At the end of all of the Civilization games, one of the classic winning endings is not to conquer the rest of the world or overawe the other civilizations with alliances and treaties; rather, it is to build a ship and send it to the stars. What would happen when that ship reaches its destination? In the Mid 1990’s, Sid Meier, creator of the Civilization franchise, explored that in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, a turn-based strategy game with a transhumanist narrative, contacting and, in one of the win conditions, joining with Planet. It is probably the biggest budget videogame to ever explore transhumanism and science fiction, and one of the few to meld an external narrative into a strategy game.
Now, Civilization: Beyond Earth treads into those waters again. Created by Firaxis, Beyond Earth takes the chassis of the Civilization V engine, with its one-unit-per-hex design, and transplants it onto an alien planet.
The game starts off gamely enough. The fiction of the game universe has, belying the end of Civilization, a group of different groups escaping from a dying, desiccated Earth. Fans of the movie Interstellar will find the opening status of Earth familiar. Choices of faction, bonuses, and starting position complete the opening of the game, leaving the player to explore an alien world.
In many ways, the mechanics and features of Beyond Earth mirror that of Civilization. There are resources that give energy (read: money), food, and production. There are the equivalent of Civilization’s “goody huts” in the form of rescued resource pods that provide small bonuses to a young civilization . There are also places where explorers can dig — ancient ruins that provide even more bonuses. Instead of barbarians, there are hostile alien life forms of various stripes — a suprising amount of them, actually, as compared to the previous Civilization games (and even compared to Alpha Centauri). And they have alien nests that spawn more creatures.
There are some good and interesting things in Civilization: Beyond Earth. Alpha Centauri was innovative at the time for having a significant number of women and non-Europeans as faction leaders. Civilization Beyond Earth does not duplicate those factions and goes for its own variety of descendant polities (about 600 years from now) that bear little resemblance, for the most part, to contemporary Earth factions.
The game, however, turns out to be a massive disappointment in practice. The aforementioned factions are really not much more than names, with their history, backstory and nature buried in help files and out of the sight of the players. I really couldn’t tell you what the difference between the ARC and Franco-Iberia really is besides some modifiers. For that is all they are — no unique units, no special buildings, no special anything.
In the Civilization series, the major civilizations and their strategies and strengths are pretty easy to suss out, providing different gameplay. Rome? Watch out for the Legions; they’ll kick your arse. France? Musketeers, and lots of culture. England is good with anything to do with navy and trade. The Mongols? Guess. The aforementioned Alpha Centauri had the factions with a lot of color and diverse strength. Deirdre and the Gaians were good at harnessing the lifeforms of the planet. The University? Research. Miriam and her crazy Believers were the faction to worry about, as her military could overwhelm the planet. The Civilization Beyond Earth factions simply cannot compare and do not have any verve or personality within the game itself. Even after reading the help files, those personalities and individuality never really manifest in the game. When I play Civilization and I see Montezuma on my borders, I know he is eventually going to come after me and start a war. When I see Suzanne Fielding of the ARC, I have no idea what to expect, and multiple games have never really given her any sort of feel as an opponent, and not as someone to use as a civilization either.
The units in the game are thinly painted as well. The Civilization games have a wide variety of units from different eras. While that is unrealistic for a high tech game from the start, Alpha Centauri let you design units and increase their abilities as you moved up the tech ladder (a tech web, here, which works not as well as one might hope). The units here are generic, somewhat customizable as you rise through the game. But in the end, you only ever have that small pool of units, with customizations, for the entire game. Basic Melee Unit, Basic Missile Unit, Basic Artillery Unit, Basic Cavalry Unit, etc.
I could go on, but I will sum things up. I had high hopes for Civilization Beyond Earth. Perhaps an expansion or two will inject personality into the game. As it stands right now, however, Civilization Beyond Earth is a tremendous disappointment and I cannot recommend it.