The news that Firaxis was developing what would essentially amount to a combination of one of the principle 4x in space games, Alpha Centauri, which was released in 1999 to wide acclaim, and the hugely popular Civilization V, released in 2010, created a great deal of excitement in the 4x community; particularly from fans of both previously mentioned titles. It was prime time for a new title to be released and after the history-centered Civ V a fictional change of pace was welcome. Civilization: Beyond Earth, published by 2K Games in 2014, and its expansion Rising Tide, released in 2015, was the final result of this ambitious development.
Civilization: Beyond Earth took a lot from Civilization V, which can be considered its closest predecessor in terms of its mechanics, display, and user interface. Expansion, exploration, exploitation, and extermination are still conducted in the traditional formulas that players of Civ V and the Civ series in general are familiar with. Settlers are used to start cities, which gradually grow their citizenry over time depending on their food supply; land and sea units, particularly scouts, reveal unexplored terrain to find new resource deposits and treasure caches. The five resources of food, gold (restructured as energy), production, culture, and science make their return to drive the player’s faction as it develops into a mighty and advanced empire.
Technology is perhaps the most obvious change from the tech-tree of older Civilization titles. The progression of technological research is now a web of interconnected and often inter-related technologies. Players can expand on certain aspects of their scientific development to a very advanced degree while leaving others for later, or can pursue a very exhaustive but well-rounded sort of clockwise research program.
Players need not even complete all technologies to qualify as a superior civilization and it is not uncommon for a game to end before the entire web is researched. Researching new technologies doesn’t just unlock new buildings and units but also reveals certain resource types and makes new abilities available to certain units, particularly where the toxic and alien miasma tiles are related.
Miasma makes up one of the alien aspects of the game, the others being wild and potentially friendly or hostile alien creatures and the long lest ruins and relics of the planet’s bygone days. Miasma is a constant effect, similar to radioactive fallout, that damages units that remain on the tile. Technologies can be researched to clear miasma or even spread it to hostile territory.
Along with worker units one of the principle methods of manipulating miasma, and terrain in general, is to utilize satellites. Satellites are units that are produced in cities and made available for launch when completed. When launched they go to a separate layer of the game board that players can toggle on their interface. Satellites effect all tiles in their range with a variety of abilities depending on their type like increasing tile yields, finding new resources, or attacking enemy units. Certain ground units can destroy satellites, and satellites expire after a certain number of turns.
Culture has also received an overhaul in Beyond Earth, particularly in the limited but detailed scope of options now offered. Players can invest in four culture trees representing social, military, scientific, and industrial development. The trees are divided into four tiers and additional bonuses are unlocked whenever all traits in a tier are purchased. Each tree aids the player in pursuing one of the victory options available; the traits are also slow to unlock and it is rare for more than two trees to be fully unlocked by the end of the game.
Culture and technology are important in the function of Beyond Earth’s primary new mechanic: the affinity system. Three factional ideologies, dubbed affinities, are available for the player’s civilization to pursue. Each affinity, Purity, Supremacy, and Harmony, effects the technological development of all military units as well as the player’s most profitable attitude toward the indigenous alien creatures and miasma. Affinity also effects the player’s standing with other civilizations; sharing affinities is a good start to friendly relations and the opposite is also true.
Players advance in affinity levels by researching technologies and unlocking cultural traits that grant points in their particular affinity. As the player’s affinity level progresses passive benefits are unlocked and eventually the way is made available to conduct the affinity’s unique victory condition. Purity constructs a massive warp gate to bring settlers from Earth; Supremacy constructs a similar gate with the intention of conquering Earth; and Harmony constructs a massive brain that will bring about a single collective consciousness.
Although victory conditions are exclusive to each affinity, players do not need to stay true to one affinity and this is especially true in Rising Tide where hybrid affinities are introduced. Players can upgrade their units with a number of options from strict or hybrid affinity lines. All bonuses from each affinity can potentially be unlocked if the player has the time and the resources to do so.
Apart from the affinity victories players can also pursue the traditional conquest victory by taking their opponent’s capitals or a sort of science victory where they receive and de-crypt an alien signal, then construct a massive beacon to send a message to a mysterious progenitor race. This victory is by far the shortest and easiest to achieve requiring little expansion for the player’s civilization and it can be hurried along by finding traces of progenitor technology in alien ruins. Once the beacon is finished and activated all civilizations have thirty turns to destroy it before the civilization that constructed the beacon wins.
It’s easy for players familiar with Civ V to dive right into Beyond Earth; in fact familiarity with the latest Civilization games eliminate most of the learning curve. It is in those new areas that Beyond Earth introduces that it struggles the most to portray. The technology web was thankfully patched in Rising Tide, color coding the numerous units, structures, and upgrades each tech made available as the unfamiliar names and icons make color coding the only visual aid the player has to sort through numerous technologies on a freeform path.
Most unit types are intuitive in their battlefield roles, but don’t always seem to perform as they should in given situations. The combat breakdown of Civ V is gone and there is really no way of knowing why a unit does so much damage in a single attack. Siege battles in particular are very cumbersome with cities easily shrugging off regular units but folding rapidly in the face of a few siege units. However those same siege units actually lack the maneuverability of their 20th century counterparts in Civ V which contributes to the crawl that most campaigns of conquest are reduced to.
On the flipside the technology, and themes behind it, is a very immersive and entertaining feature in Beyond Earth. Culture, trade, and even to a point Diplomacy have been sidelined in favor of the technology and research narrative. This may be disappointing to some fans and rightly so, but for the most part it cuts down more on the re-playability of Beyond Earth than the actual enjoyment of each game. Most games rarely follow the same technology path and the mixing and matching of affinity bonuses alone can occupy an entire playthrough. Beyond Earth is not so much a game about creating a civilization from primitive barbarism, but expanding an existing civilization and seeing what new advances it can achieve in the many scientific fields.
As a science fiction fun-ride Beyond Earth excels. It modifies the Civilization formula just enough to keep the idea of exploration and advancement on a new alien world central to the gaming experience. Sadly this comes at the cost of losing many of the elements that make 4x games what they are. Culture is mostly a grind for bonuses and Diplomacy, although expanded on in Rising Tide, is hindered by apathetic and one-dimensional AI.
Gamers who want to experience something new in the sci-fi field, particularly in the 4x genre will find that Civilization: Beyond Earth is good for enough playthroughs to be worth the investment. Of course Rising Tide is pretty much a requirement as well since Beyond Earth isn’t truly complete without the changes and upgrades the expansion brings. However casual 4x players may find the experience of more complete 4x games to be much more gratifying and dedicated fans of the series are better off investing time and money in Civ VI.