Review: Civilization: Beyond Earth is a flavor-rich evolution of the franchise

Platforms: PC

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth is a game that you likely already know a lot about, if you are a fan of the turn-based empire building genre which the Civilization series has come to define in its over 20 years of existence. You probably already know that Beyond Earth is a spiritual sequel to the sci-fi series spin-off Alpha Centauri, and that Beyond Earth is built on "the bones of Civilization," with the base gameplay and the underlying engine largely unchanged from 2010's Civilization V. 

After spending over 50 hours playing Beyond Earth, I can say with confidence that, if you're a fan of the series or the genre, you'll almost certainly love Beyond Earth. If you've never enjoyed the Civilization series there isn't a lot in Beyond Earth that will change your mind, but for Civ fanatics this is a deep, engrossing, flavorful alternative to the traditional Civ experience.

While it's unlikely that this sci-fi theme will supplant the traditional historical flavor of the series long term, Beyond Earth is full of fantastic and fascinating touches that are a joy to experience, and which promise endless replay value for those that seek it.

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"All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better."

 -Ralph Waldo Emerson

At its core, Beyond Earth isn't very different than a game of Civilization V. You build cities, improve the surrounding territory with workers, research technologies, and build an army while balancing the various needs of your people and your short- and long-term goals. Beyond Earth continues Civ V's focus on gradual expansion, rather than a rush for territory, and in the games I played there were still decent unclaimed spaces for cities 200 turns or more into the game.

Expanding your borders in Beyond Earth can be a trickier proposition than in games past, because of the presence of the alien faction. Far more interesting than barbarians ever were, the aliens are a formidable force that needs to be managed, one way or another, well into the middle portion of a typical game. Early on you'll probably do your best to avoid antagonizing the alien life, but that can often mean that you need to accept the loss of explorers, workers, and tile improvements without retaliating.

Eventually you may gather the necessary technology and strength to clear your surroundings of alien life (or befriend it, if you're following the Harmony affinity path), but the sight of a rogue siege worm passing near your city borders will be cause for alarm at just about any stage of the game.

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I've logged hundreds of hours playing the games of the Civ series over the years, and barbarians never played anywhere close to as big a role in determining my progress and overall strategy as the aliens do in Beyond Earth. Finding out that some quality territory for expansion is full of alien nests can be a major setback. A siege worm that is trapped by your expanding borders can render a section of land inhospitable for dozens of turns until you finally deal with it.

Your choices regarding research, quests, and the civic virtues you pursue will all be influenced by your plans for dealing with the alien life, and since those choices will in turn affect how your interactions with the other civilizations play out, the aliens play a satisfying and significant role in the overall experience of the game.

The developers also deserve a huge amount of credit for the way maps are generated in Beyond Earth. Mountain ranges and chasms, which are both inaccessible territory for most of your units, form interesting natural choke points and barriers in your territory that can have almost as much of a strategic impact as the alien life.

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"We can do science, and with it, we can improve our lives."

-Carl Sagan

The tech web, while not quite as significant of a change as the aliens, is another way in which Beyond Earth offers more interesting and important choices when compared to its Civ ancestors. Organizing technologies in a web, with multiple different possible paths of progression, allows for much more freedom and flexibility in advancing your research. Add in the presence of "Leaf" technologies, which are optional depth technologies that build off of each "Stem" on the web, and players will frequently have the choice between around a dozen technologies or more that they can be researching at any one time. That's a huge jump from anything we've ever seen in Civ before, and I can't wait to see the folks on the Civilization forums debating different "optimal" paths through the tech web.

One of the few ways in which Beyond Earth clearly falls short of Civ V, though, is in the flavor and impact of its Wonders. Wonders are significant projects that, in most cases, can only be built by a single player in a given game. Many games of Civ over the years have hinged on which player was able to complete the Oracle first, since the significant bonus provided by that Wonder could lead to a snowball effect of increasing power.

