Beyond Earth plays a clever trick on the seasoned Civilization player. It begins by looking, feeling and playing very much like Civ V, simply transplanted to an alien landscape. But after only a few dozen turns, Beyond Earth opens up and the series of win conditions, which should be familiar to anyone who has played a previous Civ game, become almost tantalisingly attainable.
They’re not, of course. Not yet. But you’ll feel much closer to the endgame you’re aiming for much sooner in the game you’re playing and that has a somewhat peculiar effect on the Civ experience: you worry. You sit up. You pay much more attention to the units you’re moving and the instructions you’re giving at a very early stage. Before a hundred turns are taken, you’ll have levelled up a few unit types, researched several technologies or discoveries and possibly lost a unit or two to the hostile new environment.
Civ games have always allowed for a very gentle style of play. You languidly explore the scenery for a while, developing technology and building a nascent army while you wait for the game’s AI to do the same up until the point where everyone has a civilisation worth protecting, something to bargain with and an army to drive home the benefits of agreeing to the deal. And then you play your opening gambit. Then you decide how you’re going to approach relations with the other players on the map. Beyond Earth thrusts this upon you much sooner than previous Civ games and while it does indeed appear to be a very similar game to its predecessor, the speed with which it starts to unfurl the intricate glories of the Civilization style of game makes the way you play it much more active.
Beyond Earth begins as Civ V might have ended: with a rocket ship blasting into the stars. This former victory, wrought from the hours of careful scientific research and discovery in a previous game, now simply acts as a catalyst for this one and Beyond Earth’s new beginning is stripped of the hope and triumphalism that you might expect for one of the previous game’s win conditions. You’re starting again, in an alien landscape, from scratch. There seems to be a greater sense of vulnerability, a lot more danger, when you transplant Civ away from the caricatured historical figures.
That new feeling of danger is amplified by the sense that the opening stages of Beyond Earth are very much about colonisation of this new landscape. You can choose from three different types of world, mostly dictating the amount of seafaring needed, and you obviously still get to choose your civilisation too but you also have to select your starting cargo, crew and ship. This means that the opening turns of a Civ game now have a much wider range of variables because each choice presents you with a different combination of perk, technology and starting units that will influence how you take your first teetering steps to conquering this new world.
You’re bombarded with little decisions to make as you go through the opening few dozen turns. You might not notice on your first play through but each small decision that’s asked of you when you construct a new unit or building will spin out into a larger forking of skills and attributes much later in the game. The Virtues system is more explicit about the way your perks will level up but, in other ways, Beyond Earth almost tricks you into micro-managing things early on and then makes those seemingly tiny choices have wider ramifications later in the game. It simultaneously gives you plenty to do in that traditionally quiet opening period and stretches out your tactical options for later in the game, when you’ll appreciate them all the more.
There’s always been a temptation, late in any game of Civ, to simply abandon what you’ve been working towards and go for a Domination victory. It’s been easy to lose patience with your own efforts for diplomacy or science, for example, while a couple of other civilisations are nibbling away at your borders. You might get bored of trying to reason with everyone and simply wipe them out. Beyond Earth, more than any previous Civ game, makes this less of a temptation.
For one thing, it’s harder to simply default to genocide. That’s in part because of the constant consideration of the hostile indigenous lifeforms and poisonous miasma – much more troubling than simple barbarian encampments – and also partly because the military endgame branches a little further away from some of the more peaceful approaches. If you want to jump off the scientific victory branch and onto the domination limb, it’s a bigger jump and you will be in the air for longer, often allowing your opponents to seize the upper hand.
The alien lifeforms and miasma don’t always have to be hostile. There’s even a way to play that turns them into benefits that can, for example, recharge your unit’s health. But they’re always a consideration and that’s, in part, thanks to the further refinement of the tactical system that Civ V introduced when it disallowed unit stacking. The days of building units, stacking them around a city and brute-forcing your way to victory are over and with adjoining hexes now likely to contain some poisonous odour or veracious animal, you’ll have to think even more carefully about how you’ll place which units on approach to any military engagement.
This ability to embrace the ostensibly hostile native wildlife and planetary emissions is a key idea in the newest set of systems layered into Civ’s gameplay: Affinity. There are three very distinct affinities that change the way you play, from favouring certain quest decisions to developing particular tech in order to level up your path through a certain affinity. Each of the three – purity, supremacy and harmony – offer different unit evolutions and perks as you progress. Purity is for those space-racists that want to keep humanity distinct from alien influence, Supremacy is for anyone who thinks technology will always prevail and Harmony is for anyone who wants to don their space-sandals and throw their arms around an alien. They’re all pleasingly separate and offer enough of a change that it really makes you adapt and alter the way you approach the game.
The opposing AI is still somewhat erratic – perhaps one of the weakest points of any Civ game – but the presence of an unfamiliar world and its other hostile presences often go a long way to help negate any idiosyncratic actions from the opposition. That opposition, deprived as it is of the familiarity of historical faces present in traditional Civ games, loses a certain amount of character and personality that it often struggles to recapture but given the new depth of the environments, it matters less than it might have.
That’s not to say the AI isn’t seemingly improved, either. There appears to be less of the overwhelming aggression that immediately gives way to meandering exploration as the enemy loses their own train of thought. There also feels like more purpose in the actions of your opponents, lecturing you about something before an apt demonstration of why you might want to take their lessons on board – all played out as a human demonstration might take place.
Civilization games have always mixed the mildly comical with the intensely thoughtful as they parody humanity’s struggle towards modernity. Beyond Earth takes that struggle away from the semi-familiar trappings of high-school history personalities and in doing so manages to reflect more of the nature of humanity. Removed from the reimagining of a history we all have a degree of familiarity with, Beyond Earth is less about growing to a point we’re all living right now and more about evolving beyond that; beyond this.
In casting off the shackles of historical adherence, the Civ series has managed to improve on its core gameplay elements and add new systems that genuinely change the game but do so in a way that is initially very subtle. It still has its occasional irritations – simple mistakes can be painstakingly punished, for example, and the hot seat multiplayer is a bit finicky for the first hundred or so turns but Beyond Earth does what most great sci-fi does with aplomb: it reflects our humanity back upon us. In the end, it teaches us that even in a bizarre alien setting, humanity’s weaknesses and strengths, its challenges and victories, are still present and no amount of reaching for the stars will negate the need to continuously look sideways to our human siblings.