I’m probably the least qualified person to review Civilization: Beyond Earth. By the time the Mac version was even available to play, a mere 4 weeks or so after the Windows version, everyone who had an opinion on it had already expressed it, and they all had run the gamut of “not as good as Civilization V” all the way up to “not as good as Alpha Centauri”. Ordinarily I’d not even read reviews before posting my own thoughts, but in all honesty I wasn’t expecting to write a review anyway.
I have a grand total of 17 hours logged playing Civilization V, a figure that would be respectable on most other games, but that’s rather low compared to the average amongst my friends on Steam. Civilization is a game that demands a lot of time, and don’t I know it. In spite of those 17 hours, I don’t feel I have even a basic grasp of the core systems, and I don’t think I’ve even touched the expansion packs. I was planning to remedy this in the run-up to Beyond Earth’s release and spend a good amount of time learning and mastering it, but it just didn’t happen. I hope it will at some point in the future, but for now I’m faced with a completely unplayed version of the game set on another planet to contend with.
I’ve not played Alpha Centauri either. Again, I plan to at some point, if only because everyone keeps harping on about how great it is, but so far, every time I’ve booted it up I’ve been faced with a greater sense of despair than from having to review an MMO. How was I able to play these games in the 90s?
So, here I stand, with a copy of Civilization: Beyond Earth to review, and a rather slim chance that I could possibly find anything insightful to say about it at all. But then I thought, what if someone has never played any of Civilization games, or like me, has only a passing interest. How useful is the deluge of reviews bemoaning the diplomacy options, the lack of challenge of the AI at supercomputer levels, the supposedly bland leader personalities? Maybe I could write for those people.
So, for this not-review, I’m taking a different approach. I’m going to play through some turns in the game, and write my thoughts down as I do so. It’ll be like a Let’s Play video, but without the hyperactivity and shouting. It’ll just be nice and cosy, words on a screen, not unlike the quest text in World of Warcraft that no-one ever bothers to read. And with that, we begin.
The first thing I notice is that the mouse doesn’t lock to the screen. That’s actually a good thing for me, as I can write this on one monitor whilst having the game open in the other. It might annoy me later though, once I start actually playing it. The second thing I notice is that the intro video is really, really good. Sets the scene, feeling a little like a commercial, not too long that you forget what you wanted to do was play a game.
I go into the options menu, where I find the resolution is set correctly, but the graphics options are set to low. I have to restart the game if I change them, which is annoying. If it turns out the performance isn’t any good, I’ll just set everything back to low. I don’t think I’d have the patience to bounce in and out of this to get the water reflection quality right. Diving into single player, there’s a “Play Now” button, as well as a “Setup Game” to allow customisation. I have no idea how I want the game to play at this point, so I put my faith in the developers and pick the former option.
After a brief, but static loading screen, I’m introduced to the cheesily-named “Advisr” tutorial bot. Is it going to be like Microsoft Clippy? I forgo the 17 hours previous investment of time and pick that I’m “New to Civilization”, and that I want “Full Guidance”. I suppose there’s going to be a lot of hand-holding and popup messages to look forward to as a result. Next I’m told about affinities, or the “three very different directions” our society could evolve. They’re colour-coded and make me think about Mass Effect 3 a bit too much.
Finally I get to make my first decision– where to make planetfall and set up our first city. I note a few things, first that the map design reminds me a lot of Anno 2070, and secondly that there are lots of icons of apples dotted about, which I gather indicates food, but it doesn’t feel very futuristic. Anyway, I have a choice of exactly six hexes. People agonise over this sort of thing, I’m sure. I pick the one in the middle.
I then have to get a worker to build an improvement and then set production for the city (it probably goes without saying that there are multiple popup windows to guide me through this, each of those linking to yet more windows with more links, and as if this information overload wasn’t enough, the awful typography makes it even worse). The game advises me which improvement to build, and then gives me a bunch of choices for the production. I pick the one that will be completed the fastest. I feel ashamed at myself for wishing for a more iOS-like tutorial that just tells me which buttons to click, at least until I get a sense of the bigger picture.
The next thing I notice is that the water does look very pretty, but that I’d already forgotten this was supposed to be an alien planet. It just looks a bit like the Maldives at this point, albeit with a slightly obnoxious tilt-shift effect. Then I’m introduced to the “Tech Web”, a screen that doesn’t do the word “daunting” justice. What the hell are all the symbols? A younger me would find this screen fascinating. the older me is grateful for the tooltips. I go with genetics, because it seems to lead towards most of the “Alien” technologies.
