full title of Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, is known for describing gameplay as a series of interesting decisions. That certainly seems to be the mandate in Beyond Earth. But interesting decisions are not the same as an abundance of decisions. In fact, once the number of decisions reach a certain density, they become the opposite of interesting. They become inconsequential. Sometimes gameplay is also the maxim that “less is more”. When Firaxis made XCOM, they understood that keenly. They understood that fewer decisions meant more important decisions which were inherently more interesting decisions. Beyond Earth misses that point entirely, and furthermore fails to address some of Civilization V’s most damning problems. On the whole, I’d rather be on Earth. Or Alpha Centauri.

  • Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • ...a new science-fiction-themed entry into the award-winning Civilization series. Set in the future, global events have destabilized the world leading to a collapse of modern society, a new world order and an uncertain future for humanity. As the human race struggles to recover, the re-developed nations focus their resources on deep space travel to chart a new beginning for mankind. As part of an expedition sent to find a home beyond Earth, you will write the next chapter for humanity as you lead your people into a new frontier and create a new civilization in space. Explore and colonize an alien planet, research new technologies, amass mighty armies, build incredible Wonders and shape the face of your new world. As you embark on your journey you must make critical decisions. From your choice of sponsor and the make-up of your colony, to the ultimate path you choose for your civilization, every decision opens up new possibilities. One unit per tile only, please.
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