Monday 3 November 2014

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

Despite the fact that I love the 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) genre, I have never really gotten properly invested in the «Civilization» series. 

Partly because I find the entertainment value of games diminishing as the plot approaches the reality we actually live in. But also because my sense of immersion is slightly disrupted when as a virtual warlord in ancient Greece, I encounter George Washington - complete with the silly wig - accompanied by an army of scantily clad savages armed with sharp sticks.

In «Beyond Earth» this type of silliness is not an issue, as the game takes place in a future where the main characters are fictitious and the technological level is so advanced that it primarilly contains things which haven't been invented yet.

«Beyond Earth» follows in the footsteps of «Alpha Centauri» from 1999, one of the first games Sid Meier and company released after they left MicroProse and started Firaxis. You assume leadership of a faction from a pool of nations and business conglomerates, who due to the overpopulation of Earth, have packed up their stuff and headed into space to overpopulate a new planet.

Firm Foundation

«Beyond Earth» builds on the user friendly and streamlined foundations from «Civilization V», so game mechanics should be easily picked up by those who have already logged a few hours there. Perhaps the most noticeable change for established «Civilization» veterans is that the traditional and relatively linear technology tree has been replaced by a more complex but open technology web.

Whilst the scientific trajectory in traditional «Civilization» goes along a fairly predetermined timeline from antiquity to space age, «Beyond Earth» has an approach that allows the player to choose the way forward with greater amounts of freedom.

Which is mostly good stuff, but also comes with consequences. Whilst it's possible to achieve world domination by researching superior technology faster than your opponents, it's also possible to screw up by prioritising projects that have no synergy with neither the landscape around your cities or your relationship with the planet's other residents.

Also added is support for covert ops, allowing you to plant agents with the other factions to steal resources or engage in industrial espionage and sabotage. It's also possible to launch satellites of various types into the stratosphere, so the fight is no longer just about control over the land, but also the airspace above it.

But the biggest difference is that «Beyond Earth» is played on an alien planet based on one of many models of what habitable planets outside our solar system might look like.

The game has a slightly retro sci-fi feel to it, from the time when space adventures were more about exploration of the unknown than lasers and explosions.

Insects, not teddy bears

My first impressions were of being in the shoes of a noble from the «Dune» planet of Arrakis, residing on the forest moon of Endor from «Star Wars», only that the planet was inhabited by giant «Starship Troopers» type insects instead of cuddly teddy bears.

The game's aliens act as a destabilising faction throughout all stages of the game. It would appear they are not hostile by default, and that it's quite possible to coexist with them without skirmishes, unless you come too close a nest that is... Which is often necessary in order to keep trade routes open or get to a place on the map where the resources needed to establish a new outpost are located.

One type of alien in particular is worth a special mention: The so-called siege worms. These are enormous sand worms straight out of Frank Herbert's «Dune» universe. They are very hard to defeat until you build up a sizeable army, and they will raze your infrastructure and cities regardless of your relationship to the rest of the local fauna. It's not necessarily because they attack you, but they wind their way around the map in search of food and - because of their huge size - eat most anything which crosses their path.

The sea also has correspondingly huge monsters. These are often fast and appear suddenly to attack unprepared expedition troops, so it's actually a little scary to embark on sea voyages.

Conflict with the local aliens can however be minimised by adopting a hippie/pacifist approach to the plants and creatures on the new planet.

I originally had every intention of brute forcing my way through the woods with machines and muscle, but found after a couple of restarts that one gets further by leaving the local aliens alone and finding a way to coexist with them.

Enemies at the gates and cattle grids

This new approach led to many useful and fun interactions, where I among other things established outposts in areas surrounded by alien nests. This had the advantage that if any of the other factions tried to attack, they first had to wade through heaps of aggressive insectoids.

Another funny episode was when I was bothered by a neighbour who started getting rudely territorial about their borders close to one of my cities, at the same time as a siege worm was lurking in the area. Luckily, I had enough resources to rapidly build a Hypersonic Fence, a form of high-tech cattle grid that keeps aliens at bay, resulting in the worm being pushed away from my borders and over into the opponent's oil fields where it ravaged his expensive infrastructure. Good times :)

And the fact that one gets further by adapting to the world in a reactive way, rather than sticking to a pre-planned script, is one of the things I like best about «Beyond Earth».

Being able to get far without focusing too much on warfare is also nice, as the combat system is actually the game's least interesting aspect.

Warcraft is a bit boring

And this is both «Beyond Earth» and the rest of the «Civilization» series' biggest weakness. While it's most entertaining to use economics, diplomacy and the above mentioned types of strategic judo to overcome your enemies, you will sooner or later - as the map is filled up with infrastructure - need to put on your war pants as the end game approaches, in order to decide who stays and who gets wiped off the map.

This process usually boils down to producing and moving large quantities of military personnel, which involves excessive amounts of micromanagement, and eventually becomes a bit repetitive and tedious.

But there are plenty of other options for winning the game apart from military might, so the fact that the actual fighting is somewhat lacking compared to games more geared towards warfare, isn't really a deal-breaker.

The art in the game is competently done. The graphics can not in any way be described as technologically groundbreaking, but the game has tasteful art direction which is more consistent in style than earlier entries in the «Civilization» series. Improvements made to the user interface by use of clean lines and minimalism makes it easily readable, and also fits well with the futuristic theme.

The music is worth mentioning as well. Most of the time, it stays tastefully in the background, but it also dynamically adapts to what is currently going on in the game, and thus occasionally blooms into epic and grandiose themes.

«Beyond Earth» takes the best parts of «Civilization V» and improves upon them ever so slightly, whilst playing out in an environment which differs from the traditional historically based one. I heartily recommend it to those who like the mechanics of the «Civilization» series but haven't previously been sold on the setting.

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