I am looking at the number 585. It’s below the “hours played” tab for my copy of Civilization V and I…well, I’m not sure I want to dwell on that figure. But I can tell you that for all those hours, I’ve only actually seen a single session with the history-based strategy game through to completion. I’m an absentee world leader: present for my peoples’ first fumbling steps towards agriculture, gone again somewhere between the invention of the compass and the internal combustion engine. I get into these obsessive restarting loops, curious just to see what new permutation the game’s map-making algorithms spit out. Eventually I’ll nestle a few defensible cities into the mountainside, churn through tech advancements until I can fuss over cute little janissaries or hussar units like they’re collectible figurines. Then, in a sudden fit of self-loathing, I’ll wipe the board clean. It’s wonderful, soul-sucking entertainment.
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth shifts the series’ brand of turn-based discovery and conquest off-planet, and the sci-fi setting puts a slick, chrome sheen on my old neurosis. But Beyond Earth also calcifies much of Civilization V’s vocabulary and play arc. You still situate your capital city, and click it to designate the production of military units or workers that can spruce up your immediate surroundings. You still unlock new technologies and cultural policies that ensure a steady drip of upgrades and benefits. There are the familiar icons for production, food, and culture to illustrate the quantified output of your cities, and a new one, energy, is a reasonable enough stand-in for currency–its icon even looks a bit like a golden coin to ease you into the transition. So despite the new trappings, it’s simple enough to slide back into routine. Create, explore, and expand–or, if you’re like me, create, explore, quit, and create again.
The alien terrain shows off smooth transitions between tiles.
There are a few welcome touch-ups to smooth over Civilization’s old edges, and they first appear in pregame as a series of decisions to make prior to starting your bid for global domination. A first step can be taken towards generating energy, science, culture, et alia, and you can opt to begin the game with a military unit, or a clinic if you’d prefer. There’s more freedom afforded when picking out which parcel of land to found your first city on, and there’s even a perk that reveals the outlines of the world’s land masses. So much for my incessant restarting, then–all things considered, Beyond Earth seems to output viable starting situations more reliably than its predecessors.
But viable doesn’t necessarily mean welcoming–this is an alien planet, after all, and colonizing it is going to beget some unfortunate learning experiences on the behaviors of local wildlife as part of due course. Maybe those lessons will come from the sandworm churning up your freshly tilled farmland a few tiles from your capital and consuming any trade expedition you send in its general direction. Or maybe from the creature that’s three-quarters mandible, just kind-of loitering ominously offshore. Aliens play the role of the barbarian tribes from the last few Civilization games, as an entity that’s not exactly “in it to win it.” But they’ll mess with your early game plans all the same, utilizing better cunning and more imposing units than their old club-wielding counterparts. Even Beyond Earth’s loan translations of the previous entries’ forests, mountains, and livestock feel suitably threatening here. A toxic miasma coats about a third of the surface of any map, damaging human units and healing aliens. And while natural wonders are conspicuously absent–robbing players of part of the draw of exploring a new planet–the varied terrain is full of curious features like resource pods, ruins and alien skeletons to seek out. The land is pock-marked with craters and chasms, the grasslands have a sickly cast to them, and I’m still trying to get comfortable with the idea of constructing a paddock for giant beetles.
Beyond Earth’s opening cinematic teases colorful cultures that wash out in the gameplay.
But you’re probably going to have to manifest some destiny sooner or later, because advancement in Beyond Earth necessitates subscription to a belief system and two of the three available are less than concerned with preserving indigenous species. So-called affinities push your development towards divergent goals: Purity, Supremacy, or Harmony. It’s a choice between Terran, Protoss, or Zerg, really. Purity marks a civilization that concerns itself with recreating the comforts of home and preserving humanity in a more-or-less recognizable state. Supremacy is a technocratic zealotry that comes with all the haughtiness you’d expect–really, its units bear names like “Educator” and “Prophet.” Harmony is there for us Truffula Tree-huggers, and since it lets you ride an alien like a horse and sic giant space katydids on your enemy’s cities, I’d say it’s the clear choice for the discerning Fremen. Interestingly, the text that accompanies each new affinity level shifts in tone along with the stage of the game, starting with earnest, innocent theorizing and gradually taking on a more hawkish, proselytizing inflection as the players start jockeying for position near the home stretch.
The Civilization series portrays a history that’s not of people, but rather “the State.” That is to say, you don’t play as Ghandi, or Gengis Kahn: you play as India, or Mongolia, as well as a vision of those peoples united in a singular, millennia-spanning focus on besting all other nations. Beyond Earth expands upon this cult of the state, drawing the series’ diverse cast of historical cultures into eight broad, continental coalitions, and rescinding the roles that individual artists, engineers, and scientists had been enjoying in Civilization V. The loss of the latter means a less celebratory, more overtly martial sort of strategy game, and I’m not keen on this step backwards towards the series’ competitive, board game roots. It’s echoed in the relative parity of the eight coalitions, which lack the color and diversity of play-styles that Civ V furnished so adeptly. In Beyond Earth’s eight-person multiplayer (local or online), the terms have never been so even, but some of the fascination went out the door with the asymmetry.
