Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions

  • Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions

CivBE - Victory

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.

Slowly pushing back aliens in the early game: one of the high points of Beyond Earth.
Slowly pushing back aliens in the early game: one of the high points of Beyond Earth.

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.

  1. I played as Daoming on medium (Vostok) difficulty, on a small map, using standard game speed.
  2. There is a bit more in the Civilopedia, and I just went online and looked up Daoming’s backstory. It’s actually pretty cool.
  3. To be fair, there are plenty of units I haven’t tried, such as the orbital satellite that mounts a powerful laser.
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6 Responses to Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions

  1. Josh says:

    I agree with everything you said. Its dryness and lack of character make me wonder if they instead took a leaf out of the Stardock design manual which I’ve associated with games that could be better if only they had some sort of life or imagination about them rather than a boring +1 here or 10% there. Gosh, I look at the Elemental games and think that there was a whole other indie game called Dominions that had a much more exciting spell list to take some inspiration from. I’ve yet to see any other game delve heavily into the corruptable blood magic, and I say corruptible because once I’ve gone blood magic in Dominions, I feel lost without it. But I digress.

    Ironically, in a game that offers a lot of choice, it doesn’t really seem to offer much at all. In Civ V, I had to specialise cities, I carefully considered unit promotions and what units I would field, when I would go on an aggressive war and when I needed my own Pax Romana. The tech web is a nice feature in BE, but doesn’t offer that time pressure of falling behind the curve. Military might in BE is really just based on production in cities with boring improvements and securing and scaling up whatever affinity I choose to play as. And it really doesn’t matter what affinity I want. I can be all harmony with the planet, yet still exterminate all alien lifeforms I see. The affinity merely marries up with whatever victory condition I choose to take on within the first few turns.

    When it came to Planet, SMAC did a much better job. Sure, it looked ugly, but managed to do so much when it came to rainfall and terraforming. Those two simple mechanics that I don’t think have ever again been replicated in any meaningful way beyond what I’ve seen in Warlock and Age of Wonders, which don’t do enough with it.

    • Peter Sahui says:

      Thanks for commenting!

      I think the +10% syndrome is a recurring problem with science fiction games. I remember Endless Space being criticised for many of the same problems that I now see in Beyond Earth.

      The really puzzling thing is that Firaxis DOES know how to make genuinely distinct units and choices. Assaults, Snipers, Heavies, and Supports all play very differently in XCOM, and even two soldiers of the same class can play differently (eg suppression Heavy vs bullet swarm Heavy). So how did they drop the ball this time?

      I think most of the tech web feels so unimportant because unit upgrades depend on affinities. That means any tech that gives +affinity is automatically a priority (especially as there are so few ways to increase your affinity!), and non-affinity techs are much less of a priority.

  2. Thanh says:

    I agree with you all. BE is so gamey, not as novel as SMAC. Also I have problem with the orbital “layer”. Somehow you can send satelite into orbit but can only send them inside a predetermine range and no satelite to scan the planet/remove fog of war, no spacestation, no ICBM, no anti-satelite method except get close in with specific land unit. The Planet seems so distant, just a few line of text, so unlike SMAC, no change at all with all the abuse i keep throwing at its native life and ecosystem. And there’s no submarine :( i like submarine. It supposed to be a SF game but do not have a lot of choice for unit. I’d love go all out with a whole lot of wacked unit if you can build everything from scratch. I mean cant we build a huge Stratofortress hovering in the sky 24/7 with either nuke or a squad of aircrafts? How cool is that! The tech web make me confuse at first but after a couple of game I cant get a feel of the rush to get them anymore if i dont need to build wonder. The voice-over is also a seriously missed oppoturnity! SMAC and its voice over quotes make me love english and science at the same time. I still store those files to listen on my pc till this day :)
    Technological advance is an inherently iterative process. One does not simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then our better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. Each minor refinement is a step in the process, and all of the steps must be taken.
    – Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Looking God in the Eye”
    Damn that’s hot!
    Also does none of those planet you can colonize have moon(s)?
    I kinda only get pressure when I’m low on energy/credits(?) and got to avoid getting to negative -5. When you are rolling in dough you are free to do crazy shit like trying to uplifting a underdog faction to be your minion by sending aid packages.
    P.S. I thought you ought to rush tech with wonder as Daoming? :/ I did, and boys do they covet my wonders. Some are almost OP, while other can be useless. I have most of them anyway, others can only built at most 2 each. At late game i just get an army to camp outside my cities, built and launched phasal transporters near their capitals, tranported them all in, wait a turn, declared war, take them out in the next turn, super easy, almost like i cheated =_=. Work everytime, dont even have to worry when they build their planetary wonder when you are guarantee to be able to strike deep inside their territory with minimal thought. Must be a replacement for the air-dropping units you mentioned.

    • Peter Sahui says:

      Thanks for commenting! You just made me look up the quotes from AC, and boy, those were good:

      “Optical computers, genetic catalogs, nanorepair modules–forget all of that. It’s when you see a megaton of steel suspended over your head by a thread the thickness of a human hair that you really find God in technology.
      – Anonymous Metagenics Dockworker, MorganLink 3DVision Live Interview”

      (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sid_Meier%27s_Alpha_Centauri)

      That’s a great idea re: the teleporting satellites! I’ll have to try that the next time I play the game… which might take a while.

      Unit design was a pretty unpopular feature of Alpha Centauri, but I liked it for exactly the reason you named. I have a lot of fond memories of designing monster war machines, coming up with imposing names, and unleashing them on the computer.

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