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The RPS Verdict - Civilization: Beyond Earth

Never mind comet-catching, it's...

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There’s a Meerman, waiting over there, he’d like to come and talk to Adam about Civilization: Beyond Earth but he thinks it’ll take some time.

Adam: And here I am.

Alec: on the other side of the galaxy. Well, in a different chatroom. Same difference. So then. How’ve you got on with Beyond Earth, now the lunar dust has settled somewhat?

Adam: I don’t dislike it. Which isn’t even a back-handed compliment, is it? But it’s the truth. There’s very little about it that I don’t like but there’s not a lot that sets my world alight either.

Alec: No, come on, that’s not how it works. You either LOVE it or HATE it. No middleground in game criticism, we all know that.
But yes, I feel similarly. Forever on the verge of really taking to it, forever on the verge of drifting away from it.

Adam: There is nothing about it that inspires either love or hate in me. It has made me into a transcendental being that knows not how to love or hate. Sadly, I’m already becoming a bit indifferent to it.

It’s very hard not to define it, at least in part, using its relationship to both Civ V and Alpha Centuari isn’t it? Two touchstones, neither of which it compares all that well to.

Alec: As we said when we were playing it together the other week, we seemed to get a bit of a false impression from playing earlier builds. Whether that was just unfamiliarity or the balance was different in those builds, it seemed like much more of a fight for survival than the finished thing wound up being.

Adam: It’s not trying to be Alpha Centauri, which I think some people see as a weakness, but it’s not doing enough to differentiate itself from Civ V, I don’t think.

Alec: Yeah, I really expected more final frontier pioneering. I suspect modders will bring that back, but whether I’ll be going back I don’t know.

Adam: The aliens seemed like such an important feature in the preview build I played. The whole ‘aha, they’re not barbarians wearing prosphetic mandibles’ moment possibly created a sort of mental domino effect. “If the aliens are different to barbarians then the cities must be different to….etc etc. Whereas there are differences, sure enough, but they’re such gradual deviations that they haven’t grabbed my imagination.

Alec: Aye, I figured the other civs would be much more invested in their own survival, but they wind up being pretty traditional Civ-Dicks. ‘Oh, so now you’re going to fight me because you’re bored, got it.’

Adam: I think part of the problem is that it doesn’t hang together thematically. I guess traditional Civ doesn’t either if you pick at it, but we’ve become trained to think that’s how a rapid strategic overview of history works.

Alec: I will get to the stuff I liked shortly, but while we’re twisting the knife I’ll give it another turn. ‘One more turn.’

Adam: ho ho.

Alec: Yeah, exactly, thematically It’s not wild enough. In terms of big sci-fi ideas, there are what, four different alien types, and they all behave essentially the same way. There is miasma, which is a sort of poison gas that makes walking through certain hexes a bit annoying. And then there are a bunch of, essentially, renamed Civ V resources.

Adam: With added mucus.

Alec: Much later on you get mechasoldiers and alien hybrids, but the meat of the game is spent being not terribly science fictional. It’s very safe. Which may reflect a very deliberate desire to not to be w-w-w-w-wacky, but leaves the game struggling for a clear personality.

Adam: Even where there are neat concepts in the text, they tend to resolve into +1 of this or +2 of the other, which led to me clicking through them. I didn’t care about the character of my colonial power, I just cared about which bonuses were most important *at that time.* The biggest disappointment for me was that in the preview build, I felt that the game was far more reactive than Civ. As in, I was reacting to my environment and the aliens rather than dominating it. But every time I play, I fall into similar pattern.

Alec: Yeah, the presentation of the quests and the flavour text is a massive failing, I think. A little block of little words appears, and there’s no zing to it or sense of greater consequence, so you default to just checking which option has the most useful bonus for you. It really feels like a feature loosely ladeled on top of a Civ game, rather than building up a new concept from the start. As you say, I quickly started repeating familiar Civ behaviours. When I was up against the wall by the indefatigable alien hordes in that preview build, I didn’t do that. I make did and mended.

Adam: I’ve forgotten the name of the minor nation replacement things – are they just stations?

Alec: Stations, yeah. Silent hubs to send a trade convoy to, basically.

Adam: Yes! They’re rubbish! I was so pleased when I saw that they had weird names – mad temples of futurist religions and capitalist mining corps. But they’re just another bonus. Everything is a bonus. Maybe that’s the way it’ll be. This Rosetta mission will finish later today and we’ll get a +1 iron bonus.

