Beyond Earth is a doomed-from-the-start attempt to shift the familiar Civilization empire-building action into the future. It’s doomed because no matter how good Firaxis made this game, by setting it around the colonisation of an alien world it draws inevitable comparison with one of Firaxis’ very first products: Alpha Centauri, a game that’s rightfully regarded as one of the genre’s absolute classics. Beyond Earth was never going to live up to Alpha Centauri’s better qualities, both real and imagined, and I’ve tried to take this into account when playing the thing; Beyond Earth should be judged on its own merits, not the nostalgia-fuelled remembrance of a sixteen year-old predecessor. What surprises me, however — and especially so for a Firaxis title — is that even if you take SMAC out of the equation, even when you compare Beyond Earth to the modern Civilization franchise that spawned it, I think it fundamentally still isn’t a very good game.
Given my recent tendency to randomly dislike 4xes for almost entirely subjective reasons, I have dragooned Jim into writing this review with me. Jim liked Endless Legend, so you’re getting both sides of the coin here.
Jim: I am the only man on Earth to hold that title, according to my Steam Friends list. But now I shall be…the only man…BEYOND IT
Hentzau: Jim, why not quickly sum up what Beyond Earth is about. Apart from rerouting trade convoys.
Jim: Well I mean the blurb is you and your fine faction being sent into deepest space to make Earth 2.0. You touch down, have a look around and realise you’ve accidentally landed in a game of Civ 5.
Hentzau: Yes, that’s rather sad, isn’t it. Beyond Earth boasts several features to distinguish it from its parent franchise, but nearly all of them are half-baked or just flat-out inconsequential. It’s six hundred years in the future, but you’re still building farms, sending out explorers to find goody huts and generating culture to buy social policies. Probably 60, 70% of Beyond Earth is you doing the exact same things you did in Civilization V, except with a palette swap.
Jim: It’s very similar to the Civ 4: Colonization experience, really.
Hentzau: Oh, I’d argue that actually went further in distinguishing itself from Civ IV. And I hated that version of Colonization, so I’m not often inclined to be kind to it.
Jim: Yeah I found Colonization boring and I hated Civ 5 because…I’m still not really sure why but it is really deep-seated at this point. So really I should find myself despising this. And yet, I’ve actually enjoyed these first thirty hours, there’s a decent game below the blank, botoxed facade
Hentzau: “First” thirty hours. That implies there’s going to be more, which is interesting because I’ve burned out on it after just twenty. I came to the conclusion after two playthroughs that the game was too limited to allow for really different playstyles, and that the differences between the factions were superficial at best.
Jim: And some of that is true, certainly. We’ve already referred to it off-hand a few times but it’s bizarre how little effort has been put into fleshing out this world.
Hentzau: The factions are just so underwhelmingly generic. You’ve got Space France, Space Russia, Space China, all with indistinguishable minor bonuses to their gameplay like “10% stronger in combat” or “Gets a free tech every 10 social policies” – bonuses so small that their impact on how a game unfolds is minimal, like Firaxis were terrified of letting the player have any fun with their faction.
Jim: I realised at some point that they’d found my notebooks from when I was 12 and pinched the names I wrote on pretend maps. Polystralia is a personal favourite. After a lot of play you do begin to notice some common threads between factions – Space France will always race into a tech lead, Space America will have three massive cities, Space Russia will make godawful decisions, but it’s nothing intrinsic to their bonuses.
Hentzau: That’s part of the AI personality that’s existed since Civ IV, I think – Montezuma is always a warmongering dick, Isabella is your best friend if you’re the same religion as her and a rampaging terror if you’re not etc. etc.
Jim: Fucking Gandhi and his technology. But maybe the point is that they don’t want to shoehorn you into certain playstyles, maybe they want every game to be a choose your own four-X-ture
Hentzau: I’d agree that they don’t want factions to really be limited to playing the game one particular way, especially given the way the affinities work. This comes at the great expense of any sense of personality about them, though.
Jim: I think if they’d had fill-in-the-blanks factions in an interesting world that’ll be fine, but…what’s the planet called. Space Earth is a bit rubbish.
Hentzau: It doesn’t have a name. It’d be nice if you could name it yourself or something, but as far as the game is concerned it’s just a random agglomeration of dust and water with resources sprinkled around every few hexes for you to exploit.
Jim: I particularly like how they palette-swapped horses with buggalo and everyone from Earth is just cool with it. “Better make a beetle paddock”, they say, “that’s what we did in Civ 5”
Hentzau: Exactly what you’re getting out of these paddocks is never really explained. One type gives you chitin, and another gives… beetle drugs? Maybe that’s what the developers were on when they decided it was a good idea to just give everything space names without really changing the way it worked.
