I was finishing up my Civ V: Brave New World strategies this fall, and thought that I'd finally have some time to play other games besides Civilization. Firaxis and 2K, however, had other plans. Instead of being able to play other Steam games and getting back to my PS3, instead, I now have Civ in SPACE!
I guess I can't escape Civ so easily...
So is Beyond Earth going to hold my attention, keep me up till 3 in the morning playing "one more turn", and monopolize my PC gaming? Or will it be a short diversion before being shelved in favor of other games?
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Civilization V ... IN SPACE!
Most of the gameplay mechanics of Beyond Earth are variations of equivalent mechanics in Civilization V, with more or less complexity. This makes the game very accessible and familiar for most Civ players, but it also means that Beyond Earth isn't really pushing any gameplay boundaries. Whereas Civ V's transition to a hex grid revolutionized the series, Beyond Earth just feels like more of the same.
Most of the added complexity works in the game's favor, but some mechanics have been simplified such that they almost feel pointless.
Taming an alien world
Beyond Earth's extraterrestrial setting does play a small factor in the gameplay and differentiates this game a bit from Civilization V. The most prominent displays of this are in the alien life forms and the terrain of the map. The inclusions of canyons as a geography characteristic is mostly superficial, as they function almost identically to mountains. The biggest change is the inclusion of toxic "miasma". Miasma tiles cause damage to units that end their turn on it, and trade units cannot pass through miasma at all.
Miasma damages units and blocks trade routes until you unlock the ability to remove it or survive it.
This adds a satisfying challenge and sense of having to deal with a hostile alien environment.
This adds some challenge to the first half of the game, since miasma can force the player to explore and expand differently than they would in Civ V. Miasma can force your workers to have to avoid improving certain terrain, and may prevent explorers from accessing certain regions of the map or completing some expedition sites. It can also prevent your trade units from following direct routes between cities, which can cause them to follow winding paths far outside your inherent zone of control, making them harder to protect.
Update: Just prior to the publication of this review, Firaxis updated Beyond Earth. This update swapped the availability of the "clear miasma" ability and the Miasmic Repulsor orbital unit in the tech web, such that the ability to clear miasma is available much sooner. This is an unfortunate change, in my opinion, as it mitigates the challenge of dealing with miasma and reduces the sense of having to cope with a hostile alien environment, which I thought was supposed to be the whole point of the game.
Contrary to the developers' claims prior to release, the aliens really are just reskins of Civ V's barbarians. They are counted as "enemy" units to every civilization and inflict zone of control automatically. They spawn randomly from nests that function identically to encampments, and even offer monetary rewards for entering the tile and destroying the nest. The only major difference is that they are not openly aggressive at the start of the game unless you attack them or approach too closely to a nest.
They are generally stronger than Civ V's barbarians, and they exist in much greater numbers at the start of the game. But they don't upgrade. So it's going to be a while before you can muster up enough military force to take them on. But once you can confront them, they are pushovers for the remainder of the game. Even the daunting Siege Worms stop being formidable once you have quality ranged support.
The aliens are strong and numerous, making early military action against them impractical.
They primarily act as an obstacle to slow down exploration and acquisition of resource pods and expeditions.
Their primary function now seems to be as an obstacle to exploration and expansion, as opposed to an outright threat. They mostly just get in the way and prevent you from uncovering some resource pods and expedition sites. This has the effect of slowing down the initial rush for resource pods and expands the duration of the "exploration" period of the game, and helps to enable the civs that arrive later in the game to still be able to compete for these resources. This is a nice change, since the early game doesn't feel like as much of a rush to reveal as many map tiles as possible. You can explore on your own pace, and even stop to do convenient expeditions without effectively forfeiting any remaining resource pods.
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Stations are wasted space
The "stations" are Beyond Earth's equivalent of City-States, but they are much less functional than their Civ V counterparts. Whereas the City-States of Civ V are fully-autonomous (but limited) entities in the game world, the stations of Beyond Earth just don't do anything. Players can send trade routes to them or conquer them, but that's it! They don't offer quests (although every now and then a quest can pop up asking you to conquer them or trade with them), they don't build their own units, and they don't participate in diplomacy in any way. All they do is take up space, since player cities can't be founded within three tiles of them.
