From the moment your pod lands on Garrett 396 b, or whichever planet you choose, it's immediately obvious that you're not in Kansas anymore. Or in the same solar system, for that matter.
The luxury resources are a familiar feature, and the tiles can be rapidly developed as farms and mines. But everything is covered in a thick, poisonous fog known as miasma, and hostile aliens are everywhere. When the first siege worm appears—terrifying beasts that can devour units whole while laying waste to improvements—the sense that you are fighting the planet as much as your opponents becomes palpable.
This feeling is almost assuredly what Firaxis was attempting to capture in returning to a sci-fi setting since 1999's Alpha Centauri—the sense that you're competing with a host of rivals to tame a wild, alien frontier. And you know what? It mostly works. It feels strange and maybe a little disjointed at first, but most of the design decisions eventually pay off; or at least, I can get a feeling for what Firaxis is trying to accomplish.
Beyond Earth begins with a handful of decisions meant to establish the backstory for your chosen civilization. In short order, you are asked to choose from a handful of sponsors and perks, which then determine your strategy going forward. Familiar faces like the stolid George Washington have been replaced by blander figures such as American Reclamation Corporation CEO Suzanna Fielding, which removes some of the novelty of having Gandhi go against all historic precedent and repeatedly try to nuke you. The "seeded starts" also remove some of the distinctions between the different civilizations, in the process removing some of the novelty of starting a new game with a civilization like Japan, since the different nationalities lack unique tilesets or unique units. It gets the job done though in terms of setting the mood and providing a bit of depth to the early decision-making. And anyway, the seeded starts are the primary means by which Beyond Earth differentiates its civilizations.
The upshot of all this is that Civilization: Beyond Earth is akin to a Choose Your Own Adventure mash-up of Robert Heinlein, Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, and a million other sci-fi writers. Even the victory conditions borrow liberally from stories like Contact, requiring that you first tune into an alien signal with the help of a Deep Space Telescope, then build a massive beacon to try and reach out and communicate with them. The result is a surprisingly strong narrative arc running from start to finish, which is not something I usually associate with the strategy-focused Civilization.
Affinities are the engine that drive Beyond Earth's particular brand of storytelling, each of them encompassing a different sci-fi trope. Supremacy is a Kurzweilian merging with technology, Harmony is more akin to the path taken by the Na'vi from Avatar, and Purity sits somewhere in between, eschewing alien hybridization and technological transcendance for good old-fashioned humanity. I was actually surprised by just how seamlessly the affinities are integrated into the general gameplay, since at first blush they seem rather haphazardly placed on the tech web, seemingly an afterthought in the general scheme of things. I ignored them at first, but almost despite myself, I found myself venturing down one path (usually Supremacy) and largely ignoring the others, which had a cumulative effect on my civilization that culminated in me zeroing in on the "Emancipation" objective (basically, bulding a portal to invade Earth) because it was most compatible with my affinity.
As I eventually discovered, the process of choosing an affinity begins quite early, and it's absolutely essential to the overall flow of the game. "Domesticate the alien wildlife or exterminate it?" is one decision you make early on, along with a half dozen others . Not all of the quest decisions involve affinities, of course, with some focusing instead on perks or technology. But many do, and as the game progresses, affinity levels build up bit by bit through various decision points and technological choices. Soon enough, the look of your buildings, begin to change, new units like the Xeno Cavalry become available, and civilizations that have opted for a different affinity begin to hate you. It all happens so gradually that you hardly even notice it, but then all the sudden you're running out Terminators and Metal Gear-like mechs and trying to crush the xeno-loving fanatics in the APC once and for all.
One thing I do wonder about this approach: Is it enough to encourage multiple playthroughs? Because in essence, you only have access to three really distinct paths with unique units and upgrades, as opposed to the dozen or more wildly different nations in Civilization V. The benefit, I suppose, is that the three affinities have quite a few more unique units and buildings than, say, the Mongols, who might have two unique military units and a special building. And, of course, there are the variety of multi-step victory objectives, each one playing out like its own sci-fi novel. For all that though, I feel like only having three mains paths might mean that Beyond Earth doesn't have as much longevity as the usual Civilization game, even if that probably boils down to the average fan "only" getting 150 hours of enjoyment instead of 200 or 300 hours.