Jim: Beetle juice. Remind me not to say that two more times. And then there are the aliens. Now, initially, I liked these. Civ’s barbarians are always so anaemic, and something Beyond Earth does differently is make expanding a right pain in the arse. Huge swarming nests of dinosaurs block your every move and your first instinct is to go kill them all.
Hentzau: There’s no real downside to doing this, weirdly. I expected slaughtering aliens en masse to really piss off the rest of the alien fraternity, so there’d be a genuine decision you had to make: clear out the aliens now and claim that prime spot of land, but at the cost of all the dead aliens’ friends paying you a visit later on. I thought they’d react to me like the natives in Colonization or the mindworms in Alpha Centauri.
Jim: As far as I understand there is some Alien Fight-o-Meter running in the background, certainly it’s referred to, but you never see it or its impact. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to say you can just bat them out of the way though – the massive units like siege worms and kraken stay a threat to your expansion for a hundred turns or more. And taking down a nest complex is a lot of manpower.
Hentzau: That’s the major mechanical impact the aliens have. Where barbarians in Civ V forced you to build a military to fend off their attacks, aliens in Beyond Earth require a large standing army to eradicate so that you can expand your empire. One Wolf Beetle is the match of a basic human Soldier. The Drones and Raptor bugs are a pain to take on without tier 2 military units. And the nests will be spawning a new alien unit every three or four turns, meaning that you can’t just wear them down through gradual attrition. You need to go in and clean out the nests in one fell swoop, and this usually requires at least 4-6 military units per nest. More, if there’s multiple nests clustered together. And believe me, it’s hard to find good city spots that don’t have aliens sitting on top of them.
Jim: But yeah you’re right. It changes your behaviour but there is no coherency to the foreign fauna and flora. There’s green shit all over the place called miasma. It damages you a bit if you step in it, it takes three turns to clear, it means you change what you do but it doesn’t lead to anything greater.
Hentzau: Hey now, it’s not just green. It’s a combination of green and purple that’s been cunningly chosen so that it effortlessly blends into whatever the underlying terrain type is, making it very difficult to spot and leading to a lot of accidental moves into it. Miasma blocks trade routes and heals aliens, and does precisely sod all else apart from inexplicably making the other factions upset when you clear this annoying blight away from your cities. I don’t get the feeling I’m taming an alien world, instead I feel like I’m playing Planet Janitor and doing tedious make-work to sweep away all of these obstacles in my path that have no real point other than to be obstacles in my path.
Jim: The problem we’re both having is that we’re mentally comparing to SMAC’s xenofungus and tutting. Beyond Earth’s sense of place is non-existent. I have absolutely no clue what I’m building most of the time beyond what bonus it infers. And the wonders are even worse – tiny little changes with nothing to hang them on. This matters to me! Science Fiction games need to go out of their way to give you a place to stand because you’re floating in space.
Hentzau: Plus four food in one of my cities! That’s not something that gets me particularly excited about building a wonder. A friend got it spot on when they said that while old-style Civilization wonders like Da Vinci’s Workshop may have been overpowered, they were far more interesting than the anaemic modern variety because building them feels like a powerful decision.
Jim: Though it does make for a more ‘balanced’ experience.
Hentzau: That’s not what I’m after, though. It’s taken Beyond Earth to make me realise it, but what I want is a game that is intentionally unbalanced in an interesting way. This is the only direct comparison to SMAC I’ll make in this review, but that was a game that spurned balance. Each faction was fundamentally broken if you played it right. Many of the wonders were potentially game-winning. But it was all held in “balance” because each faction was broken in a different way, and each of the wonders did very different things, making it very difficult to say that one was out-and-out better than the rest.
Jim: I can’t disagree with the joy of taking game systems and stretching them to the nth degree, I’ve always loved theorycrafting, minning to the max and so on. Thing is, this is still in Beyond Earth, it’s just hidden below a suspiciously pedestrian disguise. Our Clark Kent is…
Hentzau: Trade routes. Sodding trade routes.
Jim: The most powerful force on Space Earth.
Hentzau: The irony is that the trade system is pretty much a direct rip of the one introduced in Brave New World and there’s nothing really interesting or spacey about it. All they’ve done is whacked jetpacks onto the camels and dialed the yield up to eleven. You build your trade depot, which is unlocked by a really early technology, and then you can send out two trade routes from that city, and oh my god they are so broken. And not in the good way I just described, either.
Jim: Not broken, just…crucial to win. A normal size 1 city can produce maybe four of each of your classic civ resources (foods, hammers, glowing orange balls…). Buy it a couple of convoys and you can increase that by a factor of 10 or more. Done right, maybe half the resources of your empire will come from trade routes. But like all great power, this comes with a cost. You must manually resend these convoys, by hand, every twenty turns. So the game becomes this balancing act between how many resources you need and how arsed you are to select the same city from a dropdown menu multiple times every turn. WHAT WILL SPACE JANITOR DO NOW?
