As a long-time fan of the Civilization games, I am disappointed that it took me a while to come back to the franchise. Civilization III was the one I spent the most hours playing, with only a few forays into the world of Civ IV and no experience on any of the major expansion packs. Many of my excursions involved bringing the Zulus to glorious world domination, or sending the Carthaginians to space. That said, Civilization: Beyond Earth has proven to be an enjoyable reentry into the long-standing series.
The events of Beyond Earth take place around the year 2600, several hundred years into the future, after an unknown event known as “The Great Mistake”. Nothing is certain about what exactly the Great Mistake was, but descriptions of the groups that arose from the ashes of that event indicate that 1) the Great Mistake occurred somewhere in Asia (specifically, Central Asia or the Near East), 2) that event led to sudden, irreversible climate change that flooded the coasts of each continent, and 3) the event led to consolidation of nations into seven broad areas that exploited their real-life, present-day strengths, such as the abundant natural resources of the African Union, the cultural strength of Europe shown through the Franco-Iberian Alliance, and the stability and peacefulness of Australia and Polynesia (brought together as Polystralia). Providing context is the key to understanding how each new civilization starts and the philosophies that each civilization brings to the colonization of this new planet.
Beyond Earth sheds many of the more nebulous concepts for grander philosophies and more aspirational aspirations of human existence. First, religion and forms of governments have been removed, which makes sense given the hellscape that awaits individuals that have traversed the universe for a new home. The game allows you to focus on a general philosophy for governance through the Affinity system. The system allows for three types of ideals – Purity, Supremacy, and Harmony – each with its own characteristics, military units, and methods of winning. Nations that focus on Purity look to preserve the dominance of the human race, focus on Harmony allows humans to coexist and even evolve with the species of the new planet, and Supremacy acts as a hybrid, allowing for support in the field. Each of these Affinity traits can be researched through scientific enhancement and allows for your nation to have some of the traits of all three. The customization allows a more unique experience and strays away from the “race to democracy” that occurs in previous versions.
The rules for expansion and combat have also been modified to give each nation a chance at survival. Creation of your capital must happen on the first turn, forcing players to begin the action as soon as possible and not have to waste turns picking out the most prime location for a capital city. However, after the founding of your capital, you are free to explore the lands with ease, uncovering the wreckage of your voyage and planning out your nation’s borders in advance. Once you have researched Planetary Survey, seafaring is possible and units are able to traverse open seas without the strenuous chore of building transports to ferry soldiers and colonists to new lands. While subsequent cities in your nation must start as outposts (and thus, cannot produce anything toward your score), each outpost and city under your control is outfitted with automatic defenses, which keeps the player from having to leave units in each city before feeling safe to roam around the map. Each action that you can take encourages instant immersion and curiosity about the world you inhabit while reducing the frustrations and tedium that came from constant building.
Enhancements to your civilization are frequent and come in a variety of forms. Many of the buildings add to the cultural portion of your score, and these culture points allow you to gain “virtues” that provide additional bonuses, including extra units, increased expansion of nation borders, and lower cost of production. Debris can be found in crash sites that add energy and scientific knowledge to your resource collection, and the use of orbital satellites can provide bonuses in energy and food production. As a boon to your work, those same satellites can eventually crash back to the planet, and their innards can be recycled for additional science and energy output.
Players that are new to the series may have some difficulty in becoming as immersed in this title. While previous Civilization games relied on the historical accounts of our modern day to drive the narrative of each player and give context to each of the leaders in their prime, Beyond Earth speculates on an entirely new story. Many of the concepts and units that are used for the game have a very similar look and feel to each other as well. While there was a clear-cut difference in the unit design among the spearman, rifleman, and cavalry in previous Civ titles, the differences between combat rovers and missile rovers can be easy to miss at a first glance. Newer players will have a higher learning curve for both the mechanics of the gameplay and the motivations behind the various sponsors and their roles in leading humanity away from the Great Mistake. Also, referring to the different life forms that inhabit the new Earth (as a replacement to the barbarian hordes in earlier games) as “aliens” can be jarring, given that the humans you represent are the true aliens to the new planet.
Overall, Civilization: Beyond Earth provides an exciting, action-packed, and thought-provoking experience in the genre. If you are a latecomer to the Civilization series, I would recommend beginning with Civilization III, when the graphics took a huge leap forward from its predecessor and many of the early conventions and historical traits were still being used. However, fans of this and other 4X series will be entertained for a long time to come. If you are like me and wanted to know what the game would be like once you begin researching “future technology”, Firaxis has brought that game to us. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go do some research so that I can build my first Rocktopus.