The problem at the core of Beyond Earth is that it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Is it an offshoot of contemporary Civilization games, or is it a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri? Is it a game that wants to look at pressing issues that affect our real future, or is this a campy scifi romp? Does it want to have the same gallows humor about a vaguely dystopic world that Alpha Centauri offered, or does it want something a little more in line with Civiliation’s incessant adulation of mankind and our collective achievements? Beyond Earth doesn’t have good answers for these questions, and the result is a game that straddles the line on all of them – attempting to always be both, but struggling to really achieve either.
Mechanically the vast, vast majority of the game plays like Civilization V. Unfortunately, the mechanics of civilization – and the ideas they represent – begin to lose their mooring in deep space. For example, Beyond Earth is ostensibly a spin-off of the Civilization franchise, but calling the things you manage in the game a “civilization” never feels quite right. Civs have (typically) shared culture, history, and values. The word “Civilization” may have its baggage, but it implies at least a loose construct most people can picture to one degree or another. But Beyond Earth has colonies named after their financial sponsors – names of corporations and national allegiances, like the American Reclamation Corporation or Pan-Asian Cooperative. And unlike Alpha Centauri, the ideological divides that force the different colonies to butt heads don’t preexist but get discovered along the course of the game, like religion in previous Civs. And most of the game has you fighting the planet just as much if not more than the other settlers. So often, especially at the beginning of the game, it feels like everyone are just colonists and the only differences between your colonies and the others are the colors of the tiles you own and who paid for your trip. Yet these colonies harbor a sense of antagonistic competition that doesn’t make sense if these are supposed to be exploratory colonies. They’re concerned about their borders being encroached; have individual cultures with unique identities, claim planetary resources for their own, refuse to share scientific breakthroughs, and even go to war with one another. That is to say, they operate much like the state-based civilizations of old. Your communities… colonies… civilizations… whatever, end up feeling like they have the outward veneer of an enlightened mission of scientific discovery when really it’s just engaging in the same old nation-state based tribalism on a new battlefield.
The vision of humanity on display here really hasn’t learned anything since Civilization. Nowhere is this felt more profoundly than the game’s mixed messages about resource consumption. The trailer for the game shows pyramids in the sea, a New York suffering from gross overpopulation, smog smothering Rio de Janeiro. I’m convinced that someone at Firaxis wanted this to be a game about our relationship with the planet, or that some early draft focused on it a lot more. After all, this is a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, a game which probed your personal relationship with the planet – it would make sense for Beyond Earth to carry that theme forward in a different direction. And the game does focus a lot of energy on it – one of the biggest mechanical changes from Civilization V is that the planet itself is one of your biggest enemies. From miasma that chips away at the health of units to impossibly powerful aliens that can destroy units and even cities, the geography and biology of the planet is one of the primary things on your mind at all times. It really cements the idea that your colonies are on a frontier where simply making a life of it on the land is its own accomplishment. It asks how you plan to deal with the struggle to survive on and interact with this newfound world first and how you’re going to deal with your enemies second. And one of the three ideology alignment paths, harmony, is all about embedding yourself into your new ecosystem and becoming part of it rather than trying to subdue it or turn it into earth. So there are all these ideas being kicked around about how we ruined Earth for ourselves last time, and now we’ve got a fresh start on a new planet we don’t even belong on – can we find a better way?
The problem is that Civilization as a game is… fundamentally ill equipped to deal with the real problems it skirts with. Global warming, overpopulation, mass pollution, deforestation… these are things that the core mechanics of Civilization are sort of designed to promote. The whole idea of Civilization is that you keep expanding in all directions and consuming every resource you can until you reach a victory condition, and Beyond Earth does nothing to change that. My harmony run through the game had my capitol completely surrounded by mines toward the end. Does this look at all harmonious with the planet? Or does this look like we’re back to smog-filled Rio? The game opens with us leaving a ruined Earth only to arrive and continue with the same systems that caused Earth to fall in the first place.
