Thoughts on Civilization: Beyond Earth

Recently the complete edition of Civilization: Beyond Earth went on sale. I think I paid about $10-15 for it. I’d been waiting for this to happen for a couple of years, since I insist on buying the whole game rather than buying it in 3 transactions (I want all the DLC, i.e the whole game), and because you’ll have to do something really special to make me think about spending $60 for a game.

Humble Store Link.

I’ve just finished my first playthrough, and here are my thoughts. They’re not easy to sum up in just 200 characters.

Let me start by saying it’s good. You’d expect it to be – they’ve done like 15 Civilization games so far, so they should have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. You’d expect anything under the Civilization banner these days to be super-polished and addictive. And it is, with the usual caveat that the AI isn’t particularly smart. But I’m willing to let that one slide since we don’t have general AI yet – it’s a complex game and building an AI for it is not going to be easy.

Weirdly, I found it both more and less complex than Civ V (the most recent one I’ve played, I have Civ 6 but have only put in maybe an hour so far). For instance, the diplomatic options seem very cut-down – you can’t e.g surround an enemy with a huge army and then demand a “gift”, or even have any customised dialogue – the options are limited to making trade agreements and setting a cooperation level (ranging from war to allied). That’s it. This seems to be a curious change for a Civ game, given that the diplomacy is such a big part of it. So it’s less complex, but at the same time there are a bunch of new mechanics that make it more complex, e.g orbital units, which I think are cool but didn’t strike me as particularly useful – I ignored them for most of the game.

I haven’t played Alpha Centauri in a couple of years, but I remember being really really impressed with it. I don’t think this is as good. And it’s not as good as Civ V, which might be the ultimate version of Civilization – it’s super-super-polished, faithful enough to the older games that I didn’t notice anything missing, and yet has enough new stuff that seemed to fit in well that I felt like it was more than just a rehash.

It pains me to say that any of these are better than the original, Civ 1, but objectively speaking I’d say that all of these probably are – I still play Civ 1 occasionally and compared with these games it feels kinda simple, and the graphics are antiquated. It is still hugely fun and massively addictive and it’s undoubtedly one of the most important games ever made, but if you’re new to Civ you probably want to start with Civ V.

Another pet-peeve I had with beyond earth is the technology / science system – I feel like the tech web idea (it’s a web rather than a tree) precludes a logical progression of science, because the dependencies for any given item aren’t particularly deep. So you could theoretically go to the end of a particular branch of the web by researching only 4 or 5 prerequisites, as opposed to the more conventional tech tree where railroads require steam engines, which require alloys, which requires steel, which requires metallurgy, which requires bronze, etc etc etc. Granted, the tech web is perhaps more realistic and reflects how you could change the focus of your research drastically and that research in computing is probably not going to impact biology very much, but I think the deeper tech tree with less choices at each branch is a better game mechanic.

The other problem I have with the tech tree/web in this game is that I felt like most of the technologies and unit names were just made up technobabble – I’m somebody who knows his sci-fi and futurism and I didn’t find myself saying “oh I know what that is”. And in a few cases I did know where something was, and was disappointed that the game didn’t really give me that. For example, there’s a mass driver. I said “ooooh cooool, mass driver!”. And then I got an improvement that gave my city better offensive capabilities, no mass driver graphic or animation to be seen, no weeapon I can target enemies with to throw meteors at them. In my book this should have been a devastating orbital unit, but nope. Note that this doesn’t apply to all of the technologies or units – some of them are logical hypothetical technologies and some of them do just what it says on the tin. But a lot of it is researching inverse phase polarity infusers, which give you a temporal gyreforge improvement that for some reason gives your city +3 production, or whatever. It’s been a while since I played Alpha Centauri, but I seem to recall that having a more logical tech tree, and the units/improvements you get from each tech make more sense with regard to what each technology is. But I might be wrong about that. Maybe it’s just that I’ve played regular Civilization more recently, and it has a very logical tech progression where you automatically know what everything is, as per my rail example above (which is just off the top of my head, but is probably fairly close to the actual progression).

I found several things in the UI unintuitive. For example I was about two-thirds of the way into the game before I figured out how to assign specialists, i.e where you assign a citizen as a scientist or engineer to get a science or production bonus. At first I assumed it didn’t have them, and then I figured out that you have to check the ‘show buildings’ checkbox, and certain buildings give you slots for specialists which you can click to assign. Another example of the unintuitive AI was that at a certain point I noticed that the colour of the aliens had changed. At first it was blue and then at a certain point I noticed it was orange. It was only when I destroyed a nest and the aliens changed from orange to red that I realised that they were getting more and more hostile. This despite me having all the advisors turned on, and it telling me every 3 turns that I can change my personality traits, and me screaming “yeah I’m happy with the ones I have, shut up!”.

Don’t take all these criticisms as me saying that the game isn’t great, though – it still has that addictive “one more turn” thing going on that you expect from a Civ game. But I don’t think it’s as good as Civ V or Alpha Centauri. If you’re looking for a purchasing recommendation, here’s mine: Buy Civilization V complete when it’s on sale ($80?!? seriously?), then buy Alpha Centauri on GOG (Listed at AU$8 at the time of writing including the expansion, a fair price), and then buy the complete edition of Beyond Earth when it’s on sale. If you can get the complete edition for $10-15 it’s worth it. If you don’t already own Civ V and Alpha Centauri then I’d recommend getting those first. I’m just going to assume you already own Civ 1. Which strangely doesn’t seem to be on GOG at the time of writing. Luckily, I own a boxed copy for the Amiga. </bragging>

Note that, of course, all these games support Linux. You might think that Alpha Centauri doesn’t, but loki games did a port back in the day. Apparently it can be difficult to get it running on modern systems, and that may or may not be true for the GOG version, but this installer works just fine on my xubuntu 16.04 laptop with my original Alpha Centauri CD. The only issue I have with Alpha Centauri is that it insists on running at 1024×768, which means it’s fairly small on my laptop screen, which won’t actually switch to that resolution. If you have a way to make it run at 1920×1080 (or 1680×1050), I’d love to hear it – the only info i could find was for the windows version. But it doesn’t make the game less awesome.

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