: ‘Civilization: Beyond Earth’ a bit too close to home

By Colin McInerney

The latest iteration of the “Civilization” series comes with improved features, but paying the high price for this title may only be worth it to long-time fans.

“Civilization” as a franchise began in 1991 with the original, eponymous game. Since its release, it has been subject to constant reiteration, each one elaborating on the formula in new and exciting ways.  “Civilization: Beyond Earth” differentiates itself from its predecessor largely through its art style and setting. What remains is a glorified expansion pack with some fantastic changes, but it may not be enough to justify the $50 price tag of a standalone PC title when its feature-laden predecessor is available with both expansion packs for the same price.

“Civilization: Beyond Earth” puts the series at a strange crossroads. “Civilization V: Brave New World,” the second expansion for “Civilization V,” premiered in the middle of 2013, leaving roughly 15 months of development time if “Beyond Earth” was started immediately after. In game development, 15 months is not usually a long enough time to release a new game. It is clear both from this time constraint and playing the game, that “Beyond Earth” shares a lot of its basic code with “Civilization V.”

This puts “Beyond Earth” in game limbo. It is a little too different to be an expansion pack to “Civilization V,” but not different enough in essentials to really justify being a whole new game. The differences really set it apart, though. Ideologies, special perk trees which would be chosen in the later stages during “Civilization V,” are now referred to as Affinities. Players spend the entirety of the game building toward their chosen Affinity, and it is still not even required to actually win the game. It allows players to choose to play a very specific way, or to disregard them all and play their own way, either through total destruction of all other players or alien contact achieved through in-game quests.

In “Civilization V,” there were Barbarian soldiers that would wander around the map to be killed for resources. They would also randomly attack players’ cities, adding an element of danger to early gameplay. These have been replaced by various aliens in “Beyond Earth,” which serve numerous functions. They are not inherently hostile, and they can be used to the benefit of players with certain Affinities. This is a great change ­— the aliens are a more versatile resource and it does not have the social issue of “othering” humans for being perceived as uncivilized.

There are numerous other parallels to draw in which the game has improved on elements of “Civilization V,” and barring the removal of religion — which could be spread to other nations for bonuses — “Beyond Earth” might as well be a better iteration of “Civilization V.” All the real problems in “Beyond Earth” lie in its presentation. The leaders you compete against are incredibly boring and forgettable. Gone are the Atillas, Gandhis and Catherine the Greats of “Civilization” proper. Instead, the leaders are generic, bland representations of the Earth countries they would have represented. Players would be forgiven if, every time a notification popped up to note that two leaders were at war or made peace, that they had no idea who the game was talking about.

The big change from “Civilization V” that consistently affects gameplay is the quest system, in which players are given goals to achieve throughout gameplay. These can consist of constructing a certain soldier, worker or building, killing some aliens or establishing a trade route. Additionally, there are quest decisions in which players are granted a bonus based on which choice they make.  This is a very interesting mechanic, but is presented entirely through text windows, making what could be interesting moral choices and quandaries a simple choice of which bonus is most effective. While it clearly states which is more suited to the player’s chosen play style, it makes the choice uninteresting, removing any sort of moral quandary that might be associated with the choice.

All in all, “Civilization: Beyond Earth” is only worth its current price tag to “Civilization” fans who could happily play reiterations of the game ad nauseam. If “Civilization V” with all its expansions is running a bit dry, “Beyond Earth” will be a breath of fresh air. Newcomers to the series would be safe with either “Civilization V” or “Beyond Earth” depending on the state of their wallet, and those on the fence would be better served waiting until the price falls.