Civilization: Beyond Earth review: starstruck

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac, Linux
Publisher 2K Games
Developer Firaxis Games
Release Date

Science is the hub around which Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth turns, but science also thrums within the game's every node, synapse and tendril.

This is a very good strategy game. I expect nothing less from a franchise that has dedicated itself to turn-based strategy for more than two decades, from a developer that has consistently proven that it understands the dark mysteries of hooking players; the ineffable secret of "one ... more ... turn."

Firaxis' 2010 release, Civilization 5, was not so much a game as a platform upon which Firaxis worked through its own discoveries about potentialities and possibilities. Beyond Earth manifests itself as the latest example of this process.

Beyond Earth is an adventure about the future of humanity, an ode to discovery and to enquiry. It is also a work of science itself, the result of developer Firaxis' patient accumulation of data and ideas, culminating in a gameplay machine that whirrs with a fierce and quiet efficiency.

one ... more ... turn

The opening moments of a game of Beyond Earth almost precisely match the start of Civilization 5. In the latter, players began with a rudimentary settlement on Earth, around the time of the discovery of agriculture. Here, the game begins in the A.D. 2600s, and that first settlement is a landing pod from Earth filled with refugees seeking a new beginning.

The techs, the soldiers, the buildings, are all of a science fiction bent. Instead of learning writing and crafting a wheel for the first time, I researched Astrodynamics and built a Thorium Reactor.

Apart from luminescent fungal visuals, the hex-based landscape remains much the same, overlaid upon a rolling mosaic of countryside dotted with features, obstacles and resources upon which players make use of their own intelligence to gather goods and execute military victories. Any Civilization 5 player entering Beyond Earth can launch themselves into this new world immediately, without any need of guidance.

But as I looked beyond the basic structure, I started to sense some very clever tweaks, shifts and improvements that bring new efficiencies to the formula and new pleasures to the player.

An affinity system asks the player to choose a philosophy, from a list of three. This pseudo-personality system feeds into every part of the game, dispensing upgrades to military units, affecting diplomatic relationships with AI civilizations and offering up paths to victory, as well as special quests and unique buildings.

Crucially, it impacts the player's scientific research decisions. At first I thought that the new tech web, which eschews the more traditional linear approach, might all be window dressing, that I would find a research path fairly quickly and stick to it, as I have done in the past with this series. But although the early game demands certain techs as soon as possible, I found myself using the tech web in a much more opportunistic and reactive way, seeking out discoveries that would resolve immediate crises while also taking a long term strategic view where possible. I was really playing the discovery system, rather than simply figuring out a most efficient path.

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Civilization: Beyond Earth takes some of the drudgery out of the process

My passage through affinity levels gave me upgrade options on military units, which dispensed with the tedious business of spending money to update soldiers who had fallen behind the times. The game expected me to work at advancing my civilization, but it has taken some of the drudgery out of this process. Bravo for that.

Key resources are extensively intertwined with the building of certain units and buildings so that the importance of resources to buildings and units has been expanded, splintering the potential shape and path of each civilization according to the goods it can find.

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The link between resources and happiness has also been killed. The citizens in your cities must be kept healthy through specific constructions and the management of unhealthy hexes smothered in miasma. Keeping citizens healthy is extremely challenging, but the penalties feel more on a sliding scale than the binary punishments of the previous game. I don't miss chasing around for luxury goods to keep my minions from revolting or, even worse, seeking out natural wonders as short-term boosts to happiness.

Beyond Earth has pulled back some of the features and clutter that have accumulated in the series. It all feels like a clever exercise in "less is more" theory. As I encountered each change in the formula I saw the good sense in its inclusion, exclusion or modification. The alterations do not come across as gimmicky. On the contrary, they feel like hard-thought innovations.

Even after many hours of play, I continue finding neat little ideas. It's as good an indication as any that, far from taking an extant game and slapping on a sci fi wraparound, Firaxis has gazed into the future and brought meaningful changes to the format.

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At this point, I feel I ought to make a confession. As someone who much prefers historical fiction to futuristic speculation, I did not expect to really love this brave new world of Civness (back in the '90s, I never really got into Alpha Centauri). For me, the discovery of the printing press is always going to feel more authentic and solid than figuring out the mysteries of collaborative thought. I am always going to take more pleasure in a Ship-o'-the-Line than a Xeno Swarm.

This prejudice was seriously undone by Civilization: Beyond Earth. Beginning with its emotionally powerful intro video (above), and on through the new world, the aliens, the techs, the units, the cities, there is so much here to admire and to enjoy. I particularly liked the beautiful art and animation. This attention to the tiniest of details, like the way a robot worker handles a girder, brings the greater world to life.

This plays out in the sciences that the game utilizes as it paints a vision of the future. Firaxis hasn't exactly reinvented the notion of science fiction (purple mushrooms, green aliens, spooky miasma, silver spaceships et al.) but it has obviously melded these familiars with deeply researched ideas about settling new planets, about the technologies of tomorrow and about human frailties in a strange new world.

From the beginning, it's clear that the planet you land upon is not exactly pleased to see you. Aliens cannot be exterminated without advanced and numerable military units. Resources cannot be exploited without study. Distances cannot be traversed without significant perils.

There is an underlying question about why you are here and what you hope to achieve, and this plays itself out in the game's multiple victory conditions, many of which demand a relationship between the player and the planet, that is absent in previous games.

Winning, or even surviving, feels more like an act of creativity than merely of conquest. This is the chief charm of Civilization games, and Beyond Earth highlights it. The process of playing through the game exists at a nexus between mine and the designer's imaginations, allowing for infinite creative possibilities within a tight set of rules.

Winning feels more like an act of creativity than merely of conquest
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There are minor irritations in Civilization: Beyond Earth. The intelligence of computer-controlled players has been improved somewhat from previous games. They don't seem quite as susceptible to prideful rage and suicide-by-pointless-invasion, although you can still expect to see their units crawling aimlessly over your territory, turn-after-turn, or an enemy refusing to come to terms when an offensive campaign has clearly ground to a halt. Doing business with them — even with the addition of a new favor bargaining chip that can be cashed in later — rarely feels like its adding much to the overall experience. Most of the time, their incursions into my consciousness just feels like an annoyance.

The end-game can become something of a chore. If you have amassed significant resources and are playing toward a guaranteed win, it begins to feel like you're running on a treadmill. This is a standard problem with large-scale strategy games. I also do not love the simplistic visual iconic organization of units and techs. Obviously a nod to futuristic aesthetics, there were, nevertheless, times when I confused one kind of unit for another. Likewise, the Wonders are not nearly as pleasing in their presentation as in previous games and the end-game sequences seem skimpy and unsatisfactory.

But these are quibbles about what is an entirely satisfactory strategic fantasy. Beyond Earth is a pretty play set that takes standard futuristic visuals and ideas and furnishes them with scientific relevance and strategic urgency. The game is dotted with quests and ideas that feel authentic, just like a really good sci fi novel.

Wrap Up:

Civilization: Beyond Earth successfully injects new life into Sid Meier's long-running strategy series

Civilization: Beyond Earth is an immensely pleasing simulation of a future human society, struggling to survive on a new planet. It presents the player with a constant stream of challenging and intriguing choices. Packed with big ideas about science and science fiction, it meticulously interlocks dozens of strategic gaming systems that work together at a level that approaches genius.

Civilization: Beyond Earth was reviewed using early PC code provided by 2K Games. You can find out more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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