This feels like a serious step back from Civ V because the City-States were one of my favorite feature of that game, and one of the things that I really want to see carried over and expanded upon in the future of the franchise.
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Adding complexity to Civ V's familiar portfolio of features
Fortunately, most of the rest of the game's features are serious upgrades to their Civ V equivalents.
The Virtues are basically the same thing as social policies, but there are fewer trees, and they are all available from the start of the game. However, this time the trees have levels, and players are rewarded for both vertical and horizontal virtue development. This gives the player much more freedom to take the virtues that are most beneficial to your civilization and play-style, without feeling shoe-horned into having to finish a tree to unlock its powerful finisher bonuses.
Players are now rewarded for both vertical and horizontal cultural development,
allowing you to pick and chose virtues that best fit your needs, rather than being shoehorned into completing trees.
My only major complaint with the virtues is that the military tree feels a little weak compared to the other three. It just doesn't seem to be as viable an option at the beginning of the game.
Because the aliens are stronger and more numerous than barbarians were in Civ V, you have to invest more into your military before you can confront them. Otherwise, you risk being overwhelmed. You just don't have much to do with your army early in the game, so the combat buffs from the military virtues don't seem useful at the start of the game. You're better off picking the passive buffs of the other trees that will start accumulating rewards for you the moment that you adopt them.
The espionage system is also an upgrade from its Civ V counterpart. It's available much earlier in the game (almost from the beginning), you get more than one spy at the start, and it requires much more active participation from the player. Spies can be assigned different missions to perform against foreign cities, such as stealing money or technology, recruiting defector units, or even sicking alien siege worms on the city! And the presence of enemy spies in a city raises their "intrigue level" which makes the city more vulnerable to other spies unless the civ defend it with one of their own.
Espionage is much more useful and active, as it provides much more detailed information and different missions.
In addition, the spies provide a much more useful quantity and quality of information once they set up their network in a rival city. You can view various demographic information about every city, including its health levels, current build project, and even what the civilization is currently researching. This allows you to stay much more informed about your opponents, which is much more critical considering that this game is much more open-ended than Civ V. I feel much more like any gaps in my knowledge of the other players is my fault, and not a limitation of the game!
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Same old diplomacy
The diplomacy system is also not changed much from Civ V. There's a few nice additions, such as other leaders providing reasons for why they are denouncing you. This is something that I've requested on numerous occasions in the 2k forums. But the fact that the player can't provide reasons for your denouncements makes the feature feel moot. I already know why the A.I.s hate me by looking at the diplomatic modifiers. The thing that I want to be able to do is tell the A.I. what behaviors are upsetting me so that they can react appropriately!
A.I.s finally provide specific reasons for denouncements, but you can't provide a reason for your own denouncement.
So the A.I.s still have no clue why you're angry with them.
The other major addition to diplomacy is the ability to trade "favors" with the A.I. If you don't have enough resources or money to make a trade, you can instead offer a favor, which can later be exchanged in order to make a request of you. It's a good addition that adds a functional mechanic for making a friendly request, but doesn't add much to the overall quality of the diplomatic experience. And since the game can't enforce a particular value on a favor, the feature doesn't work in player-to-player diplomacy in multiplayer. But favors aren't really necessary in MP anyway. You can just make extra arrangements with the other player over in-game chat, but those arrangements will be non-binding as far as the game code is concerned.
Players can trade favors that can be cashed in later.
There's still so much that is missing from the interactions with the A.I.s. You still can't coordinate war plans, or make deals between more than one other player at a time, or anything like that. And even though the A.I.s can make friendly requests without offering favors, the player still can't. And the diplomacy interface is mostly the same as in Civ V, including retaining all the same problems, such as not being able to view other diplomatic deals or relationships before committing to another leader's proposal.
There still doesn't seem to be any difference between the different responses that the player has to A.I. threats (such as dialogues that offer the choices "Very well" or "You'll pay for this in time"), so why is that even still in the game? Either make it do something or take it out!
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More of a "builder's game"
Beyond Earth definitely seems to be more of a "builder's game" to me.