My explorer unit needs orders, so I dutifully send it towards a yellow glowy thing, and that’s it for the first turn. It has been 40 minutes since I started the game.
It’s dawned on me that there probably won’t be any space ships in the game, because we’re confined to this alien planet. That makes me a bit sad. Anyway, at the start of the turn I’m told that one of my units walked into “a cloud of strange, alien miasma”, the first sign of anything alien at all. Effectively, it will damage any human units that stay on the same tile. My explorer reaches the yellow glowy thing, and this triggers absolutely zero response from the game at all. I assume it’s purely decorative, until the tooltip tells me it’s actually a resource called “Firaxite”, which will presumably come in useful later.
Before my turn starts, the camera whizzes to somewhere else on the map where I see something land, and then I’m introduced to Élodie of Franco-Iberia, who offers me her nation’s warmest greetings. She won’t go for an agreement of co-operation, and won’t go for a deal of open borders at all. Ok then. I’m then informed by the tutorial that I can make trade agreements, although apparently I have nothing at all to trade.
I now realise I’m on a tiny island, with no way to explore further. So I will have to cancel my research and go for Planetary Survey, which will allow my units to cross water. This will take 16 turns. I have approximately 20 hexes to play with until then.
I’m given my first quest, which is to create an outpost. In order to do that I will need to research Pioneering. I decide to hold off for now.
Another new potential rival/ally: the Kavithan Protectorate makes an appearance. They respond in exactly the same way as the Franco-Iberians. I now have a worker. I’m not entirely sure what to do with it, so I put it into “Build Improvements (Automated)” mode.
The third civilization, the third time I turned down for anything reasonable in terms of co-operation, although now they’re willing to agree to open borders if I give them all of my energy for the next 30 turns. I’m no politician, but that doesn’t seem like a great deal.
My first building completed, which is nice, so that means I can pick a new building, so now I know that everything is riding on me researching things, so I go for the science option. I receive my first “Quest Decision”, whether to contain the growth of vegetation from Earth, or allow a more Earth-like atmosphere to flourish. This is my planet, so I opt for the latter. As I hover over the choices, a tooltip tells me I’m heading towards one affinity over another. I receive +5 Culture as a result of my decision, I have literally no idea how happy that should make me feel.
The quest continues; I’m now faced with the decision to get those Earth plants to provide food or energy. Strangely, picking one over the other will also affect which affinity I progress towards. It’s still early in the game, so I figure food will be more important.
What the- so it turns out I wasn’t on an island after all! There’s a thin strip of land that I somehow missed that runs to more of a mainland. I can only assume that I mistook fog of war for something I’d already discovered. Somehow.
I’m now asked to “develop a virtue”, and it seems that this is what can spend culture on. They’re all sorts of +X% bonuses to different things, broken down into four categories (might, prosperity, knowledge, industry). I kind of feel I’m on the path to science/knowledge now, might as well stick with that.
I’ve discovered an “alien nest” from which alien lifeforms will spawn. There are “Alien Wolf Beetles” and “Alien Manticores” on the map. They look a bit like Zerg from Starcraft, except in green. The music is now more dramatic. As soon as I hit the end turn button, they scurry off into the fog of war. Not sure if I should be concerned about this.
I search a Resource Pod just lying around on the world map and find a satellite, which gives me a free Solar Collector. At the same time I’ve researched my first technology and can now “embark” units. In the help message that pops up, one of the options is “What is Technology?” Quite. For next research, I figure it’s best to just complete the set and go for pioneering, which will unlock a bunch of trade-related techs. I also get to launch the solar collector. Yay me! This makes the map go monochrome as I enter the Orbital Layer. Ooh, and yet somehow underwhelming.
So in the orbital layer, there’s a limit on where you can place things; basically the solar collector requires 7 hexes, which is fine for now, but I gather if I start launching loads of them I’ll start to run out of space (ha!). Having placed the collector, I now have no idea how to get back to the ground map (I eventually figure it out, it’s one of the buttons in the bottom right-hand of the screen, next to other buttons that I’ve never clicked either. When I go back into it, there’s the solar collector, presumably collecting solar… power? I don’t think this was ever explained.
I’m advised to develop my military. Ok, guess I’ll build a soldier unit then.
