30 October, 2014

Review – Civilization Only Takes a Small Step in Beyond Earth

Behind me stands Earth’s people, of many races, many creeds. Before me stands Earth’s hope, our species’ technological prowess, and the only chance of humanity’s continued survival, beyond Earth… It is with such reverence that I began my expedition into the unknown, yet soon the ways of old Earth returned; I had no energy, my petroleum had depleted, and an African gentleman kept condemning  my actions and my peoples way of life. Well there is no mistaking it, it is definitely a Civilization game…

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Civilization: Beyond Earth takes you on a journey of discovery, enlightenment and maybe even transcendence from the human form, yet this journey will have you walk a well-trodden path. Beyond Earth does bring some new features to turn-based table, along with a new cast of stubborn faction leaders, but it will certainly not feel unfamiliar to those well versed in the gameplay of Civilization V.

Beyond Earth’s future setting does solve my inherent problem with the premise of the Civilization series. The idea of great leaders from throughout history, fighting spearmen with machine guns was always a concept I couldn’t quite accept. Especially as Civilization does not exactly attempt any real parody or humour. In Beyond Earth however, the time spans a much more measured period, progression very much happens, but it feels far more natural and the characters, and factions, are fictional, which at least makes the premise remotely plausible.

Hope for the future, trepidation of the unknown.

The opening cinematic highlights the cultural difference between the factions, and introduces a hint of human emotion. It is hard not to feel something as you witness those few fortunate enough to find sanctuary aboard the star-faring lifeboats, whilst the rest of humanity must live out it’s days in a world shaken by “The Great Mistake”. In practice, Beyond Earth does little to evoke much of anything, the factions are identical from the get go, aside from culture traits, such as ‘+ 10 food’. Although, when setting up a new game, you are able to select other traits for your civilization, such as the background of people on board, or what specialist equipment you carried on the voyage. And quests, technologies, and wonders have some good flavour text, which is well worth reading if you feel you’re descending into a state of detached clicking.

Beyond Earth doesn’t take any risks when it comes to the core gameplay, in fact art style aside, it is quite difficult to distinguish this game from Civilization V. Most of my time was spent choosing improvements for my tiles. Although even that could have been automated, I needed to have something to actually do, and I do enjoy sculpting a natural looking settlement, providing it is somewhat efficient. The diplomacy system is still as shallow as ever; get a cooperation agreement, then an alliance, though you may occasionally need to sweeten the deal with some open borders. However, in the late game I repeatedly found even my staunches allies turning on me, even if they shared the same affinity, which is puzzling, but usually by that point my forces are so large it is irrelevant. Like building, combat is a game of juggling resources – in this case units – around tiles, trying to get the
The technology web.
troops you need into range, because there can be only one unit on each tile. It’s a chore to do, especially when your enemies have cities built in dense areas, with canyons and mountains blocking the path. Thankfully once you have acquired Phasal Transporter satellites, you can simply drop your units around target area – until it is shot from the sky. Naturally, unit options are largely dictated by research, which has changed in Beyond Earth, at least in regards to its interface. The new technology web is a welcome improvement over the more linear research trees of Civilization V, you have more options available faster and can pursue some different ways of reaching the technology you seek.

The Quest system does add some more diversity to the gameplay, as well as much needed context and fiction. Most consist of decisions that will in some miniscule way help shape you’re society, but some quest lines develop and resolve in interesting ways. In one campaign an independent organisation founded Far Base One, a small trading outpost, so naturally I began trading. However, upon the return of my first caravan, I uncovered a dark truth concerning the treatment of the colonists living there, so do I attack and liberate the people and lose a potentially valuable trade route?  All because of morals? I think not.

“The only good bug is a dead bug.”

Beyond Earth’s art is pretty but hardly anything worth examining to closely, civilizations are identical in the early game, though they do become distinguished in the late game, when they’ve found their affinity. The indigenous flora and fauna are more visually interesting, but they are neither particularly strange nor terrifying. The aliens of humanity’s new home are for all intents and purposes, the barbarians of previous Civilization games. They are mindless automatons, that spawn from nests (not unlike barbarian forts) and will attack you if you venture too close. They are more diverse than barbarians however, there are a number of difference species; ranging from the swarms of Wolf Beetle aliens, to Siege Worms, and larger still to the great floating monstrosities that are Kraken.

Affinities are a new feature in Beyond Earth, they reflect your society; providing a way of differentiating your units from those of other factions, as well as serving as a source of animosity amongst the other leaders who don’t share your approach. There are three affinities; Harmony, a very open-minded and synergistic approach, Purity, a mantra concerned with human advancement at any price, and Supremacy, more technologically focused than genetic with any eye for subjugation. Affinity levels are raised by certain research projects or as a result of how you handled a quest. Raising an affinity will grant access to unit upgrades, these do not just increase the stats of that type of unit, it also changes their appearance. So by the closing turns of my first campaign my beefed–up purist marines (that admittedly, didn’t look all that different) were blasting apart the smooth, organic carapaces of Polystrasia’s alien–loving defenders. 

A number of victory conditions are also tied to affinities, and thematically they are quite interesting. For example, if you choose to walk the path of supremacy, you’ll be able to construct an Emancipation Gate and send countless units into it to invade Earth. There are other victory conditions too not tied to affinities, such as contact; your civilization discovers signs of intelligent alien life, a progenitor species, and sets out to contact them. Regardless which victories you strive for, the journey is far greater than the reward, upon winning, a small amount of text specific to how you won will pop up and your faction leader will narrate it. That is it. There is no cinematic, the text isn’t that long and there isn’t even a breakdown of scores and statistics, just a seemingly arbitrary number. Achieving victory feel as hollow as I think it is possible to – except perhaps crashing to desktop – giving no incentive to jump back in. Seeing the different affinity–specific units can be fun, but if you stick at a game long enough you can unlock them all in a single match anyway.

Civilization: Beyond Earth lands with some grace on new planet, filled with unimagined possibilities, endless discoveries, and new dangers, but in its primal state Beyond Earth turns to the near identical gameplay of its most recent ancestor. The aesthetics are perhaps the most divergent element to be found here, and some of the flavour text is interesting, but the thematic elements fail to penetrate the gameplay itself. Players who enjoyed Civilization V will find Beyond Earth offering much of the same, which could be exactly what people want, or maybe it will be too much of the same for even them. Civilization: Beyond Earth is a competent turn based strategy game, but it failed to evolve in any meaningful way and doggedly shares the flaws of its predecessor. 

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