Orbital units buff underlying tiles.
Practically every technology unlocks multiple new buildings or improvements for your cities, and the various buildings seem to have more varied effects. The buildings can also trigger quests that allow you to chose between two permanent buffs to add to all copies of that building in your cities. There's also greater variety of improvements, and many advanced improvements have maintenance that reduces health instead of just money. You can also further customize cities with orbital units that provide passive, area-of-effect bonuses to certain tiles. So there's just a lot more to build, and a lot more to think about when you're building it.
Cities, in general, grow more quickly and become productive much sooner than in Civ V. Health can be a very difficult limiting factor to deal with early, but once you unlock a couple techs that offer health, you're generally free to expand to your heart's content. Founding a new city in order to access a resource or attain a strategically valuable location seems to be almost always viable, even at later stages of the game.
The various victories are often much more drawn-out as well, and usually require more direct and explicit investments in different areas of development (such as research, unit training, and improvements). Victory quests also have much earlier milestones, so there's a greater sense of every civ competing for victories earlier in the game, rather than them all suddenly picking one right at the end.
Victory quests have much earlier milestones, so there's a greater sense of competition over the course of the game.
I frequently deferred unit-construction and military action in favor of developing my infrastructure. In Civ V, such an approach can often become boring and tedious, since there wasn't as much variety in city infrastructure requirements. So ignoring military action in favor of infrastructure is much more engaging this time around.
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Units and affinities are dull
The greater emphasis on building is definitely a good thing considering that units and combat feel very dull by comparison. There isn't as wide a variety of units, and the affinity system doesn't allow for as much customization as it was made out to.
The biggest problem with combat is in the lack of customization and specialization. Civ V's unit upgrade system has been enhanced with universal buffs that are applied to all units of a type when that type is upgraded. But in Beyond Earth, there's only two upgrades to chose from. For example, when you upgrade your melee unit from a Soldier to a Marine, you can chose one of two upgrades that all Marines will have.
When a unit gains enough experience from combat to gain a promotion, there are also only two choices: the insta-heal or a 10% strength boost. That's it! No promotions to boost unit movement speed, combat bonuses in terrain types, projectile range increases, or anything of the like. So while there can be some specialization between unit types, your individual veteran units just don't feel all that special.
There's only one type of air unit,
and its animations still drag on forever.
There's also a shortage in unit types available. While most of the expected land-based unit classes are there: melee soldier, ranged gunner, artillery, and tank; but the other theaters of war seem severely underdeveloped. There's only one air unit, so you don't have dedicated bombers and fighters. And when you upgrade it, you get to chose between an interception buff or a bombardment buff. Essentially, you have to chose whether to make all your air units into bombers or interceptors! Similarly, there's only two naval units: a gunboat and a carrier. So you don't have access to effective counters against other players' specialized units.
There's also no anti-aircraft, missiles, nukes, or any weapons of mass destruction of any type. There are some orbital military units that can help fill in the gaps in air power, but they are stationary and their range is surprisingly limited, so they primarily act in a defensive role. Also, I'm not aware of there being any orbital unit that can intercept enemy aircraft.
And because of the limitations of the promotion mechanic, if you don't have access to a specific counter-unit type, you can't promote an existing unit to fill that counter role (as you could sometimes do in Civ V). In order to get more advanced unit types with some of the fancier abilities, you have to specialize in a particular affinity, but even then, your customization choices are limited.
Every civilization can build the unique units of any affinity that they level up in. And you can level up in any affinity or even all three if you want. You can also obtain unique affinity units from quests or espionage. So these units don't feel very unique.
Anyone can obtain any affinity's unique units, so they aren't very unique...
The affinities themselves seemed to be intended to be an emergent property of the player's playstyle in the given game. But since affinity levels are only granted by researching certain technologies or by a handful of quests, the player has too much control over them. They're still more organic than Civ V's ideologies (which you outright select at an arbitrary point in the second half of the game). Maybe I just haven't played the game enough, but I just never get the feeling that my affinity choices really have much of an effect on how I play the game, nor do my actual in-game actions have any effect on my affinities. Sure, I can choose to level up in Harmony, but that doesn't necessarily affect whether I am going to go on an alien killing spree.
