So I just finished my first full playthrough of Beyond Earth, the alien planet colonization game powered by the Civilization 5 game engine.
This will be a very mixed review.
This is a pretty game. The world map is beautiful, evocative, pleasantly strange, and compellingly dangerous-looking. The terrain improvements all look badass and you feel awesome for having built them in your territory.
The addition of canyon tiles, which are not traversable by 99% of the units in the game, creates a much more tactical feel for the map. It's very easy to use a screen of mountains and canyons to establish a territorial border that you need not constantly patrol. Nice.
The quest system is quite possibly the best new addition to the Civilization engine. Various events can trigger pop up windows that give you choices for how to proceed. Some of these are very plotty. Others allow you some really intriguing on-the-fly customization. Every new building, it seems, has an associated quest which lets you tailor how that building will function in your colony. In addition to its base +3 culture, will the Cel Network also provide a bit of Science or will it recruit covert agents for you? This really excites me for replays, as each play will be interestingly different.
The game does a very good job making clear that the alien planet is dangerous. There is no escalating difficulty of alien creatures attacking your cities. Crazy-destructive seige worms crop up next to your cities very quickly, and it's an arduous task to take them down. After which you'll have your hands full cleaning up the mess they left. Perfect feel for "welcome to this new planet that wants to kill you."
The expanded espionage system is cool. You send agents to cities and then give them missions: siphon off energy, bribe units, and the ever-popular steal research. Unlockable missions allow you to wreak havoc on the cities in question. There's a "espionage level" mechanic that I've still not got the hang of, but otherwise I liked this bit a lot.
Your starting options are pleasantly varied. You get to customize your colony by choosing your colony sponsor, plus various benefits like starting units, a free building, a planetary survey, and a load of other bits and pieces. This bit of design really made me excited to start playing, and excited to replay.
There are minor powers to mirror Civ5's city-states, but much of what made city-states annoying in Civ have been removed. Minor powers don't claim territory, you can raze them off the map (in fact you can't capture them, just raze them), and perhaps most importantly, if you ignore them long enough they go the fuck away. Unfortunately my biggest gripe with city-states remains: you can't settle a new colony within three hexes of a minor power. Especially since they don't claim territory, this bit really doesn't make much sense.
The satellite layer is a nifty addition to the game, allowing you to launch satellites into synchronous orbit and beam down benefits to the terrain below. You can also shoot down enemy satellites, which becomes important because satellite effects cannot overlap. Solar collectors interfere with intelligence collectors and so on. This is a little fiddly, but not distressingly so. The only missing piece here are attack satellites, which seem an obvious omission. I expect them in an upcoming expansion.
Instead of finding ancient ruins that give you instant bennies, your explorer units have to mount an expedition, spending a few turns digging up the derelict colonies and alien ruins they find. This is a nice little twist on pacing, and also makes armed expeditions of a combat unit and an explorer a compelling thing to do in the opening of the game.
This game suffers—greatly—by a complete and total failure of storytelling. Its spiritual predecessor, Alpha Centauri (all blessings and honor to its holy name) is a masterwork of precision storytelling, leading players through an alien setting with grace and aplomb. BE, by constrast, drops you directly into the game and gives you hardly any explanations for what is happening. What do these tech advances do? What do they mean? No idea. All you get is a cryptic quote from a fictional book, and that after you complete it. There are mysterious alien ruins that you might discover. If you do, though, nothing pops up to explain what your little explorer dude sees. This should be a huge thing with incredible impact to the history of humanity, but it doesn't even merit a quest pop-up.
There are five different ways to win the game, and each of these is presented as a Victory Quest. This would have been a great way to introduce those avenues of victory. Research the first technology or stumble on the first exploration discovery that unlocks a victory and you're introduced to the first part of the quest, right? And it can lead you along, perhaps even without strongly signalling that THIS IS A VICTORY QUEST until you're pretty deep into it. The joys of discovery and exploring the future in an alien world! Except no. You reach an arbitrary point in the game and all five victory quests appear in your updates. "HEY LOOK YOU GUIZE! HERE ARE YUR WIN CONDISHUNS!"
Speaking of which, the victories are incredibly awkward. To complete the "Contact" victory that I did, you have to find "the Signal" through expeditions to alien ruins or launching deep space satellites or completing a computing wonder. _Then_ you have to Decode the Signal, which is a wonder of its own. _Then_ you need to build a Beacon wonder. _Then_ you need to turn on the Beacon by spending 1000 energy units. _Then_ you need to wait 30 turns while the Beacon contacts the aliens. When the victory quest updates pop up, they never tell you how far along the victory quest chain you are. Is this the last step? Is this the last step? Is this? The Beacon, too, consumes all your excess energy production while it contacts the aliens. It's not actually using that energy to stockpile up to a grand total or anything. If you make 200 energy per turn or if you make 2 energy per turn, even if you make negative energy per turn, the Beacon is still going to take 30 turns regardless. And it will take all of your energy during that time. MAKE NO SENSE!
The user interface of the game is simply terrible. For a game which is, essentially, an exercise in coordinating large amounts of information to your advantage, the UI does a shitty job reporting it to you. The Beyond Earth UI is exactly like the Civ5 UI except about 80% of the displays and buttons have been moved to the other side of the screen, more-or-less arbitrarily. There is little to no organization of like information with like. There is no way to track where exactly your precious strategic resources are being traded or used by buildings or units. Hovering floating windows giving you "more" information that you don't actually need pop up over the information that you do need. A sincere overuse of centering means that the "OK" button on successive screens jumps around the UI, requiring you to hunt for your ability to say, "Yeah, sure, whatever."
