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.
Sorry for constant pseudoanalytical whining in your blog, but I just can’t help myself.
I had high hopes for this game cause XCOM showed Firaxis can do Sci-Fi right and I’ve expected streamlined simplified 4X game (I think that contrary to what 4X players think it’s exactly what they all need). I was afraid of Endless Legend getting boring tech and races because sci-fi but they held surprisingly well. CivBE is dissapointing compared to EL.
Tech has no personality (how many types of lab are there?), affinities are cool but rather straightforward and the main difference lies between Harmony and everyone else philosophy. Many things like virtues and city-stations feel shoehorned cause somebody forget to remove legacy code. They haven’t forgot to remove map icons and readable landscapes (are you supposed to see miasma without tooltips?). Leaders are bland. You may not know this, but Kozlov speaks Swarzeneggerish instead of Russian which is surprising after perfect Russian in Civ5 (and there it would make sense for Catherine to speak with accent because she was German). Small things like that just show they didn’t care enough about this game. Trade and spies are better integrated into the map but it’s the feature for Civ5 patch.
I also don’t really get all this affinities. Ideologies in Civ5 looked much better as they haven’t affected your actual gameplay and units. Those affinities seem right for some big sprawling roleplaying strategy game like Europa Universalis. CivBE looks like it wants to be small, balanced and elegant but it doesn’t go all the way.
Anyway, I only reliably beat Civ5 on Emperor, there are many scenarios, and then there’s Civ4 which I never ever became good at. Life’s too short to spend it not on GOTY, especially when there are GOTY you can think thousands of hours into.
Another thing: why do you like this techweb so much? It looks to me like turning Civ into something more like MoO or GalCiv. In Civ you open new gameplay possibilities and systems through research while in MoO/GalCiv you can make almost everything from the start but can upgrade specific sides. Isn’t it an old and “unCiv” model?
Because in a game about future science it’s a great idea to have the potential for civilization A to go down a completely different research route to Civilization B. If they’d tied it into the affinities properly it would have been amazing; civs going for Harmony would have gotten all the gene splicing techs, Supremacy would require robotics etc. — and they’d be mutually exclusive because of the time investment, meaning the supremacy civ wouldn’t have bio-farms and the harmony civ wouldn’t have robo-factories. They would feel very different thanks to choices the player had made, which I’m all for.
Unfortunately the reality doesn’t quite manage this since the individual techs in Beyond Earth are rather bland and amorphous, but even so it allows you to pursue genuinely different research goals like picking up enough small bonuses to develop super farms. These are decisions that don’t feel inevitable, whereas Civ’s tech trees merely make you choose *when* you develop a tech, not *if*. It also fixes the problem where sending your spies to steal tech is a waste of time if you have the tech lead, since in Beyond Earth there is no such thing as a tech lead. There’s just a different set of tech priorities.
In my game I also managed to uncover most of the tech web by the time the game ended, or at least the bits I cared about. I ended up winning the Emancipation victory by shoving xeno squads through, despite them being different affinities, because it turns out that was the cheapest and quickest way to win.
I think the higher levels of tech need to be closer to the lower levels in the amount of research required. As it is it’s better to get a spread of low-level techs rather than beeline and specialize early on because of how long it takes to get the higher up techs.
Yeah, there’s no point in racing for death robots if you don’t have the Firaxis self-insertion resource in large quantities and the enemy ends up rushing you with combat rovers.
@Darren – Yeah, I didn’t think the stem/leaf thing worked out quite as well as it could have because of the cost mismatch. The bonuses they give you often aren’t good enough to justify researching them over a basic tech in the next iter up.
Depends, I feel that Endless Space suffers a lot more from this issue, and that tech costs are pretty well balanced in BE.
I’m a little disappointed that they didn’t use the Alpha Centauri/ Endless Legend system and made tech costs not fixed, but exponentially increasing depending on the amount of techs you already have. This would have been harder to balance considering BE’s tech tree layout (not to mention teaching the AI), but would have made the chosen affinities more clear-cut.
I do agree with much of this, especially the voice acting. Each leader has two or three lines which they repeat ad infinitum. The rest is done by the Iranian(?) lady from the game’s intro, who I assume turns in what is an incredibly dull performance out of protest at how bad the writing is. Contrast this with SMAC, where even the lines from the anonymous Morganite workers are so well done that I can still remember the inflection on the “bejeezus” in the Singularity Mechanics quote.
