What is it? Classic 4x strategy game and spiritual successor to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.
Price: $50 / £30
Release Date: Oct 24, 2014
Developer: Firaxis Games
Multiplayer: Up to 8 players for traditional or hot seat multiplayer
Link: Official site
Beyond Earth begins with the very sci-fi premise of “What if?” What if you took Civilization, the classic turn-based grand strategy game, and made one of its signature endings the beginning of a whole new game?
In Civilization, you can win the game by building a spaceship to launch your civilization into space, in search of a new world. Beyond Earth takes that ending and makes it a beginning. You are now on that new world: Go.
The result is a game that succeeds in almost exactly the same way as it fails; a major case of cognitive dissonance. Beyond Earth, while bearing many attributes of a brand new game, is based in Civilization 5’s engine and mechanics. It is in many ways exactly the same game as Civ 5, just spacier.
Is that a problem? That depends on how much you like Civ 5, and how willing you are to take the ride and give Beyond Earth’s new space look a shot.
For me it was a problem all through my first game. I played as the Brazilian civ, with its bonus to melee combat. Being a Civ veteran, I, without even realizing it, ported over my go-to Civ strategy of focusing on strength in the early age to build the foundation of a strong late-game civilization. And then, turn-by-turn, I played the game almost on auto-pilot.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t enjoy the experience. And it took me losing that game and having to step away and reassess how I was approaching it in order to learn how to love it.
Beyond Earth has a lot of new looks: new units, new victories, a completely new tech tree (actually, it’s a web), new leaders, new civilizations and a handful of things under the hood that are also completely new. But the experience of cracking it open, watching my colony ship settle onto a completely dark map and then setting foot onto this alien world felt just like playing Civ 5—at first.
On the one hand, there are many worse 4X strategy games to emulate than Civ 5, and as that game’s expansions have proved, while it redesigned much of the original Civ formula, it left a lot of room on the table for reinventing itself. Beyond Earth brings some of the better reinventions along with it. Trade routes feature prominently in Beyond Earth, for one thing, as does a new strategic component much like Gods & Kings’s religions, called Affinities.
Affinities allow you to evolve your Beyond Earth civ beyond its human origins, focusing research on technologies that will play to how you want to interface with your new world and its inhabitants.
The Harmony affinity is what it sounds like, allowing you to meld with the new planet’s lifeforms and create new alien units. Purity focuses on genetic manipulation of the human genome to build better versions of your civ. Finally, Supremacy lets you make your civ’s humans into cyborgs with giant robot friends.
Each affinity allows for slightly different victories and affinity-only units, and can have a dramatic effect on your overall game. Specializing in Supremacy will unlock robot soldiers, for example. Whereas the Harmony affinity will grant you access to alien-based units and the ability to tolerate the new world’s harsh alien environment. Other civs will respond to you (or not) based on your affinity, and actions you take in the world can impact your affinity score.
It’s impossible to play Beyond Earth without comparing it to the 'other' Civ-in-space game, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.
One of the first games developed by Firaxis following its founders’ departure from Microprose, Alpha Centauri had the benefit of the expertise of Civilization Creator Sid Meier, but without the Civilization IP. Firaxis has since regained many IPs from now-defunct Microprose, but due to the vagaries of the game business, Alpha Centauri resides with its publisher, EA.
I played Alpha Centauri extensively during a long Late Winter in San Francisco. I was taken in by the living world aspect and the deep narrative with elements pulled from science fiction of the day. I enjoyed the experience greatly.
That said, if I had come to Beyond Earth looking for a direct sequel or a modern update to the 1999 game, I would have been wildly disappointed. Although it does have narrative elements, and certain signature aspects of Alpha Centauri have crept in, Beyond Earth is very much its own game.
This is most noticeable when dealing with the planet’s indigenous creatures. Instead of Civilization’s barbarians, Beyond Earth has a variety of alien lifeforms, some more aggressive than others. On the surface, these seem to be more bug-like versions of the barbarians, but they play and react quite differently from their hairier, Earth-bound cousins. Whereas barbarians will more or less attack whatever is in range at random, the aliens will frequently not attack unless provoked. I was able to send Explorer units carefully into heavily alien-infested territories without earning so much as a scratch. Still, other times, aliens would attack me at random, either provoked by the presence of one of my military units or by the aggressive actions of my civ neighbors. Over-aggressively terraform your new world and your Harmony attributes will be for naught, as aggro aliens force you into conflict. Whereas attempting to clear out the new world’s alien lifeforms (instead of attempting to harmonize with them), can lead to them becoming even more aggressive, eventually luring more powerful aliens toward your cities.