Affinities push your development towards divergent goals: Purity, Supremacy, or Harmony.
It’s a brave new world, with new lands to chart, resources to harvest, and goals to pursue. But it’s also as cynical as the old one, where most actions serve competitive ends, and even the most cooperative and well-maintained alliances will be shattered by necessity towards game’s end. To Civilization, the State is an entity that acts on only the basest and most selfish of desires–consume, grow, and propagate. That’s become increasingly ironic, as Beyond Earth’s web of discoverable technologies introduces high-minded and esoteric futurisms like “Human Idealism” and “Artificial Evolution.” A little barbarism was to be expected back when Civilization’s tech tree was largely given over to simply escaping the Dark Ages. But Beyond Earth suggests–and perhaps not wrongly–that advancements like euthenics or microrobotics are ultimately just the new sticks we’ll use to club each other over the head.
Beyond Earth’s operatic opening short tells the story of a young female colonist who bears at least some superficial resemblance to National Geographic’s famous “Afghan Girl.” But it’s otherwise hard to get a sense of what these people look like, or what their culture entails beyond that brief cinematic glimpse, because only the military gets treated to any real illustration in the game proper. Gone are the works of art, music, and writing that helped to redefine the cultural victory in Civilization V, pared back to an abstract number that’s ultimately used towards more aggressive ends. World wonders do reprise their role as larger constructive undertakings, but the bonuses they proffer feel tepid and same-ish this time around. There are quests, though–a first for Civilization. In practice, they’re a limited set of binary prompts with a light influence on your direction of progress, but they nevertheless lend some helpful narrative context to the action, and they can branch in unexpected ways. A newly founded independent outpost might turn out to be performing questionable experiments on its colonists, perhaps, or a plant brought along on the journey to the new world might take root and begin overriding the local flora.
In at least one case, you’re tasked with spying on a particular city belonging to a rival civ. It’s a subtle guiding of the eyes towards Beyond Earth’s enhanced spy system, which requires regular management of a small team that can siphon energy, science, or units from other cities in addition to the last game’s tech thievery and intel thievery. Successful operations increase the intrigue rating for a city, ostensibly granting access to higher-tier abilities like fomenting rebellion or planting a bomb, but in practice it seems difficult to ever reach those levels. Relocating a spy to one’s own city might be too reliable a means of reducing your intrigue levels when you see them spiking.
Gone are the works of art, music, and writing that helped to redefine the cultural victory in Civilization V.
But absent a more subversive method of dealing with your foes, there’s always old-fashioned battle. Military units still hold sway over most of the game space, trading turn-based fire between the hexagonal parcels of land and besieging cities. They fall back on Civilization’s traditional archetypes: melee, ranged, cavalry, and siege, even as their outward appearances morphs from astronauts with rifles and moon rovers to bipedal robots and giant kaiju. The ones you field depend on your progression towards one of the three affinities, and in a welcome bit of streamlining, the upgrades get rolled out automatically with each new level–no more paying for promotions for each individual unit. Better still, a new, similarly tiled orbital layer plays host to satellites which can be launched for quick industrial bonuses, or support coverage for your armies in the field.
Beyond Earth’s combat suffers from some balance issues though, and that’s curious for a game that leans so heavily on proven systems. Cities are comically easy to take–most melee units fare much better at city capturing, and you can often halve a city’s defenses in a single attack–resulting in situations where cities tediously trade ownership turn after turn. The fragility extends to the units themselves, many of which die in a single hit. By consequence, a small standing army is less tenable than it was back on Earth, and I find myself less invested in the fate of any one unit when it can be snuffed out by an orbital strike at any given moment.
I am finding that I play more games through to completion in Beyond Earth. In inverse of my experience with Civilization V, my favorite part might be the ending, where a civ has to lay its cards face-up in a bid for one of the five methods of victory, and any semblance of “civilization” goes out the window as everyone else tries to drag them back down like the proverbial crabs in the bucket. The three affinity-specific victories don’t play out all that differently, nor does a fourth concerned with making contact with an unseen, advanced alien race. Each entails researching a few specific technologies, then designating your cities to produce a structure or two that sometimes have minor idiosyncrasies, like consuming your surplus energy each turn. But the path to victory is more elegantly interwoven with the early and middle game this time around, and of course, global domination, ever the crude way out, remains as tempting as ever when another world leader shows up uninvited to talk some smack. The more things change, the more they stay the same, then; a journey to a planet halfway across the universe reaffirming the draw of the same old creature comforts–a plot of land, and just one more turn.