Compare this to something like Fate of the World, which is a strategy game about addressing global warming. What makes that game work is that it sees the moral ambiguity of its resources – it sees that industry is both a good thing for stability and economic growth, yet it’s also something causing irreparable damage to our atmosphere. We can’t just kill industry or economies will suffer and governments will fall, and human suffering will generally increase but we can’t let it run wild to cause harm, either. The game is largely about nudging big systems or massaging the relationships between systems to get what you want with minimal damage.
But in Beyond Earth – as in Civilization – your resources are nothing but good, and you want nothing but more of them. More money. More research. More people. More, more more. You hunger for it. You need it. And that’s literally the same mindset that got us here. Which would be fine if the game was going for some sort of morbid fatalism; pushing the idea that human beings really are just this virus that brings war and conspicuous consumption on a planetary scale with them wherever they go in the universe. I mean, that sort of stuff forms the basis of most of Fallout’s gallows humor. But bitter dystopias were never in Civilization’s wheelhouse; this is a series that loves to adulate how great we are. So they don’t commit to anything quite that harsh. Instead we get just get an occasional slice of cynical humor that falls flat, and we never really address the reality that the endgame of Beyond Earth leaves the planet looking a lot like the one we just left.
Those cynical jabs are one place where Alpha Centauri’s influence is felt, and it’s a little awkward. Alpha Centauri had a sort of dark edge to the whole thing – it was a game that had society divided into drones and talents, which is a wonderfully dystopic way of describing how the colonies in that game function. And if drones got a little unruly you could nerve-staple them to stop a riot. It was also game where every one of the leaders was contemptible in a sort of awesome way, and you would get little quotes from each of them as you discovered new technologies or built new buildings – occasionally highlighting the dark sides of their fanatical ideologies. Like, listen to how the extreme collectivist Chairman Yang talks about what is euphemistically called a recycling center. Then listen to how Beyond Earth tries a similar attempt at that sort of cynicism.
Do you see how one sort of takes a character’s known personality and uses it for humor, and the other is just… flat? Part of the problem is that the leaders are basically cardboard cutouts this time around. I mean, props to Firaxis – they have a fairly diverse cast, and I have to give the thumbs up to that. But it’s a diverse cast of nothing characters. In Civilization you have the historical context to ground the leaders in, right? You know who Atilla The Hun is and his buffs to mounted units and attacks on city-states make sense. And Alpha Centauri’s leaders were caricatures; cartoonish manifestations of their respective ideologies. Chariman Yang has a communal utopia built on lots of 1984-style doublethink Morgan was a narcissistic, ruthless capitalist interested in exploiting resources as hard and as fast as he could. Pravin Lal insisted he was carrying forth the UN’s unified directive while ostensibly going it on his own. They were all over the top and completely two dimensional, but if nothing else their extreme ideologies made them memorable. But here I struggle to just remember the names of these characters. They’re so flavorless that one person reads all of the flavor text even though a lot of it stems from in-universe documentation. We have neither the historical context of Civilization nor the clever writing and voice acting that made Alpha Centauri’s leaders come to life. They’re just an icon with some default menu barks. And if I have to hear “No village has ever been ruined by trade” one more time….
But it’s not all bad! Perhaps the best aspect of Beyond Earth is its role playing element. It’s pretty abstract, high-level stuff, but it’s certainly more interested in letting you feel like you’re guiding the society and advancement of a people than Civilization has been recently. There are optional quests to carry out that can either provide resources or let you choose how to upgrade your new buildings. For instance, you might find your electronic walls are actually operating at better than engineered levels – you might be able to then either risk extending the parameters of the walls for additional defense or redirecting the extra energy towards your credits. And like Alpha Centauri there are upgrades to your units based on technology, letting you sculpt your units to fit your combat style. And your choice of three alignments are reflected in the way your units and buildings look, and it has consequences for diplomacy when dealing with those whose alignments differ. There’s actually a fair bit of expressiveness here, and I feel that you can really make an expansionist harmonizing people and have that feel different than a militant society obsessed with supremacy or a trade-heavy group interested in human purity. I talked about the slow loss of role playing in my Civilization video, and if there’s one genuine success story to celebrate in Beyond Earth it’s this return to it, this ability to say: “You know what, I think our people are really into technology and don’t care about native life” or “Well, these people I’m playing as are going to stay human even if it means we don’t research that technology.”
