Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is one of my favourite Civilization games ever, so when Beyond Earth was announced as a ‘spiritual sequel’ to that game, I was both excited and nervous. Alpha Centauri came out in 1999, and Civilization games have changed a lot since then, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
Set in a future where the Earth is no longer a suitable home for mankind, the beautiful opening cinematic shows Earth’s major powers launching space ships, sending a select few to start a new civilization on a distant alien planet. The playable civilizations in Beyond Earth are sponsored by these major powers, which come from different areas of Earth and tend towards certain ideologies. Examples include the People’s African Union, the Slavic Federation, the American Reclamation Corporation and Polystralia. The leaders of these sponsors are, for the most part, fairly stereotypical representation of the Earth culture that inspired them. Unfortunately, when you first start the game, you are presented with nothing more than a list of the sponsors, their logo, and their special ability. In fact, you’ll have no idea what your chosen sponsor’s leader looks like until you play another game and see your previous faction through the diplomacy screen. This made me feel that I was just choosing a set of bonuses rather than a faction or a civilization. I had no idea if the path I was taking my first civilization down was aligned with their goals or not either.
After you choose your sponsor, there are several more starting bonuses to select, culminating in a choice of worlds to colonise. Many of the options can be further refined through the advanced options screen, from how many resources are available on the planet to how many AI players will be joining your game.
Once you start a game of Beyond Earth, things progress much like other Civilization games. You found your capital and set about exploring the planet you’ve just arrived on. It will probably be a while until you meet the other factions from Earth, but you’re bound to run into the native alien lifeforms straight away. These aliens, taking the form of bugs, sea creatures and massive siege worms, will be much tougher than your starting military forces, meaning you’ll probably need to avoid them to begin with. These aliens are like the barbarians in other Civ games, but they seem to be everywhere and they’re pretty aggressive, especially if you upset them.
The planet is also covered in miasma, a kind of mist that appears on some tiles. This stuff will harm and slow down your units, but it’s only deadly if your unit is on low health. After a little while on the planet, you’ll be joined by a few stations – these are neutral bases that can be traded with for bonus resources. There are also various ruins and artifacts to uncover on the planet’s surface, which will also add useful resources once claimed.
The tech web in Beyond Earth is an interesting take on the traditional tech tree. You start in the middle with basic technologies and fan out from there. The available technologies are all interconnected in a web structure, so there’s no set path that you’ll feel compelled to follow. Each technology also has two specialised technologies associated with it. The freedom of the tech web can be overwhelming at first, as it’s not very clear what you should be researching. However, the tech screen offers a search and a number of filters to help you narrow down your choices based on your goals.
On the subject of goals, Beyond Earth has a Quests and Victories screen to help you plot your course towards victory. Quests include anything from killing a certain number of aliens, to completing a covert mission in an enemy city, to choosing what bonus a new building will give your civilization. The Victory screen lists all the available victories, and the requirements to get started on each. You won’t know the further requirements of a victory until you complete the current step, but you will likely be guided by your affinity, which is a mechanic that represents your general attitude and method of achieving domination over this new planet. Advancements in each of the three affinities come mainly from technologies, though a few quests also affect your affinity.
Although you don’t have to stick exclusively to one affinity, you will receive more bonuses and special unit upgrades the stronger your association with a given affinity becomes. There is the harmony affinity, which involves a positive relationship with the planet and its native life, eventually leading to a victory reminiscent of the transcendence victory in Alpha Centauri. There are also the purity and supremacy affinities, which take different approaches towards humans and their relationship with this new planet (and the other factions). The other factions will react differently to you based on your dominant affinity and will also change their uniform to reflect their own affinity. Your dominant affinity also changes the look of your civilization, from your cities to your units, and will grant access to certain buildings and unique units unavailable to other affinities.
Culture and virtues that you earn offer a variety of bonuses to your civilization, and also work in a tiered bonus system – that is, choosing a certain number of virtues within a certain tree or on the same level will give you extra bonuses. Covert operations and diplomacy are important aspects of this game, as with previous Civ titles. A new feature of diplomacy is favours, which can be traded for resources or offered when you have nothing else to offer. There are wonders as well, though I found the diagram that you get upon completing them a bit disappointing.
The game looks amazing, sharing a very similar look and feel to Civilization V. The units, landscape and visual effects really do look good, and Beyond Earth keeps the hex map design from Civ V. I had some trouble with freezes while running the game on my PC with a relatively weak CPU, but after moving to a machine with more power, I had no further trouble in that area. You may want to check the recommended specs before purchasing, as my first PC did meet the minimum specs! The game also tends to default to a rather generous selection of graphics options, so these are worth checking before starting a game.
Load times of both the game itself and starting/loading individual games from within the game are extremely long. This is made worse by the fact that there is no indication that the game is loading – it just sits there on a static screen for several minutes. This is just a little niggle as the game runs extremely smoothly once it’s loaded – it just would have been nice to have a progress bar or something.
If you enjoyed Civilization V, you’re probably going to love this game – it still has that ‘one more turn’ addictiveness of its predecessor. If you were an Alpha Centauri fan like me, keep in mind that this is not Alpha Centauri II, so you might need to check your nostalgia at the door. Either way, there’s a lot of hours of gameplay here, and I imagine there will be a few expansions down the road as well.