Friday, September 4, 2015

Civilization: Beyond Earth, or Alpha Centauri II (sort of)

Civilization: Beyond Earth
Grade: C-
Platform: PC, Mac, GNU/Linux
Genre: 4X

The good news is, Beyond Earth is basically Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri 2.  The bad news is, Beyond Earth is basically Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri 2.

Like a great many sequels, this one definitely lacks something.  And what it lacks isn't a vague je ne sais quoi, but pretty clearly and easily explained.  But first, let's examine the good, and there is a surprising amount of good considering the low grade I've given the game as a whole.

I get the impression that in a lot of ways we're looking at many of the innovations the Civilization V designers wanted to include in Civ V, but weren't allowed to for fear it'd be too radical a departure from the standard Civilization experience.

Sometimes this is a very nifty approach that I'm sorry that Civ V was too stogy to use.  For example, when you build the first of most newly researched buildings, you're presented with a choice of (usually) two ways you can customize it. I might chose to save energy by having my relics maintenance free, you may chose to pay maintenance on relics but get extra culture from them. It allows for the player to minmax a bit based on their play style.

Likewise, rather than simply replacing old units you get choices in how they can be upgraded.  I don't approve of this as much as I do the building customization because rather than having the freeform units of Alpha Centauri you are given a much more limited set of options based on your ideological choices.  But at least there's some player choice involved, and that's never a bad thing even though it could easily be better.

Unfortunately, some of the new ideas just don't work, I don't know if the devs just didn't want to risk making things too different, or if there was executive meddling, but some changes simply feel timid.

The tech web is a perfect example of this.  Rather than a simple tech tree that everyone climbs and by endgame you either have all the technologies listed or you're just playing badly, Beyond Earth has a genuine tech web.  I suppose it might be possible to get all the techs in a single game, but I haven't yet.  In theory, that would allow for diverse and varied gameplay as you use different parts of the web from your opponents, or change your game style by exploring different techs.

Unfortunately, in practice, the tech web is kind of bleh and really your choices there don't make as much difference in gameplay as you'd hope.  Nor, really, do the choices between the three ideological options of purity, supremacy, and harmony.

So rather than having to make truly hard, game changing, decisions based on the tech you choose to research, the only real factor in your decision is simply what victory condition you want to chase.  A player who has chosen a supremacy ideology and the emancipation victory won't have a game significantly different from a player who chose a harmony ideology and the transcendence victory. And that's a major disappointment because the game has so much potential.  The ideologies are intriguing, and if they and the tech had been more significant and produced different interactions with the game based on those choices it would have been truly wonderful.

We also have the problem of the publisher stripping out big chunks of the game to sell as DLC. The first is already available and allows ocean buildings and more oceanic options as well as adding more factions, improving diplomacy, and so on.  I expect we'll see another coming soon to expand on the anemic orbital game.

What disappoints the most is that Beyond Earth is, kind of, sort of, a sequel to Alpha Centauri.  And that's a problem, because they couldn't use Alpha Centauri intellectual property, that belongs to EA not Fireaxis.  This means that often they tried to duplicate Alpha Centauri ideas, but without referencing the forbidden IP.  Sometimes, some games, some publishers, this can work.  It didn't work for Beyond Earth.

The transcendence victory is clearly a call back to Alpha Centauri.  The problem is that in Alpha Centauri there was an overarching plot involving the planet's fungus being sapient effectively making the whole planet a single mind, so in Alpha Centauri the transcendence victory flowed naturally from the game as a whole.

But in Beyond Earth it just doesn't make sense.  There is no overarching plot of any sort, the aliens are just kind of buglike and it is never indicated that they are intelligent even individually much less collectively, so the idea of joining a planet mind in a telepathic rapport just doesn't fit the game.  But the option is there, because Alpha Centauri did it.

Worse, they didn't try for anything interesting or new in what little plot the game has.  Alpha Centauri had a story, an intreguing story that the player discovered through the tech quotes, through gameplay, through bits of short fiction that popped up at significant events.  It had factions that were believable and interesting and lead by characters who exemplified a single trait but had personality beyond that one trait.  Miriam Godwinson was a religious fanatic to be sure, but there was more to her than just that.

There is no real story in Beyond Earth, the factions are bland and mostly indistinguishable, the faction leaders are mere faces and names.

There are three voice actors, total.  All the tech quotes are done by one actor, and she's fine and does a good job, but it seems kind of limited when compared to the quotes from Alpha Centauri.  Worse, since there isn't an overarching plot, and all the factions are kind of blandly similar, the tech quotes don't - can't -  reveal anything about the factions and their leaders.  When compared to Alpha Centauri in this aspect it falls horribly short.  And frankly, it doesn't do all that well in comparison to the blander Civ tech quotes either. While in Civ the quotes are often meaningful historic quotes, all the Beyond Earth quotes are made up which which would be OK if they told us more about the game setting, but they don't.
I really want to give Beyond Earth a better grade, I loved Alpha Centauri, I applaud efforts to make a sequel, I love that they made it available for GNU/Linux, and I am delighted with the effort to go beyond the Civ restrictions and do newish things with the series.

But, at the end of the day, it just falls flat.  I still play Alpha Centauri, but after finishing three games of Beyond Earth I doubt I'll play much more.  As DLC for Civilization V it'd be fantastic and I'd probably have given it a higher grade.  But as a stand alone game there just isn't enough content to justify the price.

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