“They should have sent a poet,” says astronaut Jodie Foster, struck dumb by wonder upon encountering alien intelligence at the end of the film Contact. It's easy to feel the same way about Civilization: Beyond Earth, the latest iteration of Sid Meier's venerable and mighty Civilization franchise. C:BE takes the player to the ostensibly virgin soil of a new planet, but it's not long before one questions exactly how new this new world really is. Just to mix up the out-of-date science fiction references - is that the Statue of Liberty's head protruding from the hex-grid ahead? You maniacs! It was Civilization V all along!
Maybe not quite – but C:BE borrows far more from its earthbound predecessor in the franchise than it dares change. As such it represents a much less ambitious departure from the usual Civilization mould than 1999's Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri – the only previous interstellar excursion in the series, which I celebrated on this site earlier this week – or, for that matter, Civ V, which shook up numerous established Civ fundamentals.
Many aspects of Civ V appear with only the lightest camouflage, such as social policies, which are renamed virtues, not terribly interesting diplomacy (in which many exchanges are word-for-word what you'd get in Civ V), and trade routes, which are unchanged. The really new aspects are the addition of a orbital layer to the tactical and infrastructural choices offered by land, air and sea; “quests”, a completely novel gameplay dynamic for Civ; replacement of the tried-and-tested tech tree with a non-linear “tech web”; affinities, which, although implemented differently, are reminiscent of Civ V: Brave New World's “ideologies”; and the alien flora and fauna afforded by the new setting.
Anyway, one could draw up these lists of overlap and deviation all day, and it wouldn't be very exciting for anyone – which is precisely the problem, as the C:BE player is continually prey to the narcissism of small differences, identifying and questioning each little choice on the part of the makers rather than immersing oneself in the terror and splendour of an alien environment.
It's a murky place, this new home for humanity, with shadowy, dripping forests and a swampy complexion, particularly in the swamps. Parts of it are shrouded in poisonous fug called miasma. From bubbling mires of green ooze, alien nests can arise, and spawn forth mysterious creatures. Well, not terribly mysterious. Faced with any number of sinister or unusual ways the alien life in the game could behave, C:BE's ETs act much like a cross between Civ V's barbarians and the bugs in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers: showing up pretty early on in large numbers and not leaving a tremendous amount to the imagination.
As for the human element, the player can choose from and compete against a fairly small number of near-future Earth societies with fairly arbitrary strengths and weaknesses – if there is a detailed backstory behind the Slavic Federation, Brasilia or the others, it's not spelled out. Players start at a more advanced technological level than in a usual game of Civ, so there's not long to wait before flight and ocean travel are possible, which speeds the game along. However, the available units feel much less varied than the immense range of standard Civ, albeit with new customisation and specialisation options.
Those specialisations aside, diplomacy and warfare progress almost exactly along Civ V lines, with all those strengths and weaknesses. Foremost among Civ V’s changes to the formula was the removal of unit stacking and that carries over to C:BE, as do the tough cities. This combination means that wars tend to be long and undramatic, and can sometimes feel like unit traffic traffic jams into stalemated bottlenecks.
Minor powers, a new feature which hugely enriched Civ V, exist in crippled form as “stations”, small outposts which claim no territory, do not conduct diplomacy, and still restrict where you can found your own settlements (which must, incidentally, pass through a restricted “outpost” phase before becoming proper cities). You can trade with stations, and sometimes get diverting choices as a result, but other than that all you can do is squash them.
Dear me, this is turning into a long list of complaints, and that's probably not entirely fair. There's nothing inherently wrong with being very like Civ V – quibbles aside, Civ V was a superb game, especially once it had been expanded and enhanced by the Brave New World and Gods & Kings add-on packs. Maybe that's what's missing here. Every stunted or banal gameplay element in Beyond Earth is just waiting for an expansion to bring it to life.
But they really should have sent that poet. Parts of C:BE are just unforgivably dull. Complete a wonder, for instance, and you see nothing more than a little blueprint of whatever obscure futuristic device it is you've just completed, which as it's made of balonium, tells you precious little. I won the game by making contact with an alien intelligence and for this stupendous, epochal achievement I received a still picture and a line of text telling me what an achievement it was.
Shorn of the history, culture and myth of Old Earth, an interstellar Civilization game needs to do extra work to create atmosphere, suspense and a sense of narrative. C:BE's designers were clearly aware of this as they put in those quests, tasks the player can complete (or choose not to) along the way, which flesh out a bit of the feel of a future society making its way in the unknown. But most of the “quests” aren't exactly epic. You've completed a new building type - do you want these buildings to provide a bonus of +1 energy or +1 food? Congratulations, you've completed a quest.
They're not all like that, but most of them are. Those dark forests, the glowing Rifts (a new terrain type, impassable like a mountain), the poisonous miasma … there are the bones of an atmospheric world. But play for an hour or two and I doubt you'll have any spaces left on your alien lifeform spotter's card. The in-game characters are cardboard cut-outs against the memorable cast of Alpha Centauri, and the “harmony” affinity's route to special understanding with the local flora and fauna will not astonish anyone familiar with Lady Deirdre.
Beyond Earth is still fun, and an immense time-sink – of course it is, it's Civilization. But would that it was truly beyond Earth, and truly beyond Civ V. Not a crash and burn – but the Prometheus of the Civ franchise, an interesting failure with much of value in the wreckage.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is out now.