The sniff test for any game, I think, is “Would you tell a friend to buy it?”
In the case of Civilization: Beyond Earth, I’d say “No,” which makes me sad, because I had high hopes for the game. Before I get into why I don’t like it and can’t recommend it, there’s this: It’s a Civilization game. Sure, the series has had its ups and downs, but within a relatively narrow range – even Beyond Earth’s predecessor, the limply-received Civilization V, is a decent game, and it’s been a pretty great one since the release of its expansions, Gods & Kings and Brave New World.
I’ll get to the point: Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is not A) the new Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri or B) a true step forward for the series. The game promises some wonderful things – it’s Civilization on a new planet! And the problem is, that’s it. In major, important ways, it’s the same Civ you either hated or learned to love in V, replete with all the pre-expansion boredom that came with that entry.
So if you’ve played Civilization V, you’ll feel right at home with Beyond Earth. And by “at home,” I mean you’ll wonder if you ever really left. Beyond Earth feels distressingly like a hot reskin of Civ V combined with an ill-advised, drunken night with someone you picked up in the Steam Workshop. And in the cold light of day, that new look doesn’t seem nearly as sexy as it did in the E3 demo.
There are new things, granted: An “orbital layer” into which you can launch satellites; a tech “web” replaces the staid Civ tech “tree;” and there are aliens.
Mostly, these aliens serve as obstacles to development. While later tiers in the tech web allow you to harness or coexist with these creatures, in general they function like amped-up versions of V’s barbarians. They’re so unimaginatively designed as to actually look like bugs (yup, they’re green), and they’ll smash your explorer or colony units without apparent provocation.
Or maybe they won’t. It’s always a dice roll with these guys (your chances of being attacked do, in fairness, go up the closer you get to one of their nests).
And that’s kind of illustrative of my main problem with Beyond Earth: It’s mostly like playing Civilization V, but with a blindfold on. The tech web is another instance of this: Yes, we’ve apparently mastered interstellar travel, but our scientists still need to research robotics? Clearly that means something else, and all you’re given by way of explanation is a couple paragraphs of flavor text in the “Civilopedia,” which instead of providing historical context, now provides made-up, bland sci-fi context.
The diplomacy system has been reworked, and AI players will now offer “favors” in lieu of actual goods when asking you for resources, open borders, or alliances. Here again, you feel the blindfold – while you can amass favors (“the Franco-Iberians owe me four whole favors!”), I’ve found it rather impossible to ever cash them in, primarily because there’s nothing telling you what they’re worth. Suffice to say, they’re not like Godfather favors.
Beyond Earth also replicates Civ V in its maddening refusal to allow stacking of military units, and provides cities with the ability to bombard nearby enemies from the jump. It massively disincentivizes conquest, while also herding you into conquest as one of three vaguely-defined “affinities.” Should you choose the military route, prepare to be stymied by procedurally-generated terrain features that don’t allow passage by land units (again, we have apparently mastered interstellar travel; why Beyond Earth’s marines can’t hop a gorge when Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s grunts can is strange and frustrating), and by the fact that two military units can’t occupy the same hex, even though, scale-wise, each hex should represent several thousand square miles.
The AI – which is not clever – doesn’t seem to care for this mechanic either, and you can watch it endlessly shuffle units around bottlenecks, trying to optimize its advantage. It seems to have been, like me, designed for militaries that can feasibly negotiate spaces that are theoretically the size of Pennsylvania, and yet can’t because of the game’s strange rules about how “only one infantry unit at a time can occupy a space.” I’m pretty sure Antietam was fought between more units in a smaller area, but hey, them’s the rules.
This all assumes you can get the game to run on your computer. For some strange reason (here’s the blindfold yet again), Civilization: Beyond Earth requires quite a bit of hardware – and unless you meet the optimum requirements, the game will look almost literally like garbage. Even on the high-end machine I recently built, nations’ leaders show up with strange, Lovecraftian graphical glitches. If there’s a banner title this year that should be available to laptop owners, it should honestly be Beyond Earth, and yet whatever unholy deal they’ve struck with AMD seems to mean the game requires Crysis levels of hardware to look like anything other than a junkyard fire.
And yet… it’s still Civilization. Once I’m in, there’s that “one more turn” feeling that draws me into hours-long play sessions. It’s just the least-compelling Civilization game I’ve played in a decade.
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth bears its progenitor’s name, and I feel justified in having expected something more than a technically-prettier, mechanically-uglier version of the last entry in the series. I hold out hope that expansion packs will turn Beyond Earth into something worthwhile, but for now you’re better off either buying or dusting off an old copy of Civilization V.
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth
Reviewed on PC, also available on OS X
Developed by Firaxis Games
Published by 2K
Released October 23, 2014