“No village was ever ru–”
Random, poorly-organized thoughts:
I like the tech web, but boy does it compare poorly with Endless Space’s in organization, color-coding, and lore. Meanwhile, the quests remind me of Endless Legend. In fact, I found myself thinking about the Endless series quite a bit as I played. I think I like the upgrade system a little more in BE than in EL, since it isn’t so fiddly, but it would be nice to have more options.
The soundtrack is actually quite good. Not especially memorable, but more stirring than Civ V’s fairly reserved tunes.
The UI is such a mess, and it’s telling that you can go on the Workshop and already find mods that add color coding to the trade route interface and tech web. From what I understand, the game is so much of a Civ V conversion that some mods for Civ V will work with it with very little modification (I hope the Quick Turns mod is ported over, as that thing should be packaged with Civ V and all variants).
Actually, the thing that bugs me the most–and I basically like BE–is that the Civiliopedia has some really great material, but most players are never going to see it. The Contact Victory fluff is especially nice.
I will take the advice to try a small map, as on a Standard map the aliens and other colonists are far too passive to be of much consideration.
Colonization was very different from Civ IV and more different from Civ IV than BE is from Civ V.
Given that this received about as much publicity as a 4x game is going to get, I hope that an expansion or two fleshes things out a bit. You have to go back to Railroads! and Pirates! to find Firaxis games that didn’t get any significant add-ons, so I’m cautiously optimistic. And it’s criminal that they couldn’t figure out a way to work something from XCOM into this game. We got the XCOM squad in Brave New World, you’d think they could’ve had a randomly appearing quest where Sectoids crash land and start running around or something.
Oh yeah, color coding is surprisingly lacking. It’s like a color-blind simulator. I don’t see miasma cause I’m colorblind but I bet it’s hard to see for others too. Meanwhile Endless series has very good color coding for buildings and techs so you have at least basic idea is the tech is science/industry/gold/war etc.
Yeah I don’t see miasma either, particularly on certain blue/green backgrounds. Yet another layer of work to do, mousing over every hex to check if it’ll kill you
Endless Space suffers from lore that bears no relation to the game. The evil empire dudes and the rebel scientist dudes both start on one planet, rather than one being plucky upstarts with a single colony and the other being an established multi-planet empire. It also never really crops up during the game except as flavour text on the techs, rather than something like SMAC that makes its story an integral part of the way the game develops as you go through it.
Fair enough, but the tech tree in Endless Space provides its fluff directly on the tech web. In Beyond Earth, you can’t see any details outside the Civilopedia.
I haven’t played SMAC, so I can’t really speak to how that game does things.
Also, the Endless Space tech and building descriptions were incredibly well-written for what they were. They were basically the only piece of character the game had, but they went a really long way.
SMAC gives you a one or two sentence breakdown of the tech when you research it, which is the absolute minimum a game set in the future needs to do – people are not intuitively going to know what Polymorphic Software does the way they do Rifling or Satellites, so you really need to explain to them why this thing they just researched is important.
The most grating thing with Endless Space is that pretty often the tech names and description fluff has an only very remote relationship to what the techs actually unlock. This is especially noticeable in the “Warfare” tree. There’s also a lot of “technobabble”.
Alpha Centauri is more “hard science-fiction”, while Endless Space is more “science fantasy” masquerading as science-fiction.
But at least ES still makes for a coherent world. In Civ:BE it sometimes feels that various concepts have just been thrown together in a blender.
Actually, now that I think of it, ES might be even worse than Civ:BE in that aspect.
SMAC still does mash together techy-sounding words once you get far away enough from modern technology, and occasionally does the thing of “yeah, I guess you could shoot people with chaos theory, why not”, but yes, I think the big difference is that it wants you to believe its world is grounded in the human history that came before it and a world that’s still very human, rather than being a society completely disconnected from ours.
While I can imagine how in SMAC the intimate knowledge of String Theory can allow you to make a very powerful weapon that works by decomposing matter into its most basic constituents,
or that using the knowledge of Singularity Mechanics you might be able to use controlled black holes as a power source;
it’s much harder to me to understand why exactly in Endless Space being able to apply the Casimir Effect allows for stronger hulls that are able to pass trough wormholes (but aren’t for some reason stronger in combat),
while the Casimir Tech description itself says it allows instead for a new kind of energy source (that you don’t see in the game).
