Video Game Thoughts: Civilization: Beyond Earth

Civilization: Beyond Earth is a 2014 turn-based strategy game by Firaxis Games. With how much fun I had playing Civilization V, this new game, which was based on the same game engine, looked like a lot of fun. When the game came out, I was busy with finishing some other games, so I skipped it. However, this year I had the time and decided to give it a try.

Rather than being a re-imagining of the history of man on Earth (Civilization V), Beyond Earth was about the future, literally “beyond Earth”. The developers created a fictional story of “The Great Mistake”. They left it up to the player’s imagination what actually happened, but the result of the mistake was an Earth damaged beyond repair. Humanity could not last much longer on Earth. They needed to colonize a new planet. It just so happened that technology had advanced enough for the deep space flight required to get to a distant planet.

The gameplay was very similar to Civilization V. It was the same game engine after all. Gameplay took place on a new planet, but the goal was still to found cities, build them up, and complete objectives to eventually win a victory. The new setting warranted several additions to the gameplay, including alien units, affinity ideologies, and the tech web.

The aliens, unlike the barbarians of the previous game, had a much greater variety of units, from melee to ranged, weak to powerful. They also were not individual like animals, but worked to support each other similar to a player faction. A player that left the aliens alone was mostly left alone by them. A player that continually attacked the aliens became their enemy. Late in the game the military units could wipe out any aliens, but early on the aliens were generally much stronger. The aliens inevitably got in the way of the civilization’s expansion and had to be destroyed, but care had to be taken not to anger them too much in the early stages of the game. I found it a lot of fun to manage my faction’s relationship with the aliens.

Affinities were a variation of the old political ideology system from Civilization V. They were no longer based on collecting culture points. Instead, most technology had a certain affinity flavor. Researching the technology, in addition to unlocking new units and buildings, also awarded affinity points towards the related affinity. Enough affinity points gained the player affinity levels, which gave the player powerful bonuses. While there were three victories tied to the three affinities, I loved that the player could achieve the other two victories using any of the affinities. This added a lot of replay value to the game.

The Tech Web also added a lot of replay value. Unlike all previous Civilization games, there was no tech tree. Instead, the player’s civilization started in the center and could go out in any direction to research the various technologies. While there were some “must-have” technologies, most of this choice was up to the player. Combined with the affinities, there was a huge amount of replay value. I loved how the player could raise their affinity along several different paths.

The rest of the game mechanics were mostly the same from Civilization V, but they still had many tweaks and modifications. Diplomacy and spying gained a few new options to add some depth. There were all new resources to be found on the terrain and new improvements Worker units could build on them, but they largely functioned the same as Civilization V. I appreciated the new art for them though. The gameplay may have been the same, but it was still refreshing to see the new graphics after seeing the same graphics over and over in Civilization V over the years.

Overall, I had a ton of fun with the game in this state, but it did suffer from some balance issues. Many choices the player were offered by the game were not really choices. There was clearly a “best” choice, which didn’t change much between games. Because of this, I quickly figured out a winning strategy that was far superior to anything else. It made the game very easy to play this way. I did enjoy trying other strategies though. I’ve never cared about always playing the best in games. I have fun experimenting.

Rising Tide expansion

The Rising Tide expansion had one main purpose: to add complexity to the game with many new features. While I liked this approach — it was the same thing Firaxis did with the Civilization V expansions — I felt the developers missed the main flaw in the base game. The problem was not that players didn’t have enough choices, but that many choices were just illusions. It wasn’t really a choice when one option was much more powerful than the other. The developers did some balancing for the expansion but mostly missed this flaw. They focused on adding new features. The new features were really cool though.

For the first time in the series, players could build cities on water. In addition, they made the water more interesting with many resources and special features only available on water. In previous games, the water was just an obstacle to travel. It usually didn’t benefit the player much, but now the water could offer some very nice exclusive bonuses.

Another big feature was the new diplomacy system. They completely changed it from the base game and all other civilization games. Each player now had four traits. One of them was tied to the particular civilization the player chose, but three others were open for the player to choose. Pretty much every trait was useful in at least one situation, creating a lot of variety in each game. On top of that, each trait unlocked a potential agreement that other players could purchase with the new Diplomatic Capital currency. Unlike before, where interacting with other players rarely happened, now it happened throughout the game.

Another addition was three new hybrid affinities. They were based on the original three affinities. I liked having three more advancement options, but the developers didn’t have hybrid victories for them. This meant, affinity victories were actually much slower if the player went the hybrid affinity route. Hybrid affinities were still good for the two other victory conditions, Contact and Domination. In particular, Domination victories were fun because they gave the player a reason to build the exclusive units for their hybrid affinity. The new units had some cool, unique abilities that greatly changed how the player went about combat and capturing cities.

The rest of the additions were small. Some new alien worlds were added to keep the game interesting. The artifacts system from the base game, which was mostly copied from Civilization V, now had a new collection minigame. Artifacts could be mixed and matched to unlock special bonuses like exclusive buildings. Exploration went from just an early game activity to a system used the entire game.

I really liked all the new features. It felt like a totally new game. I am currently on a break from the game, but I have not come close to mastering the game yet. There are a lot more choices to make on a turn by turn basis, though there are still those fake choices for which I always pick the same option. I was very satisfied with the purchase of Beyond Earth and its expansion. While I didn’t find it quite as polished as Civilization V with its expansions, the game was still high quality. I didn’t find Beyond Earth to be a replacement for Civilization V. It was more of a complementary game. They both did different things. Beyond Earth is still being supported. There will likely be new patches and possibly even another expansion to try later, giving me even more reasons to return to the game again. If more content is released, I will update this with any new thoughts.

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