Good thing there are Quest Decisions to be made. I was starting to feel like I’m not actually contributing much to this game so far. My Decision involves choosing a venture to approve. Literally the only difference this decision makes is whether I get an energy bonus or a science bonus (I choose energy, just to mix things up a bit). Oh and I can now establish a trade route with this station. Good thing I have that being researched right now. I can terraform a planet with some shrubs, and yet I can’t swap goods with the only humans nearby without spending time in the lab. Just why are there stations on this alien planet anyway? I don’t know if that was explained. In the Civilopedia, it just says they’re “established by entities independent from any colony or Affinity”. Handwavium, in other words.
The African Union decide they want a cooperation agreement. Yeah, what about when I wanted one? You were too good for me. I show them two fingers.
The Pan-Asian Cooperative honors my ancestors. I try for the last time to negotiate open borders. Surprise surprise, they decline unless I hand over a bunch of energy. Time for a different tact. I DECLARE WAR on them.
Seriously? Another bloomin’ nation shows up. DECLARE WAR.
My capital city is under attack, by some kind of sandworm by the look of it. I select my lone soldier unit and hover over the worm. I learn that it is a “Siege Worm” and that the combat will result in TOTAL DEFEAT. Ah. The other options are to have my soldier unit “fortify” for a defensive bonus. I’ll try that then.
So it turns out that the Siege Worms (there are now at least three of them) don’t appear to actually be doing any damage to my city, they’re just burrowing into tiles surrounding it. I also learn that my city has the capability to fire missiles at the worms (one salvo per turn). This reduces the worms health by 16%. And now I may have pissed it off.
Hahaha. One of the nations I declared war against now wants peace, and is willing to pay– big time– for it. I collect a load of energy as well as the open borders no one wanted to give me, for the price of a peace treaty.
Oh and my city is under attack by siege worms and I’ll likely be dead soon.
I kill the stupid worm (not sure about the others, they seem to have vanished for now). It turns out that the worm has no real self-preservation instincts, and just firing rockets at it for ten turns while it moves from one random hex to another does the job. And also completes a quest to kill a worm I didn’t even know I had. And gives me a bunch of bonus resources.
To hell with science and progress. I’m going to take this planet by force.
Nothing interesting happened for 20 turns. I built some stuff, I researched some stuff, I made some quest decisions. I then was offered a boat-load of resources to make peace with the nation I was still at war with. I accepted and then declared war on every other nation.
It has taken me 92 turns to look at the victory progress and see how I’m doing. I’ve no idea why it hadn’t occurred to look at the victory screen before now, which is to my downfall, as there are a few ways to win beyond killing everyone else. For instance, to get the “Emancipation” victory, I must merely “launch 1 lasercom satellite”. I say “merely”, though of course I have no idea what this entails.
I also learn that I have made zero progress across all victory conditions.
I ignore all the advice offered on which production to commit to next and opt to build a trade convoy, as I feel it’s long overdue that I discover how the trade route system works.
Nothing happens for 30 turns, and then it’s suddenly on. I’ve founded my second city. Exciting times, except it looks like even the cheapest production will take 40 turns.
So I’ve built my trade convoy, but it turns out there are no available routes. Not sure why this is, seeing as I’ve had numerous messages informing me I can start trade routes with various outposts. I consult the Civilopedia and figure it must be that there are no land-based routes available, so I’ll have to build a trade vehicle which can cross water.
I have an awful lot of energy (3615) that I should really figure out how I can use it.
Ok. I buy a hell of a lot of new buildings with my energy surplus.
Having now bought a trade depot at my second city, I have no idea how to locate the trade convoy I previously put to sleep.
I built my first wonder. It’s a Stellar Codex. There’s a diagram of it and some made-up quote, but despite the text telling me what bonuses it gives me, I have no idea precisely what a stellar codex is.
I built a Tacjet and took on a siege worm. The animation for the battle was actually pretty good. I lost, having forgotten to check the preview of the outcome prior to committing to the fight. The most damning thing I can say about the game now is that I’m completely uninvested in what happens next.
I really wanted to like it. It’s got a great setting, a load of different and interesting things to explore… and yet. I rarely felt like I was on a frontier, and even less felt like I cared about anything that was happening, despite the game’s best efforts to convince me. There were just far too many turns where nothing happened, far too much happening that didn’t seem like I had much influence over. Maybe I gave up too soon. Maybe it’s just not my sort of game. Maybe I’ll return in the future.