By and large though, I like many of the design choices that Firaxis has made with Beyond Earth, such as doing away with familiar concepts like eras in favor of a more seamless progression through future history. Between the affinities, the omnipresent miasma, the hostile aliens, and fun technology like killer satellites, Beyond Earth does plenty to distance itself from the flagship series. It's not too different, and many of the basic concepts apply, including some of the expansion strategies. If you've never played Civilization, the tech web in particular can be quite overwhelming at first, but the game does a sufficiently good job of explaining its concepts through prompts and other methods that even a total newcomer can get into the flow soon enough.
It must be said, however, that while I do like Civilization: Beyond Earth, a couple caveats do apply. For one, if you're someone who likes tense negotiations and diplomacy... I'm afraid that you're not going to find much of that Beyond Earth. Basic mechanics like trades and alliances are in place, but there's nothing like a United Nations of Garrett 966 b—at least not right now, as it's the sort of thing that's likely to be added in an as yet unannounced expansion pack. For another, there's little in the way of a "cultural victory" or its equivalent. As such, it's very difficult to remain a neutral party, and there's a good chance that you'll eventually have to arm up and take the fight to an opposing civilization lest you eventually be overwhelmed. Non-violent tactics have been something of a weakness for Civilization of late, recent expansions notwithstanding, and that doesn't appear to have changed with Beyond Earth.
With that said, the covert side of the game is surprisingly strong, and can be a game changer if used properly Just as an example, in one of my games I mostly ignored covert ops, intent as I was on building a Beacon to hit the "Contact" victory, only to have one of my key cities abruptly flip to one of my opponents following a coup de'tat. Basically, ignore the Game of Spies at your own peril, because you may find secret agents from other countries exploding a dirty bomb in one of your population centers, or god forbid, siccing siege worms on you.
Such elements add just the right amount of depth to Beyond Earth, and though the AI could stand to be a bit more proactive at the middle difficulties, it mostly does a decent job of making use of the options at its command. It's always difficult to strike the balance with strategy game depth, particularly with a series as well-known as Civilization, but to Beyond Earth's credit, it mostly does so without playing things too safe. This is no half-baked Civilization V in Space, which is what I initially feared Beyond Earth might be when I first loaded it up.
I'm interested to see where Firaxis takes Beyond Earth in the coming months, since an expansion pack or two is probably inevitable. More robust diplomacy seems like a given, and another affinity or two would be nice. What I would really like for Firaxis to do, though, would be to take the sci-fi foundation they've established even further than they already have. Though Beyond Earth is grounded in fairly traditional mechanics, there's still plenty of room to innovate. As Captain Picard would say, "Let's see what's out there."
Civilization: Beyond Earth isn't a gigantic leap beyond the series standard, but it's nevertheless pleasing to the eye, with lots of interesting flora and fauna, not to mention lots of sci-fi inspired units.
The music is pleasant but unobtrusive. The same can be said for the sound effects.
I still don't know how I feel about the tech web, which eschews a linear progression for a spread of technologies radiating outward. It's impressive, but it's also quite overwhelming at first. The rest of the interface is adequate and easy to navigate.
Time will tell whether the affinities will have a lasting appeal, but in the short term, Beyond Earth is every bit as addictive as its predecessor. I've already lost hours to the familiar "just one more turn" syndrome.
I was worried going in that Civilization: Beyond Earth would be little more than a re-skinned Civilization V with a few added bells and whistles; but thankfully, the flow, structure, and overall feel of the strategy makes for a very different game. At the same time though, it embraces its roots, while also playing its sci-fi inspirations to the hilt. Firaxis Games can still take the concept further, but ultimately, I like the foundation they've laid with their latest foray into science fiction strategy.