Let’s preface this by saying everything is better in space. Flying? Space. Olympics? Space. Jet pack bear fighting? Space. So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered Sid Meir’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. It fits the rule perfectly, Civilization V is one of my all-time favorite games and now you’re telling me I can do the same thing in space? I am in. So I went to my local video game retailer and picked it up on launch day. After an hour or so of installation, I buckled my seatbelt and launched the game.
Bringing up my Steam account tells me I’ve logged thirty hours of play on the game and let me tell you, that is not an accurate portrayal of how I played this game. Though my week has been unnaturally busy, I was on my laptop every free minute, building my own space colony on a far off planet. And you know what? I was very compelled to keep on playing. There was a frantic nature to the game. I had already mastered Civilization V so now was my chance to get out of my comfort zone and visit the unknown… only it wasn’t the unknown I expected. In fact it was terribly familiar. Now I know the gameplay was supposed to be based on Civilization V gameplay—that’s not what I’m talking about. Everything, I mean everything seemed to be ripped directly from Civilization V and given a new coat of paint with liberal application of LEDs. Even the much toted technology web that was supposed to be a total revamp of the Civilization V tech map looked to be the same except covered in blue and white paint.
There were some differences between the games, some revamps and some downright innovations. It’s just that most of them were buggy as Hell. One particular revamp is the faor system. Now in Civilization V, occasionally the AI from other civilizations will ask you for a contribution, be it gold or resources. You could choose to give them the supplies or give them the finger but the effect was pretty much the same, they would scarper off and forget about the whole transaction. Civilization: Beyond Earth sought to improve that and so other civilizations will now ask for supplies in exchange for favors. The first problem is these favors apparently have trouble with devaluation. In the game, the French civilization kept asking me for petroleum in exchange for favors. I wasn’t using it so I went ahead and agreed. Later, I had accumulated something like a dozen favors and tried to trade a few in. She wouldn’t give me shit on a cracker for them even when I offered to erase her debt entirely. The favors even lost value in the process of trading. On several occasions, the Russian colony asked for money in exchange for favors and when I agreed he would say the deal was no fair and demand more. This is the equivalent of your roommate asking to borrow a fiver for lunch and when you offer it he demands your car keys to go buy it.
One of the advantages of Civilization V is that it’s been out for a while now so they’ve had a chance to fix a lot of the problems with expansion packs. I’ve played it from launch so I’ve seen the fixes. One of those fixes was the implementation of the United Nations. Essentially every few turns, all the players vote on something like initiating the Olympics, building a space station, picking a world religion, or—and this one’s a good one—imposing sanctions. That way, when one of the players is being a raging dick hole, there’s proper recourse. Civilization: Beyond Earth has none of that. So if one of the players is a raging dick hole, congratulations, you get to eat a butterscotch giraffe turd sundae. Also, there’s no nukes. Yeah, they’re not included. So if you really want to teach someone a lesson, the only way is a full out invasion. In Civilization V, if someone was pissing you off and nobody wanted to vote for sanctions, you could lob a nuclear warhead onto their front stoop and ring the doorbell.
So with so much trimmed off, what did we get in return? Well a few things, there’s aliens now. Yeah, except they’re functionally identical to the barbarians from before. Okay, that’s an oversimplification. Now the aliens can get moody. That’s right, if you attack them they will attack back. If you don’t attack them they’ll attack you anyway. If you ignore them, eventually they stop attacking and just hang around in your base. So the big feature here is loitering. It’d be like if the barbarians attacked throughout the dark ages and you just let them. Then when the medieval age came, you invited to stay on your futon. Also, there’s poison gas. You know, because it’s an alien planet completely different to Earth. Except it’s not really a problem, more of an annoyance. In Civilization V you could send off your explorer to auto explore and then forget about him. In Beyond Earth, if you set your explorer to wander on his own he will die seven tiles away from sitting in a cosmic fart for too long. Instead, you have to spend every turn agonizing over the route he will explore like the world’s fussiest Postmaster General.
All of this is petty squabbles compared to the main problem the game has, and this isn’t a bug or unutilized material. This goes to the very core of the game. In Civilization: Beyond Earth you can choose from seven different teams. They each have their bonus to help in gameplay but the effect is negligible. Meanwhile, Civilization V has two dozen nations you can choose from. And you know what? All of their bonuses are negligible as well, but that’s not the point. In Civilization V, you choose a nation because it’s fun to play the game like that nation. You could chose Sweden, start the game raiding a pillaging and end the game with the most robust social policy anyone has seen. You could play as England and build an Empire before finishing the game brokering diplomatic deals and exhibiting extreme xenophobia. You could play as America and dick around with the Middle East even when it has no practical benefit. The point is, you have a stake, or a desire, or a goal. With Beyond Earth, there’s no real reason to play as any particular civilization, might as well set it on random.
Is Beyond Earth fun to play? Eh, kind of? But why not buy Civilization V and all its expansion packs. It costs about the same and there’s a ton more content. Beyond Earth isn’t beyond saving though. Honestly? Give it a year for the first expansion pack to come out and the price to drop. Maybe by then they’ll figure out to include guys with jet packs.