So, I’ve been playing Civilization: Beyond Earth since it came out. Actually, Kiokri and I took its release day off from work so that we could play the hell out of it. There’s something simultaneously blissful and guilt-inducing about playing a brand new game while your wife is at work and your son at daycare. Don’t worry, though, the bliss beat out the guilt by a long shot. I liked the game right from the get go, and I still do.
Of course, not everyone agrees with me. I’ve actually not seen such a range of reviews on a game I really like, and it’s certainly not hard to find ones that are disparaging and critical. Now, don’t get me wrong, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, even if it is incorrect. However, I can certainly defend my position and, this being my blog, I have the perfect venue to do so.
First, a little background on my expertise. I started playing Civ games when my stepfather introduced me to Civilization II in ’96. Actually, he first showed me Colonization in ’95, and I was hooked immediately. I remember how proud I was of myself when I figured out that veteran cavalry were much better than cannon at defeating the European troops. My other primary strategy was to destroy the Aztecs and camp their gold outside my colonies until I had Cortez and could cash it in tax-free. To be honest, it’s startling, and a bit embarrassing, how much of that game I remember.
Civilization II was, for me, no less addicting, but it paled in comparison to my love for Alpha Centauri. Holy hell, did I love that game. It was a combination of two of my favorite things: Civilization games and lasers. I could write an entire post about why I liked Alpha Centauri (and its expansion), and maybe I will, but that’s not my goal here.
I played Civ III and IV pretty hard as well, in their respective times, but Civ V was a real game changer, and by far my favorite of the them.
So what about Beyond Earth? Well, it’s pretty much Civilization V with lasers, and that’s totally awesome! Yes, it’s true that it doesn’t represent a great leap forward in unique or revolutionary gameplay from its predecessor, but I don’t see why anyone expected it would. After all, until Civilization V, the biggest change in the games from I to IV was religions and corporations in the very last one. Otherwise, each new game represented tweaks and adjustments to the traditional Civilization formula.
Indeed, the most unique game in the “series” was Alpha Centauri, and that was only loosely tied into the series by vague implications and insinuations. Really, AC had little to do with the other Civilization games aside from a shared genre.
However, complaints of originality aside, by far the most poignant critique I hear is that Beyond Earth is not enough like Alpha Centauri, and that Sid Meier would have been better off just making AC again in the Civ V engine. To this, I’ll respond like so: those people are full of shit.
I played the ever-loving hell out of Alpha Centauri and, until Civilization V, it was my favorite of the planet-locked 4X genre. This was before Steam so courteously tracked my time-wasting, but I would not be surprised if I put at least 1,000 hours into that game over the years. So believe me when I say that Beyond Earth does a good job being the “spiritual successor” of AC. Let’s take a look at the ways:
One of the big new features of AC was the social engineering menu. The player was no longer forced to adopt one of only a handful of pre-defined governments, but could, instead, model society in whatever way he or she wished. You want to be a bunch of hippie cyborgs? No problem. How about capitalistic utopians? Sounds great! Social engineering was such a monumental leap forward in meta-governing for the genre that it’s astounding how it was never seen again until Civilization V reintroduced it with the “virtue system.”
As for Beyond Earth‘s virtue system, I submit that it represents an improvement to AC‘s social engineering. It’s dynamic enough to let you do what you want, rewarding enough to make almost any pursuit worthwhile, and still confining enough to actually affect the overall gameplay. Furthermore, unlocking the virtues with culture is a drastic improvement over Alpha Centauri‘s tech-based availability of social choices.
The unit workshop in Alpha Centauri was as awesome as it was worthless. You could customize your units to utilize anything in the game with a dozen different choices in armor, weaponry, special abilities, and even a few power plant options for mobility. With hundreds, if not thousands, of combinations at your finger tips, your army could be a true extension of your personality and preferred warfare style. It was awesome!
It was completely pointless. The rapidity at which the player researched new armor and weapon modules meant that by the time the state-of-the-art sentinels were deployed and ready to defend the colony bases, they were obsolete and needed to be upgraded. Frankly, there were so few turns where there wasn’t a unit upgrade that it was just easier for a player to let the game auto-obsolete older units and pay for the upgrades then. I can’t tell you how many times the end of the game would come around and University Base was still defended by that dowdy Scout Patrol unit. It was pretty much every game.
Really, there were only two times the unit workshop was useful: clean reactors and wacky units. As soon as one researched the requisite tech, clean reactors were a must-have for any new unit design. Maintenance-free army? Yes, please! However, the computer never seemed to put the reactor on enough platforms. My clean rovers were offering flank-support for my clean infantry while my clean cruisers bombarded from off shore and my clean needlejets swept the skies clear. It was a massive Purell ad campaign writ in the blood of my enemies.
The wacky units were, though, the ultimate unit workshop utility. I put probe team gear on every conceivable platform just to see how awesome it could be. Pro tip: cruiser probe teams are nigh unbeatable. I also slapped a colony pod on anything that moved, especially on needlejets for their sheer range. It’s easy to set up a new base when you can travel 12 squares in a turn. Hovertank formers were also a pretty big hit.
In Beyond Earth, you have a couple choices at each level of upgrade based on which affinity you’re pursuing. It’s simple, elegant, and, above all, completely useful. Every option could be useful, depending on your game situation and style of play, and there isn’t a bunch of extra crap which just clutters menus and confuses things (I’m looking at you, High Morale).
Planet truly felt alien. There was pink fungus everywhere, crazy psychic worm things, and even the natural green of Earth trees looked completely out of place. Not only was it weird, it was hostile, with everything out to get you. It’s amazing that humanity can survive at all when around every fungal vortex is another boil of fearsome mindworms ready to kill every last biped with telepathic horror.
Except that all the mindworms sucked at everything. Even at the toughest difficulties, a colony pod had an almost moderate chance to stave off a freshly-spawned mindworm. Against a real military, they were more of a nuisance than anything to actually fear. The fungus? Simply an obnoxious obstacle.
Miasma, on the other hand, is a punch in the face. That stuff can kill any unit in the game in just ten turns. Even if you aren’t stupid enough to camp out in it, happening to pause on it for a turn will immediately reduce your unit’s effectiveness by 10%. That’s pretty drastic. A harmony player could do far worse at homeland defense than just condensing miasma into every available hex.
The alien bugs? Stay the shit away from them. The crappiest of them can be a formidable fight for the first two tiers of soldier, and a sizable annoyance for the third. Yeah, they’re tough to piss off, but once their ticked, they will wreak some significant havoc. The alien life in Beyond Earth is far more hostile and dangerous than that in Alpha Centauri, and, therefore, far more interesting.
I can say that, in this aspect, Beyond Earth does fall short, which is surprising. I will cede this one to Alpha Centauri, but I plan to write a follow-up post about this aspect.
Ultimately, I will concede that Alpha Centauri and Beyond Earth feel different, but I think that has as much to do with improvements in the overall Civilization game experience as it does with stand alone play-worthiness. Beyond Earth is a good game and well worth its initial price tag. Can it be better? Absolutely, but that’s what updates are for.