If you’ve played a Civilization game before, especially Civ 5, you’ll know what to expect with Beyond Earth. It carries the same addictive gameplay, the same tricky decision of making friends or enemies, and the same thought and consideration of how to advance your people to make best use of your surroundings. But there’s something very different to Beyond Earth’s approach: this time, your first objective is to survive.
Instead of setting up a booming new civilisation from scratch, Beyond Earth has you taking control of a small colony of people escaping Earth, where everything has gone horribly wrong and now small pockets of people are trying out other planets to set up life again. The atmosphere is dangerous of often deadly, aliens roam around menacingly, never obvious of their intentions towards you. And then there’s the other settlements, where others from Earth have tried to do the same as you with the intention of gaining control of the planet and having everything their own way. The core mechanics are similar, but the context of Beyond Earth is very different to what we’ve seen before.
There are several choices to make when starting a game, including what type of people your ships are carrying and which group of humans you want to set up with. The choices affect how you start playing the game through the bonuses and starting equipment provided, but also give long term changes too and alter your path through your technical advances, giving you a very different style of playing to your previous game. I enjoyed picking options which I didn’t think I’d want to do, pushing me down roads and ideas which I normally would’ve ignored but actually loved trying out. Just as well too, several areas of this game work very differently to the Earth based Civilization games, and figuring out these new rules as you go is one of the joys of playing. Send your ideas down a narrow path which would work back home isn’t a guarantee of success – quite the opposite in fact.
The planet is dangerous and menacing; the aliens I mentioned earlier range in scope from small worms which bumble about the place seemingly looking for trouble, no larger beasts which are most definitely out for a bit of human interaction. It’s possible to ignore them in the hope that they leave you alone, and with enough respect in their direction they’ll do just that much of the time, but they don’t think with human compassion. Just as you think you’re getting along nicely your settlement will grow a bit too close to a nest, and they’ll turn on you before you realise what’s going on. Not only that, they’ll grow in strength to adapt to those which they themselves see as a threat. Make enemies of them and you’re in for a long battle. And yet they’re not the only threat for you to deal with. Much of the planet is coated in miasma, a poisonous gas which will harm your people and troops for as long as they’re breathing it in. There are means and ways of clearing it for a while, and you can always just outright avoid it, but when also dodging aliens and other human colonies it’s a dangerous and often easily forgotten menace.
But the key thing here is how every game feels fresh, a whole new challenge. I’ve put a lot of time into Beyond Earth, and between the huge tech-web (the way you choose what to develop next) which refuses to narrow your choices down like previous Civ games have, and the vast combinations of selections at the start mean that you rarely follow the same set of rules more than once. You can’t be as lazy this times as you could before either; every turn counts. Where you had a few moments to react to something happening in games gone by, Beyond Earth is more than willing to punish a lapse in concentration by putting a massive spanner in the works. It might be a key branching decision which you get wrong, an unspotted alien getting a bit too close to your fledgling, under-defended settlement or simply another colony rolling up for a bit of a fight. Maybe the tech-web is begging to be explored a bit more, have you aim all of your resources towards a single higher level development in order to have the rest of the planet gazing up at you in wonder.
So while Civilization has always been about exploring, trying stuff out and trying to win over your enemies, it’s never felt so perilous before. Even when things feel like they’re going well, even when you’re building up to unleash an amazing new technology on the planet, even when you’ve built up a huge army to fend off any bad guys, you still never feel truly safe. The fear of the unknown is always quite strong, and the decisions you make are too uncertain in terms of what their long term effects will be. Games still go on for hours upon hours, that much is still very true, but never before has the opening couple of hours had such a huge impact on the long term game. As such Beyond Earth has a lot of new qualities over previous titles, and ones which have made the experience very different to what you’ll have enjoyed before. It’s still very Civilization, it’s still very Sid Meier, but it’s a different animal. What’s definite though, is that it’s still every bit as enjoyable, tense and challenging as it’s always been.
Reviewed on PC