Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth Review (PC)
Around 150 turns into my first game of Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, I was finally feeling a little more confident. Comfortable. My two-city space civ wasn’t exactly thriving, but I was on the right path. I was completing quests left and right. All I had to do was get the health of my citizens up and start making more energy.
Then my nearest neighbor, with whom I’d agreed to cooperate only a few turns earlier, declared war and wiped out my meager army.
I’ve played Civilization V for almost 300 hours. For almost any other series in existence, that might be impressive. In Civ years, I’m still a baby. Still, you don’t play that much Civ without loving it, without telling yourself “just one more turn” a few thousand times, and without losing hours, sometimes entire weekends, to the minute turn-by-turn details of the intricate strategy gameplay. I went into Beyond Earth expecting it to be a lot like Civilization V, and because of this, my first attempt at post-Earth life was an overwhelming failure. Once I began to understand how to survive—and thrive—on humanity’s new planet, however, something clicked, and I never wanted to stop.
Civilization: Beyond Earth begins with a chilling vision of the future of humanity: having used up all of our home planet’s resources, we’re forced to move on. Before disembarking, however, you’ll have some choices to make. There are sponsors to fund your space mission, colonists to inhabit your settlements, the type of spacecraft you’ll use, cargo to bring, and what kind of planet to land on, each decision carrying its own unique perks—so clearly, this is more than Civ V in an alternate sci-fi universe. Even Civ’s notorious difficulty levels have been renamed to fit the space theme, ranging from the beginning Sputnik to the “impossibly hard” Apollo.
Even after dedicating a good portion of my free time to Civ V, Beyond Earth is overwhelming. In fact, you might be more likely to make mistakes if you’ve got your previous Civilization experience on the brain. For example, while there are no barbarians in space, each planet is populated by native aliens, which become hostile if your troops go too close to their nests. Think your entry-level soldiers can take them down? Think again—your feeble early attempts at an army will be wiped out with one swipe of a space worm’s forked tail. Even the world looks different, with poisonous miasma, wrecked spaceships, and unfamiliar new materials scattered throughout each foreign planet.
Thankfully, there are plenty of systems in place to provide direction without holding your hand. Civilization’s system of tutorials lets you set your level of experience, whether you’re new to Civ, new to Beyond Earth, or an old pro, and you’ll get notices accordingly. You might get a little nudge letting you know that it’s time to assign a Covert Ops agent or that your empire’s health is not looking great, but if you’ve played Civ before you won’t be inundated with obvious “hey, do this!” reminders.
Additionally, Beyond Earth adds a Quest system, with ongoing goals changing with your decisions. Quests might be as simple as building a certain type of structure in your main city or far more complex, often with multiple parts involved. Occasionally, certain actions will call for Quest Decisions to be made, and it’s up to you to make the choices that best suit your empire and your play style.
The Domination Victory is still one of the five win-conditions in Beyond Earth, so if you want to go to town on your adversaries as soon as you land on a new planet, have at it. Every other victory is new and different, however. Then there’s the Contact Victory, which requires deciphering a signal and reaching the aliens who sent it, which is more complicated than it sounds. The other win states are tied to the game’s three Affinities, which are guiding philosophies similar to religion. Those who follow the Harmony Affinity organically adapt to their new home planet, while the Supremacy Affinity uses advanced technology to push mankind forward into robotic territory. Or, if you’d rather preserve humanity and its history as-is, you could follow the Purity Affinity and refuse to adapt to the new world. No matter which Affinity you follow, it will likely anger other civilizations that don’t share your beliefs later in the game. If you can’t manage to achieve any of the five possible victories, the highest-scoring civ after 500 turns wins.
You can level up multiple Affinities at once, but your dominant philosophy is the one other civs will react to. Instead of constantly replacing outdated military with newer versions, your forces will earn new skills depending on your Affinity, so your early-game units will still be useful later on. Of course, you’ll also unlock more units, as well as buildings, enhancements, and Affinity progress, using the intricate Tech Web. Like Civilization V’s skill tree, the Web allows the player to unlock new skills using science earned in cities. However, the Tech Web’s design allows for more fluid, adaptable decision-making. You might start out thinking about Supremacy but find that Purity suits your style more after 100 turns or so; you won’t find yourself terribly behind in unlocked skills if you decide to shift gears during the game.
Around 165 turns into my second game, I started getting more comfortable, but waiting for that familiar addictive rush to kick in took a little too long. I found myself hitting “next turn” with no actual action quite a bit in those early post-Earth years. You’re presented with an overwhelming amount of choices right off the bat, but then Beyond Earth becomes a bit more passive as you find your footing. By the time I hit turn 200, I was completely in the groove, ready for the next settlement to declare war on me; at turn 300, every other civ denounced me for my Purity Affinity and I didn’t even care. I had combat rovers and gunners and tacjets in every city; I had spies performing Covert Ops in four different locations; I had a massive stockpile of Energy, the game’s currency; I’d even finally managed to turn my civ’s health problems around. Finally, that “just one more turn” feeling took over, and I felt like I knew what I was doing. I just wish it had taken less than 15 hours to get there.
Civilization: Beyond Earth sets itself apart from the previous games in the series in ways big and small, and you would be mistaken to dismiss this entry in the strategy franchise as “Civ V in space.” Beyond Earth is an excellent standalone experience that can be enjoyed regardless of your history with the series—though having some understanding of how the turn-based strategy gameplay works is certainly an asset. After 300 hours of Civ V, the time has come to move on; I’ve left Earth and headed into space, and I think I will be there for thousands more turns to come.
This review is based on a digital copy of Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth provided by the publisher for PC.