Alec: On the other hand, it’s a very careful and precise game, which I want to praise it for. There’s some fine balance in there, especially once it does get into the wilder units in the late game. Which brings me to the research web, the Civilopedia. Now that’s a piece of work. I’d miss that if I went back to Civ V – that freedom to really plan out a long term strategy from the off, as opposed to picking and choosing from a much more fixed path, and trying to remember what eventually leads to what. It’s as though the game offers itself to you – do with me as you will. Missus.

Adam: When I spoke to the devs a few months ago, that was the thing that made me excited. Everything they’d shown in the initial videos made me think – where’s the ‘not-Earth’ bit. Where’s the thing that doesn’t have a direct analogue. And that was it. A tech web. And it’s such a brilliant thematic leap as well as a clever piece of design. Known history is a linear chart of progression. The future is a web. I’m going to invoke the possible benefit of expansions here, which I hadn’t intended to do just yet, but that web feels like the beginning of an idea rather than the end of one to me. A sort of scaffolding for possibilities.

Alec: Yes. It represents where humanity is now, oddly – we’re planning the future, as opposed to haphazardly stumbling into one. You’re deciding what you want your civilization to be, rather than simply levelling it up, as it were. Expansions and whatever tech they introduce can just plug into that web without having to interrupt anything else. So they can add a sort of pustule of crazy stuff onto the side somewhere.

Adam: In principle, at least. It’s the part of the game that’s closest to hitting just the right spot, but because most of the early to mid-game tech feels like it’s basically Earth tech with some tinfoil wrapped around it, it doesn’t have the sense of the unknown.

Alec: Again, I’m curious as to what the modders can do with this. With Civ, mods either had to be total conversions or were tweaks that the game didn’t necessarily need. Here someone enterprising can just throw something totally weird in, it’s much more anything goes. One of the sadnesses of Beyond Earth in its current form is that you’re essentially on the same planet every time, so the simple concept of infinite other worlds is an open invitation to third-party ingenuity.

Adam: I want some spiders on that web. Some nasty surprises. Actually, there’s a thought – despite ditching the more or less linear tech progress, from 4000 BC to the not-so-distant future, Beyond Earth is still very much a game about progress. The affinities offer different end-points for that progress but would it be bonkers to want the possibility of conflicting tech, or some sense of failure in pursuit of knowledge. Pros and cons rather than accumulation. Was Alpha Centauri? My interpretation is that it was a game about taming the world, which is different. Or at least it could be that game.

Alec: Beyond Earth is still a game about ruling the world.

Adam: But, yes, it’s very much about domination, whatever some of the affinities might suggest. And I suppose it was always going to be. It’s still Civ after all.

Alec: Your idea of future-tech going terribly wrong is appealing. Right now, when you make alien hybrid soldiers, they just work, whereas it would be lovely for that to have terrible consequences to other parts of your civ.

Adam: They should occasionally wander off and set up their own Civs. Rebel if you bodge up the planet too much. And then you could trade with them for a +1 bonus.

Alec: But hell, we’re designing a different game, lamenting what’s not there rather than exploring what is. We are very naughty!

Adam: I know I know. This does speak to the problem though – Beyond Earth feels a bit blank, waiting to be filled with ideas. It’s very vanilla. Green and purple vanilla, granted. Also, we’re terrible backseat drivers.

Alec: I suppose Civ is very much an elder statesman now. There were probably concerns about going too far off the reservation, because certain things are expected of it, space or no. Civ can’t be Starcraft, y’know? Bbut the conservatism got out of hand, I think.

Adam: That reminds me of something Dennis Shirk said to me while I was at Firaxis’ place, hanging out and drinking all the coffee. “With the Civ series, we work to Sid’s 33% rule. Each new version should be 33% new, 33% improvements and 33% retained from the previous game. With Civ V, we used almost the entire 33% new on one-unit stacks and hexes.” Then he goes on to talk about how the expansions made room for them to add the ideas they’d left behind during that three-way split.

Alec: The question, really, is whether Beyond Earth was a) meant to be and b) should be treated as primarily a Civ game. It’s possible we’re being unfair because we’re playing a Civ game then complaining that it’s a Civ game.

Adam: I think that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Alec: As you say, the spectre of Alpha Centauri looms large, as System Shock 2 did with BioShock.

