Civilization: Beyond Earth, Review - Games Weekly

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Civilization: Beyond Earth, Review

Ever since it was announced, Beyond Earth has been one of those games that we’ve hoped would be great but were terrified that it wouldn’t hit the mark. not only is it the latest iteration in the venerable Civilization franchise, but it is also only the second time the franchise has deviated from its tradition of retelling the history and very near future of humanity. And the last foray outside of that formula was Alpha Centauri, a game beloved by many, and a very tough act to follow.

Even more importantly, the last outing of Civ proper felt a bit flat at launch, and only really shone after two expansion packs. So while it would have been safe to just make a third, spacey, expansion that built upon Civilization V the team at Firaxis went back to the drawing board, taking the underlying game engine and changing pretty much everything about how the game plays out and systems interact.


What we have found most fascinating about these changes is that, upon first firing the game up, the depth of change isn’t apparent. It is easy to start out as if you were back at the dawn of human history, except the Barbarians are now Aliens and the environment purplish and a touch more ouchy. But it doesn't take long for your first soldier unit to get annihilated by a seemingly innocuous set of minor bugs, or for your Explorer to take a wrong turn and end up in amidst a few Alien nests and some rather pissed off inhabitants.

Next you realise that the new tech web opens up a daunting amount of choices quite quickly. There is no racing to Gunpowder, or ensuring you grab the Pyramids and lock down the global production of Wonders. Instead your survival comes through choosing a path for your people, and then committing to it through research, colony building, militarisation, virtues and quests.
Firaxis has built a game that is much more evenly paced than its predecessors
Firaxis has made the decisions in Beyond Earth a lot more complex, and the strategies more varied and deeper than possible in Civ. It has also built a game that is better paced than its predecessors, one where you don’t feel that inevitable lull that comes once you have quelled Barbarians and established your Cities, before your eventual race for a victory condition.

PLANETFALL
When setting up a game of Beyond Earth you are faced with several choices, which can combine to give your colonists a head start, laying the groundwork for future strategies. Combine a small melee damage buff with the ability to start with a soldier unit, then choose the option to make Alien nests visible on your map (initially to know where NOT to go until you are prepared) and you have laid the groundwork for a fight against the planet’s natives, for example.

Once you make planetfall you need to hit the ground running to build your colony, channelling your along your planned path through the game. This is where the tech web comes into play, a complex network of technologies, each with several extra options that open up once you unlock the main one on the web. These extras usually take more research effort than moving around the web but enable some significant units, buildings and wonders, while also being the major contributor to the overarching affinity system in the game.

Affinities are effectively the paths your people follow on the planet, split into Supremacy, Harmony and Purity. Each has its own specific victory, and each unlocks both specific units and upgrades to the generic units in the game. This doesn't mean that they restrict your choices in too many ways though take Supremacy as an example, which sounds very militaristic, can involve a nonviolent approach, and Harmony isn’t all drum circles and facehugs, you can always beat the aliens (and the environment) into a harmonious existence.

Affinities also influence the look and feel of your military units. Over the course of the game each unit type automatically upgrades once you hit certain trigger points with your affinity levels, initially giving a choice of upgrades but then diverging into specific affinity-based kinds of units at higher levels. This makes each unit you build feel important, destined to last the entire game if treated right. Over the course of the game these upgrades combine with veteran abilities earned through combat
and you find your interactions with the Alien population slowly tipping in your favour.

Alien types that once would have wiped out numerous units while barely taking damage will eventually be swatted aside by your military. Around the same time humanity as a whole starts taking control planet and different colonies start to inevitably turn on each other, with motives ranging from the philosophical to the petty.

As this transition occurs new systems come into play like covert ops, which require you to slowly build up influence in opposing cities, unlocking better theft opportunities and the ability to seriously wound other colonies. This also includes a surprising side benefit of the tech web for the first time in years the theft of technologies in a civ game actually means something, letting you nab techs that you would have otherwise passed by on your way to researching more affinity based tech.

Similarly the game’s new orbital layer starts slow and delivers some very compelling benefits later in the game. Initially your satellites give small boosts to help growth, be it clearing the toxic clouds of miasma that damage units ending their turn within, or increasing energy generation (energy is effectively the currency of Beyond Earth). However, by endgame you are launching more powerful satellites space lasers capable of doing serious damage to anything in their path, or ones designed to buff any units below.

Satellites also have limited life spans, and will eventually deorbit and crash somewhere. Recovering resources from the debris gives your Explorer units something to do once every corner of the globe is scoured a great example of how Firaxis has done its utmost to keep units relevant for the entirety of the game, rather than just being of use at the beginning or end.

SIGNPOSTS ARE FOR SUCKERS
One of the most fascinating additions to Beyond Earth is the quest system, although it takes a while to realise this. Quests do everything from reward your initial moves on the planet, to guiding you down your affinity path and adding to the emerging narrative of your colony. They are triggered by everything from building certain buildings for the first time to uncovering alien artifacts with your explorers, to more mysterious requests that lead you towards one of the victory conditions in the game.
Quests do everything from reward your initial moves on the planet to guiding your affinities
However for some reason Firaxis decided that quests would only pop up on your end
of turn ‘to do list’ when there was a decision to be made, which means that you need to remember to check in with the quest screen every so often to ensure you haven’t missed any new stages that have popped up. It is a minor complaint, and once you realise this it isn't a problem anymore, but these really could have been made more obvious from the get-go.

Which is odd, because Beyond Earth tends to be pretty good at ensuring you aren't ignoring other things. When your culture ticks high enough for you to research something new or put points into your virtues, it pushed you straight to the overview screen.

Speaking of which, virtues are a revamp of the policies seen in Civ, except this time the bonuses for filling a section are spread both horizontally and vertically. This means that you seldom feel punished for ignoring a virtue in one tree and choosing a more relevant one in another, and again, it successfully enables more variety in your approach.

Suffice to say, we are deeply impressed, and very much relieved at what Firaxis has delivered in the form of Beyond Earth. This more than makes up for the small niggles we had with the interface, ones that are only initially frustrating. It is by far the most rounded game to ever bear the Civilization name, a game that stays interesting from beginning to end, and one with massive levels of replayability.

Beyond Earth is the finest thing that Firaxis has made and a game that we suspect we’ll be playing for a long time to come. It takes a tried and tested formula as a start point, then deepens and refines it, with the result a game that would never be possible within the confines of the Civilization name, even if it does take a few playthroughs to reveal itself properly.

9/10

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