Friday, 24 October 2014

Whiskey Reviews: Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

Platform: PC
Release Date: 24 October 2014
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K
Where to get it: Steam
Price: £29.99

Civilization Beyond Earth is the latest Civ game from Firaxis, a company that feels like they can do no wrong - for years they've put out quality games and expansion packs that substantially improved those games and though some changes to the formula have upset some fans, most have found each new game to be better than the last. Have Firaxis built another wonder? Hit the link to find out!

The obvious comparison is the absolutely titanic Alpha Centauri, which also bears Sid Meier's name, and I can safely say that Beyond Earth is absolutely not a spiritual sequel, copy or otherwise related to Alpha Centauri. Beyond Earth is more like a space theme tacked on to the Civilization 5 framework. If you're looking for a brand new Alpha Centauri scale experience, look elsewhere.

Scale, apparently.

Beyond Earth opens with a rather spectacular cinematic that shows off amazing pre-rendered footage of refugees and soldiers and rockets spewing smoke and dust everywhere as they take off to get you hyped for the game. It's one of the standout introduction videos from recent times and well worth seeking out on its own even if you don't intend on buying the game.
Sadly the graphical marvels end there; some assets from Civilization 5 have been shamelessly re-used, most notably the ice and shoreline effects but there's more hidden in there. It's kind of a Where's Wally, except instead of a bespectacled skinny git you've got all the things a lazy art department left laying about.
Some of the buildings look nice, though cities don't grow into the sprawling, wonder-dotted metropolises seen in Civilization 5. Wonders don't seem to show up at all, in the other Civilization games the wonders always appeared on the map (most notably the pyramids having a propensity for appearing in the sea) but Beyond Earth seems to forego the drawing of wonders at all beyond a little pop-up with a blueprint concept style drawing and blurb of text.
One graphical choice I can really commend is the level of detail afforded to the combat units; they're far more detailed than previous entries, with not just higher quality skins but also models that don't look like an amateur wood carving. There's also an impressive amount of difference between the visual styles of the units for the three different development paths, even if they don't have any significant functional or statistical differences.
That said, there's the small issue of units of the same type looking too similar, for example a marine squad and gunner squad side by side may as well be the same unit, only distinguishable by taking a close up look if it weren't for the floating symbols above their heads.

This guy is down there somewhere.

Turns out he's not down here. Those are Guardians apparently.

The units are tied to your research progress, now divided up beyond multi-tiered nodes in a kind of spider-web of technologies with various vaguely sci-fi sounding names like Xenobiology. You unlock units and unit upgrades via researching various nodes and sub-nodes on this web with the three affinity specific ones (Harmony, Purity, Supremacy) being marked with icons to make them stand out.
The problem with this web over the old tech tree style research is that it's confusing. Plain and simple works, the tech tree used to show how technologies progressed from developing paper to writing to the printing press it was all a logical and easily understandable progression. In Beyond Earth you just have a jumble of technologies loosely grouped by their overall role (things like "ballistics") that don't seem to have any kind of logical progression or clear organization to the way they're laid out.
The usability of this research web is also hampered by the descriptions and names disappearing in favour of pointless icons that display zero information if you scroll out only a little bit. Imagine if you were trying to read a family tree but you had to have your face so close to the paper that you could only read one or two names at once, and if you back up a little all the names and information disappear and turn into shapes that mean nothing - that's what the technology web is.

Does this come in large print so I don't have to mash my face into it?

It comes in no print though. Look at the pretty colours.

In addition to the research you also have the Virtues, Beyond Earth's equivalent of Civilization 5's Social Policies. They're even earned exactly the same way, by generating culture.
Thankfully these are arranged far more sensibly; there's four columns, each relating to a different aspect of play (might, prosperity, knowledge, industry) with a RPG-style tree of nodes that provide immediate buffs to different aspects. In addition to the individual nodes, you have synergies both in-virtue and cross-virtue which are unlocked by simply getting a certain amount of nodes either vertically in a single virtue or horizontally across multiple virtues.
Though fairly basic and not even remotely as in-depth as Civilization 5's social policies, and completely lacking and unlockable virtues, I did enjoy this aspect of the game. You get Virtues from culture at a fairly decent rate even if you're not focusing on deliberately earning them, which allows you to tailor the bonuses you earn to the current situation far more fluidly than the old social policies system and its method of linking you to a particular play style.

There's 7 Heavenly Virtues, but I think they ran out of different colours half way through.
Individual civilizations aren't fixed quantities either, upon starting a game the player is able to choose a sponsor, set of colonists, cargo and space-ship type which determines a set of four bonuses the player receives at the start of the game. These can be production or culture boosts, starting with extra energy (money, it's just Civ 5's gold rebranded) or more immediate benefits such as having coastlines mapped from the start, a larger landing zone to choose from or having the alien nests marked on the map at the start of the game.
Though the customization is welcome, the selections are sparse, there's only eight sponsors and the other categories only have four or five entries each and ultimately feel inconsequential - you'd be hard pressed to notice any significant difference if you just chose random when setting up a came as opposed to actually customizing your stuff.
The custom civilizations feature could have been an amazing addition if it had been more fleshed out, but as it is it's a step back from just choosing from a set of predefined civilizations.
Unfortunately this lack of choice bleeds into the actual gameplay, with only eight sponsors to choose from there can only be a maximum of eight players in a game so even the largest Beyond Earth games feel like the smallest Civilization 5 matches.
Also affected is the diplomacy aspect, without well defined civilizations the leaders are just blank slates with random personalities each time. Personality is a generous word though, they're about as complicated as a puppy, showing you heaps of love so long as you keep feeding them your excess resources.