Or take the Baryonic Shielding : ok, it does kind of explain to you what baryons are and does seem to fit the real-world science use of the term (but I would bet that unlike String Theory or Singularities / Black Holes, most players haven’t ever heard the term), but I fail to see what does that have to do with being able to colonize Lava planets, why you can’t use those shields on ships, and why if it says it’s an upgrade from “plasma shielding”, there isn’t one preceding it on the tech tree.
And those SMAC examples are among the worst ones, and rather far on the tech tree, while Endless Space is full of examples like this one.
It’s like if many of the science blurbs were written separately (with a heavy dose of sciencewords/technobabble), then were haphasardly assigned to the various techs and improvements required by gameplay design.
Most science fiction games usually try to have at least some consistency, even Alien Crossfire’s “resonance” gimmick is consistent with the lore of Progenitors (not to mention rather inventive as science fiction ideas go).
At the same time, stuff like Endless Space’s Kessler Syndrome is a real thing. But yeah, I agree that a lot of games like that have the problem where the flavour text is written after the fact by someone not in the main design team, and as a result it has a limited impact on the believability of the world.
Even though I’ve played several ES games I couldn’t force myself to read those descriptions. They did good color coding and icons so you can perceive all those tech and building as simple ends to an end – you don’t need explanation what University is in Civilization just as you know what Industrial Level means in Master of Orion. ES buildings and techs look very utilitarian to me which goes well is the whole ES thing of streamlining 4X and keeping all the depth.
Also I’ve noticed it made me a better 4X player. In Civ roleplaying affects me. I want to research Writing, not Animal Herding on my first turn in Civilization 5 cause Writing rocks, I like to write, and Animal Herding is for noobs. This is the same way I play Paradox grand strategies (but you don’t have a win condition there anyway). In ES when I choose between Quasi-Plastic Mining and Modified Nuclear Inbreeding I choose whatever is better for my strategy.
It’s much better in Legend where you get quests with decent writing and lore and some big differences between factions.
This “lore” stuff you talk about reminds me more of Paradox games where countries are bland but defined by their role and position (Spain-colonizer, Ottomans-baptisers, Austria-diplopower, France-fuck you). There are also sensible scenarios in other games though I’m not sure if it can be called “lore”. Distant Worlds has scenario with old stagnant empire and young eager border powers, for example. I’m sure you can see the same kind of things in HoMM or Age of Wonders SP scenarios.
I never looked in the Civilopedia. It strikes me that this could be another Sword of the Stars, where the developers came up with an elaborate backstory for the races and the universe and then decided to include almost none of it in the game itself. It needed way more communication to the player, either via better characterisation of the leaders or via the quest system.
While this is an issue in SotS1 (a lot of lore is buried in the wiki/the forums/other games), it at least has the huge wall of description text when you select a race, as well as all the scenarios.
It also has the flavor of various races saying different things in diplomacy (that you’ll see as race-specific gobbledygook if you haven’t researched their language), as well as race-specific event cards and various voice quotes (even if they aren’t at the level of Alpha Centauri).
Not to mention that mechanics/gameplay vary a lot depending on races (FTL methods, ship designs and combat handling, favorite techs…).
In words of PC Gamer’s Richard Cobbett : SotS1 has more than just “lore”. I wouldn’t say that it has a “story” (it has one, but you need hundreds of hours in the various SotS-verse games and a lot of out-of-game reading to fully appreciate it), but the universe they created lives pretty much in the games.
Whereas in Civ:BE, leaders are forgettable and repeat themselves to the point of being annoying, there’s in practice only 3 factions, they don’t even play that differently, and the lore seems more thrown together than really fleshed out.
Is it me or SotS has aged extremely bad? I’ve tried to get into it recently and interface felt like something from 90′s. And voiceacting sounded like me singing in shower. And tutorial was on tape.
I haven’t really stopped playing it for any significant amount of time since the A Murder of Crows expansion in 2009, so I have trouble imagining myself playing it for the first time.
The interface might need some time to get used to, but I think it’s mostly not because it’s bad (SotS2 or Civ:BE interface is much worse), but because it does things differently.
And once you learn the keyboard shortcuts it’s mostly a breeze (way too many games skimp on keyboard shortcuts, but they’re essential once you know how to play the game and want to do things fast).
