Once upon a time, in the mists of nostalgic yesteryear an amazing 4X game was released, and this game was known as Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.
Alpha Centauri was positioned as the spiritual successor to the amazing Civilization II, a game that let you guide a civilisation (surprise!) from the mists of history to the cusp of a future world, conducting diplomacy and more aggressive diplomacy as your history unfolded.
I grew up with Civilization II, and Alpha Centauri was an amazing successor, asking what would happen when you reached those alien shores after the Science victory? Well humans are humans, so much the same thing happened, with war and conquest and triumph and crushing defeat.
Alpha Centauri brought so much more to the genre. The Planet itself was an not merely a world to build upon but an actor unto itself, a world of aliens that fought back as you strove to terraform and grow. Even more stunning was that the land itself could be shaped and molded, altering the pattern of weather, giving some tiles more water from rainfall while disrupting the trade winds that brought your enemies life.
It was robust and elegant, its own testament to the stories that can be told while guiding your faction to glory.
The most recent Civilization game is Civ 5, which was a rather radical departure from the mechanics of Civilization 4. A new hex-based map, a single unit per tile, a greater focus on siegecraft? This was very different but still very good, and I ended up with a considerable number of hours sunk into the game.
Unforttunately, I’d exhausted myself on Civilization 5 when the game stopped being about the story of my ascendancy or failure. I was no longer playing such stories as “That time the Mongols attacked and I needed to throw mounds of resources at the Huns so they would save me”, or “That time I fought the Germans to a standstill and we glared at each other over a heavily militarised border.”
Instead, the games became much more about the minutia of mechanics and optimization of build order, hoping that my neighbors were peaceful. My stories of struggle became nothing but “I lost in the early game because the AI crushed me” or “I won without even trying”, lacking middle ground.
This leaves everything decided in the early game, with no room to come back from early setbacks and very little consequence once the midgame has been reached.
Civilization: Beyond Earth shipped last week. Billed as the spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, I was deeply excited for this game. I had loved Alpha Centauri, and my exhaustion with Civ 5 would easily be filled with new mechanics and systems. The Planet would come to life again and we would explore this new world and new dangers.
Unfortunately, such high expectations cannot help but be dashed, and the best I can say about Beyond Earth is that it has the same problems as Civ 5, with an unbalanced midgame and grinding for the best build order, while the AI either ignores me or destroys me.
The Affinity system is an outgrowth of the ideologies added by Brave New World, expanded into a core thread that tries to run through your faction. Each makes use of a different strategic resource, and offers sets of unique buildings and units, allowing your starting area to guiding what ideology you’re most able to adhere to. The AI is brought wholesale from BNW, responding identically to my different Affinity as it would to my different ideology, through snarky messages and glaring.
The planet itself remains as dull and unreactive as Earth in Civ 5, a far cry from the hostile, evolving foe of the Planet in Alpha Centauri. The Miasma is the teeth of the planet in Beyond Earth, a mist that floats over tiles and injures your units in the early game. Unlike the xenofungus in Alpha Centauri it’s utterly static, never growing or shrinking or reacting to my presence. It doesn’t encourage aliens to swarm over my colony if I leave it, it doesn’t seem to annoy the aliens when I remove it, and it doesn’t affect my city production. It’s a nuisance to my workers and limits my trade routes until I get the technology to remove it, and annoys Harmony factions when I do.
Beyond Earth expands the city-state quests from Civ 5, giving them a more central role. These quests vary from “Build a specific building” to “Go attack this station” or “Build a new outpost somewhere.” For the most part, these quests aim to detail the world around you, providing extra story and nuance to the world you’re fighting over. Unfortunately, after only a couple of games you’ll notice that the quest pool is extremely small and you’ll always get the “Covert Ops” questline, and always in the same way. Or, you’ll always have an outbreak to contain, or ignore.
In trying to expand the world, they end up showing just how constrained it is.
Talking about Beyond Earth wouldn’t be anything without mentioning the endgame conditions.
The Affinity system is interesting here, providing three distinct and different win conditions. Harmony wants to join with the aliens, an ending that is closest to the Transcendence victory in Alpha Centauri, whereas Supremacy and Purity both concern themselves with happenings on Earth.
Each ending requires building a special wonder, similar to the Science victory in Civ 5, and then waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more. And then some more waiting.
The Harmony victory is the easiest; build the wonder and wait a while. The AI is unlikely to attack you for building the wonder itself, leaving the win condition as “Keep the AI from building its own wonder.”
The Supremacy and Purity are far more aggravating. Both rely on a warp gate to Earth, and require direct interaction in order to fulfill the win conditions. For Purity, every turn you need to click a difficult-to-see button to summon an Earthling, and find a place to settle them. Purity Settlements need to be 3 tiles away from your existing cities and each other, support a total of 6 Earthlings each, and you need 20 Earthlings total to win. This leaves you finding four sites for settlements, and connecting MagRail lines to those sites so that you can move the settlers, and spending 30-40 turns just managing fiddly infrastructure and slow units. Worse is that it’s entirely non-obvious how to summon Earthling settlers. Was it automatic? Is there a button I click? The game offers nothing.
And you can only bring one settler through per turn.
Supremacy works similarly, sending ones’ military might through the gate to subjugate Earth. Again, the AI doesn’t care, leaving you to slowly churn out units and send them, one at a time, through the gate.
Both of these ending states would be far more interesting if the AI noticed; trying to keep your weak and kittenish Earthlings safe or defend the gate as your military dwindles to achieve victory has all the hallmarks of a great endgame story. In a multiplayer match it almost certainly would, as I’d declare war and strive to destroy anyone who built an end-game wonder in a heartbeat. It would be a true struggle and an amazing story, trying to keep my own wonder safe while engaging in punitive warfare.
If only the AI engaged in such tactics.
In the end, Beyond Earth references great science fiction, but isn’t great science fiction itself, with many of the achievements calling out to other works, such as “So Say We All” (BSG) for reaching the peak of the Purity track, or “Valley of the Time Tombs” (Hyperion) for building all the Wonders.
It plays like a more annoying version of Civ 5, only in space. Any resemblance to Alpha Centauri is merely passing, the soul of Planet never finding its way to this dull new world.