Disclaimer: We are not very good at Civilisation games. I’ve personally played every single entry from the very beginning on my trusty Amiga 500, but I’ve never won a game on Deity or played competitively. If you’re that kind of player, you might want to look elsewhere for a review. If you’ve played the previous games and casually enjoyed them (probably for hundreds of hours) then carry on reading.
It’s important to remember that Beyond Earth is not Civilisation 6. We went into the game with the mindset that it was and found it immensely disappointing. So much of the game seems overly familiar, energy is just replacing gold, health replaces happiness, there’s equivalents for granaries, temples, catapults and archers. There’s even barbarians by way of aliens and their camps have turned into nests. This lulls you into thinking you know how to play the game, but so much is different this can be a frustrating and tedious experience.
In our first game we played with the default settings for everything and spent the first 200 turns establishing a cultural and scientific powerhouse of a nation. Unfortunately our attempts to expand early on had been defeated when aliens ate our colonists and going into the mid-game we found ourselves with only two cities with a rapidly expanding but superficially weak opponent on our doorstep. He’d taken over most of the continent we were on and we really needed the resources he was currently occupying, so we started arming up. At first taking a city seemed impossible. Cities are incredibly strong and can take out many units in a single shot. Our army of eight or so melee units was decimated, so we began to rebuild. Eventually we had some upgrades and tried again, easily overwhelming a city he’d foolishly not spent any upgrades on. After that we became locked in a stalemate, throwing our mixture of alien and human forces at each other but never being able to put a dent into a well fortified city, even with some of the most powerful units in the game. He threw everything he had at us and we held it off, rotating units to and from the front lines to heal them back up, they were quickly becoming veterans and all of his expensive siege units were being picked apart by my ranged units and bombers. Then the game ended, we’d lost.
I still don’t know why we lost. There wasn’t a score screen or any graphs to show us the aftermath, there wasn’t even a message to tell us why one of the others had won. It was the enemy we were fighting against, it told us that much, but the only options were to keep playing for the sake of it or go back to the main menu, and we were kicked back complete none the wiser. This to our mind is Beyond Earth’s greatest failing, it has changed in some substantial ways, but it doesn’t do a good job of explaining it, even if you set it to ‘new to beyond earth’ to get the relevant tips.
The aliens are more involved than the barbarians, coming in waves and with some truly powerful beasties like the siege worm inspiring fear in any would-be leader. They’re almost invincible compared to your early units so you simply have to try and co-exist by staying out of their way which is a surprisingly original approach in strategy games.
Miasma is easy enough to work out, there’s a gas on some tiles that will damage your units if they hang about there at the end of your turn. You can eventually clear it up with workers or even satellites but in the early game it can be a nightmare as anything automated like trade caravans can be picked apart easily. With some of the research options you can actually get some damage bonuses for being in the gas which opens up some interesting routes of attack that your opponent probably won’t be expecting.
Another new feature is the use of satellites. It’s easy to overlook them, but there’s a whole new map where you can temporarily deploy satellites that can clear up miasma, provide more energy or provide bonuses to your troops. They’re by far the most efficient way to make energy and in our first few games we constantly found ourselves so poor that units were being disbanded despite turning cities’ production entirely over to energy. Once we saw the AI constantly building solar collectors we realised that this is what you’re meant to do. It was obscure and somewhat opaque, but once you work it out it’s a nice little addition. Satellites can even be shot down by some units so if you want to siege an opponent you might want to start by crippling their income.
Technology has changed dramatically where there’s no longer set ages to work between, instead you expand your tech tree into a web and while some options take longer they tend to provide fairly equal benefits. The tech tree is very confusing at first and often your advisors will recommend the oddest choices but this will come to make sense eventually. Unfortunately it’s easy to spend a lot of research on things that don’t really matter or work well together and because it’s all based on made up future technology, common sense won’t get you very far.
The culture perks have been replaced with ‘virtues’ which make a lot more sense than the tech. You can clearly see what each one does and what kind of thing you’re working towards, whether it’s military, growth, science or energy gain.
Graphically the game is almost identical to Civilisation 5, but clearly the art style has changed dramatically to reflect the time period. None of the units look particularly interesting but when you level them up they do start to change to represent the kind of ideas you’re leaning towards, so you might end up with nature and alien-based harmony units or more powerful and intimidating purity units. At first all the colonies look the same but by the end of the game each will have started to evolve into one of three. The lack of variety between armies is a real problem and makes the game a lot less interesting. It used to be entertaining to see spearmen chasing down tanks but when it’s space marines chasing space buggies the novelty is lost somewhat.
Overall it’s hard not to feel let down by Beyond Earth. The futuristic ideas aren’t that interesting and the lack of anything recognisable takes away a lot of the fun of Civilisation. Balance is a significant issue that will probably be patched but at the moment cities are too easily defended leading to long stalemates rather than dynamic wars. For more casual players like us, the innovations aren’t explained anywhere near well enough and you’ll likely find yourself frustrated and lost for your first few hours with the game, which is never a good sign of game design. It isn’t hard to learn because it’s deep, it’s hard to learn because it’s terrible at explaining anything. This extends to the lack of score screens or data, which is something we’ve loved in civilisation games from the very beginning.