Hentzau: Later on you get a building that can increase number of trade routes per city by 1. That’s three trade routes per city, multiplied by number of cities, divided by twenty to get the number of times you have to deal with that bloody trade route popup every turn. The trade interface is terrible and doesn’t give you an option to auto-resend or even highlight your previous route, meaning you have to check through a list of all potential trade routes from that city – which, again, is going to scale in proportion to the number of cities that you have — to figure out where the hell you sent it last.
Jim: This is the reason that I recommend playing on a small map. I think a lot of these problems are problems of scale. You can just about deal with the busywork, you are cramped enough that aliens can’t just be routed around or ignored, civilizations get right into each others grilles from the get-go and grudges can actually develop. I’ve really enjoyed my small map games, whereas the eight player marathon broke my will to minmax. That’s not something I say lightly
Hentzau: I’d agree with that. But then I’d also say that half the problem with the game’s scale is that they’ve taken most of the brakes off of going wide (i.e. having a large sprawling empire). Happiness has been replaced by “Health”, and the malus for having low health is far less than the malus for having low happiness in Civ V. This is not an inherently bad thing, but when each additional city you build multiplies the number of tedious maintenance chores you have to do, actually taking advantage of the space available on a larger map will quickly burn you out unless you really, really like micromanaging cities.
Jim: Can I just mention that whoever did the UI for cities needs a good hearty slap? Somehow there’s a few steps backward on there from even Civ III. Everything’s hidden in the weirdest ways.
Hentzau: Like build queues. A fundamental feature of the modern 4X is locked away from the player by default in Beyond Earth. To unlock it you have to check a tiny grey box on top of a large grey background, and only then will it trust you with the fearsome ability to queue your build orders. I forget how renaming cities was hidden but it was even more laughable. Firaxis have always had a problem with their UIs, but Beyond Earth is their worst effort yet.
Jim: I think they did want to do something different. I like a lot of underlying ideas they’re trying to implement to change the Civ formula (we’ve been playing that game for 20 years now, so fair enough) but in a lot of cases they fell short. However there are two new inclusions which I really love and they dovetail nicely with each other. First off, the tech web is the most magnificent sight in strategy gaming. I beheld it and I made the same noise as those aliens in Toy Story.
Hentzau: Hell, even I liked the tech web. It’s plagued by the same UI issues as the rest of the game, but it’s absolutely thematically appropriate for a game about future science. You start in the centre and progress outward via nodes which each have two or three techs on them. The first tech on each node is cheap, and gets you the basic buildings and improvements associated with this research area. The other techs are more expensive and give you more specific bonuses that are very powerful within their niche. The basic tech has to be researched before you can progress to the next node, but once you’ve done that you can just ignore the other techs unless you really really want them. The web is only about four nodes deep from centre to edge but you can go in literally any direction you want, through any route you want. It’s a tremendous amount of freedom to offer to player in their research choices.
Jim: It took me a few games to realise the implications of this, I must admit, and a few more before I actually roughly knew where stuff was on the web, but… you can beeline for anything. Every single tech in the game is unlockable in six or fewer steps. The amount of potential strategies this opens up is huge, and this is part of what’s driving me on at the moment. It makes me want to experiment and gives me the tools to do so.
Hentzau: What I particularly liked about it is how effectively it embodies the potential of future science to go haring off down any one of a hundred different paths. We don’t know precisely how technology is going to evolve over the coming centuries, and Beyond Earth wisely doesn’t attempt to constrain it with a narrow research tree. Instead it’s the one part of the game where it says “It’s your story – you choose what happens” and it actually works.
Jim: It’s also tied into the other new system – affinities. Some techs have a red/orange/blue marker that indicates you are making certain choices about humanity’s future, roughly corresponding to humans, robots and hippies. There’s this Bioware-esque tracker of how far down each path you’re going and the levels decide how your units improve or evolve, and the types of buildings you can construct. It’s hard to max out more than one of these in the time you have, so I think this is another solid way to make you choose the future.
Hentzau: Thematically the affinities are a great idea. They even bleed through into the everyday game narrative through quest decisions that occasionally pop up – I think at one point I ended up launching the uploaded consciousness of the population of one of my colonies into space where they could keep an eye on things. The big problem I had with them, though… well, I had two big problems. First was that they weren’t exclusionary enough; Purity (humans are the best) and Harmony (aliens are the best) should have been mutually exclusive, and yet there’s nothing stopping me from mixing and matching these affinities to get the advantages of both. Sure, I can’t max out both of them, but the fact that I can progress very far down both of these affinities in the same game means that my choice of Purity or Harmony as the “dominant” affinity has that much less meaning. It could just as easily have been the other one as far as the game is concerned, and so it ends up feeling rather superficial.