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Whether it was intentional by the developers or not, Wonders in Beyond Earth feel significantly less powerful and impressive than the ones in past Civ games. Small bonuses to individual cities are much more common than the nation-wide bonuses franchise fans may be used to. Wonders also come with rather dry blueprint animations upon completion and vague sci-fi names, and while it can be fun to stop and read the associated Civilopedia entry for each wonder (the entire Civilopedia is a fantastic collection of tiny sci-fi stories), it's unlikely your collection of Wonders will stick in your memory the way it would in Civ V. 

This lack of memorability is, in fact, one of the the main shortcomings of Beyond Earth. Without the real-world historical grounding for civilizations and technologies and buildings, too many of them blur together under their indistinct sci-fi titles. Even after playing several games of Beyond Earth, I still find myself hunting for the symbols that show me what a city improvement will provide (I'm usually in dire need of health bonuses) rather than having internalized the names and associated bonuses. That will likely come in time, but I suspect I won't be the only one who finds that Beyond Earth feels a bit too vague for its own good at times.

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 "Nothing should be left to an invaded people except their eyes for weeping."

-Otto von Bismark

Waging war in Beyond Earth has been slightly streamlined when compared to Civ V, which was itself a major streamlining of what franchise fans had been used to with earlier games in the series. The smaller number of different unit types in Beyond Earth, each of which will remain relevant and fully upgraded automatically throughout the game, makes maintaining a military much less of a hassle than it ever has been before. It also makes it much easier to grasp the proper uses of different military units, and makes each increased affinity level -- with the choice between civ-wide upgrades for a particular unit type -- a hugely important and powerful choice.

Combat in Beyond Earth feels like chess. Thinking ahead is essential. Whether a unit can move one or two hexes in a turn is extremely important. Opening up with ranged assaults and then following up with close-range fighters became second nature to me as I played. Having a diverse military seemed to be the only correct and viable option, and I was thankful that I never once had to worry about upgrading any dumb spearman I had forgotten about in the middle of my territory.

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“When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”

-Attributed to Frederic Bastiat

Beyond Earth is rich with strategic depth, and I really feel that I've barely scratched the surface of what is possible in my time with the game. The distinction between the three different affinity paths in the game, alien-loving Harmony, AI-loving Supremacy, and Old Earth-loving Purity, offers far more than simply cosmetic changes. Your advancement in these affinities will also provide access to powerful mid- and late-game unique units, city improvements, and victory conditions. Affinity upgrades for your military also offer fascinating tactical choices, and I'm already itching to dive back into a game and test the capabilities of a Supremacy army with units that gain strength from adjacent friendly units.

Trade is a big part of Beyond Earth, whether it be leader-to-leader diplomatic deals which now include "Favors," an interesting "I'll pay you back later!" option, or the shuttles and boats which will carry cargo between your cities and those of your friends (or the neutral Stations, which have effectively replaced City States). At a basic level these trade units are reliable sources of income, science, or other resources depending on what you need, provided you can protect them from alien (or enemy) attack.

More interestingly, these trade units are also fantastic diplomatic tools. In one of my games in which I was gunning for a science victory, I built up my civilization on one side of a continent, cut off from everyone else by my powerful neighbor, Brasilia. Right away I saw my opportunity, and I began trading as much as I possibly could with Brasilia. Since both societies benefit from these trade routes, it is a great way to build up a friendly relationship with other civs, and with a combination of trade and matching Brasilia's affinity I was able to have a powerful ally throughout the entire game.

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Covert actions and the orbital layer are two elements of Beyond Earth that it's easy to forget about at first, since neither of them have much significance until later in the game. Unless you get an early bonus solar collector (which can provide a huge energy boost), your first satellites will be unimpressive and underwhelming, though their ability to remove the harmful miasma is undoubtedly useful. As the game goes on, though, you'll have access to satellites that offer science bonuses, bombard enemy units, and provide increased strength and healing to all friendly units in their radius -- so it's well worth experimenting with the orbital layer as you learn more about the game.

