Civilization: Beyond Earth – I wanna party with Colbert and Johansson

ColbertLet me get one thing straight: I am not a Civilization fanboy. In fact, I’ve gotten into the franchise pretty late. As a wee boy, my dad thought to be a good father by getting a copy of one of the Civ games for me, but back then I lost interest in a game when it had me do nothing for more than a millisecond. It was not until a few years ago, when Steam put a hefty discount on the franchise, thus practically forcing me to try a game that many claimed to be better than a night with Stephen Colbert, Scarlett Johansson and an unlimited supply of pina coladas.

Well, the games are not better than that (I assume), but they are pretty damn good. When Civilization: Beyond Earth was announced, I was pretty hyped. Now that I had the chance to spend a few hours with the future of strategy games, does the newcomer live up to the standards set by his predecessors? All I will say for now is that it still isn’t as good as a night out with two celebs and tons of alcohol, but which game is?

Civilization: Beyond Earth takes us to the 24th century, a time in which political alliances have changed due to the consequences of a global catastrophe known as the Great Mistake. Knowing that humanity’s time on Earth is running out, the different nations fund missions into deep space, hoping to find a rock where mankind can settle and blossom once again. This is where you, the player, come in: after picking a sponsoring nation (like the Slavic Federation or Franco-Iberia), supplies and tech to take with you, you and your colonists land on a randomly generated planet, ready for the taking. Of course, the potential paradise is also wanted by other nations, and even without them trying to grab the land from underneath your space boots, the indigenuous life forms are not to keen on foreigners.

From the get-go, Beyond Earth looks, feels, tastes and smells (in a way) like every other Civilization game. After picking a location for your first city, you start exploring the planet, researching new technology and interacting with the other nations, stations and alien…infestations. I’m sorry, I had to finish that rhyme. Anyway, if you have played a single Civ game in your life, you know the drill.

Still, it wouldn’t be the future if nothing had changed, and Firaxis did add a few new things. First of all, instead of progressing from left to right through a research “timeline”, players discover new technology through the Tech Web. The idea behind the Tech Web is to make research less linear, allowing players to go in a direction which supports their play style. It certainly adds some complexity to the former linear nature of research, but it is not without its flaws, which I shall describe at a later point.

Furthermore, players can gather experience in different Affinities. Affinities reflect your approach to the society of the future: do you believe humanity should remain pure, untainted by any kind of alien lifeforms? Devote yourself to the Purity Affinity, and purge the unclean! Are you convinced that the best for mankind lies somewhere between xeno-science and the raw ambition of our species? Try Supremacy, and rule those too slow to adapt. Affinity experience is earned through different research options in the Tech Web, and is furthermore required for certain victory conditions.

The Tech Web and Affinity are just two of the many new features in Civilization: Beyond Earth, being a testament to Firaxis’ will to give the franchise some new flavor. Sadly, these changes are not without consequences, which will impact the gameplay for both new and old Civ players.

First of all, the alinear nature of the Tech Web is not a real improvement. Though in theory it gives players more freedom, many research options are still more viable than others at certain points in the game. While this has been part of the Civ games since the beginning, the Tech Web was Firaxis’ chance to make research more dynamic, making more options viable throughout the game. Furthermore, since most Affinity experience is gathered through research, players will seek out whatever options offers the desired Affinity, and beeline to those.

The Affinity system in itself is pretty damn nice, but the way it influences other parts of the game is not. Every Affinity has its own victory condition, which are all similar to the Science victory condition of previous titles: research tech X, construct wonder Y, and protect it for Z turns to show the other nations how blatantly brilliant you are. This creates a set of victory conditions which are too identical, while not providing other, more interesting conditions (where’s my damn Culture victory condition?!).

Finally, the sponsoring nations of Civilization: Beyond Earth lack the personality the leaders of other Civ games have. Though I do love the history of every nation, their leaders feel like boring stereotypes, not coming close to the fun I had bargaining with Alexander the Great or Gandhi (I’m not mad you bombed my cities, man). It takes away a part of the game’s personality, which has been that extra bit of flavor in previous Civ games.

Trust me, the game is a lot of fun. It feels like a robust game, built on the foundations of previous titles while trying to find its own identity. However, in search of that identity, Civilization: Beyond Earth makes some poor decisions, hooks up with a few shady people and expresses its feelings in some quirky ways. That’s okay though, because it is still a ton of fun to settle a foreign planet while battling fellow humans and the aliens from Starship Troopers.

More fun than a night out with Stephen Colbert and Scarlett Johansson? The day I’ll find that out, is the day you will hear my verdict!

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