If there’s one series that’s stayed with me throughout my life, it’s Civilization. Star Wars faded from memory, Spyro fell into the shitter and Mass Effect – well, there’s a reason it’s got a restraining order against me. But Civ’s been my constant companion, from babbling toddler tactical advice at my dad’s Amiga Civ 1 games, learning words and history from 2 and spending so much of my youth leading crusades in 3 and 4 for power, science and lebensraum. But it was Alpha Centauri that captured my heart, Firaxis’ 2000 spinoff when they didn’t have the rights to Civ proper, an epic tale of survival and human endeavour on a new world and the wonders and horrors that await us. So when I heard Firaxis was returning to the idea I couldn’t have been more optimistic.
After Beyond Earth is built on Civ V’s engine and the civ management and combat is so similar it feels more like an expansion or a really professional mod (of the kind the company includes with Civ re-releases). If anything it seems stripped-down, missing that game’s happiness and religion systems with little take their place beyond a generic questing system (which removes much of the series’ feeling of freedom). This feeling extends to the rest of the game, with a limited number of units (whose modification system barely qualifies as such) and only three victory types: conquest, science (contacting aliens) or re-invading earth. The latter has variations depending on which cultural ‘path’ you picked, but functionally they’re identical.
And that’s Beyond Earth’s problem, a lack of personality. Alpha Centauri was a masterpiece of economical storytelling, building a wide variety of fictional cultures and a vision of the future both fascinating and terrifying (seriously, it’s a 4X horror game). Every technology, building or wonder was instantly understandable from name alone, and each delivered with a quote that – whether real or fictional – summed up what it was and what it meant for humanity (I can quote many to this day)*. Despite only seeing the world from above or chatting with other leaders (also well-defined and memorable – Fuck you Miriam!), a brilliantly compelling vision of the future (and storyline) was created in a game that looked like this:
Beyond Earth has none of that. Every leader and faction is interchangeable; I can’t recall anything about them. The main Civ games didn’t have this problem as the real countries, leaders and techs are immediately recognisable with the most basic historical knowledge, but a sci-fi spin-off needs something the player can connect to. I have no idea what any of the techs, buildings or wonders are even meant to be, or what they achieve beyond slightly better units or resource bonuses (I don’t know what the new resources are either). It’s all just a big pile of blandness.
And that’s Beyond Earth in the end, a spin-off without enough to differentiate itself from its predecessors or enough personality to stand on its own. I had to look this game’s wiki up to remember enough to write this review, and in a year I doubt I’ll remember it exists until I check my steam inventory, see its name, and release a heavy sigh.
*Alpha Centauri’s The Cloning Vats wonder video, for comparison: