- Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions
I’ve just won my first game of Civilization: Beyond Earth1, and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.
The problem is not that this is “Civilization V in space” – in fact, it’s missing some of the features I liked in Civ V (on which more below). The problem is that my first game contained too much busywork for too little payoff. I can tell you cool stories about Beyond Earth’s progenitors, Civilization V and Alpha Centauri. In fact, I could probably tell you cool stories about every Civ game from I to V. I’d be hard-pressed to do the same for my Beyond Earth run.
“Too much busywork” is the fault of the trade system, a holdover from Civ V’s Brave New World expansion. Trade routes are a critical source of income. They also expire every 30 turns, which requires the player to select a new route every time. When there are only a few routes, this is no big deal. When there are dozens of routes in the late game, the result is painful micromanagement. Given that Civ (and Alpha Centauri) have offered worker automation for a very long time, it is baffling to see the series drop the ball with trade.
“Too little payoff” is a little more complex. Essentially, the writing and game mechanics often feel bland and bare-bones. The problem begins from the moment one sets up a new game: BE’s factions (and faction leaders) have almost no personality. You could immediately tell what Alpha Centauri’s Zakharov, Deirdre, Yang, Miriam, and the rest of the gang stood for. Their strengths and weaknesses made sense. BE’s faction leaders receive far less development. Judging from his tech quotes, Kozlov of the Slavic Federation appears to be an authoritarian along the lines of Yang, while the nakedly mercenary Hutama of Polystralia and Fielding of the American Reclamation Corporation remind me of Morgan. My own leader, Daoming of the Pan-Asian Cooperative, is a scientist. That’s about all I picked up in the course of gameplay2. Even the tech quotes are a missed opportunity – they’re all read by the same actress. That worked in Civ IV and V; in BE, where they are an attempt to flesh out a handful of individuals (the faction leaders), I think it would have made more sense to assign each quote to the respective faction leader’s voice actor/actress.
More than this, Beyond Earth feels unimaginative in its selection of toys. Good speculative-fiction games wow the players with high-tech or magical toys: Alpha Centauri, Dominions 4, Warlock 2. Even real-world games can accomplish this: consider how impressive and game-changing nukes and bombers can feel in Civ. Unfortunately, the units I tried in my first Beyond Earth playthrough were just better/worse variations on two basic themes: “melee unit” and “ranged unit”.3 Late-game troops did feel far punchier than their early-game predecessors: when I went from tier 2 to tier 3, suddenly I could carve a swathe through the aliens instead of simply holding my own. But where are the air-dropping units? Where are the stealthy units, or the units that can deploy nerve gas at the cost of making me a pariah? Where are the planetbuster missiles, so powerful as to gouge lakes out of the land?
Even diplomacy feels sparse. There are no luxury resources in Beyond Earth, which removes a key role for trade. And city-state diplomacy, one of my favourite parts of Civilization V, is gone.
As such, my first playthrough peaked early on, when I clawed past the native wildlife and fought off the neighbouring computer player. The late game was a long-winded exercise in renewing trade routes and hitting “end turn”. By the time I moved the final unit into place so I could win, it could not come soon enough.
What do I like about Beyond Earth? I like the art – the world of Beyond Earth is much prettier and more colourful than Alpha Centauri’s Planet, and the faction leaders are visually striking. (Given that the leaders’ appearance changes as they progress through the game, the inability to see your own character represents another missed opportunity. This could have been a fun way to visualise your progress, like the throne room/palace upgrades in Civ 1 and 2.) The little animation when I launch a satellite into orbit never gets old. I like the ambient music, which again outdoes Alpha Centauri. I like the new ideas: the tech web is a novel idea on paper (I’m still getting a feel for how it works in practice). And – leaving aside my above complaints – I do like much of the turn-by-turn gameplay, especially in the early game. I just wish the late game were more exciting.
If/when I try Beyond Earth again, I will increase the game speed to “Quick”, and set the difficulty several notches higher. Faster tech progression and richer, more ruthless computer players could address my complaints.
- I played as Daoming on medium (Vostok) difficulty, on a small map, using standard game speed. ↩
- There is a bit more in the Civilopedia, and I just went online and looked up Daoming’s backstory. It’s actually pretty cool. ↩
- To be fair, there are plenty of units I haven’t tried, such as the orbital satellite that mounts a powerful laser. ↩