Adam: But I think some of the complaining is justified, because it doesn’t feel radically different to Civ V and without some of the gubbins from the expansions, it feels more like base Civ V than current Civ V. I guess the 33% of new in Beyond Earth is the tech tree, the affinities, the aliens… the quests? The theme? Does the theme count? I’m thinking not. The tech tree is a big thing and I reckon it’ll be something that sticks. That’s a lovely thought.

I don’t think Beyond Earth is a bad Civ game but I think, for me, it isn’t a necessary Civ game. I like V and I still play IV from time to time. Beyond Earth isn’t going to displace either.

Alec: That’s the thing – it’s not like Civ V has expired. Thanks to the expansions it still seems pretty fresh and contemporary. And BE suffers for that. This many years on it perhaps the thinking was we were all ready for a new Civ, but maybe we just weren’t. What I should say at this point is that I’ve spent dozens of hours with Beyond Earth – which isn’t a common feat now I’m a dad – so clearly it’s doing something right. At the very least, it hasn’t thrown the old Civ magic out with the bathwater.

Adam: I’ve spent a fair bit of time with it as well, but I’ll be going back to Earth. Maybe I will miss the tech web – it’s entirely possible – but Civ V feels bigger. The scale seems bigger.

Alec: There’s a lot more to do, as well. BE has a disproportionate focus on trade routes, for instance. But then Civ V has two expansions, so perhaps not a fair comparison.

Adam: That’s a point actually – with my head firmly planted in the toxic gas clouds of alien planet #5645483, I’ve failed to notice the timespan of Beyond Earth. how long does it take to go from planetfall to victory? In the game’s fiction?

Alec: I do not know this. Quickly referring to screenshots, it doesn’t say the year on the main UI – just the turn number.

Adam: For some reason, I feel like my little peeps land and are ready to jet off to a new adventure at the centre of the universe about six weeks later. I know it doesn’t matter how many days, weeks or years a turn represents, but I feel like I’m on vacation rather than colonising a planet.

Adam: I think each turn is four seconds of in-game time because of entropy. Ha ha. The joke is that I don’t precisely understand the future AT ALL.

Did you like Civ V before the expansions? I feel like nobody did but then I remember that I did so…Do you think there’s any doubt that expansions will come for Beyond Earth?

Alec: I didn’t love it. It seemed… plain. Pretty sure I enjoyed BE more than I did vanilla Civ V. But that may be because, as conservative as the sci-fi was, I still had to learn a bunch of stuff, whereas everything in Civ V(anilla) was at least recognisable on first glance. The affinities system, the miasma, the tech web – it was new stuff to discover in the first play. The trouble is the plays beyond that.

Adam: There’s an expectation that a new Civ game will reliably last until the NEXT Civ game. For all my griping, I’ve still had a good twenty hours of tinkering with C:BE over a couple of weeks.

Alec: It’s vaguely alarming that what we keep saying is “an expansion’s what’s needed”. We’re looking beyond Beyond Earth already, but that’s probably a year away. Will Beyond Earth last long enough for that, even?

That wasn’t rhetorical. It sounded like it, all knowing and bullish, but it was actually a question.

Adam: I promised myself I wouldn’t say “an expansion’s what’s needed”. And then I find myself sucking on my teeth like a builder giving an estimate to put some gravel down on a driveway. “Tfffffffffffftt…it’ll cost you…parts, labour….an expansion’s needed.”

Alec: “Need to order the miasma in special.”

Adam: I’m not sure if it’ll last. I wonder if it’s found and will retain its audience. It needs some magical Venn-space containing the sci-fi crowd and the Civ crowd, I’d guess, because I doubt the majority of the latter crowd are keen to move on. But I say that – and I know full well that if an expansion comes along and looks even half-promising, I’ll give it a whirl. I do like me some Civ.

Alec: All of this said, of everything currently on my hard drive, Beyond Earth is what I’m most likely to turn to in the rare event of a free weekend.

Adam: I made the mistake of starting a CK II: Charlemagne campaign so it’s that and Isaac for me. Sometimes simultaneously. Oh godineedhelp.

Alec: The Binding of Adam (to some videogames, forever).

Adam: Hey! The thing just sent a signal back from the comet! BEYOND EARTH.

Alec: Watch out for the big angry green beetles, Mr Philae!

Adam: +1 research

Alec: Aw, man, I’m genuinely disappointed that the odd, brutal Beyond Earth we played 200 turns of a couple of months ago isn’t what we got. I’m going to go and light a candle for it.

(I don’t have any candles).

(might just have a cup of tea and sigh).

Sid Meier’s Civilization V: Beyond Earth is out now.

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Alec Meer

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