The only thing really missing is the auto-focus on next/previous event when pressing left/right button, but it’s been added by the excellent sotsqkeys :
(see first thread post for more information)
I find the (relatively) crummy voice acting and the (relatively) cartoon graphics endearing (though there are people that find them annoying). SotS2 tried to be more serious and IMHO lost most of its charm because of that.
As for the tutorial videos, they’re better at explaining the game than simple infographics (especially because of the 3D nature of SotS) and you have to remember that the game had to fit on CD’s so HD wasn’t really an option.
Anyway, there’s just no other 4X game that even comes close to SotS spaceship combat.
I personally don’t understand why would anyone want to focus on combat in 4X game (it’s not X+3x after all) but perhaps there’s some charm in you playing leader of the whole empire and ship commander simultaneously. Still I prefer ES model where combat exists to show you why does your empire loses your fight so that science, army composition and industry could change accordingly.
So it’s like Total War in space? And SotS2 is objectively inferior?
The “Total War in Space” comparison comes up frequently, but I haven’t played TW enough to say how accurate it is. I prefer to think of it as a 4X game with Homeworld (Cataclysm) battles :
Most 4X games are won via eXtermination anyway, so why not focus on it?
eXploration, eXpansion, choice of technologies, ship design, fleet composition are all very important in SotS, but you also have to learn to use your ships in combat.
(So, it’s probably only the eXploitation that gets the short end of the stick.)
Some examples of combat tactics :
As usual, combat is most interesting against real players, AI is very limited in its strategies and tactics.
IMHO, SotS2 has some questionable design choices, that make the game overly complex (with an UI that doesn’t allow to manage that complexity) without making for good gameplay, but the main issue is probably that the game is unfinished (and is unlikely to ever be finished as the publisher preferred to cut the funding).
It’s worth taking a look at. The conceit for the writing is that all of this is historical information, so rather than being dry explanations of what things are you get detailed descriptions of what things *did.* The wonders in particular come across as very interesting in this style.
I get the same impression of a lack of a sense of place in Civ V though- to me the wonders and various things you can built always seem to boil down to what stat benefit they provide over something else. It’s what keeps me from playing it.
Every time I read a review about beyond Earth, it makes me want to see what all the fuss is about with SMAC. Then I get to the loading screen, realise I should probably read the manual first, and then quit.
Eh, you *can* play it without the manual, but you’ll need a game at least to figure out all the bits and what they mean. It took me a game to find the Social Engineering window, which is one of my favourite parts of the game in terms of what it promises and how it affects the way you play.
Social Engineering is pretty well designed. If you stack enough bonuses you can get something that would be game-breakingly powerful on its own, but in order to stack them that high you need to take a big hit somewhere else, like enraging the planet or having high drone unhappiness. It was a really interesting system in terms of the decisions you made.
Yeah, like you mentioned (quoting Andrew?) in the review with the wonders, I’d rather play a game that changes drastically between plays or at least gives you important decisions to make than one that kills you with a thousand percentages. Cosmic Encounter is an incredible game, and takes this to ludicrous extremes. We played a 4-player game with only red alien races (i.e. the most broken) and one 2-player alliance’s combination of powers was basically unbeatable.
But yeah, SMAC revelled in allowing you to stack gigantic numbers up, like my habit of using crawlers to build one base capable of churning out wonders in 2 turns, and surrounding it with military units to mine planetpearls from the inevitable deathstacks of mindworms showing up to complain. Or the time I used an army of formers and mindworms to conquer the middle continent in 2 turns.
Between the various tutorial “Tours” and the Basic/Advanced Concept entries in the Datalinks, you can pretty much learn the game without reading the manual.
There’s a lot of advanced strategies described here, but they’re mostly for those that already know how to play the game :
And, of course, the mandatory Velocyrix’ Strategy Guide :
Thanks for those!
They should’ve make it cheaper game. Nothing new here really. Aliens are still barbarians (despite what they are saying), the techi tree is horrible and confusing with little logic (it’s really hard to remember where each tech is located), AI is still stupid and almost zero people in multiplayer.
And now they are making DLC that will cost 30$.. (wtf?)
[…] up my nose. For what it’s worth I feel like the issues are less acute than they were in Civ V or Beyond Earth — I certainly don’t think Civ VI is going to require a full expansion in order to fix the […]