Covert actions, on the other hand, are something that can be pretty safely ignored. I've never been much of a fan of how Civ has handled espionage (at least in the non-DLC versions of games), and Beyond Earth isn't an exception. If you ignore covert actions entirely you'll suffer for it, but all I ever needed to do was to establish some basic covert defense and then I could safely forget about that aspect of things. It may become more of a factor on harder difficulty settings, but that kind of strategic mastery has always been beyond me. I much prefer playing on difficulty settings that allow me to mess around a bit and still have a chance at winning, so I'll probably stick to the "normal" setting for quite a while.

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"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at."

-Oscar Wilde

I'm going to play Beyond Earth for a very long time. I'm going to put a lot of hours into this game, and I'm going to have a blast doing it. That said, I already know there are going to be a few things about it that bug me.

First, Beyond Earth just doesn't look all that nice. The graphic engine was stunning for Civ V in 2010, but years later it just doesn't hold the same level of appeal. Detail is a little lacking even when the game is pushed to its Ultra settings and running on our Jackhammer gaming PC and displayed on our BenQ XL2430T gaming monitor. Even with this nearly ideal hardware configuration, Beyond Earth still falls short visually.

A big part of the problem with Beyond Earth's look, beyond the aging engine and lack of refined details, is the color palette. Although the heavy doses of otherworldly blues, greens, and purples are interesting at first and do a good job of marking the game as being "not just another Civ title," over time these colors are irritating to look at. Too many of the colors used in the menus and for the civilizations themselves either blur together or clash, and it didn't take long at all before I was wishing for the simpler and more vibrant colors of classic Civ titles.

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As always with Civ, downtime between turns remains a big issue with Beyond Earth -- although the game takes a major step in the right direction by allowing players to open menus and browse through their city details while other players are taking their turns. Running on Jackhammer with all its state-of-the-art hardware and installed and running on an OCZ RevoDrive 350 SSD, we were still looking at about 15-20 seconds of idle time on average after hitting "End Turn."

While I played a review version of the game that will likely see some polishing prior to or just after release, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the bugs I encountered while playing. Hitting the arrow keys while an animation was playing had a frustrating tendency to send me scrolling across the map long after my key press was complete. Leader portraits often failed to animate along with their dialogue. Overlapping or repeated audio and dialogue was also a problem when multiple events triggered at once at the start of a new turn.

Finally, the omission of any detailed end-game statistics once you've won (or lost) a game of Beyond Earth is such an odd choice that the first time I experienced it I thought it was some kind of bug, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Once the game ends, you're treated to a short animation and suitably meaningful quote, and then that's it -- you can either keep playing or go back to the main menu. There's no ranking of the greatest cities in the world, no animated map timeline showing your influence spreading across the planet, and no high score table comparing you to some fictional sci-fi version of Dan Quayle. After spending 15 hours or more carrying out my strategy in a game of Beyond Earth, I really want more of a celebration when it's finally over.

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My View

Here are the criteria I consider most important for evaluating Civilization: Beyond Earth: 

Gameplay: 9/10

Beyond Earth combines the refined turn-based empire building formula of the Civilization series with enough interesting new touches to make it a must-play experience for fans of the genre. That said, it isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't enjoy this style of game that they should change their minds.

Strategic Depth: 9/10

Affinities offer core strategic choices that are more interesting and important than religion or government style ever were in past Civ titles. Alien life offers a wonderful step up from the barbarians of past games, and the versatility of the tech web and virtue system allows for nearly unlimited customization and different ways to tweak your civilization. Additionally, the pre-game colony selection bonuses offer more versatility right from the start than we ever saw in classic Civ games.

Presentation: 7/10

The sci-fi color palette of  Beyond Earth is regrettably garish. Necessary information is sometimes hard to find, and the overall visuals of the game are lackluster and often unimpressive. Fortunately, the game has more of the high-quality music we've come to expect from the Civ series.

Flavor: 10/10

If you're a fan of science-fiction at all, you'll love the flavorful touches baked into every single bit of Beyond Earth. The Civilopedia is a magnificent collection of sci-fi stories and is packed with both well-known genre references and completely fresh ideas.

Overall: 8.8/10

If anyone needs me, I'll be playing Beyond Earth for a very, very long time.

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