My thoughts on Civilization: Beyond Earth

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

“My Thoughts On” is a new series that I’m doing where I just expand on some notes I jotted down while playing the game rather than doing a full on critical analysis.

Plus, Civ is a massive game and I’m already a long-winded writer as is.

The general formula of Civilization remains the same in Beyond Earth, particularly the more streamlined ideas introduced in Civ 5. Start out with a single city and slowly grow your way to a major power through the use of a combination of technological research, social policies, and militarization. This is an extremely simplified explanation of how it all works, of course, but I’m trying not to take all day here, so let’s just talk about the changes of note.

The Setting

The setting is obviously quite different. Rather than forming a civilization on Earth, you are colonizing another planet in an attempt to expand humanity beyond our own dying world. There appears to be some lore and backstory to go along with the game which is present in flavor text for the loading screens, victory conditions, and various quests (more on quests later), but I’ve not really bothered to read any of this. The alien life on the planet takes the place of the barbarians this time around and they are much more varied and significantly more powerful, actually posing a pretty big threat until the mid – late game. Currency has been changed from Gold to Energy, as the gold coin does not carry much weight in alien markets. Construction materials have also been changed to mostly fictional ones to reflect the sci-fi structures and units. Aside from aluminium, which is apparently the metal of the future.

Playable Races

This is perhaps an inaccurate term as some of the Civilizations you can play as aren’t exactly segregated by nationality or culture. Some are amalgamations of previous cultures or nations like Polystralia (a combination of Australia, Polynesia, Thailand, and Indonesia if Civ Wiki is to be believed), and some are just mega corporations like the American Reclamation Corporation. Regardless, they are highly unmemorable and uninteresting. Visually, nothing really sets them apart from one another as you are playing them and the characters chosen to represent the leaders are not particularly interesting either. Gone is the fun of wanting to play as a particularly cool historical figure which was, of course, difficult to allow with this installment of the franchise (Although, how cool would it have been to play as their clone or something? This is sci-fi after all, Firaxis. Get creative!). The only thing determining your interest in playing a particular Civilization now are the different gameplay bonuses each one has. Perhaps some distinguishing visual characteristics would have been nice, but that might have fucked with one of their biggest gameplay additions to Beyond Earth, which I’ll talk about next.

Affinities

Perhaps one of the most interesting changes to the standard gameplay formula is the Affinity system. There are three Affinities: Harmony, Purity, and Supremacy, and each one drastically changes the way your Civilization evolves over time. Harmony is a focus on coexistence and adapting to the alien world naturally rather than attempting to shape it to the needs of Humanity or reshape Humanity to better live on the world. Purity attempts to retain the old Human ways through maintaining our old Earthen culture and forcing the planet to change to better suit Humans. Supremacy puts a major focus on technology and using it to alter Humanity to better suit Human survival on the alien planet. By researching certain technologies your Civilization will increase in the level of one of these Affinities and will reap various rewards related to each. There’s nothing stopping you from leveling up multiple Affinities in a single game but I’ve often found it best to focus on a single one in order to become the most powerful and have the best chance at accomplishing a victory condition.

Changes to units

Explorers play a much more integral role to the game this time around as they can initiate expeditions on ancient ruins, crashed satellites, or abandoned settlements, which may provide anything from free tech to energy or even certain pieces of a victory condition. Attaining higher levels in an Affinity will upgrade your units in specific ways and, in some cases, unlock units that are exclusive to a certain Affinity. There are still land, sea, and air units, as well as ranged and melee units, but all have a sci-fi twist to them that increases in severity as you progress in a game, level up Affinities, or research new tech. For instance, in a Harmony playthrough, my marines evolved from standard looking Earth astronauts to bug eyed, green armored cousins to Stormtroopers over time. These changes naturally bring additions to the power of a unit as well as an aesthetic overhaul. But perhaps the most interesting change is the addition of orbital units which, as far as I’ve experienced, are sort of overpowered.

Orbital Units

You research the tech to launch satellites and other orbital units pretty early on in the game and most of them passively provide buffs of various kinds to the city that you launch them over. One, for example, may increase the amount of energy you receive from generators by a set amount. The catch is that these orbital units are only temporary (usually 30 turns or so) and you cannot have more than one in the same area at any given time. There were some instances where I was given an orbital unit by performing an expedition on some ruins or an abandoned colony, but I never found myself building them because they took a while and I was pretty unimpressed by their effects overall. That is, until I realized you can build ORBITAL LASER CANNONS. These things are able to be deployed anywhere near one of your cities, have massive range, and are extremely powerful. I found myself straight cooking fools who dared come anywhere near my continent and, from what I can tell, these orbital units are unable to be shot down.

Tech Web

One of the smartest changes made to Beyond Earth is the overhaul of the tech tree, creating more of a tech web. Now, Firaxis has never been terribly great at designing clean UIs that provide all of the relevant information in smart ways, and this tech web is one of the biggest examples of this fact. Put bluntly, the damned thing is an eyesore upon first opening it up, and really only serves to befuddle on the first attempts to navigate it. That said, it does become much less problematic over time, and the true genius of the tech web really begins to shine. The web really forces your civilization to specialize in certain tech paths pretty early on, creating much more interesting games where the evolution of your civilization appears much less linear.

Victory Conditions and Quests

Victory conditions are also much more interesting and varied this time around, allowing for a larger number of different playstyles. That said, the removal of a social policy victory is disappointing if seemingly necessary in order to better preserve the tone of the game as one of a generally scientific focus. They’ve also added Quests, which take a couple different forms. One of the quest types are objectives of various types presented to you at the beginning of turns which, in my opinion, manage to spice up the standard pattern that one eventually falls into in any Civ game by making you go out of your way to accomplish objectives. Not to mention the fact that the rewards that quests provide are often very worth the time spent to do them. The other type is a text box that presents a small scenario and asks you to make one of two choices presented at the end which may effect what type of rewards you receive from the quest, increase your Affinity level, or even enact a permanent bonus for your Civilization, like a permanent waiving of maintenance costs on certain types of structures.

Overall

Positive: I really like the gameplay changes presented in Beyond Earth. To me, the franchise is more interesting than ever with the fascinating change of setting, as well as the inclusion of Affinities, Quests, and the Tech Web. Whether you approve of the general streamlining the franchise has seen over the last few entries or not, you can’t deny that the mechanics are refined to a mirror shine by this point. It’s also the same old addictive formula of “just one more turn” that has made the series so enjoyable to play.

Negative: The visuals appear to have not seen much of an improvement from Civ 5 at all and, in many cases, seem more drab and lifeless than ever with an extremely unimaginative color palette. Religions have been removed entirely but are no doubt planned for an expansion of some kind. Playable Civilizations are dull.

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