The other big newness is the orbital layer. You can build and launch satellites in Beyond Earth, and these will impart benefits to specific tiles. Some are quest- and victory-based, and others are magnificent weapons. The Planet Carver, for example, shoots a massive beam of weaponized energy from space and it is glorious. You can toggle between the planetary and orbital layer with a button, and you can knock enemy satellites out of orbit with certain ranged units.
The Orbital Layer adds a fun, new twist and an engaging tactical element to Civ 5’s already finely tuned tactical game. I found myself chuckling at the misfortune of civs that crossed my path when I had Planet Carvers at my disposal. And deploying Solar Collectors and Miasma Repulsers (to clear away the alien planet’s harmful, natural vapors) made me feel like I now had a new, more direct tool for improving my cities.
Besides, who doesn’t like launching stuff into space?
Now for the bad news: It’s easy to feel like Beyond Earth is just an expansion to Civ 5, albeit spacier than those that came before. For Civ 5 fans like myself, this is a loaded proposition.
If you like Civ 5, then more Civ 5 equals more Civ 5, which is great! But there’s no denying that even as much as I love Civ 5 (and I do love it, quite a lot), I was expecting something more from Beyond Earth than Civ 5 with a sci-fi skin. And in spite of the dramatic opening cinematic, the rocketing descent of my landing craft and the stirring opening text about how my civilization had traveled the stars to start anew and blah, blah… as soon as that first turn started and my explorer unit stared across the landscape dotted with hex grids and covered with the fog of war, I felt a rush of disappointment.
My newly founded city needed to produce things, and although those things bore new names, they seemed to me the same, old buildings in all but name alone. And although the alien landscape was littered with seemingly-unusual resources, the deadly “miasma” and resource pods containing goodies for home, all that, too, felt “same old,” at first blush.
So I set about methodically slogging through the familiar in search of the new, and without my even realizing it, I found it.
Beyond Earth’s many similarities to Civ 5 mask, to its detriment, a game that is remarkably new and different, and once I was able to see past those similarities, the newness and wonder of playing in a future Civ sandbox washed over me like a slow boiling pot of water. I was engrossed before I realized it.
As the Brazilians, I was aiming for a Purity affinity, but fumbled my way through the research web willy-nilly and eventually lost the game without ever realizing one of my enemies had been close to victory. Not great, but that’s when it finally dawned on me that Beyond Earth, in spite of its heavy foundation in Civ 5’s mechanics and rules, is actually a completely different game.
So I started again, this time as the Slavic Federation. I would specialize in Supremacy and after a bit of research on what the new victories actually were (pro tip: read the f-ing manual), I decided to shoot for the Contact victory, but build a strong enough civ that, should all else fail, I could at least take over the world.
Beyond Earth offers five victory conditions, although two are similar, differing only in which affinity will unlock it.
Contact involves discovering an alien signal and unlocking the secret of your new planet’s ‘Progenitor’ species, an ancient alien race that left mysterious ruins behind. It is by far the most narrative of the victories, although its attempts at narrative don’t always mesh well with Civ’s UI.
One specific portion of the road to the Contact victory, for example, called for sending a military unit to a recently discovered alien ruin. I located the ruin and dispatched a rover… and waited. And waited. And waited. The instruction dialogue said the ruin itself had summoned a civilian from one of my cities, then asked me to send a military unit, presumably to escort that civilian. Which I had done, but I wasn’t sure if I had skipped a step. After several turns I finally noticed a new button had appeared in the rover’s action panel. I pressed the button and the quest concluded anti-climactically, with a text box and a ding. Wheres Firaxis’s ‘other’ sci-fi game, XCOM, uses cinematics to impart such momentous advancements, the Beyond Earth solution felt more than a little hollow and frustrating.
Domination is what it sounds like, giving you the win if you capture all of the opposing civ’s capitals. This is the most Civ-like of the victories, although it does require some mastery of Beyond Earth’s new technologies and units.
Emancipation and Promised Land are two sides of the same coin. You must research the technology to eventually open either an Emancipation or Exodus gate back to Earth, bringing those left behind either salvation or dominance. If you are Purity or Supremacy, this is your Affinity-scientific end game.