They've ripped out the unit experience and upgrades system of Civilization 5. Now all XP upgrades give you a choice of insta-healing 50 health or increasing the unit's strength by 10%. You do not research new and more powerful units, but the more devoted you are to a certain ideology will automagically upgrade the units you do have as you go. Which means that you can't build specialty units. You can't make rough riders that fight in the rugged hills best or bunker-buster artillery that can split a city wide open. All of your infantry units are exactly the same. All of your armor units are exactly the same. All of your fighter jets are exactly the same. There are some faction-specific "unique" units, but they are a bitch and a half to get and their specialized uses are rather narrowly defined. If your particular play of Supremacy doesn't require traversing canyon tiles and long-distance bombardment, well… you didn't really want fun specialty units, did you?
The Health mechanic replaces Civ5's happiness, and does so very poorly. Whereas happiness was an understandable and negotiable constraint, Health imposes a crushing limit on a number of playstyles (in Civ5 parlance, most "broad" strategies) and makes one faction ability (Africa's bonus-when-healthy) nearly useless. This comes down to two failures, one minor and one major. The minor issue is that what constitutes health, and how you can go about getting more of it, is incredibly opaque. It's not necessarily the medical health of your citizens, but that plus the psycho-social-cultural "health" of your society. As such, what things will grant health are very hard to predict, leading to lots of searching and lookups.
The major problem with the Health mechanic is simple numbers. You get a base amount of "free" health points by difficulty level, and there are a couple very opaque ways of getting a few more. Each city you build takes away health points; cities are inherently unhealthy… until they're metropolises with populations of 16 or higher. If this makes no sense to you, I'm right there with you.
Perhaps worst of all, just by the sheer negligence of it, there are some serious balancing issues still unaddressed in this released game. In my play through I was faced with a bordering enemy city with a combat strength that was consistently three to four times higher than the best unit that I could field. This meant that the city could annihilate the units before they reached the city to attack it. If any of my units could reach the city, they would destroy themselves in their attack. I finally, at turn 300, had to break out the uber-artillery unit that requires like three different unlocks just to take down the city which had been a thorn in my side since turn 30 (see again: poor pacing).
Things Not Fixed
Civilization 5 is hardly a perfect game, and this was an opportunity to fix some of its larger blemishes. For instance, the new Espionage options are an awesome expansion on Civ5's rather boring implementation. But three bits that could have been fixed weren't:
The Civilopedia from Civ5 was shit. The Civilopedia in BE is also shit. Short little snippets of help file, poorly titled, spuriously indexed, difficult to navigate. Once upon a time (Civ3, I think?) the entire Civilopedia was a giant, searchable hypertext document. With links between articles! It was glorious. I don't know why they ever abandoned that.
The AI Players continue to be as dumb as the Civ5 AIs. One AI surrendered the city and territory in which they were building their victory wonder. When I activated my own victory wonder, prepared to wait out the interval before I won, none of the AIs declared war, shut down trade, or anything untoward. "I see you're about to win the game. Good on you, human player!"
Tiles with special resources can only be improved to harvest that resource. You cannot build a Node on a tile with Fungus; you can only build a Fungus plantation. Which is a real problem when Fungus Avenue also happens to be your border with the faction you're at war with, and a heal-all-adjacent-units Node would be a nice thing to have right there.
There's no "reveal the world map" passive effect as in Civilization 5's Satellites technology, which means you have to explore every damn hex if you want to see the whole world map.
There's no universal three-range artillery unit. Your artillery is pretty much always within range of the city that it's attacking. If you choose to go Supremacy, you can build the special three-range artillery unit, but the dumb thing also only has one move and setting up to fire consumes that move so it takes three entire turns to move into position, set up to fire, and then actually fire the damn gun. And then there's a way to increase your city range to 3, anyway.
So first off, this is not, properly speaking, a standalone game. This is a full-conversion mod for Civilization 5. It feels like it's built by a bunch of guys who really like to play Civ5 as a tactical exercise (which is fine, but not my primary enjoyment of the game). While they fondly remember Alpha Centauri (there are many nostalgic call-outs), they don't really remember why.
The problem with the game isn't the relatively common "lack of a unifying vision." There's a lot of vision in this game. It's the getting there from here that's often missing a couple steps. The storytelling and the game design are just missing chunks. The units, though, are lovingly crafted, and the planet setting itself is a work of dedication. I hope that future patches and expansions will bridge the gap from awkward game to the compelling experience envisioned by the creators.
Luckily, most of the problems in the game can be fixed in patches. First and foremost, getting somebody in to rewrite the quests and rewire their trigger conditions would go a long way to making the game more entertaining and gripping. Adding more quests also seems like an easy way to make the game more lively.
Honestly, the UI could be fixed by just moving everything back to where it is in Civ5. I know this makes me sound like a curmudgeon, but changing something just to change it, as appears to be the case in the Beyond Earth UI, is just a bad idea. The Civ5 UI works for reasons, and BE can benefit from those reasons. This does, though, mean owning up to the fact that Beyond Earth is more a conversion mod than a standalone game, so I don't hold out a lot of hope for that.
The hardest fix, and it's unfortunately a necessary one, is the quagmire that is Health. This mechanic's existence is the biggest impediment to my interest in replaying the game. If I'm always stuck making three cities and pushing their population to 16 as quickly as humanly possible, my interest in another play of the game will remain low.
The game is not worth its ostensible $60 price tag. Its current sale price of $20 at the Apple App Store is just about right. I look forward to expansions.