Civilization Beyond Earth Review: A Different, If Safe, Sci-Fi Twist On The Strategy Classic

By Matthew Buzzi , Updated Dec 08, 2014 12:29 PM EST
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The Civilization series has undergone a clear and steady evolution since its debut in 1991, adding more complex features and streamlining popular mechanics as it progressed. The main entries have iterated on those before them, introducing new systems or improving the existing ones in an effort to push the series--and the genre it helped define--forward.

Civilization: Beyond Earth feels more like an expansion than another leap ahead, or even to the side. The title was always meant to be a series spinoff and spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, but its heavy Civilization V foundation makes Beyond Earth feel very familiar. That said, the new sci-fi setting and added features bring enough to the series to make Beyond Earth worthwhile. It doesn't reinvent the franchise by any means, nor does it possess the same charm and personality as Alpha Centauri, but there's still a solid strategy game here that offers a sufficiently different experience from the core games.

On the surface, Beyond Earth does seem like a traditional game of Civilization, with the obvious difference of being set on an alien planet. The gameplay does maintain many of the same hooks, obstacles, and objectives, but there are a number of changes turn this title into more than just a themed skin. While it's true to a degree (the title could have stood to deviate more), playing just one game will make a handful of differences readily apparent. Beyond Earth still consists of picking locations to build cities, growing your empire through conquest and cultural development, and managing research and diplomatic relations. The extraterrestrial locations and search for a new home among the stars, however, provide the context for new mechanics and different systems.

The tutorial walks you through an entirely new technology web--not tree--that turns out to be one of the biggest changes in the series. You're no longer on one set research path: every technology is scattered in a connected circle, allowing you to pick and choose what you'd like to focus on as an empire. There are more militarized sections of the tech web, while much of the rest focuses on boosting your culture or scientific output.

This research system ties into both the game's victory conditions and a new feature, Affinities. These three Affinities--Purity, Harmony, and Supremacy--are different philosophies and development paths that your civilization can work toward, offering their own bonuses. These paths determine the way in which humanity will choose to interact with the alien world: Purity seeks to preserve mankind as it was on Earth, Harmony adapts humanity to become one with its new home, and Supremacy aims to achieve technological mastery in order to ascend man to a higher state of being. Researching certain knowledge and tech can boost your advancement towards one of those belief systems, so you must decide which you'd like to work toward early in a game.

This causes some confusion the first time you play, as it's easy to feel out of your depth. There are an intimidating number of technologies to discover and paths to begin down, and it's easy to get caught up researching a few items for many turns that can get you off track from the bigger picture. Playing more campaigns will eventually develop your strategy and improve efficiency, as you'll learn what to prioritize and what will push you to success. This is especially true when trying to achieve specific victory conditions, which are largely dependent on reaching the peak of one research area. The two general methods (Domination, defeating the other factions) and Contact (finding superior alien life and establishing contact) are joined by Affinity victories, which require a series of criteria specific to each branch.

The breadth of science and culture options actually work to minimize the need for military emphasis, which is one of the most subtle differences between Beyond Earth and the usual Civilization fare. There's a Health system instead of Happiness, and Energy replaces Gold as currency, but they function in more or less the same way. On normal and harder difficulties in the traditional games, other nations are often at war with you early on, pressing for territory and threatening your cities. In Beyond Earth, the game can go on for 100 or more turns without any real conflict, even in close proximity to other factions.

You'll fight plenty of aliens (the game's version of roving barbarians), but war with another faction is not as ever-present in Beyond Earth. I can't guarantee that will apply for every playthrough, but in general, the game has no problem promoting pacifism as each nation grapples with adapting to a new world. Technology research and building construction will occupy your time, and with such a variety of win conditions, it's more plausible to avoid all-out war than ever before. Military is still handled in a traditional way, training units (a variety of troops and combat rovers are available) and attacking enemies units and cities.

This more peaceful experience has its positives and negatives, and whether it's better or not will depend on personal preference. There's a lot of empire building and improvement that can be done through research and infrastructure investment (plus a neat new satellite feature, with which you can launch beneficial objects into orbit), and it's tempting to race your opponents to a scientific singularity or grow an awe-inspiring culture. It can get a bit boring at times as you hastily end turns to finish researching new technology, which stalls your growth and progress.

The Affinities and research web are joined by an amusing mission feature that will hand out extra objectives and ask you to choose (perhaps a bit too frequently) between two options for a bonus. They will usually involve some sort of moral query about how to proceed with a new discovery (this is very similar to the feature found in Galactic Civilizations), but it really boils down to which bonus you'd rather take--there isn't usually a downside. This is another way to develop your faction along the desired route, adding the boosts that supplement your larger-scale vision.

There's a lot to consider when advancing your empire, and Beyond Earth requires more planning in terms of research and an endgame goal than the traditional titles. The new sci-fi backdrop alone isn't enough to make this game stand out without more variation, but the altered systems add up to something that, while similar to its Civilization V foundation, is unique enough to inspire different play styles and experiences.

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