Review: Beyond Earth

It’s…. not very good. I’m sorry. I really wanted to love this game. I was seriously hyped about this. But, at the end of the day, Beyond Earth doesn’t bring enough to the table to justify itself as a full priced released title.

The issue I have with the game isn’t that its “the same as” Civ 5, my issue with Beyond Earth is that it suffers from all of the same mistakes of Civ 5, without adding nearly as many interesting innovations. 

Civ 5, while being a tremendous graphical step up from Civ 4, was a deeply flawed game at launch. It had serious problems in terms of both narrative, game design and balance. It still received a lot of praise for what it did right, and the many new ideas the game brought to the genre. Patches and expansions extended the life of the game massively, and I’ve plunked many hours into being able to finish the game with a variety of approaches and civilizations.

In other words: Civ 5 was a heavily flawed product that grew on me over time as the novelty of it’s changes wore out. It wasn’t as good as Civ 4 at launch, but it at least brought a lot of new ideas to the franchise, so it got a pass from most reviewers. It’s differences from the previous edition were intriguing enough that it made hard core fans interested, despite the flaws.

When I heard Beyond Earth was coming out, I was incredibly optimistic as the promised features were mentioned:Customizable units, Multiple factions you can pick and chose, quests, massively overhauled covert ops. 

These ideas seems really fun. Sure, the game was obviously cribbed from the Civ 5 engine, but I thought that was an advantage at the time: Civ 5 had been a pretty good game by the end, and I thought that Firaxis would have gotten everything down by now in terms of balance and playstyle, that it would have put serious effort into solving the problems that plagued Civ 5.

The problem is that they haven’t corrected those flaws. In fact, they’ve made pretty much the same mistakes Civ 5 did, as well as adding a bunch of news ones.  And those flaws, while acceptable for a complete overhaul that was Civ 5, way back in 2010, is completely unacceptable on an game running with the same engine after three full paid expansions, years later. There’s no real excuse this time for screwing up in the exact same ways.

The fundamental mistakes made by Civ 5 are as follows.
1) A complete abandonment of narrative impact in the game.
2) Bad game balance
3) Becomes a slog mid to late game due to micromanagement

Narrative Impact:
Everything feels so disconnected in this game. Your cities look exactly the same until the late game, when they have slightly difference appearances. Wonders look like generic buildings for the most part, and have no special acheivement video for making them, or even a cool made up quote. The faction leaders don’t have any real personality molded to them. Players groan when they run into an early Montezuma or (God help you) Miriam. All of the AI’s for the sponsors might as well be exactly the same. There was an implication that as you went along the supremacy path, you’d become more robotic. At affinity level 7, the AI’s get yellow eyes and an extra stripe on their shirts. The supremacy victory condition involves sending an army of robots back through a gate to conquer earth and force it to undergo the same kind of transformation your culture did. If you do that you get a little placard, not even a cut scene.  There was NO excuse not to put the mininum level of effort in.

Compared to Secret Masters of Alpha Centari (SMAC), its not even a contest. When I was running a Human Hive Police State, I knew it. I had custom made “People’s Glorious Defenders” policing my bases three at a time. I had nerve stapled bases that had grown too rebellious. Other nations criticized my cruel treatment of my citizens. I completed the “Virtual World” project and I had quotes like “What do I care for your suffering? Pain, even agony, is no more than information before the senses, data fed to the computer of the mind. The lesson is simple: you have received the information, now act on it. Take control of the input and you shall become master of the output.”  That said a lot about the kind of society I was running.

SMAC was made in the late 90’s. This level of verisimilitude should have been easy to complete in 2014, but BE fails in almost every narrative respect. The quotes are disjointed and don’t really speak of the factions personalities: they say where they came from, not what or who they are, or what they represent. 

And then there’s the wonders…

Compare: The Marikov Eclipse
This is an AI that basically takes over your military. You’ve removed human equation from the top of the tree. Its fucking Skynet, only with even more power and direct access to your early model troops. In BE, you build this, you get a little building and a bonus.

Compare to the Self Aware Colony in SMAC:

One of the things Firaxis/Civ designers realized very early was that the Civ series excells at emergent narrative: the idea that the player tells their own story as the game unfolds. They may be the plucky downtrodden peaceful scientific city that ignores the strife around them till they get to the modern age. They may expand and create a vast military empire across the plains. They may tell the story of the drones who rebelled from their oppressive masters to eventually conquer all of the planet in the name of the oppressed working class…

But to be effective, you need some plot pins to cement the ideas in the players minds, little helping hands for the framework of the story that the players are working out in their head. SMAC was fantastic at this. BE doesn’t give you anything to work with.