Pictured: All the factions. The one missing off the top is "Random"

Going to war in Civilization 5 could mean centuries of strife for all involved, with military production ramping up and civilian health taking a back-seat to siege weapon construction. In Beyond Earth it feels like kicking the aforementioned puppy.
I had one stand-out war in particular where I was playing Harmony and had zero military units, an aggressive civilization declared war and was promptly beaten by my neighbor, which prompted the warmonger to open negotiations for peace - offering a straight 10 turn peace treaty to which I demanded the addition of two of his largest cities, mostly to piss him off further. To my surprise the AI didn't say no or even make a counter-offer and instead rolled belly up and surrendered his two most powerful non-capital cities to me without so much as a shot fired.
Ranged units, especially the artillery type, make short work of cities, typically levelling one in only a couple of volleys while a melee unit can wander in to redecorate in your colour.
This issue is compounded by the largest map size only being big enough for each civilization to have about three or four cities before they start stepping on each-others toes which either forces an early conflict (thoroughly fucking over the Harmony player) or encourages passive resource hoarding while running for one of the various victory conditions.
A lack of variety in the landscape, both aesthetically and tactically means you'll not encounter anything more interesting than losing a bit of movement speed due to a forest or hill, or a bit of health due to a miasma cloud floating over a certain tile. This again compounds the issue of warfare lacking any particularly engaging aspect.
Even taking different affinity routes doesn't spice things up because most of the unit differences are aesthetic, with a Purity player's top-tier artillery having exactly the same stats as a Harmony player's. Even the ability to harness the alien lifeforms to fight for you isn't unique, all the factions can do it and the evolution of these units is just aesthetic and near pointless. So what if I got a True Xenotwat instead of an Evolved Xenotwat.

Contrary to popular believe, the Rangers are actually going on a picnic.
There's a couple of genuinely new additions though, the orbital layer being the most interesting despite being about as useful as a chocolate fireguard.
Beyond Earth allows you the possibility of launching satellites, a new unit class that takes to the orbital layer and affords the area beneath various benefits such as clearing miasma or generating resources. A couple of satellites are even weapons, with a genuinely awesome (if horribly named) Rocktopus satellite which is an alien creature you can shoot into orbit!
Much like the other aspects, it's surface deep however. You don't need satellites and you'll likely only ever launch them out of curiosity or to generate a bit of extra cash or culture in order to speed things up.
The other big addition is the quest system, an ever present series of objectives that when completed lead to a decision popping up where you must make one of two choices, essentially deciding whether you want benefit A or benefit B.
The quests aren't that interesting in and of themselves but they provide a decent amount of fluff text and the choices give you a feeling of being the president making important decisions.
Ultimately it's all a bit pointless though, choices like not paying upkeep or getting one energy per turn, or getting food instead of production make the choices all feel a bit pointless in the larger scheme of things.

There's enough to any Civilization game that I could go on for another thousand or more words but in the interest of not boring you, dear reader, to death I shall condense my thoughts into a semi-arbitrary number and overall thoughts:
Overall Civilization Beyond Earth feels like it should have been a £10 expansion pack to Civilization 5 instead of a 30 quid full game. As a full price game it is not recommended, it's shallow, easy, lazy and severely lacking content.
That said, it is fun. If you're a fan of the Civilization games you'll probably enjoy it as a just-different-enough Civilization to be fresh but it's not likely to see even a fraction of the play time of a numbered Civilization entry. The ability to finish a game in an afternoon is an unexpected boon, being able to squeeze in a relatively fast game of Civ is nice but hardcore players probably won't touch anything but normal or marathon speeds and prefer the longer, historically focused series entries anyway.
A smorgasboard of technical issues abound, from a lack of resolution and refresh rate options, the game not saving configuration settings between restarts, graphical glitches, alt-tabbing being shonky at best and volume sliders that stop responding seemingly at random. All these serve to hold the game back, I had to play in a horrible non-standard resolution with my monitor set to 24hz no matter what settings I chose in game.
Finally a technicality. Firaxis showing their wonderful (i.e. shit) community management skills and not even issuing a statement or apology for a totally botched UK release on top of a Firaxis forum administrator on Steam deleting a thread in which those waiting for the delayed UK release were initially complaining but turned to having fun and joking and making friends.
It's not the most heinous act in the world, but it does show a callous disregard for the consumers who, at the time, were impatient and trying to make the best of a bad situation.

It's not often I'm so torn on whether to recommend buying a game or not. On one hand I did have a lot of fun playing Beyond Earth but between the issues with the game and community treatment I wouldn't have bought it had I known in advance. 
Civilization games are usually a polished, deep and engaging product right out of the box and it wasn't unreasonable to expect that once more. Instead we got a playable but deeply flawed product that I can't recommend in its current state unless it turns up in the bargain bin for less than a tenner or your local equivalent.
Make no mistake, as the score below shows, I feel it's a bad game. I still enjoyed it, but I also enjoy Call Of Duty each year and they're also bad games. As always, take the score with a pinch of salt. I've tried to be as objective as possible based on my personal experiences with the game but they're still just that - personal.
If you've had any experiences with the game please comment below and share them!

Score: 3 out of 10 colonists thought they were going Beyond Thunderdome.

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