Beyond Earth - the good, the bad and the ugly

One of the first games I can remember playing was Sid Meier's Civilization on a black and white 286 PC. I've played every game in the Civilization series apart from Alpha Centurai - I'm not sure how I missed it, but I did. So I was both excited and wary of Beyond Earth - on the one hand it promised to add a novel twist on the standard Civ formula, but on the other hand there was no guarantee that twist would work out.

So, after a week or so of playing here's my good, bad and ugly of Beyond Earth.

My first 30 minutes or so of Beyond Earth were fairly disappointing, but I think that given how high the bar was set by Civilization V (particularly after Brave New World) that is perhaps not surprising. Now that I have played until mid-to-late game I am feeling quite positive about the game on balance.

Good

The good parts of Beyond Earth are almost all completely new additions to the Civilization series. Kudos to the developers for moving the game forwards - the majority of the new additions to Beyond Earth work well or have real potential with only a few missteps.

Technology web

The technology tree of previous Civilization games has been replaced by a technology web where there are multiple possible ways to reach any given technology. The technology web also includes optional "leaf" technologies that expand on the themes of its parent technology. Although initially quite confusing the technology web is a real improvement on the traditional tree. Some graphical issues mean that it's difficult to tell the difference between units, buildings and wonders but otherwise this is a welcome addition.

Apolyton.net have created an excellent web based interactive version of the technology web which is well worth a look.

Affinities

Affinities are somewhat similar to ideologies from Civilization V but are developed separately from virtues, the Beyond Earth equivalent of social policies. Affinities broadly represent your faction's approach to life on your new planet - supporters of Purity want humanity to remain true to their roots, believers in Harmony want humanity to coexist and eventually merge with the alien life forms of their new home and followers of Supremacy think that humanity's best chance at survival is technology, including human augmentation.

You earn points in each affinity by researching technologies, making quest decisions and adopting virtues. Gaining affinity points unlock benefits such as unique units, bonuses to production, research or food etc.

Affinities help to give your faction an identity; something the unfortunately don't necessarily start with (more on that below).

Diplomatic favours

It's only a small addition but a good one. Beyond Earth introduces the concept of diplomatic favours - essentially tradeable IOUs that allow you to build up credit with a faction that you can then spend when you need it. For example you might agree to give another faction a strategic resource in exchange for a favour that you can then call in later.

Quests

In addition to affinities the other way that Beyond Earth lets you give your faction an identity is via quests. Most of these take the form of a moral or strategic decision (e.g. "Should this new building type focus on science or production?") or a series of steps (e.g. "Build X, research Y and then launch a satellite of type Z") that result in some kind of bonus. They essentially allow you to customise your faction slightly as you play the game and give you the feeling of steering the development of a near future civilization.

Expeditions

Beyond Earth replaces Civilization V's ancient ruins and archaeological digs with resource pods and expeditions. Expeditions are particularly nifty and can be built by your explorer units on features of interest (e.g. derelict cities, alien skeletons) and after a given number of turns will usually grant you some bonus, usually a lump sum of research or production. They are a nice touch which adds to the "strange new world" feel of the game.

Bad

Bland factions

One of the great things about previous Civilization games was the character of the civilizations that you could play for or against. From the sinking feeling you get when you realise that you've spawned on a small island with Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun to the joy to be had in conquering the world as a warmongering Gandhi. Beyond Earth's sponsors (the broad equivalent of civilizations) don't have any real personality that I can discern.

If the AI behaviour is different for each sponsor then I have yet to notice. This robs the game of some of the character so central to previous entries in the series.

Stations

Stations are the Beyond Earth equivalent of Civilization V's city states but are far more limited. Essentially you can trade with them to gain some basic resources (research, production etc.) and, well, that's about it. They seem fairly pointless at the moment.

Aliens

Speaking of pointless, the aliens in Beyond Earth were described as "not just barbarians" pre-release. In some respects this is true - aliens don't automatically attack you the way barbarians did in Civilization V (they attack seemingly at random), they have extremely powerful units from the start and you can suffer diplomatic penalties with other factions if you attack them. To me aliens are actually more annoying than barbarians, mainly due to the randomness of their actions.

I think a better approach to aliens, albeit a far more challenging one for the developers, would have been to make them essentially another civilization but predicating diplomacy on an advanced technology.

Trade micromanagement

Beyond Earth tweaks Civilization V's trade mechanic so that trade routes are now limited by city, rather than by faction. Currently in my game most of my cities can have up to 3 trade routes. I only have 5 cities but that is still more trade routes than you will have in most Civilization V games.

While I quite like this change one thing I'm not keen on is the micromanagement that is required as a result. I have to set a destination for at least one trade convoy/vessel each turn and this quickly becomes annoying. Making the trade route duration configurable (e.g. 25, 50, 100 turns) would eliminate this niggle, or by giving trade units an automate function similar to workers and explorers.

Ugly

The only part of Beyond Earth that I would describe as ugly is its state on release. While bugs have, in my experience, been fairly few and far between there are a number of user interface issues which must been raised in beta testing (e.g. when selecting a city's next building project you are not told what it has just finished).

More importantly though this is the first game in the Civilization series where I feel like the game has been released as a foundation for future sales in the form of DLC. Civilization V was an 8/10 game on release (or at least after a few patches) and the two major DLC packs elevated it to close to 10/10 but it did not need those two DLC packs to feel finished. Beyond Earth feels like 80% of a game at the moment and it's hard not to feel that some things have been left out specifically so they can be released as DLC later.

Overall

Overall I think that both GameSpot and IGN got it spot on, and that Beyond Earth is a good game and future patches and DLC will make it better. I would have preferred more content in the vanilla version, but where new features have been added they have mostly worked out for the better.

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