Its like giving you a blank piece of paper and saying “see? You can tell a great story with this!” That’s not what emergent narrative is: emergent narrative comes from the player seeing the narrative unfold and providing the details in his head. You can’t do that without the underpinnings of the story, rich plot hooks to hang a tapestry from. BE just doesn’t give you enough of those.

In short: Hey, Firaxis? Wake up. Hire some artists and work with the voice actors some more. Your worlds need to be fleshed out, particularly when that world isn’t Earth.

Bad Balance and Game Design.

Lets discuss a specific strategy that has always plagued Civilization games: the infinite city spam (ICS). Just plop out infinity settlers, and put them the mininum distance from your cities. Build military units, crush your opponent. Later Civ games tried all sorts of ideas to keep this strategy from getting too out of control, while still encouraging expansion.

Building a really “wide” empire in Civ 5 was a pain. If you let happiness go below zero, your growth slowed to a crawl. Let it go heavily into the negatives, and you’d have revolution that was difficult to control. As you developed new social structures and technology though, you’d be able to build more and more cities either via settling or conquering.

Its back in BE. Health (the new happiness) only provides minor penalties until -20, at which point it provides moderate penalties (-50% growth, -10% to everything else), and tops out there. They haven’t fixed this yet and the game’s been out nearly a month. Infinity City Spam actually works quite well in BE (Note: Eventually fixed).

There are other balance issues: trade routes are hilariously overpowered. You can send them to enemy cities, but this is a bad idea, since it gives your opponents an advantage. Instead, sending them to your own city grants them anywhere from 4-10 hammers and 0-6 food (roughly), which is almost always the best option since it represents a HUGE early game boost to your cities. You could send the trade routes to stations (neutral trading posts) but I generally end up using every bit of land I can anyway to build another city, so I’d almost always rather just let the trading posts starve.

Wonders are useless. Most of them provide no real benefits worth their cost. Global benefits are extremely rare and so deep in the tech tree that its unlikely they’ll show up until the game is foregone conclusion. In Civ 5, you groan when opposing factions get a key wonder. In SMAC, I literally never consider building any wonder for any reason.

The military system also feels quite broken. You don’t gain military strength from tech upgrades, you get it from affinity upgrades, gradually upgrading your troops/archers/tanks/artilery/boats/airplanes as you go up. The first problem with this is that it makes quests EXTREMELY important, and basically forces you to focus on affinity levels for one faction. Another problem is the specialty “affinity” units you unlock, which are hilariously OP. They have a combat strength of about 250% of your armed forces. Every game I’ve played has been a rush to this tech, and the first player who builds a substantial amount of these forces walk over the enemy.

Winning isn’t very satisfying. Your options are a complete military conquest, getting to a ridiculously very high affinity level and doing a bunch of stuff that will take 10x as long as conquering the planet, or completing two mid level techs, building two wonders and completing two quests for the contact victory. The first and third of these goals are FAR easier to pull off.

Less than 30 hours in, I started up a max difficulty game with 6 AI players. I have 20 cities, they have 3-4 each, and I’ve already wiped out two of them. I can’t be bothered to finish though because of this game’s third flaw:

Quality of Life (I.E. The game is a slog)

There are a lot of baffling decisions in the game design that combine to make playing through BE a slog.  The automation on exploration units and workers are badly broken. Trade routes need to be maintained (to your annoyance) every 25 turns or so. This really should be done through a menu, but its not, leading to large amounts of wasted time when you have a large empire, which this game heavily encourages through its weak size control mechanics.

So many of the new features feel pointless, stripping any desire to continue the game. As an example, take diplomatic favors.  The AI players treat them like gold when they are giving them to you and will only give you 100 credits for them. Having favors will not keep AI from making ridiculous demands on you or declaring surprise war on you.

Covert Actions: Very powerful, but there’s not much to this. Generally I use them to generate free energy and science. If you see intrigue rising in one of your cities, dump one of your agents there as a counter. There’s not much else to this game, and it’s really hard to focus production to things that aid your spies since you pretty much get all the spies you are going to get for free..

Resources: The only resources I ever used in any number were the ones for my affinity unit. That’s titanium for purity, firaxite for supremacy and xenomass for harmony. Everything else I accumulated huge amounts of, and never did anything with them.

Tac Jets: Get hurt by attrition too much. You’d figure that Tac Jets would either be powerful enough to be a threat to ground units or largely be immune to most ground units when attacking them. In this one, it’s the worst of both worlds. Tactical Jets are good at hitting anything in range, doing virtually no damage, and then getting so crippled by the defense that you can’t use them for anything. I wouldn’t build them.

The starting options: Faction and Starting Colony type are the only ones that really matter, and don’t really influence the game very much.

This game showed so much promise, and failed to deliver to me. I really can’t recommend it. Maybe when it goes on sale in six months for under $10. Not until then though.


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