The technology system itself has changed to accommodate this role playing element, though I’m not how I feel about the results. Instead of a linear technology tree like in old Civilization games, technology now has branches and leaves. Unlocking a technology gives you access to the other technologies that branch from it, but also to the child technologies it can produce. Child leaves cost more than branches, and the further from the center you go the more expensive to research technologies get. The result is that technology is no longer a measure of forward progress – you no longer feel like you’re moving from the bronze age to the classical age, but exploring a space of technologies in a way that benefits you. You could go broad but shallow on branches or focus on deep knowledge of more core ideas. And that’s a really cool idea because it lets you role play while also sculpting what technologies your people would want or be interested in having.
Or it would be if the victory conditions didn’t mostly subvert it. So, there are five victory conditions. One is the bog standard conquest victory of taking everyone else’s capitals. The Contact victory consists of making contact with an alien race which is sort of this game’s economic victory – you need to build multiple wonders and spend a thousand energy to achieve it. But the other three are initially tied to affinity level in the three alignments, and the surest way to raise your affinity level is to research specific technologies. So even though there’s this broad expressive space you always feel pressure to march as fast as you can to the technologies that grant you access to whatever winstate you’ve decided to go for.
Not only that, but by dismantling the linear nature of the tech tree you no longer have a quick and easy gauge of where the game is. That comparatively tight game arc I talked about in my Civ video is a lot less structured now; you still have the same phases but depending on how hard and fast the AI rushes to its victory conditions you may find yourself looking at a game over screen in what feels like the mid game because you wanted to build up and slowly go for a harmony victory while some other jerk got lucky with a ruin find and made contact with an alien race first, completely invalidating your entire people because… that’s how civilization views the way different peoples interact. So checking the victory condition tracker every couple of turns is a must, and you more or less have to declare war on anyone who looks like they’re getting too close to victory before you if you want to win the game. And in fairness, they recognized that, which is why it’s not a big button on the main GUI instead of hidden under a menu like in Civilization. It’s not that the victory conditions themselves don’t work – I like that they’re way more unit oriented now. The harmony victory requires building an object and defending it for a certain number of turns, the supremacy victory requires sending your military units back to earth and leaving yourself vulnerable, and the purity victory involves setting up immigrants from earth with new homes in contention for space and resources with everyone else. Having a war when trying to achieve these carries some real consequences, and it makes that last march to the finish tense. But that’s if you’re going for the victory. If someone else starts those bits then it becomes a mad rush to bomb someone you might actually like out of existence before you get a game over, and that’s where this pointless competition between people thing falls apart for me. You spend so much time fighting the planet itself just to eek out an existence on the edge of space, then go to war because someone else is almost running a successful SETI program.
It’s not that Beyond Earth is a quote-unquote “bad game.” It feels a lot like Civ V in that with an expansion or two to flesh it out, it could be a robust entry in the series. If you wanted to play Civilization V with some small Alpha Centauri influences or a bit more role playing, this more than scratches that itch. It’s a game about consumption and expansion and conflict, and if running a mighty empire in pursuit of those goals sounds enjoyable this game offers a wonderful sandbox to do so. But where Civilization V ignored the downsides of consumption, expansion, and conflict in an attempt to write a love letter to all of human history from the statist worldview of the 20th century, Beyond Earth is just confused. Hesitant. It wants the ignorant optimism and progress narrative of its namesake and the piercing cynicism and occasional insightful commentary of its spiritual ancestor. And it spends so much time trying to figure out if it’s an Alpha Centauri game that has Civilization in the name or a Civilization game that draws inspiration from Alpha Centauri that it never makes any effort to find its own identity. But in its own way, I think it may have stumbled on to one by accident through its depressing vision of the future – a future that has us doing everything we do now, just somewhere else. A future where we carry forward the mistakes of old without thinking about how things could be different, how we could structure societies and economies in more sustainable ways or ways more free and equitable for its citizens, or to debate what equitable and free societies even are. Both thematically and mechanically this is a game that can’t move beyond the shackles of the past.