Things are fairly bleak at the outset of Civilization: Beyond Earth. The spiritual successor to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is based in a not-altogether-unlikely future wherein humans have destroyed Earth and need to start afresh on a new planet.
You play as the leader of a colony shipped off to inhabit this new planet, but you bring the divisions and tensions of Earth with you. There are other colonies, and wars break out, and you have to carefully manage your diplomatic relations as well as your armies and resources.
But, as in most Civ games, the narrative falls way down your list of priorities as you play through the game. What’s important is that Beyond Earth is as addictive as ever.
The decision-making starts even before you start a game. Not only can you choose your leader, your landscape, and all manner of other options, but you can create your own leader with his or her own traits. It would be all too easy to spend a half hour just customising the details before you actually play.
The world your colony lands on can be small or large, with continents of varying shapes and sizes and new elements to find. But it’s not actually that different from Earth - there’s water, and what appears to be grass, and desert and mountains. Makes sense.
The most immediate differences to the environment in Beyond Earth are the presence of alien lifeforms, and of a noxious gas called miasma, which slowly but surely kills troops who stand in it. Later in the game, you can upskill enough to reduce the harm caused by miasma, get rid of it, or use it to your benefit.
Because Beyond Earth is set in the future, you have a whole new set of units and weapons to work with. Most of these units work the same way they did in old games - some are ranged, some are melee, they each have different movement and strength stats - but since they were completely new to me they were nonetheless fun to experiment with. When I completed research on a new technology, I never knew what the unit I had unlocked was actually going to do.
Then there are the satellites - units you can build and launch above your cities. Satellites award extra bonuses to your land units and cities within range, but their ranges can’t overlap so careful planning is needed if you plan on using more than two or three.
Fundamentally, much of the way you play Beyond Earth will be similar to the way you played Civilization V. It’s turn-based, has hexagonal movement, you negotiate trade deals, start wars and slowly accumulate resources. You can go all-out offensive or try to fly under the radar. What’s really different about Beyond Earth isn’t in how you play, but in how you win and what happens along the way.
Unlike previous Civ games, Beyond Earth has a quest system. Essentially, the system is designed to give you something to do while you’re conquering the world. There are mini quests, and whether or not they become available is dependent on what you do in the game. There are also quests that require you to make a decision - do you want to destroy or tame the alien life on the planet? Do you want to fund scientists or farmers?
You also need to complete quests in order to achieve one of the five victory options. The Domination victory is still pretty straightforward - you destroy the capital cities of every other civilisation - but the others have stepping stones along the way. I personally really liked this system - some might view it as handholding, but I liked having a more structured path to victory.
There is a Contact victory type, which requires you to build a beacon to communicate with the sentient beings that previously lived on the planet you’re occupying.
And then there are three similar victory types that rely on you the cultivation of an “affinity”. The affinities, Purity, Harmony and Supremacy, are overarching philosophies that your colony can adopt. When you complete research on particular technologies or complete certain quests, you may get points towards an affinity. Once you build this affinity to a certain level - and complete any other necessary conditions for the victory quest - you unlock the buildings and toys you need to win the game. The game tells you exactly what you need to do, which you’d think would make it easy - but it gets a fair bit more detailed and it still took me more than 400 turns to obtain my first victory.
Because four of the five victories require you to build certain things and research certain things, technology is more important in Beyond Earth than it has been in other Civilization games.
Beyond Earth's ‘tech web’ is an excellent feature, and it immediately reminded me of the skill tree in Final Fantasy X, at least in appearance. It went off in multiple directions and had two tiers of technology. There are the more general technologies, like Genetics, and then more specialised and expensive technologies, like Alien Lifeforms. The web can be filtered and searched, so you can easily find out which technology you need to research to build the building or unit you need.
Unlike Civilization V there's no significant slowdown after the 200th turn. The game did crash on me once, however.
Scenarios, which were special game types with extra victory conditions, have also been stripped from Beyond Earth, which will disappoint some.
Regardless, I’m having a great time with Beyond Earth. It’s familiar, but fresh, and I found it incredibly difficult to stop playing when it came time to attend to things of mild importance like eating and sleeping. If you, like me, have tallied more than 100 hours playing Civilization V, Beyond Earth is likely to hook you again. Consider yourself fairly warned.