Civilization: Beyond Earth is a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, and its core is a sci fi-themed re-skinning of Civilization V. I mostly enjoyed Civ V, so this is mostly a good thing to me, but I know that opinion is controversial. I also know it is not exactly a new release, but I only recently got around to playing much of it.
The first thing I noticed after playing is that the game is long. This is also not exactly news, but after focusing on bite-sized gaming for months, a “quick game” that takes 5 hours is a different sort of commitment. Beyond Earth adds to this by having steps towards victory and showing only the next step, so your first time through each victory path is a lot like waiting in a long line, reaching the doorway at the end, and then discovering that the next room is also a winding line to another doorway. For the past decade, I have played Civilization games almost exclusively on the shortest game setting; I recall frequently using the “epic” game setting in my youth, but I cannot recall any way that stretching the game to 15 hours made it better. Finer increments on how long things take? It feels like most of my Civilization time is spent waiting for other players’ turns to process. I can also see how a more military strategy becomes appealing when eliminating those rivals cuts your waiting time.
Okay, so how does Beyond Earth differ from Civ V, and is that good? The big differences are the tech tree, virtues, and affinity. Oh, and there are no Great Leaders.
The tech tree is better than Civilization because it is a web. Re-plays of recent Civilizations have gotten rather boring for me because your path through the tech tree is more or less the same. There may be minor variations in order, but every game follows roughly the same path. Beyond Earth is less linear, with more paths you could reasonably take. Beyond Earth also uses a “leaf” structure, effectively letting you research specialized options under each technology. These give nice boosts and often tie to affinities, but they do not open new research options like the base technologies. They are also not mutually exclusive, which I like. The player feels very much in control of his/her path.
The flexibile options on research paths also make spying more important. If everyone is following more or less the same tech path in Civilization, you have few options to steal technology from competitors and no such option if you are ahead of the pack. Do you miss the (non-Creative) option in Master of Orion II to use intrigue and trading to get the specializations you missed? Beyond Earth’s covert operations let you steal technology to see the leaves you missed. This can let you round out your civilization nicely; civilizations with different affinities pursue different leaf technology specializations, so you know those competitors have technologies you can steal profitably. There is balance here, in that stolen technology provides more options but rarely pushes ahead your core research goals and affinity. As the human player, you are probably already further along that path than your opponents.
Virtues are Civ V social policies, even earned through culture. The structure is a bit more webby, so there are more paths to take and some balance to be gained by making a virtue a dead end or a prerequisite. There are only four virtue categories, but all of them are available at the start. Virtues also yield synergy bonuses for selecting more in columns (specialization) and rows (diversity). These do not add a whole lot to the game, but they create a specialization option and provide interesting trade-offs between fast gain and long-term growth. A 10% bonus is always a 10% bonus, so is that better or worse than getting a lump sum right now like a free settler or technology?
There are similar trade-offs mixed into the tech tree, besides the opportunity costs of what to research next, in specializations for each building. These are officially run through the game’s quest system, but most of the quests are “do you want this building to have Bonus A or Bonus B?” That is usually +1 to one of two variables, but occasionally it is something like 1000 energy now versus +5% to something for that building for the rest of the game. (My favorite: aliens no longer eat your trade convoys.)
Affinities have fluff most like religions but play like narrow specialization paths. There are three paths, themed around human purity, technological transhumanism, and natural harmony. (I am told that the expansion makes the three combinations of those into their own distinct flavors.) You get bonuses as you go down each path, and you can go down multiple paths. Going further down one path is usually advisable because it unlocks bonuses to your units and leads towards a victory option, and there are only a few bonuses for mixing it up. In my last game, I got the swing of stealing tech from the neighbors and ended up with all the lower-tier bonuses while pushing my specialization. Those unit bonuses are more valuable than they may sound, because they can double a unit’s power without increasing its cost, along with the specialization bonus you pick. This is what turns siege worms (Dune’s sandworms) from nightmares into target practice.
Affinities are treated like religions by the NPC leaders. They are happy when you pursue the same philosophical path and show up to curse you when you do not. That theoretically plays into who declares war on you, but I do not know if that amounts to much more than a rounding error. You know how Civ AIs are, demanding and unreliable. Probably a greater factor is my new habit of stealing tech from opposing philosophies because I know they will have techs I skipped. They can’t be happy with me when I do that. But who cares much about the computer AIs?
On the whole, Beyond Earth seems like a better design than the core of Civilization V, although I say that without a lot of time or deep exploration. Maybe the whole structure collapses when you know the right levers to pull. I cannot reasonably expect to play that many games when each takes hours at the highest speed. I am sure there are people out there enjoying games with the dials turned all the way up for time, map size, and difficulty, but I am no longer that guy.
I also enjoy the NPC quotes that come with technologies. They add a lot of the flavor that is otherwise missing from the game and its characters. “All planets possess inherent value and establishing the exact dollar value of the property should be a priority.” Tee hee.