The second problem is the way you unlock affinity points. As Jim says, you get most of them by researching special techs that come with the affinity points attached, but in almost every case the affinity points were the sole reason to research that tech in the first place. So it’s not like you make the decision of “Let’s splice our DNA with that of an alien for improved combat performance” and pick up some Harmony points as a consequence; instead you just beeline for the points and unlock your hybrid units once you’ve progressed far enough down the tree. It feels less like these are reflections of the individual decisions I’ve made in the development of my society, and more like the affinities themselves are the be-all and end-all of determining how my society develops. And that’s just a matter of amassing enough points. It’s just inherently less interesting.
Jim: There’s certainly room for improvement on this system, but I don’t object to the points influencing you down certain paths – that just reflects the snowball nature of one ideology taking control. And similarly, while there is nothing to stop you mixing and matching purity and harmony, it is at the price of not getting the higher tier purity/harmony units and bonuses. As a balancing act, it’s executed quite well and it again ties into that “tell your own story” thing I keep harking back to. And there’s one more amplification of that idea: Quests
Hentzau: Quests are Beyond Earth’s way of making everything seem a little more organic. Most of them aren’t really quests in the sense that we usually understand them; mostly it’s a case of choosing additional bonuses granted by your buildings (do you want your Thorium Reactor to produce two extra energy or one extra production?), but there’s a few meatier ones unlocked when you’ve advanced far enough down the relevant affinity tree that provide some much-needed flavour to your affinity choice. The launching-colony-consciousness-into-space was a good one for Supremacy, and Harmony and Purity also get appropriately themed quests that reflect their respective evolutions of human society. The most interesting thing Beyond Earth does with the quests, however, is that it uses them to tie its victory conditions into a narrative.
Jim: Obviously you can just kill everyone and that takes no affinity whatsoever, but the others are different. Rather than tie your victory to culture/technology/gold, the victories open to you are dependent on the path you have taken. A harmony civ will attempt to hack into the planet’s conciousness, a supremacy civ will head back to cleanse Earth, and so on. These generally boil down to building the appropriate giant monolith and defending it, admittedly, and there’s a problem with the weak fiction of the game making it seem like these huge changes have come from nowhere. Still, more interesting and less secure than most of the Civ endgames I’ve endured.
Hentzau: I’m not sure I’d agree. Jamming units into the Emancipation portal for twenty turns was soul-destroying, while I resorted to killing everyone on the planet rather than sit through the Promised Land victory. However, the idea is interesting, even if the mechanical execution of it is a failure. I’d like to see another 4X take this idea and run with it, since I think that if you can make the conditions themselves sufficiently varied the narrative will do the rest for you. Even Emancipation wouldn’t have been so bad if the actual mechanic behind it hadn’t been quite so transparently shit; if I’d maybe had some indication that the robot armies I was sending through the gate to “liberate” the population of Earth from their weak, fleshy bodies were doing more than filling up an arbitrary victory counter. With a bit more interactivity they could shine. As it is, they’re just another example of Beyond Earth’s weird tendency to make the player repeat the same pointless task fifty times before they can get anywhere.
Jim: Yeah, weird how we keep coming back to that. There’s a genuine attempt here, despite that fact that it is in so many ways a slightly recoloured Civ 5, to make a different Civ experience with some genuinely nice ideas, but the execution, the surrounding fiction, isn’t strong enough for me to say “This is a game you should buy” – yet. But I am still enjoying the experience.
In Beyond Earth, you don’t make big sweeping decisions, you make hundreds of little choices. In some cases, those choices are needless busywork – trade routes being the prime example, but the compound effects are potentially very powerful, and mean that for the first Civ in forever, the endgame can be drastically different from one game to the next, because you’ve focused on completely different sets of technology and ideas. The problem is they haven’t gone far enough with this process, they haven’t committed to it.
Hentzau: I think maybe it was a question of resources. It may sound harsh, but Beyond Earth strikes me as a product made on a limited budget by the Firaxis B-team. It has a lot of fresh ideas that, if they’d been given the resources and time to be polished and refined, could have really lifted the game above its origins as a total conversion of Civilization V. Time and again, though, it’s held back by an apparently shoestring budget that ensures too much of that Civilization DNA shows on the surface for it to really be anything more than a pale reflection of its parent that lacks any real personality of its own.
The future of mankind is such fertile ground for the imagination, and I’m very disappointed that — tech web aside — Firaxis’s latest take on it is such a timid offering that’s afraid to take any real chances or make any worthwhile statements. The one potential lifeline for Beyond Earth is that the one thing Firaxis are consistently good at is polishing up underwhelming games through patches and expansion packs. Hopefully Beyond Earth will get the same treatment Civilization V did, and if it does it’s very possible that in two or three years it will have evolved into an excellent 4X. The raw material is certainly good enough. For now, though, I’d have to recommend that you steer well clear.