I think that maybe some of the tech effects, virtues, and affinity bonuses need to be shuffled around. Things like Miasma immunity should be in the Harmony affinity rather than unlocked by a tech. Perhaps the virtue that grants research for killing aliens and destroying nests should be part of the Purity or Supremacy affinity. And so on...
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Much more open-ended, but with a higher barrier to entry
With the sci-fi setting and transition from a tech tree to a tech web, this game is much more open-ended than a traditional Civilization game. You can develop your research in one of many different directions, giving you the ability to specialize your whole civilization much more. This gives the player more freedom, but it can also be very daunting for new players.
Part of the greatness of the Civilization games' design has always been that despite the game's complexity, it has a very gentle learning curve. You start out with only a single city and a single unit, with only a handful of build options and technologies to research. You explore the map, find some resources, meet another civilization or two, and it's all pretty simple. Early on, you'll get your first cultural policy, and maybe earn some faith for founding a pantheon, but these new mechanics are introduced one at a time as they become relevant. The tech tree is mostly linear, and its usually pretty obvious what techs you need.
How do I know if I want to research Geophysics if
I don't know where geothermal nodes are?
Eventually, you'll expand to a few more cities, and you'll have to start dealing with trade routes, and managing your economy and happiness. And then as you grow, you'll start bumping heads with your neighbors or barbarians might start showing up, and may need to start taking military action. The features and mechanics are slowly built up one at a time as you play so that the player is much less likely to be suddenly overwhelmed.
Beyond Earth maintains this fundamental design approach, but it does throw a bit more stuff at the player all at once. Different tech paths, new quests constantly popping up, the availability of expeditions, and the sheer numbers of aliens on the map can all feel a bit overwhelming at first. You'll get used to it, but the learning curve is higher, and it doesn't have the same elegance as the mainstream Civilization titles.
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A more complete release than its predecessor, but lacks personality
I have some other nitpicky complaints too:
- No way to see if you have inactive trade routes or idle trade units without going from city to city.
- Tooltip on resources doesn't tell you that you lack the tech necessary to improve the resource.
- Using leader names in diplomatic screen and other popups instead of civ names is confusing. The leaders aren't as recognizable or easy to remember as the historical leaders of regular Civ games, so I still haven't quite memorized who is who despite there being only eight (8) possible leaders.
- The "wait" command seems to have been removed, so I can't cycle through my units without having issue orders or click on them one at a time.
- Keyboard shortcut for toggling the hex grid overlay seems to be gone.
- Magrails replace normal roads, so that you can't build regular roads once you tech to Magrails. But Magrails cost more maintenance.
- Some starting options don't seem all that worth it (particularly the 100 starting energy - it's not even enough to buy something!).
- Lack of unit upgrade costs means cash-buying units prior to an affinity upgrade is an exploitative trick for cheaper units (much like in the Civ board game).
The game also doesn't feel as futuristic as it should. Having to differentiate between sea-faring cargo ships and land-based convoys seems old-fashioned. Why isn't there a single, hovering trade unit that can cross water and land? Why can't we ever cross mountains or go into canyons or build cities in the ocean or floating cities in the sky? Perhaps expansions will bring some more exotic, futuristic features...
None of these issues are significant problems or deal-breakers, and many will likely be addressed with patches eventually, so I'm not going to hold it against the game too much.
Beyond Earth fails a bit in terms of flavor and personality. Much of the game's visuals feel dull and uninspired. The interface is ugly, units are all mostly generic sci-fi stand-ins with pathetic customization options, and the leaders have a severe lack of presence. It also doesn't do quite enough to differentiate itself from Civilization V, nor does it really push the genre forward with any real innovation.
It is, however, a much more complete and satisfying game than Civ V's vanilla release. Of course it has bugs and balance issues that can all be addressed via patches. But it doesn't have any obvious, gaping holes in mechanics (like Civ V's complete lack of an espionage system). It's worth a purchase for any strategy fan, without having to wait for the first expansion.
I, personally, still prefer Civilization V for its historical theming, but Beyond Earth is definitely a worthwhile strategy game that strategy fans should play.
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