Transcendence is the Harmony victory. It involves researching alien technologies to create a “mind flower” that will unite your consciousness with that of the alien planet. City buildings can aid in this victory, shortening the amount of time it takes for the mind flower to bloom.
In addition to the end game victory, Beyond Earth also brings along smaller quests. Occasionally new technologies or improvements will offer a choice for how they are used, adding additional money or food, for example, or presenting a moral or philosophical choice. Eradicate aliens or domesticate them, for example. It’s a nice new twist and they gave me a stronger connection to the decisions I was making, and gave an aspect of the game that has typically been ho-hum, more drama.
Quests will occasionally also be simply fun things to experience. There is a massive 'siege worm' in Beyond Earth, for example. A late-game Harmony technology will eventually allow you to control these worms, like Paul Atreides in Dune, but an early-game quest with no affinity restriction tasks you with killing one. If you can pull it off, it’s a hoot.
Playing as the Purity Brazilians, I eventually corralled a siege worm and with the help of one air unit, three ranged units, a melee soldier and a satellite buff, I took it. It had already destroyed two settlers, half a dozen military units, countless trade convoys and an entire outpost. The quest reward didn’t nearly repay what I had lost, but it was a glorious struggle.
Reviewed on: Core i7-3770k 3.5GHz, 16 GB RAM, AMD R9 290
Recommended: Quad-core CPU, 4 MB RAM, AMD HD500 / Nvidia GT400
Variable framerate: yes
Anti-aliasing: MSAA 2-8x
Misc. gfx options: Vsync, threaded rendering
Beyond Earth ran smoothly at 1080p, hovering at 60 FPS with all settings maxed, occasionally dipping to 45 at the start/end of a turn. There's a noticeable improvement from 2X-8X AA and shadow and texture settings from medium to high. Animations and particle effects need the high-end to shine. Testing briefly on an AMD HD 6900 GPU, my framerate maxed out at 45 FPS and dipped as low as 10 with all visuals set to “medium.”
As the Supremacy Slavs, I slaughtered alien lifeforms with abandon, reaping monetary and technological rewards and tried to focus my research on Supremacy techs to grow my military force. When the ARC civilization landed on a plain I had planned to colonize myself, I decided to go full tactical and take them out.
What followed was an, at times, tedious, but overall successful campaign to take over the ARC land and, in the process, clear an alien infestation from a mountainous jungle that would eventually form the production center of my empire. Using Brawlers, Rovers, and Gunners, I first attacked ARC’s capitol and was repulsed, and then withdrew into the jungle to wage war on the aliens while earning upgrades and improving my equipment with scientific research. Dozens of turns later, I emerged from the jungle with a seasoned army and conquered the ARC one city at a time. They were but the first.
As my neighbors inched toward various victories, I invaded their lands to secure my dominance, building a robot empire on the bones of their fallen civilizations.
For my third playthrough, I wanted to win without firing shot. I almost succeeded.
I picked the Franco-Iberian civ and focused on the Harmony affinity. Instead of clearing the alien miasma, I left it alone and eventually developed immunity to its effects through technology.
Focusing on trade and science, I built a civ on an archipelago-like planet that spanned two large islands. I traded with every other civ, giving both them and me a boost to income and science. I made deals for resources I had in abundance. I made friends. Meanwhile I used my trade vessels to boost my own productivity and growth, and built city and tile improvements that gave me a scientific edge.
When war broke out between the Polystralians and the PAC, I took no sides. When the Brazilians edged closer to their own Transcendence victory, I made trade routes to beef up my science output and closed the gap.
Above: Gameplay footage we captured from an earlier preview build.
When I pulled ahead, and Brasilia began massing troops near my border, I formed alliances elsewhere and quietly poured money at my military and defenses.
Ultimately, war never came. Although I was forced to kill a handful of arbitrarily aggressive aliens, I dominated my fellow civs with science and trade, with my guns silent. And when my mind flower bloomed, I felt like I finally understood everything Beyond Earth had to offer. And, just like for my Harmony civ, with understanding came a deep appreciation for my new world/game’s many complexities.
This is how Beyond Earth succeeds in spite of its similarities to Civ 5. It offers a game steeped in the traditions and mechanics of Civilization, that’s nevertheless surprising and new in often unexpected ways. I’ve conquered countless civilizations on the planet Earths of each various Civilization game, and each time it’s felt like reinventing a fantasy version of the past. In Beyond Earth, victory feels like living in—and forging—humanity’s future, and I can honestly say I’ve never had more fun building a civ “to stand the test of time.”